4×4 Stealth Camping: It’s a thing…

ByWes WhitworthOctober 29, 2019
4×4 Stealth Camping: It’s a thing…

Stealth camping might be sneaky, er, stealthy, hidden and possibly a touch creepy but it’s free. Here’s what you need to know about stealth camping the right way.

The idea of ‘Stealth Camping’ is no new thing. Finding a quiet little spot just off the beaten track to kip for the night is pretty standard for the vast majority of us that have ever done long kilometres on the way to our destination.

Don’t get me wrong, Stealth Camping just outside Pebbly Beach or on Fraser Island so that you can save $7.50 a night is probably the wrong thing to do. But imagine you’re heading up the highway, it’s 2 am, you’re about to fall asleep behind the wheel, and you need a nap. The nearest motels are all closed, you can’t get phone reception to ‘book a campsite’ on the National Park website, and if you sleep at a designated ‘rest area’, chances are you’ll wear a $150 (or worse) fine. What this means, is whether you know it or not, by finding somewhere off the beaten track, and either sleeping in the car or rolling out the swag as stealthily as possible, you are effectively stealth camping.

But let’s not confuse stealth camping with getting off-the-grid camping which is more about self-sufficiency in the bush rather than trying not to be noticed.

All-Out Stealth Camping

As we said before, stealth camping is no new thing. Beyond having a quick kip in your four-wheel drive or caravan, some folks are taking it to the next level. Believe it or not, there are folks who undertake a bunch of modifications to their vehicles, purely to minimise the chances of being caught sleeping / camping where they shouldn’t be.

Aside from the obvious dark-tinted windows or curtains in the back, some folks are having their vehicle repainted in matte paint, painting over any chrome, gloss or reflective areas of the four-wheel drive. Then there are folks talking about camouflage netting, hacking off branches to lay over the vehicle and other slightly odd things that would make an excellent idea for the next Wolf Creek movie (that’s where the creepy part comes in).

The idea is to assist in hiding the vehicle as best as possible to the casual passerby. Doing a dollar 10 up the highway, chances are it won’t be seen easily. The other point, with dark windows or curtains, is that you are hiding in plain sight – most people (except that nosey neighbour we’ve all got called Karen*) won’t plant their face up against a dark tinted window at 2 am to see what’s going on inside.

The hard and fast tips we have garnered are thus:

  • Tint your windows or use curtains;
  • Don’t use lights at night and that means no phone or torch;
  • Use dark bedding, so it’s harder to see what’s inside your fourby;
  • Keep the car clean and tidy, so it doesn’t look out of place;
  • Park somewhere obvious (if hiding in plain sight), so you don’t look suspicious;
  • Don’t fully set up your camp; leave the awning, annexe, tent poles packed away;
  • Don’t use a gas cooker inside your vehicle – Carbon Monoxide poisoning is bad;
  • Don’t stay in one spot more than one night; use only for travelling;
  • If the authorities approach you, then offer to leave immediately;
  • Make sure you have an escape plan;
  • Don’t camp in areas with ‘Private Property’ or ‘No Trespassing’ signs; and
  • Get in late, leave early; as you’d guess, most people who’d query you being there sleep during the night too

Is it worth it?

To get completely carried away, you’d question if it’s all worth it (we will in another article, look at what you’d need to build the ultimate stealth camping machine). If you’re planning on taking ‘free camping’ to the next level, then maybe. Especially with the price of some caravan parks, and indeed national parks these days (Stockton Beach camping for a family of five for two nights with a beach permit is just over $200) you can understand why some people go to the next level.

But how much are that paint job and camo netting going to cost you? How long would it take you to recuperate that cost by dodging the average $7.50 a night national park camping fee on Fraser Island?

Then there’s the question on your money making a difference in some places; smaller outback towns, drought-stricken areas just west of the ranges – they’re screaming for cash from people travelling through and staying a night or two. Then you’ve got to think about Fraser Island – the $7.50 a night goes to keep the place looked after, having fenced off areas for those with young kids with the dingoes about – I’m happy to fork over a modest fee for a nights camping.

Where Stealth Camping makes sense to me, is when you’re putting in long days in the saddle, and you need somewhere to pull up for the night to get a bit of sleep. Preplanning a whole trip from Melbourne to The Cape sounds good in theory, but if you short a travel day, or overestimate travel time, you may pull up at your designated stop at 3 pm and twiddle your thumbs for hours until you’re ready to sleep. Alternatively, not make it to your booked spot, because you’re dog tired with three hours left to go. Do you risk staying on the road to make it to your designated place and falling asleep halfway there, or do you pull up at a rest area and have a snooze and run the risk of an overzealous council ranger slapping a fine on you?

End of the day, always choose the safer option, and if you can find somewhere down a quiet road out of the way, that’s even better.