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Creative Camping: Where To Sleep When There’s Not A Site

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For the past two months, I’ve slept in a different campsite almost every single night. This is how I find a spot to rest my head, outdoors.

REI Packing It Out

Sleeping in a different location every night isn’t a new thing to me. Now that I mention it, I haven’t slept in any one place for more than a week in over two years. Bi-annual transitions from hiking long trails, living the van-life, and now biking across the country keep me in excellent vagabond shape.

Whether rural, urban, or any of the unique gems in between, here are some tips to get a solid 8 hours while on the move.

Disclaimer: Results not guaranteed. Finding free places to sleep while traveling is always a unique experience and favorable outcomes are not certain.


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The last two months I slept east of the Mississippi River. The rural formula we’ve used will most likely change as we travel west. That said, I found that most of our sleeping locations were in rural areas.

By far, the top two places we’ve slept while in rural locations are local parks and churches. Our current formula for finding and posting up in a park or church is as follows:

  • Bike until lunch.
  • Decide how much further we want to bike for the day.
  • Use Google maps to find churches and parks within cycling range. Note: not all parks show up, so don’t be shy using satellite mode to help spot those basketball courts or baseball diamonds.

If you choose a church, call them. Don’t be shy, just call them and explain what you are doing. Here is an example of what I say:

“Hi! My partner and I are biking across the country and we are scheduled to bike through [town’s name] this evening. We were wondering if we could set up our tent on your land. We just need a place for the evening and will continue on our journey in the morning.”

We’ve spoken with someone at every church location we’ve stayed at, and nobody has said no. I recommend talking with somebody before posting up on church property.

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Of course it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission, but we try to get a consistent eight hours of sleep without explaining ourselves to the local police department at four in the morning (that was a different trip). 

If you choose a park, aim to find a pavilion to cook at before you’re shrouded in darkness setting up your tent. On multiple occasions, we’ve just slept in the pavilion at the park. A couple tips here:

  • Try to pick a pavilion or tent spot as far from a road as you can. It’s more unlikely that someone will spot you and say something.
  • Try to roll out early in the morning. 

In regard to parks, we’ve only had one situation on this trip where a police officer came to check in. 

We were lounging around after a stormy night under the pavilion when someone apparently reported people sleeping in the pavilion. Once the officer was close enough to talk to, I explained what we were doing and mentioned getting caught by the storms the night before.

The officer looked at all of our clothes laying out to dry and simply said, “Yep, that’s good enough for me. Have a safe trip.” Your experience may vary.


REI Packing It Out

During this tour we’ve stayed in Atlanta, Asheville, Washington D.C, Pittsburgh, Toledo, Grand Rapids, Milwaukee, Madison, St. Paul, and Minneapolis.

I think some people assume we sleep like ninja turtles when in these big cities, hiding in the sewers and ducking into alleys. We’ve done a couple urban stealth camps; but the truth is, we often call upon our friends and family for support.

One of the perks of frequently traveling around the country is that you end up with friends everywhere. As I write this article, I’m sitting in the dining room of one of Abby’s old climbing buddies. They haven’t seen each other in more than two years, and the moment they heard we were coming through, they opened their yard to us.

The tip here is to meet as many people as you can during your travels. You never know when or how you will reconnect with folks. 

Now let’s say you don’t have any friends in the town you visit. Heck, you might not even be from the country you are visiting. The best tip I have is to use WarmShowers.org (note, cyclists only) and CouchSurfing.com.

I haven’t personally used CouchSurfing yet, but have heard good things about the platform. This year, Abby and I used WarmShowers on multiple occasions.

WarmShowers is an international community of cyclists who open their homes to touring riders. Likewise, when touring cyclist aren’t out traveling, they are expected to open their homes for other travelers. Some of our best memories from this year’s tour are from WarmShowers stays. Try it out!

Getting Scrappy

Every once in a while, the tactics above don’t work. The results were several unique camping destinations.

We’ve slept near train tracks, along the edge of public walking paths, in a tree farm, at boat landings, and even in a cemetery (making a point to be far away from any actual gravestones).

These unique camping locations are a result of other options not being viable or available. As always, we make a point to leave any camping location better than we found it and make a point to exercise Leave No Trace ethics.

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As I mentioned above, all this year’s camping has been done east of the Mississippi River. Our rural camping protocol will likely change once we make it to larger swathes of public land.

There is no magic formula to find a camping place while you travel, but I hope the tips above steer you in a good direction. Sleep well!

– Our 2017 ‘Packing It Out’ coverage is sponsored by REI.

– Check out the crew’s 2015 and 2016 efforts on our ‘Packing It Out’ page. Connect with Abby and Seth on InstagramTwitter, and their blog.

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