Chapter 17: Hiking Light – Solitude Camping Avoids Unwanted Crowds and Animals

One of the reasons we go backpacking is to escape the crowds. But how tempting is it at the end of a long day of hiking to camp at an established site where others have camped?

There are many advantages to what can be called “solitude camping.” You can avoid unwanted numbers of people and bothersome animals, especially bears. Some people call this stealth camping, but this term makes it seem like a military exercise or that you’re paranoid or antisocial. Those who use the stealth term seem to suggest that this type of camping is new when it is obviously as old as camping itself. So, let’s call it solitude camping, or pick any term you like such as isolation, unseen, or hidden camping.

Much of the time, solitude camping could also be called dry camping, or setting up camp far from streams or lakes. Dry camping is not only easier than it sounds, it has many advantages. There is definitely an attraction to camping beside a beautiful lake or listening to a tumbling stream. But there are many advantages to dry camping. It’s easier to find a pristine, untouched camping spot.

Many hikers spend a lot of time worrying about bears invading their camp and stealing food. In some areas, this is a very legitimate problem. By camping away from water sources, you can be far from where bears will be looking for food. With their keen sense of smell, bears can be regular visitors to an established camp site. Even if you don’t cook at a well-used site, the bear’s routine and lingering food smells can lead to food raids.

You’ll have fewer pests like raccoons, mice, chipmunks, and squirrels when you dry camp. There will be fewer insects if you camp away from water and places where pack animals have stayed. Your tent will have less condensation if you’re away from the moist air near water.

It’s easy to cook before you finish hiking each day. When you’re at your last water source for the day, you don’t have to stop hiking. Enjoy your meal and cover a little more ground before you go to bed. Carry enough water for the night. When you stop, you’ve left the cooking smells far behind. Do what you can to mask all food odors when you do choose a campsite. For example, don’t leave a package of beef jerky open around camp.

If you like to clean up with water before going to bed, just clean up at that last water source, keeping the correct distance between you and the water, of course. Some trails have long distances between water sources, so you’re forced to dry camp, and you need to know how to get reasonably clean with a small amount of water. You’ll be surprised at how much personal cleanup you can do with just a few ounces of water. Carry one ultralight towel for kitchen use and one for body use. Moisten the towel, clean, and squeeze the towel. You’ll feel more confident about hiking between water sources with a little practice. You can save more of your water for drinking.

Don’t be locked into the idea that you need to eat breakfast in camp. You’ll be more flexible if you sometimes break camp and hike to the next water source for breakfast. It can give you a good rhythm since you’ve hiked a ways and are ready for a break.

Sometimes solitude camping can be fairly close to a small water source if you hike a ways to get off the main trail. Camping a little distance from a small trickle can give you the best of both worlds.

Whether you enjoy camping solo or with your own group, camping away from others helps you feel closer to nature. An overused campsite always shows the same human impact. There’s an unsightly fire ring and an area that is stripped of all vegetation. The ground is so hard it’s difficult to get your tent pegs all the way in. There’s unburned foil from freeze dried food packages, scraps of paper, and unburied toilet paper. Even if you can’t see it, you know you’re close to dishwater, toothpaste, a few urinals, and pack animal excrement. When you walk around, you stir up dust and ash and then take them into your tent.

By contrast, when you solitude camp, you may be the first person that’s ever stayed at that site. It’s cleaner, softer, and in it’s natural condition. When you camp away from established campsites, it’s easier to choose a place where rainwater won’t run or pool.

When you leave in the morning, make sure it looks totally natural in case another hiker has your great skills and someday picks that same spot.

Solitude camping, or dry camping, can make you feel closer to nature by being truly alone. You’ll also enjoy the benefits of a clean, totally natural campsite.