Tips for Rough Camping – How to Stay Safe when Overlanding

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After 8 months of different adventures – by motorcycle through Northeast India and hiking the Guerrilla Trek in Nepal – we have been reunited with out Land Cruiser again. Time for new explorations, starting in Georgia. During first month of travel in Georgia, last year, we already found some great overland camping spots. Being back in the marvelous world of rough camping makes me wish everybody can experience this kind of freedom, one of traveling through wild places, enjoying the outdoors, sitting around a campfire and sleeping under the stars.

A while back I shared some tips on feeling, and being, safe when wild camping in Overland Journal. I Here’s that article. Enjoy, and I hope to see you on the road somewhere.

A Night in Solitude? Not in India

At last—quietude, silence, solitude. Coen had turned off the engine after he had maneuvered the Land Cruiser in between the sparse vegetation of a dry, sandy region in India. It had been an intense day of sightseeing in historically and culturally rich Rajasthan but also a day of hassle, nagging, begging, and incessant attention from local people all day long.

Finally, we had meandered deep into the countryside, leaving the towns and villages behind us, driving past the last huts and were now ready for a quiet camp in the desert.

Alas, it was not to be. Within minutes people had gathered around the vehicle. Where had they come from? The sky, the ground, from behind the bushes? The men and women were quiet and curious, squatting around us until late that night and returning early in the morning to watch us getting down from the rooftop tent, brushing our teeth, combing our hair, and emptying our pee container.

None of them spoke English except one man, who invited us for breakfast at his place. We followed him to his farm where we were asked to sit on wooden chairs under a gorgeous, purple flowering bougainvillea and were served yoghurt and barley. 

During our ten-month overland journey through India there were plenty of times we grew tired of crowded India. Yet, at the same time, the country continued to surprise and fascinate us, like this morning with the invitation for breakfast, and this camp spot ended up as one of our favorite camping memories in India.

Our Rough Camping Strategy

Rough camping in densely populated India (as well as Pakistan and Bangladesh) is quite different from camping in a country with empty landscapes such as Iran, Argentina, or Mongolia. If there is one thing we have learned during our years of full-time overland travel in our Land Cruiser, it is that there is not one specific strategy that works. And that’s okay. It is part of the adventure and you learn as you go what strategy works best where.

Having said that, no matter what country and strategy, you want to be safe. How do you find safety when rough camping —whether in urban areas or the wilderness? As I sat down to write this article, I ended up with a simple conclusion. Safe wild camping, like overlanding in general, boils down to three things:

  1. Listen to and trust your inner voice (intuition, if you like).
  2. Believe in kindness; have faith in people; connect with them.
  3. Accept that shit happens.

Rough Camping Tip 1: List to & Trust your Inner Voice

When we started overlanding in 2003, rough camping was new to us. We had no clue what to expect, how to go about it. One thing we quickly learned was that a place can feel ‘right’—safe, pleasant, comfy. Other places, not so, giving a nagging feeling to one, or both, of us without a clear reason. Why that is, who knows, but we did learn to listen to it. 

Establish the understanding that if one of you isn’t happy about a place, you move on and find another.

It is easy to rationalize that inner voice. The one time both of us deliberately ignored it and parked our Land Cruiser where we shouldn’t have (which wasn’t to set up camp but a visit to a museum), we were robbed. A guy stood waiting for us on our return and it cost us our camera. We both knew it had been our own fault and the incident could easily have been avoided.

Stress, having an argument, not feeling well are times to beware of this pitfall. These are typical moments to not be quiet an listen to how a place feels but instead to rationalize, “Oh well, let’s just park the car here.”

Lessons learned

  • Don’t start searching for a place to set up camp right before sunset (in the dark, it’s a pain to find a good campsite) but start, say, two hours (or more) before sunset. Give yourself time to scan a place, move on, and settle for one that feels right.
  • Cross the border early. Each country has new vibes, different landscapes (e.g. you cross from an open countryside where you can get off the road anywhere to a country where all the land is fenced in). Again, this gives you time to get a feel for the place and settle in.
  • Going through tough times? Don’t rough camp and treat yourself to a paid accommodation.

Fear, Faith & Connecting

Many of us start our overland journey with some sense of fear – ‘How dangerous are ‘those’ countries?’ Fortunately, overlanders (and other travelers) quickly learn that ‘those’ countries are home to beautiful, kind and hospitable people and that you have weirdoes and dangerous people all over the world, who (generally) represent only a tiny percentage. 

Unfortunately, there are countries / regions / cities with higher crime rates than others and so it is wise to read up on where you are going before you cross the border. Camping in or near the major cities of Brazil is very different from camping in the wetlands of the Pantanal or any other national park in that same country.

We tend to forget, but it’s not just us (possibly) fearing others; it works the other way around too. Without your realizing it, locals and/or officials may be looking at you with suspicion and this can create tricky situations when wild camping. 

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Asking Permission

In the mountains of Greece we had driven for a long time in soaring temperatures to find a place for the night. At last we spotted a field, parked the Land Cruiser, put up the awning and took out the camping chairs. In the distance we saw a farm and figured we’d go there later in the day to say hi. But first a cup of tea. And another. It was hot, we dozed off, and were woken up by a police car pulling up beside us while simultaneously an elderly couple came walking up the hill. 

After we explained who we were and why we were here, the police officer told us that the couple were scared and worried about our parking in their field (which was unfenced and had no sign of being private property) and had called the cops.

We immediately apologized while, oddly enough, they started apologizing for having called the cops, which made it all quite embarrassing. Even more so after the cops left (“Feel free to drop by tonight at our police station for a beer”) and the woman returned to our car with fresh produce, a carpet to put our chairs on, a pillow and the next morning stood waiting for our doors open and serve us fresh coffee!

Lesson learned: Locals may be more scared of you than you realize. You are the stranger and they don’t know your story. Put them at ease by making contact, shaking hands, invite them to your house on wheels for a quick tour or a cup of coffee.

Read More: Why we Travel with a Roof-top Tent

Dealing with Officials

The same goes for officials. They may not understand who you are, why you are there, what you are doing and may question your motives.

One night we stood camped in a narrow street on the edge of a small town in Iran and sat inside reading as it was winter and cold outside. As often, we heard people stop at the sides of the Land Cruiser, sometimes reading the text on the bodywork out loud. But when we heard a rap on the door we knew those weren’t curious visitors.

Coen rolled down the window, “Salaam Aleikum!”, stared into a black void, and leaned outside to peek behind the car.

“I’m looking down the barrel of a machine gun and there is a second soldier farther back with his revolver at the ready. I think it is police,” Coen informed me, careful not to make any sudden movement.

I put on my headscarf and we stepped out of the car. The officers eyed us suspiciously. Number two talked on his walkie-talkie while number one carefully peeked into the Land Cruiser, as if he was afraid it was filled with armed men.

To ease the tension I opened the rear doors so he could properly look inside. We showed them the map on the passenger door, pointing out our route. They calmed down but didn’t let go of the guns. It took about half an hour for the officer to get permission for us to camp in this alley. When it was done, he shook Coen’s hand as if they were the best of friends.

As far as we know, we may (probably?) have been the first foreign car camping like that in a random street of a remote town, and they had no clue what to expect and were scared.

Lesson learned: Assume that the authorities are there to do their work, not to give you trouble (even though yes, occasionally they do). Be patient, be kind, and use humor when appropriate.

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Dealing with Drunk People

Much more than being worried about being robbed or assaulted, we are wary of drunks. One inebriated man generally just means annoyance, but drunken groups in particular may lead to an escalating situation. In our case, this is something Coen always deals with and I stay in the background. This isn’t a man-woman thing, but has to do with the patience and diplomacy Coen has at his disposal in these, at times tricky, situations. 

Whereas I get stressed out, would end up shouting at them to go away (useless and counterproductive), Coen is particularly keen on keeping his goal in mind—making the man/men leave without aggravating them (“Because what good would it do if the guy left angrily and returned an hour later with his friends,” as he has so often explained to me).

This is what I have seen Coen do, which has worked:

  • The easy situation: in daylight and being up and about, Coen will stop doing what he is doing and give the intoxicated man his time and attention (with admirable patience, I’ll add). Sit him down, serve him coffee, let him ramble, and be kind but persistent—No, Coen doesn’t want to drink together and yes, we would like to be on our own.
  • The trickier situation is at night, when guys come knocking on your door, waking you. Even trickier when in the middle of nowhere, where you are totally on your own if the situation escalates. Coen will open one small window, and again talk and listen, being persistent in “No, I won’t come out to drink with you and yes, we would like to sleep.”

It is in situations like this that you’d like to have parked in such a way that you can drive away quickly. Fortunately, we have never had to do that.

Rough Camping tip 2: Trust Locals

We stood in a parking lot along a river. Around us stretched a park with flowerbeds and sculptures. Women and kids were strolling along the waterfront. The place looked kind and peaceful, so we planned to stay the night. We got a visitor, a priest, an interesting man full of stories and we offered him coffee and a meal. By the time it was getting dark he asked us where we were staying the night and was shocked to hear we wanted to camp there. 

“No, you can’t do that, it isn’t safe. This is the border. Do you know what happens here at night?!”

We found it hard to believe that such a peaceful park could undergo such a volte-face every night, but being new in the country we didn’t want to downplay his concern either. What to do? We called our very experienced Russian overlanding friend in Vladivostok to ask his opinion. He immediately answered that he had a friend living in the town we were staying and would ask him. An hour or so later, a man picked us up.

“Come stay at my house, you need help, I hear,” he spoke in very limited English. This man didn’t know our friend from Vladivostok, he said, which was weird but still, it felt right and we trusted him. We followed the man in his car expecting him to allow us to camp in the street where he lived. But no, we entered a closed community, passed another gate into his driveway and were welcomed in his home where we could sleep in a bedroom. We clicked, had a ball, were seduced into staying another day so the family could make a barbecue for us.

It turned out our friend in Vladivostok had called a friend in Moscow who knew this man in the town in Siberia we were staying in—people will go to great lengths to help total strangers. This scenario isn’t unique. It has happened numerous times in different places. Locals generally want to help you, find a solution.

Lesson learned: Be patient. If somebody says, “Let me ask around,” well, that may take a while. Some things can’t be pushed or hurried.

Read More: Feeling Welcome in Vladivostok

Rough Camping Tip 3: Realize that Shit Happens

So we have our inner voice, we believe in the goodness of people and still, shit happens. It’s called life. Overlanders have been assaulted, their vehicles broken into while asleep, and yes, also been murdered. You can’t control everything in life. Not in everyday life, not when overlanding. Sometimes you simply have bad luck. Percentage-wise the bad experiences are minimal, but they do exist. That’s something we should not ignore, deny, or downplay, but acknowledge.

Be prepared, connect with local people to understand their culture, travel with an open mind, trust and take care of yourself and your vehicle. And, mostly: have fun!

Tips & Tricks

Where to Camp Safely:

  • Looking for a place to camp in/near a city? The (tourist) police may be happy to give tips, e.g. on camping being allowed in parks, on boulevards along the river, at the beach. Other places to check with are the tourist information office or the town hall.
  • Some countries have 24/7 gas stations with security, often used by truck drivers to spend the night. They are not the most beautiful places but they generally are safe (if noisy). Especially in and around the big cities of Brazil we used them frequently.
  • If you’re new or unsure where to rough camp in a region, iOverlander may help out. The app is a collection of wild camp destinations (and other points) throughout the world shared by fellow overlanders and you can add yours, too. Find it on ioverlander.com

Find More: Our Most Beautiful Rough Camps

How to Make Your Camping Experience as Safe as Possible

1. Hiding or Being Visible

Sometimes it’s good to hide; sometimes it’s better to be visible. E.g. at these Brazilian gas stations we might have a much quieter night far away in a corner but we may feel safer being visible and parked right in front of the restaurant that is always on site at these gas stations. The same in cities: we generally feel better to camp in plain sight in the town’s square than ‘hidden’ in a quiet street.

2. Asking Permission

Not sure if you are allowed to camp somewhere, including camping in a quiet street in town? See if you can talk to a local or village chief (for Pan-Am overlanders: the latter is particularly important in the rural areas of Peru and Bolivia). Introduce yourself and ask if it’s okay to park there.

There are various reasons: Respect for the local people (you’re on their turf, in a way), they will spot you and may not like it and possibly call the police which is not helping anyone or—on the upside—you may make a friend. We have had people offering us to use their toilet, take a shower, or even bringing us food.

3. Have a Get-away Plan

Park your vehicle in such a way that you can make a quick get-away without first having to do backups or turn arounds, which may be tricky in the dark when you are most likely stressed out.

For the same reason, keep the driver’s seat and foot-space below it empty and remember where you put the car keys. Pack up your camping gear at night and put away the awning. Having to deal with an open rooftop tent is enough of a hassle if shit hits the fan.

4. Know that people know you’re there

Never assume nobody will see or find you. People, especially in rural areas, are very aware of new people in their region. At the start of our journey we brought a camouflage net, thinking it would help us hide. It’s something we laugh about now and we got rid of it very soon. 

5. Protection

We don’t believe in carrying a gun and only have a can of pepper spray in the vehicle. As for knives, we don’t carry one for safety reasons, but I suppose when push comes to shove we could use our pocketknife or kitchen knife.

6. Surroundings

Safety isn’t only related to people, especially in the wilderness check your surroundings: don’t camp in dry riverbeds, be careful in the mountains because of land/mudslides, and know the tides when beach camping.

This article was first published in Overland Journal

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