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A column on the art of traveling well
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Camping on the Sly
Paul Otteson

NOTE: This piece is written purely for your entertainment. I do not officially recommend that you violate local laws. Since camping-on-the-sly involves sleeping in areas that are not officially sanctioned, it is officially risky—those who do it may be at risk of fine or arrest, or of becoming victims of crime.

Over the years, I've stayed in many towns and cities for free. If you carry a sleeping bag, it's easy. If you pack an ultralight tent, it's also comfortable, weather-safe, and slightly more secure. While camping is almost always cheaper than hostelling and other budget accommodations, it's only free if you do what I call, "camping on the sly". It's not for everyone, but adventurous budget travelers who are trying to make their funds last might want to keep it on the list of possibilities.

Sly Cliff Camp in Italy
Many people are regularly exposed to camping-on-the-sly in the larger cities of their home nations. Typically, it's considered a problem and goes by the name, "homelessness". It's generally wise for sly-camping travelers to operate differently than the homeless residents of a community, largely for the sake of personal security. Fortunately for the traveler, homeless people concentrate in certain areas leaving many others empty at night. Most are harmless victims anyway, and may even prove to be interesting and helpful folks worth meeting. But make no mistake, sly-campers are engaging in a modern version of an ancient hobo tradition that concentrates people who are very poor, including more than a few who will rob you given the chance.

Camping-on-the-sly isn't really a great way to do an entire trip. For one thing, there's often a bit more anxiety involved, especially for those who are new to the game. For another, self-maintenance is more of a challenge. Sly-campers rarely have convenient access to toilets and showers. Travelers who let themselves get too scruffy looking (and smelling) may find themselves more isolated from social engagement than they'd like to be. After a day or two of free camping, I like to switch to a hostel, pension, guest house, or the like.

The number one goal of camping-on-the-sly is to stay safe from harassment and eviction. That's where the "sly" part comes in. Basically, you don't want anyone to see your camp or to observe you as you set it up. That leads to the following core principle:

In at dusk, out at dawn

Scope out a good place during the day, but don't actually move in until the light is almost gone. Pack up and depart at first light, leaving no damage or trash behind.

Where might you camp-on-the-sly in the world's urban and suburban zones? In general, the option is really only a good one in certain general areas:

  1. In the developed world where there are many types of public and private open space that don't get nighttime traffic.
  2. In towns that border on wild or pasture lands.
  3. In regions that are naturally forested.
  4. In cities that have good urban transit systems allowing you to easily travel to the less-populated edges of town.
  5. In cities that have little homelessness.

There are others. Typically, the centers of cities and the more densely populated rings near the center are tough and sometimes risky places to locate, while residential and semi-rural lands further out have good options. Here are some classic sly-camping spots:

1) PARKS—Those with groves of trees or other privacy enhancing features are best. Larger parks, of course, usually have more options. Urban parks with known homeless, criminal and/or police activity are poor choices.

2) SPORTS & SCHOOL FIELDS—When the lights go off, even wide open fields in sight of homes or streets are possibilities. Bushes, benches, fences or seats may screen good spots.

3) GARDENS & GROUNDS—Does that museum have a big side garden behind a low iron fence? Is the old palace surrounded by green groves and walking paths?

4) CEMETERIES—This is one of my favorites. If you don't mind sleeping with those who will never wake, you'll sleep undisturbed.

5) FLOODPLAINS—Many towns are found along rivers that rise to fill floodplains during the spring or rainy season. Floodplains usually host parkland or ragged wildland and feature good camp spots.

6) RAIL YARDS—Rail corridors into and through cities are usually lined with vacant land that can host sly campers. The margins of big switching yards offer the best chance to avoid being shocked awake by a streaking express.

7) INDUSTRIAL WASTELAND, HIGHWAY CORRIDORS, VACANT LOTS—They're everywhere, though few are inspiring places to enjoy a relaxed night of sly-camping. Keep your eyes and mind open.

To be a successful sly-camper, you should think like a spy. Basically, you don't want to be observed by anyone at all as you set-up and snooze. If someone sees you heading into a cemetery at dusk, you don't want him or her to think that you're up to no good. Be small, look innocent, have a strategy.

Enjoy it, too—it can be a lot of fun to bend the rules at bedtime. As I noted in The World Awaits, "There's nothing quite like catching a needed shower in the rain at night in a Bulgarian cemetery."


Paul Otteson
The World Awaits: How to Travel Far & Well
Managing Editor / Hostels.com