There it was — that rustling again! It was coming from somewhere outside the tent.
My mind raced.
Then I remembered we had put sticks and rocks just outside the tent flap. Precautionary measures. Two weeks earlier, we had faced a similar episode in the Arakan mountains. Some very large animal – we think it was a boar – came tromping around the bushes near our campsite. That time, we had no weapons to fight with, so we had scurried away from our campsite like two little girls, quite convinced we were going to be charged and gored. When we finally gathered the nerves (and bamboo sticks) to return, there were no signs of our visitor. But the entire campsite smelled awful. It turned out the animal – whatever it was –had had the last laugh. It took a huge dump in the bushes near our tent.
Rustling again. And sounds of crumpled plastic. This time, the creature wasn’t answering nature’s call. It was going for our trash bag.
I looked over at Morgan. He was still asleep. I decided it best not to wake him until I scoped out the situation. Slowly, I unzipped a corner the tent flap, and saw three shapes scrounging around the camp kitchen. They were medium-sized, not big enough to be a boar. Okay, I think we can take ‘em, I thought. I strained my eyes to better identify them against the moonlight, and finally…I breathed a sigh of relief. Dogs. It was just a few dogs.
“YAHHHH!” I yelled. The dogs bolted.
So did Morgan, awake out from his sleeping bag, looking positively petrified. I laughed. I was about to explain about our canine company when suddenly…lights! In the distance I saw two of them coming down the path. They were bobbing, shining right and shining left. Flashlights. Someone was coming.
“Shittt…” I murmured.
Getting discovered while camping is never fun. In fact, we do our best to avoid it at all costs, which is where the name “stealth camping” comes from. Having intruders kills the vibe of the camping experience: times when we just want to be alone, relax, and enjoy nature. This is especially true in foreign countries, when language barriers can make it difficult to explain to people what we’re doing sleeping on their property. It can turn camping from a peaceful experience into a stressful one.
On this trip, we’ve been discovered stealth camping multiple times. The worst was in India. One night, a buffalo herdsman found us at the edge of a wheat field and then returned hours later on motorcycle with a few of his buddies from the nearby village. We became their evening’s entertainment; the villagers were enthralled. They watched us, circled us, and narrated our movements in Hindi while we cooked rice with our backpacking stove. We tried our best to ignore them. But later, when the herdsmen began calling up more of their friends to join our campsite party, we pantomimed that we were going to sleep and implored them to leave. They finally did.
When I woke up the next morning at 6:30 am, the first thing I saw after unzipping the tent flap was a guy sitting on his haunches and staring at me from a few yards away.
Of course, it’s not just that we want to be alone while camping. We also try to avoid discovery for more practical reasons. For instance, in Burma, it’s illegal! Because the Burmese government requires tourists to stay in approved guesthouses every night, we had to exercise extra caution when selecting our campsites there. Explaining to Burmese policemen what we were doing sleeping in a rice paddy was never part of our game plan.
To dodge such situations, we’ve honed a number of strategies to find suitable, stealthy campsites. At the top of the list is being able to make the cover of foliage without being seen from the road. Sometimes this means making mad dashes from the highway into the bushes, or around the bend of a hill before a passing motorist has the chance to notice us. We’ve sprinted over fields, bushwhacked through hedges, and scrambled up hillsides with our bikes to make it out of sight before the next pair of eyeballs drove by.
“The coast is clear – go go go!”
The second stipulation is that the campsite provides some scenic value. That is part of the reason we camp after all – not just to save money, but to enjoy nature. The times we’ve neglected this (like in Romania when we camped in a trash heap, or in Turkey next to a dirt pile on the highway) were terrible; they made us feel cheap and gross.
Once we’re in the campsite, we keep our voices down until it gets dark. Sound carries a long way when you’re in the middle of nowhere, and sometimes there are farmers still heading home from the fields, or woodsman returning to their villages with timber before the sun sets. We try not to alert them. We’ve sat quietly, just out of sight, while people have passed by us a few yards away before.
The last trick is controlling our lights. This is especially true if we’re on a hill, where our campsite can be seen from great distances. Taking care to shine our headlamps away from the road, or any surrounding houses helps us keep away unwanted visitors.
Of course, the kicker is sometimes we do all these things and still get discovered. As Morgan and I watched the two approaching flashlights, we wondered how on earth we messed up. We were on an isolated path, surrounded by bushes, and far away from the road or any buildings. Our campsite was about as stealth as it gets.
The lights reached our tent. They paused momentarily upon our bicycles, and then on our camp stove. There was a grunt, some whispers. Then they continued onward without a backwards glance.
We were lucky. But it was also a reminder; while there is an art to stealth camping, sometimes these things just happen despite all precautions.