Monday, January 8, 2018

Urban Camping

The next time an earthquake hits your town, or a hurricane or wildfire hits, (or your mother in law visits -- I am in no position to judge on that one) you may find yourself without a home for a hopefully short period of time. Alternately, you may just find yourself between apartment housing contracts for two weeks.

Couch surfing may not be an option for various reasons, and you may not have the money for a hotel room or even for a traditional campground. For situations like this, I would suggest a potential option: urban camping.

What is Urban Camping?
Like the name suggests, urban camping is camping in the city or suburbs. It means a lot of different things to different people, but at the end of the day it usually comes down to a fancy way of being homeless for a bit.

Urban camping can be in a car, in a camper, or even in a tent, but I don’t really recommend that last one. The difficulty comes in three parts:
  1. Where are you allowed to camp? / What do you camp in?
  2. Dealing with the elements, including the human one. Make sure to obey the laws very carefully; being arrested for trespassing sucks.
  3. Standard camping issues (sanitation, food, hopefully not bears…)
I want to stress something: when you are urban camping, there is a very real risk of having problems with locals. I have never had an issue, and most of the people that I know who do this on a regular basis have not, but the fact is that you are in an urban environment and if you are not careful you may have problems with law enforcement, warranted or not. Stealth is your friend in this, as is the phrase “leave no trace”.

Short Version:
 Be careful and you should be fine, but urban camping carries risk.

What Do I Sleep In?
These are fairly innocuous, and finding a place to park that no one minds is much easier to find than a spot for a tent or a spot for an RV.

The biggest difficulty with sleeping in a car is being able to stretch out comfortably. Sedans are typically a little cramped, but even my ‘98 Honda Civic can fit my 300 lb, 5’11” frame in it fairly comfortably with some planning. (I am assuming that you have a compact car of some sort, since it is fairly easy to stretch out in a minivan, SUV, or station wagon.)
  • If you can, fold down the back seat of your car, and remove the passenger side front seat. This will give you an area to put down some sort of base for the bed, such as boxes covered by a cut sheet of plywood, or even heavy cardboard, in order to level them out. Put a sleeping bag on top of it, and you have a level, dry place to sleep.
  • If you cannot remove the seat, scoot the passenger side seat as far forward as possible. Once you have done that, lean the passenger side seat as far back as you can. Put a pillow on the seat where it meets the back; that does a remarkable job of leveling it out.

A camping trailer is awesome, but finding a place to park it and sleep in it is difficult to say the least. Finding someone who will let you  park it on their property is difficult, but not impossible.

If you can find a place to put a camping trailer or RV, you will still have all of the issues you would normally with camping, but it is a much nicer way to camp than the other options. 

A tent tends to draw a lot of attention, especially from law enforcement, and is an easy victim to vandalism. It has the advantage of allowing you to sleep stretched out, but with the preparation outlined above, you should be able to do that in another vehicle. 

If you have no other option than a tent, I recommend either a backpacking type tent (which can be packed into a small space) or a folding pop-up tent (so that you can get out of there quickly if you run into problems).
I use this pop-up tent from Zaltana. I have used it October and February in the Spokane Washington area (business conferences with all of the local hotels booked) with just my sleeping bag for insulation, and was fine. It takes me 20-30 seconds (yes, seconds) to set up, and if I decide to stake it down it takes me 2-3 minutes longer. It takes me about 30-60 seconds to put away, once my gear is out of it.

Where Can I Sleep?
First, remember to respect the laws. There are a plethora of online resources on how and where it is legal to park/sleep over night, and I could not even begin to cover every municipality in the USA, let alone other countries. Web searches are your friend.

A rule of thumb that I use is to make sure I don't make a nuisance of myself. If no one knows that you are there, they don’t hassle you. I also recommend finding somewhere out of view of the street if you can, with an easy way to leave if problems arise.

Residential areas tend to have people more willing to call police on odd looking cars, so you are taking chances with those. If you can find a secluded spot, and switch where you sleep, you may have no problems.

Parking Lots
If you are in the parking lot of a business, they are much more likely to be okay with it if you purchase something from them and if you move where you sleep at least every other night. On the occasion that I had to sleep somewhere behind a store, I have made sure to clean up after myself meticulously, and to clean up any trash etc. in the area as well. Employees are much more likely to look the other way if you are not a pest.

Walmart is almost perfect for travelers and people who are urban camping because they have food, camping supplies, and toilets. A lot of Walmarts in the midwest actually have RV parking, and don’t mind people who stay two or three nights in a row in their parking lot.

Truck Stops
I am a big fan of truck stops. They can be a little noisy, but they are right next to major roads, are open 24/7, and have rentable showers. In addition to that, a lot of them expect to have travelers occasionally sleep in their parking lots.

However, I do understand that it can stretch the definition of “Urban” to do this, and it is not always a convenient -- for example, if you have to get to a job site, the commute time can be a bit much.

On Foot/On a Bicycle
If you don't have a car, or have to travel lighter, I recommend finding somewhere on the tail end of a bus route. Heavily trafficked areas tend to be more traveled by law enforcement and by people who are permanently homeless, which can lead to friction that you will probably want to avoid. Finding somewhere at the tail end of a bus route will still get you close to public transport, and if you select carefully, can still allow access to toilets/food for purchase at odd hours.

None of These
If you have none of these as an option, find a spot away from the road a bit. Foot traffic will lead people to you, and you want to avoid that as well. Somewhere a bit darker and a bit out of the way is generally a good idea, as is being willing to move come morning. I strongly recommend somewhere with easy access to a toilet, since public urination is frowned on and can cause problems with law enforcement.

What Do I Need to Have?
I strongly recommend a tarp with some rope at the very least. Even if all you do is wrap up your stuff, it is nice to have a waterproof package, and a tarp can act as an impromptu pup tent, ground cover, bag, and light blocker. Cheaper tarps will let more light through, and are more likely to rip, but a serviceable tarp for this should not cost more than $20, and you can sometimes find them on sale in the $2-5 range.

I also recommend a sleeping bag. I like a canvas bag because if I get strange things on it I can wash and dry it fairly easily, but as long as it is warm, it works. If you can’t get a sleeping bag, a good wool blanket is actually very nice. A blanket and a bag are nice together, if budget allows. Be aware that having just a blanket can be to your advantage if you may need to get out quickly, due to problems with locals, since a blanket takes less time to disentangle yourself from than a sleeping bag.

If you are camping out of a car, I recommend a couple of sturdy cardboard boxes that have been folded to help even out the sleeping arrangements. They look fairly innocuous if they are in the back seat of the car, and can be set up quickly.

I also recommend a good pair of sleeping earplugs (if you feel comfortable blocking out some sound in your environment) and a sleeping mask. Urban camping tends to involve being around a lot more light pollution.

Also, several pairs of good socks. Sanitation is much easier if you have clean socks. Underwear dries more easily than socks do if you have to wear it while it dries.

General Tips
Avoid making a lot of light or noise. Besides being potentially attention getting, it can be just straight up rude to any potential “neighbors” you have.

A small cooler can save you a LOT on food costs. You might get tired of lunchmeat sandwiches, but it will do the job.

A national parks pass can save you a lot of hassle. If you have something nearby, it may be worth it to spend the $80 (at time of this writing) and just camp in one of those. That may not be possible, depending on time of year, but it is sure a heck of a lot cheaper than a normal campground or a hotel.

Be safe. Be aware of your environment. And good luck.

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