Wild camping is often a financial necessity but is also one of the great joys of cycle touring. Pitching your tent in a picture postcard landscape a hundred miles from the madding crowd under a million stars listening to the sounds of nature rustling around you. Awaking from your tent to a glorious sunrise, packing up and moving on with no idea where you'll be spending the next night. When I first began cycle touring that uncertainty used to freak me out but now I embrace it. I love the idea of not knowing where I'll be sleeping at the end of the day. A new home every night. Wild camping is like a game you play. Trying to find the ideal spot where you can get an undisturbed night sleep. Like any game sometimes you lose. I've had some horror shows over the years. An ant attack in Thailand, snake in my tent in Azerbaijan, pitching in a slight hollow before a flash flood in Chile, wolves circling my tent in China and flashlights in my face every hour in Bangladesh but like all good humans I've learnt from my MANY mistakes. The horror shows are far outnumbered by the dream camp spots where you have to pinch yourself as you watch the sun go down. So here are a few tips on how to get a good nights sleep out on the road.
I tend to start looking for a spot a couple of hours before sundown but at this point I would only stop for the perfect camp spot. There's clean water, a splendid view, flat land, it is quiet and discreet. Never look a gift horse in the mouth. As the 2 hours to sundown tick away my standards gradually drop until time's up and I pitch where I can. I don't need to follow this policy in many countries. In Mongolia or Patagonia, for example, you don't need to worry. When you've had enough for the day just pick your perfect camp spot. If you're flying through the desert with a tailwind then you would be crazy to stop until the last ray of light has disappeared over the horizon. On the flip side if you are somewhere like eastern China where every spare inch of land is used for farming you should take what you can get when you can get it. In such places it doesn't pay to be fussy.
Wild camping in the mountains in Xinjiang
Wild camping is often a bit like hide and seek. In some countries wild camping may be illegal, you may be trespassing or in an area that doesn't feel too safe. In such cases it becomes stealth camping. In many parts of the world, generally the more developed countries, wild camping is somewhat frowned upon. Often you just want a spot away from prying eyes so you can get an undisturbed nights sleep. Discretion is paramount. Remember if you see an ideal spot from the road then people on the road can also see that camp spot. I tend to head down quiet dirt roads at the end of the day. Then if I see somewhere with good potential i'll put the bike down and go for a bit of a wander on foot. When I've found somewhere I have a look around to see if i'm visible from any road. Are there any homes in sight? Is there suitable flat land? Once I'm happy I'll go get my bike and drag it over to my spot for the night. At this point try to ensure there is no one around. Always wait for any cars or passers by to actually pass by before you make your move. If you are still a little uncertain that you are out of sight then don't pitch your tent until after dark. People rarely wander around the countryside after dark unless they are in England and on drugs. Remember to cover up any reflectors on your bike or panniers as these will give you away if anyone is wandering around with a torch during the night.
Think about your tent. The colour is important. You want to blend in with your surroundings. Red is not great unless you are cycling on Mars. Yellow is perfect for the desert. Dark green is best. Tends to work well in most environments. Also freestanding tents will give you more options as you can camp on concrete. You can pitch in derelict buildings or on unused runways. Requiring ground that takes a peg restricts your options.
Ideal spot in Iceland
Pitching your tent:
Time to remember what you learnt in scouts. Ensure the ground is flat and not in a hollow. I camped in a slight hollow in Chile under a clear sky. There was a flash thunderstorm during the night. Soon my tent was in a giant puddle and I was sat under a tree getting wet waiting for it to get light.
Try to avoid ant holes. I had an ant invasion in Thailand. Unpleasant. It is difficult to ant proof a tent. They find a way in. Especially if there's any food to be found. The tiniest gap at the end of a zip can invite a million ants.
Look down at the ground, make a guess at how absorbent the earth is. Leaf litter will absorb rain, sandy or clay-like soil could leave you with a soggy sleeping bag. Dry river beds are fine if you are super confident it won't rain.
Watch out for snakes/spiders creeping into your tent whilst you are admiring the view. I was about to get in my tent in Azerbaijan when I saw a snake on top of my sleeping bag. I ran the 100m in 9.71 seconds before returning with a long stick. Before you zip yourself in for the night have a quick root around your tent for any nasty creep crawlies that have got in with you. Look under things.
Look up for potential landslides especially in the mountains.
Be careful what you are pitching on. Have a good look for thorns and other sharp pointy things that can pierce your tent or, even worse, your air sleeping mat.
Wind. In exposed places such as in the desert or in Patagonia where it is always blowing a gale try and ensure you have some wind protection. Tuck yourself in behind a big rock if you can or whatever is available. Pitch your tent as securely as possible. You should keep all your gear in your tent anyway but it will also help prevent you rolling off across the land in the middle of the night. I once stupidly pitched my tent near a ridge in Bulgaria because the view was spectacular. There was a storm in the middle of the night. My tent was uprooted. I had to get out for fear of disappearing over the ridge. Then my tent disappeared over the ridge. I felt a bit silly. Not to mention cold and scared. I sheltered underneath a rock and fortunately managed to retrieve my tent in the morning. Live and learn.
Mosquitoes. The bane of my life. You don't want to be pissing in a bottle because you are too afraid to unzip your tent. You should be able to figure out if your spot is a mosquito magnet easily enough but stay away from swamps and, sad to say, lakes in northern latitudes during mosquito season.
Watching the sun go down
Wolves. It's very rare that you will encounter wolves. I'm not sure if I have or not. A policeman in Xinjiang warned me not to camp in the mountains close by because of the wild animals there. I ignored this advice and camped in the mountains. In the middle of the night I could hear animals circling my tent. I lay there wide eyed frozen stiff with fear. Could have been a couple of mangy dogs but for the sake of my ego let's pretend it was a pack of hungry wolves. They could smell the food in my tent so I threw it out from under my tent flaps to hear it being devoured seconds later. Eventually they slunk off and the next morning I cycled on with just a cup of coffee for breakfast. Be aware of where you are and what wild animals could be lurking in the vicinity. In such situations leave food outside the tent.
Dogs can be a nuisance anywhere but most dogs are territorial, and anxious, especially at night. Usually they won’t go too far from home.
In countries such as Japan, Russia and Alaska bears can be a problem. Remember the Bearmuda triangle when camping. Set up your tent, kitchen area, and food storage 70 big steps apart (200ft). Bears smell 2-3 miles away, so even if your food is stored away a bear may come to investigate. Using the Bearmuda Triangle, even if the bear comes into the area sniffing for dinner, you'll be safely away in your tent.
What can happen if you don't follow the Bearmuda triangle
In many places water is not readily available. You need to make sure you have enough for the night/s you will be between water sources. Cycling across Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan you may not see water for days. You need to ensure you are carrying enough to get you through. Not only do you need water for drinking but you will need it for cooking, washing your pots/pans and a quick wash is always nice. I have perfected the art of having a full body wash with just half a litre of water. If you can't spare the water use wet wipes. Dry places tend to be hot places so you will likely need more drinking water than usual. In such places bring hydration tablets. Even in countries where there is plenty of water your discreet camping spot will not always be next to a water source so don't get caught out. Stock up early afternoon so when you do come across the ideal camp spot you're not left thinking 'damn, i don't have enough water' (done this a million times). Obviously in places where water is hard to find having a means of water purification is essential.
Overrated. I have had some great beach camps but tend to avoid them if possible. The sand messes with your zips. It is often windy with little protection. They attract dodgy characters and it is very difficult to get yourself out of sight.
Despite all your best efforts to be discreet you will occasionally be found. Most likely by a local farmer returning to his home at the end of the day. Don't hide away or look shifty. Smile, shake hands, say hello. I have never been asked to move on. People generally have no problem with you camping on their land. In some cases you will end up being invited in to stay with the family. On occasion I have unwittingly camped in a field that a farmer moves his bulls into at sundown. The farmer has simply pointed me to a better spot where I can enjoy a peaceful night sleep.
High altitude in Sichuan, China
These days, if you have good mobile reception, you can use satellite views on your phone. It can help save time. You can spot meadows inside forests, see if that track leads to a farmhouse or if that tempting river 20k ahead is indeed surrounded by beautiful meadows and trees.
I love my Bluetooth speaker but it can give you away. The sound doesn't carry too far with most little bluetooth speakers but it is worth keeping the volume down if you want to remain incognito.
Do you really need to camp?:
Sometimes it simply isn't worth the hassle. In places like Bangladesh and Iran the attention can be overwhelming. In Bangladesh especially it is very difficult to get away from the crowds. It is the most densely populated country in the world. I never got through a night without being discovered and would end up with kids opening my tent and flashing torches in my face every hour or so. They were just curious but still not ideal. In some countries, such as Burma, wild camping is strictly illegal. If you feel you can't camp super discreetly it may be worth seeking out the nearest hotel. Also there may be safety concerns. In Honduras I decided to give wild camping a miss due to high rates of robbery/murder in the countryside where there is an absence of law and order. In such places your best bet is find someone friendly and ask. They will invite you to pitch in their backyard or point you to the nearest fire station, school, church where you can camp safely.
Trust your instincts and be patient. The more you do it, the better you will get. Over time you will develop good instincts for finding that perfect spot. In the early days I used to panic if I saw the sun going down and I couldn't find anywhere to camp. Nowadays I am calm. Something will come up. It always does. Don't be too choosy and remember your dream spot could be just around the bend.