The frugal traveler looks at a hotel and sees extortion. Even a hostel is unnecessary, and a campground isn’t much of an improvement. Twenty dollars a night to sleep on the ground? The frugal traveler knows better.
He turns to stealth camping. Any place can be a campsite, if you lower your standards enough. Enter the rest stop, the semi-flat mountaintop, the park bench in the middle of a city. It might be inconvenient, and it might be illegal, but the frugal traveler knows a free night is worth it.
Stealth camping comes in three flavors:
Last month, I took a week-long rock climbing trip to Skaha Bluffs with Mike VanderMeer, another Calvin alum who shares similar financial principles. Skaha Bluffs is one of Canada’s best climbing areas, but it’s one of the worst when it comes to free camping. The bluffs themselves strictly prohibit overnight guests; instead, climbers are encouraged to stay in the town of Penticton, ten kilometers north. Possible accommodations include:
- Riverside Model $154/night
- Coast Penticton Hotel $130/night
- Valley Star Motel $82/night
- Pass Motor Inn $69/night
Hotels and motels do not appear on the frugal traveler’s radar. A night that costs more than thirty dollars is a night that would be better spent wandering around the streets killing time until sunrise.
We decided sleep wasn’t all that important if it came at that rate, so Mike and I checked for campgrounds. We found a few along the shores of Skaha Lake:
- Barefoot Beach Resort $30/night
- Banbury Green $30/night
- Sun & Sand RV Park $25/night
Still too expensive for our tastes. We ran a Google search for “free camping near Skaha Bluffs,” but the results came up dry. We read dozens of trip reports written by other disappointed penny-pinchers. We accepted our fate.
But at the end of my seven-hour drive from Port Orchard to Penticton, around the time bars were closing for the night, I met Mike in a Tim Hortons’ parking lot to discuss our game plan. The lot lay empty aside from our two vehicles.
In the eyes of the frugal traveler, empty parking lot = stealth campground.
I brought my sleeping bag out of the trunk, slipped off my shoes, took out my contacts, and prepared for a miserable night. I do not sleep well in parked cars. As soon as I reclined the front seat, stretched out, and tried to get comfortable in my fogged-up, slightly too-cold car, I became the stealth camping equivalent of the pea-plagued princess. The back seat was better, but only slightly. The ability to lie fully horizontal came at the expense of legroom; no matter how much I bent my knees, my head still bumped against the door. And every so often, just when I began to actually fall asleep, I would roll over and fall off the seat entirely.
A peculiarity of stealth camping in a parking lot is the bathroom situation. The establishment that owns the parking lot has almost certainly closed for the night—that’s why the parking lot is empty, after all—so when the frugal traveler wakes up for the thirteenth time and finally admits that the chief detriment to sound sleep is no longer a lack of legroom, he needs to find a place to pee. Preferably one that will not earn him a citation for public indecency.
I hurried across the parking lot to the dumpsters, which Mike and I had already checked for free donuts. The dumpsters sat close to the building and made a sort of tiny, secluded alley. Concrete wall on one side, green metal the other.
With the help of a dark night, gaps between dumpsters and buildings serve as acceptable urinals for the frugal traveler with a full bladder. Dense groves of decorative trees will also do, as will the rock walls one often finds behind buildings, as long as the wall is shadowed and secluded enough. All of these places, one should note, are only acceptable if unmonitored by security cameras.
The rest of the night passed slowly. As soon as the sun came up, I pulled my sleeping bag over my head to start a slow-motion game of peekaboo, alternating between too hot and too bright. I gave up around seven o’clock. I had not slept in any meaningful sense, and my neck now felt like a broken accordion, but because my wallet had stayed closed, I considered the night a victory.
Mike and I elected for a more luxurious camping spot the second night. Poor sleep and rock climbing do not mix well.
We drove halfway around Skaha Lake and a good six kilometers down promising roads, hunting for open and accessible public land. Two cars parked overnight on Crown land would not draw much attention. Unfortunately, however, the area around Skaha Bluffs consists primarily of vineyards and ranches and NO TRESPASSING signs, and two cars parked overnight on private property would almost certainly draw the ire of an upset landowner
Without a vehicle, stealth camping is simple. The frugal traveler finds a few a bushes, throws down his sleeping bag, and leaves before sunrise. He will have enjoyed a refreshing night spent almost completely invisible to the common passerby. By using this technique, the ambitious frugal traveler can sleep in an empty field, a city park, or even a stranger’s yard.
Mike and I finally found an unmarked dirt road. The imminent sunset had made us optimists, and we assumed that the houses scattered beside it were anomalies. Holdouts, perhaps, from a time before the government bought this land and made it public property.
When it comes to legality, the frugal traveler has mastered the art of self-delusion. An authority figure is more likely to forgive a bout of polite trespassing when the perpetrator honestly believes he or she has committed no crime.
If the frugal traveler cannot muster genuine, pure-hearted innocence, contrived innocence will work as a close second.
Half a mile into the woods, our dirt road split. We took the fork less traveled, and soon, all signs of civilization disappeared. Only trees and dirt surrounded our two vehicles. We parked. Mike and I left our tents in the trunk and laid our sleeping pads and sleeping bags straight on the ground; if we needed to leave in a hurry, neither of us wanted to spend five minutes struggling with stakes and poles. We cooked dinner over a camp stove as the sun slipped below the horizon, and we congratulated each other. We had the forest to ourselves, and we had it for free. Whisky seemed like an appropriate celebration.
But after our first drink, a pair of headlights bounced down our dirt road. A minivan stopped, and the driver rolled down her window.
“Are you guys lost?”
“A little,” I lied. “We were looking for a place to sleep, but it got dark before we could find anything. We thought we’d sleep here and leave as soon as it got light.”
“This is actually my property. I own these ten acres.”
“I’m so sorry—we thought it was public land.”
“We didn’t see any signs,” Mike added.
“There used to be signs,” she said, “but people keep taking them down.”
“We can leave if you want us to…” Mike looked forlorn.
“There’s some people around here who wouldn’t like that.” The woman sighed. “I’d say go ahead and stay, but… ”
“Where do you think we should go?” I asked. “We don’t need anything fancy—just a place to sleep.”
“I’m trying to think of somewhere… Maybe by the water tower?”
“We’d leave by six in the morning,” Mike said. “Seven at the latest.”
“You know what?” The woman was nodding to herself. “If anyone says something, you tell them Gladys Kroger said you could camp here.”
“We don’t—are you sure?”
“Yeah.” She was nodding again, this time with conviction. “It’ll be okay.”
“Thank you.” I gave her my best smile. “Thank you very much. You don’t know how much we appreciate this.”
Gladys Kroger smiled, too. She rolled up her window and drove off, feeling, I hoped, like a very generous woman. A savior for two lost and helpless travelers.
The sin of trespassing diminishes drastically if in the process, the trespassing victim accepts the frugal traveler’s offer to join the kingdom of Good Samaritans. In such cases, the frugal traveler acts not so much as a minor criminal, but rather, as a catalyst for good deeds.
Another requirement for the frugal traveler: the ability to justify his or her illegalities.
I awoke sometime during the night to a pair of headlights. I rubbed my eyes and sat up, but the brightness kept me half-blind. It was a Mustang. It lacked a muffler, and it was idling just behind my car.
The Mustang shifted into gear and reversed. It turned down the dirt road and plunged into the darkness, and I listened to it for a long time. It drove to the edge of my hearing, where its roar reduced to a hum. I heard a car door slam, and then another, and another.
Mike was still asleep. I considered waking him, piling in our cars, and racing away before the night turned ugly. But Gladys Kroger had stamped us with her approval. And I was tired.
Exhaustion is one of the most common side effects of stealth camping, yet it is also one of the most dangerous. The intoxication of sleeplessness can be every bit as debilitating as wine or whisky. The frugal camper must possess self-discipline, and he or she must learn to recognize and combat the addled thinking of sleep-deprivation.
The Mustang returned. Its headlights flashed across our cars, and then it drove off-road and pointed itself directly at us, angled perpendicular to our cars and roaring like a battering ram.
I climbed out of my sleeping bag and approached the Mustang, my hands raised in surrender. No weapons. No threats. I passed through the headlights’ glare and saw three men sitting in the car. All were big in the Mike Tyson way, and all three looked angry.
I talked my ass off.
If caught in a spot of local trouble, the frugal traveler will avoid a flat-out conflict at all costs. The frugal traveler does not know the land, does not know the local laws, and does not know any outside resources. All of his or her valuables—wallet, camping gear, vehicle—are at stake, as is his or her physical well-being. Every advantage lies with the local. The frugal traveler’s best weapon is charm.
“I’m really sorry,” I finished, “If I had seen signs, I never would have camped here, but Gladys Kroger said it would be okay.”
The three Mike Tysons glared at me.
“You’re lucky she said something,” the driver said.
And that was it. The Mustang drove away. Back to edge of my hearing, where I heard car doors slam once more, and then the Mustang drove back down the dirt road and past our impromptu camp.
A third vehicle stopped later that night, and again, I thanked God for Gladys Kroger. When Mike and I left at six o’clock in the morning, we agreed: we would spend the next two nights somewhere else.
Back at Tim Hortons, I scoured the Internet for camping forums and climbing blogs. Almost everyone, it seemed, stayed at the campgrounds around the lake. A tent site cost thirty dollars, but thirty dollars also meant access to indoor plumbing, fifty-cent showers, and a laundry room—and after two days of climbing, those perks held some appeal. We almost paid.
Maps do not mark nameless places. Guidebooks rarely print recommendations of ambiguous legality. So the frugal traveler must listen to vague rumors and offhand comments. Although they carry more risk, they also carry more potential than any official source.
I was eating my last donut when I found a trip report from 2012. It mentioned an unfinished neighborhood on the east side of Skaha Lake, where developers had cleared a few acres, bulldozed it into lots, and laid out roads and driveways. They would have built houses, too, if only someone had shown interest in buying them. But back in 2012, the developers’ problem had been a stealth camper’s solution.
The blog contained one picture of the abandoned neighborhood. The lake appeared in the background, and from the angle, I could guess the approximate location. I went to Google Earth to get a better idea. I found one housing development in the hills east of Skaha Lake that had been unfinished at the time of the satellite photos, and it looked similar to the place on the blog. It gave Mike and I a destination, and it gave us an opportunity.
The frugal traveler will see what the typical traveler does not: the everyday spots that even the locals overlook; the places that are not designed to impress; the places that are, in their own way, still wild. This type of sightseeing is not safe, nor is it comfortable, but it is authentic.
The campgrounds stuck to Skaha Lake’s western side. We drove on its eastern side, where much of the land had already been developed. Beach access here came at a price: four hundred thousand dollars for a house with a view, a few hundred thousand more for a house on the water. Mike and I were looking for a nameless road that matched my memory of Google Street View.
Ten kilometers later, we found one. It led away from the lake and up a valley. We rose above the houses along the shore, and at the top of the road, we a found a housing development. It matched the one from the 2012 report—but the place had changed. There was one house, now, perched at the top of the hill, and two cars waited in the driveway.
Mike and I pulled into one of the empty lots.
“Do we stay anyway?” Mike asked.
“It’s the only house here. They might not even see us.”
“If anyone says something, we can say we came here to watch the sunset.”
And it was a good place to watch the sunset. We were parked on top of a bluff, without trees or houses to block our view. We could see all of Skaha Lake below us, and Pentiction tucked away to the north, and the sun dropping toward the hills far to the west. It was a view you could not find at a lakeside campground. It was a view you could not find at a $600,000 lakeside mansion.
Mike and I ate dinner on the bluff. We sat on a log and cooked a warm meal over a camp stove, watching the lake change colors with the sun. Someone had built a firepit there, its rocks black from past fires. Bits of dry wood littered the ground. Once the sun set, we started a fire of our own. We sat close to the flames and talked about books, and women, and God.
The frugal traveler possesses a specific set of priorities. He values excitement more than security. Self-reliance more than dignity. Knowledge more than convenience. When assessing his dreams and finances, if he finds that the two do not align, the frugal traveler will travel anyway. He does not travel because of money—he travels despite it.
NPR called Josh “a modern-day Jack Kerouac” after he wrote about his 7,000-mile, no-money hitchhiking journey through the United States. Since hitchhiking, he’s found homes in the Pacific Northwest, the Episcopal Church, and the post calvin. He builds websites as the director of Branded Look LLC. Josh’s writing has appeared in places such as The Emerson Review, Front Porch Review, and Perspectives.