Free camping, stealth camping or wild camping--call it what you will- is very common among touring cyclists. Most cyclists find no greater joy than to pitch their tent in a grassy field or tucked away in the pines enjoying the solitude and peace of the great outdoors.
Wild camping can be wonderful, but it's not always practical. At times it's difficult to find a water source, some areas are heavily populated and certain types of terrain, wide open plains for instance, just don't lend themselves to stealth camping.
Security is also a worry for many people. Are you really alone out there under the pine trees or is some psychopath waiting to sneak up and interrupt your slumber?
an alternative way to camp for free
Camping for free doesn't mean you have to sneak around finding a place where you won't be noticed. Camping for free doesn't mean you have to go without a good, refreshing wash due to limited water supplies. Camping for free doesn't mean you have to compromise on safety, or just as important, feeling safe. While there's little chance of encountering problems if you hide away in some quiet spot, you still may not feel safe sleeping out in the wild.
And if you don't feel safe, you won't sleep well and the following day you'll feel miserable pedaling. It's just not worth it.
Fortunately, there is another way to camp for free.
Our version of free camping is to get permission to camp on someone's land, or public place such as a church, mosque, school, police station, fire station, city park, health center, municipal building or NGO. Sometimes we even 'camp' at hotels. We like this style of free camping for several reasons.
First, we feel safer because there are other people nearby or better yet, a night watchman to stand guard. Secondly, water is usually readily available and often we have access to a shower and toilets. And lastly, we often find really nice places to camp that are like having a big park all to ourselves.
Finding a pleasant place to free camp is really not very difficult. You'll find that most people will say 'yes' to your request to pitch a tent, even in Europe and North America. Locals will go out of their way to help you once you explain your situation. Often you'll be invited in for a meal or offered the guest room when your hosts see that you're a harmless cyclist. Just be prepared to entertain with a few travel tales.
the first step: build confidence
Most people like the idea of a cycling tour around the world and want to help us. One farmer in Italy, who initially suggested we go to a guesthouse 5 kilometers down the road, ended up opening up a small weekend house on his farm, gave us the keys and told us to help ourselves to anything in the fridge and cupboards. He had come to trust us and wanted to help, in fact helping us made him feel good.
tips for finding a free place to spend the night
Here are some ways you can increase your chance of getting a 'yes' to your request for a safe place to spend the night:
- Create a small flyer explaining who you are and what you're doing.
- Create visiting cards with your name, email address and web site address.
- Ask to camp late in the day. Explain that you will be leaving early the next morning and only need a safe place to sleep.
- Don't be shy about saying you're on a budget (but don't say you're broke). Explain that your tour is self-financed and that you'll be on the road for a long time.
- Smile and be friendly, even if you're exhausted.
- Don't be pushy, but if someone directs you to a nearby hotel or campground it doesn't hurt to emphasize that you're traveling for a long time and need to keep your budget under control. Europeans, in particular, will often assume that you want the comfort of a hotel or campground.
- Look for places that are well-maintained, with flowers or welcome signs--these are good indicators of friendly people.
- Explain that you often do this type of camping. For example, tell your would-be hosts that you stayed at the fire station in Town XY or that in ABC county you camped at farmer Bill's ranch.
free camping works everywhere
We've found safe places to camp for free all through Europe, Africa, the Middle East, the United States, Mexico and Central America. Your request to camp will rarely be turned down.
Muslims take hospitality very seriously, so in countries like Sudan, Syria and Turkey you will be welcomed warmly. In these countries locals will probably insist you sleep inside with the family, as having someone sleep outside in a tent would be a sign of bad hospitality. Expect a lavish meal and don't even think about leaving the next morning before you've been sent off with a hearty breakfast.
If you are looking for a place to camp in rural Africa, be sure to go directly to the chief or headman and make your intentions known. Your request to camp in an African village will most likely never be turned down. Just be prepared for a lot of excited children and stares from the shocked villagers.
Overall, we found people in the Balkan countries and Eastern Europe to be quite receptive to our free camping requests. Churches are good places to try and most any farmer will let you pitch your tent for the night, no questions asked.
Americans, particularly in the West, are surprisingly hospitable and trusting towards strangers. Many churches will allow you to spend the night inside their premises. Small town parks will let you camp for free all across the country. Farmers are almost always welcoming in the US. Fire Stations are also good places to pitch a tent. You can also try the local baseball field, just be sure to check with the sheriff first.
In Mexico and Central America, try asking at the local church, fire station or in one of the small village shops--some one will be sure to sort you out with a place to stay.
just try it
You will be truly amazed at how easy it is to find a safe, comfortable and free place to camp. And you're sure to make a few new friends this way and have a much more authentic cultural experience than you would if you just checked into a hotel at the end of the day. Just try it!
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