How to Travel on the Cheap: Urban Camping

by | May 17, 2016 | Being Interesting, Travel | 0 comments

Behind transportation, accommodation is the largest travel expense you will have to budget for on your next trip. Hotels cost a lot of money, motels cost a lot of vital organs, youth hostels are filled with hostile youths, I don’t know how Air BnB’s work (and by now I’m too embarrassed to ask), and campsites aren’t always the most conveniently located (especially if you’re traveling in cities). But what other option do you have?

Unless you are accustomed to reading articles before their titles, you have probably already deduced that the answer is urban camping. What you may not have deduced, is what the heck urban camping is. Well, it’s exactly what it sounds like: camping within a city. That doesn’t sound legal does it? Well you’re right. Most places, campgrounds and woods excluded, tend to frown upon (and fine) people who pitch tents in the middle of the sidewalk or on someone’s lawn. Here at the Gentleman’s Guide, we don’t condone illegal activity. With that being said, here’s how you can break the law to save a few bucks, you cheapo.

Nice try, sign, but you’re not a cop.

Plan ahead
Do what research you can on the area you expect to find yourself in that night. Know the city, know the weather, and keep a back-up plan in mind. When you roll into town, whether by bus or train or plane or whatever (I assume you’re not driving; if you have a car, find somewhere you can overnight park and sleep in the backseat), you want to have an idea of where the police station, grocery stores/gas stations, and public parks/buildings are. If your phone does not get service where you are traveling, finding free wi-fi spots beforehand is a good idea too (public libraries and fast food joints are your best bets).

Keep an eye on the weather. How well do you sleep with freezing cold water pouring down your face? If you answered, “not well at all,” you’re a fairly normal person. You can’t do much about the cold aside from keep out of wind, but rain, you need to really make sure you’ve got a back-up plan or can find a place that’s sheltered enough for your tastes (i.e. not drowning in a spongy burrito that used to be your sleeping bag).

It doesn’t make for a great story, but you probably won’t regret knowing where that hostel is and how late they accept walk-ins. After that though, you’re pretty much stuck out there. Hope you brought your rain gear.

Pick a spot
Aside from being warm and dry, what else do you need for a good night’s sleep? Most people sleep on soft things (e.g., beds, couches, chinchillas). You’ll have limited options, but grass and mulch are going to offer the most comfort. But you can’t just set up camp in the middle of someone’s lawn or on a playground. You don’t really want to be woken up by angry homeowners, sprinkler systems, or policemen. Therefore, the two most important features of your urban camping spot should be comfort and seclusion, with the willingness to compromise on comfort. So…

1. Make sure it’s not someone’s property. If it’s not public property, at least make sure it belongs to a charitable, church-like organization who might take pity on you, or a faceless corporation of which you don’t mind pooping on the property.

2. Weigh the risk of getting caught and the consequences of getting caught. If you are 99% sure you won’t get caught behind someone’s house, but could possibly get shot and/or done up for trespassing, maybe take the riskier public park where they’ll likely just kick you out and maybe fine you.


3. Look for public parks, libraries. They may get an occasional patrol, but they are looking for burglars, vandals, and no-good-doers. They won’t be paying attention to what’s behind that bush, because why would there be anything behind that bush? It’s just a bush. These are also the places you will rouse the least suspicion scouting out. Travelers are welcome at libraries and parks- before they close- so if you’re there a little bit after nightfall, people don’t pay too much attention to you. If you’re walking around a residential neighborhood and clearly have no place to go, you may get some questions.

4. Find some bushes. They don’t have to be that tall or provide too much cover (you will always feel like someone can see you when they really can’t, but more on that later). Just try to make sure you are somewhat blocked from sight on each side. Ideally, you could find some bushes up against a fence, a pretty common site in parks.

5. Keep to the edges. Even if you can’t find natural cover, posting up against a wall or fence is decent in a pinch. Animals that are less adept at seeing in the dark (e.g., humans) rely on spotting people by their silhouettes. If you are dark enough and the fence is dark enough, you don’t exist. Just make sure you get packed up before sunlight, because as soon as you throw a contrast against the fence, your invisibility wears off.

There are 4 people sleeping in this picture. Can you spot them?

Don’t look suspicious
Although urban camping is often referred to as “stealth” or “guerrilla” camping, nothing blows your cover like slinking around in the shadows. Never slink. That is, always look like you have a purpose. If you look like you have no clue where you are or where you are going, an authority figure, whether it be the neighborhood watch or police officer, is more likely to stop and question you.

Try to get to your spot just after nightfall. You don’t want anyone to see you entering your spot, but, depending on where you are, you don’t want to be walking around with a backpack on at night. Nothing says, “I don’t live around here,” like trudging about with everything you own on your back. If someone does question you, you can tell them what Kellyanne Conway would call “alternative facts,” or the rest of the world would call “lies.” If you’re in an urban area, you could be heading to your hotel or hostel. In a more suburban area, where the hostel story may not hold up, you could be going to your couch surfing host or an old friend’s house.

I never felt comfortable with the prospect of lying my way out of things, which is why I always was eager to get the pack off my back and look less out of place as soon as possible. Other urban campers and I have had disagreements on whether it’s ever ok to ditch your stuff for a bit while waiting for nightfall. Depending on the spot you pick, how confident you are in its secrecy, and how long you plan on being away, it can be worth it. Of course, the level of risk you are willing to accept is up to you. Either way, it is nearly needles to say that you should NEVER leave your valuables! Put your papers, wallet, electronics, rare Beanie Babies, etc. in a drawstring bag and bring it with you ALWAYS!

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Don’t set up more than you need
Homelessness is actually kind of illegal in a lot of places. Homeless people don’t get always get plucked off the street for sleeping on a cardboard mat, but it does happen, and they can face punishment for it, which means that you can too. That is why you should always do your best to make sure you are not disturbing people’s sense of a safe, clean community. Keep things low-key. Don’t set up a tent, don’t make yourself at home. If someone sees you, you want to give them as little reason as possible to call the cops. People love ignoring the homeless. They won’t give you a second thought if they don’t even give you a first. Don’t have a bunch of stuff strewn about your area. You’re really roughin’ it. That means you roll out your sleeping pad and bag and use your pack as a pillow. This is also great in case…

You get caught
You should be able to pack up your sleeping pad and bag in two minutes if you’re in a pinch. Say someone takes offense to your low cost lifestyle of mooching off the public’s commons. They can’t really do anything about it except call the cops. By the time they get there, you can be outta there and avoid that fine. Always have an escape plan, or…

Have a good excuse.
You get caught fair and square. The officer asks you why you’re sleeping in those bushes. You can either say, “I’m sorry, sir. I got into town late and couldn’t check into a hostel,” or tell him it’s none of his business…

If you choose this option, please record the ensuing confrontation, inevitable tasering. 

Please don’t actually do that. Depending on where you are and which kind of cop finds you, you can be in for some trouble. It is always best to adhere to the OH CRAP principles: Obedience, Honesty, Calmness, Respect, Acceptance, and Politeness.

Don’t worry
People tend to think the world cares more about them than everyone else. Psychologists call that the “spotlight effect.” This feeling intensifies while doing something you feel guilty about. But, and this is an important life lesson, nobody cares about you, especially at nighttime.

As a fun exercise, the next time you’re walking with someone at night and you pass an open field or park, have them look away while you walk twenty paces out into the open. When they open their eyes, they will struggle to find you, even though they are looking for you and know you are there. You can roll out in the middle of a park and watch people stroll by on evening walks, and they’ll be none the wiser. That being said…

You still want to get up pretty early
Something I never understood: people love going for walks in the early morning, especially with dogs. When the sun starts peeking out, people may notice the pile of fabric that is you rolling around in the grass, or the usually inanimate bush that is moving. And if they don’t, their dogs definitely will. Set alarms for before sunrise, and get out of there.

Now is not the time for a snooze.

Bonus tip
Plan your poops. Seriously. One of the main concerns of those trying to prevent urban camping is the mess of human waste that gets left behind. That should also be your concern, because nobody likes pooping in public bathrooms, much less public non-rooms. Is there an all night gas station nearby? Sweet, bring a couple bucks in case it’s customers-only. If nothing is open late, go before they close and hope for the best. Even still, you should always carry toilet paper on your person. There is something strangely empowering about being able to poop whenever and wherever you want.

Urban camping is not a perfect alternative to a well planned (or even poorly planned) trip, but it sure is an exciting way to travel on the cheap. You may not get the most restful sleep, but you can’t beat the price.

Featured image credit to Ted Eytan.

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