Not the twinkling of the starry night sky but the twinkling of the city lights. This may be one of the scenes urban campers hope to enjoy when they embark on a trip to the metropolis. However, only a handful of individuals choose to urban camp by choice and not out of necessity.
Urban camping can have two distinct meanings. The first concerns individuals who seek out urban campgrounds that are located within the city and specifically created to let people camp outdoors while in the midst of skyscrapers. The second meaning involves those who camp in the traditional sense of the word but do so in an urban environment, such as at a park or in a parking lot because they need a place to stay overnight.
Urban camping at a campground or glampground is regulated and generally pretty safe, if not a bit expensive. Urban camping on city land can be free but also tricky, this form is generally used by those who just need a place to stay while they sleep or recuperate on their way to their final destination.
Urban Camping for Free (or Creative Camping)
In most cases, urban campers who set up a tent in a park or other municipality do so because they are just driving through and need a place to spend the night. Typically, these types of urban campers do not select city parks or parking lots for camping because they think it will be a great place to stay.
When you spend the night somewhere other than a campground, state park, or government land you may be putting yourself at risk and possibly violating the law. It is important to survey the spot prior to setting up and check all city regulations and ordinances.
On occasion, city or public parks allow one free overnight stay for campers. This is usually done with a park camping permit. However, this does not come without risks and there are many rules and regulations you must follow.
The only caveat is when a city opens large swaths of its public parks or land to campers in the case of a concert or other major event. Such was the case when the Texas Rangers baseball team held a campout for guests on the field of the stadium. By and large, though, public areas do not allow camping in the traditional sense.
If you do have to camp somewhere other than a campground or sanctioned land, the first thing you want to do is check the laws and regulations for the public property. Large cities usually have laws that prohibit loitering or sleeping overnight to try and prevent crime.
The city’s website should notify you of any laws in effect. If you cannot find any explicit rules, contact the local police department or city office. It is a bit of a toss-up between asking for permission and attempting to stealth camp.
Some individuals have no qualms about setting up their tent in plain view, thinking that if law enforcement sees them they will believe they have permission to camp there and not that they are just extremely brazen. However, it is always better to actually ask for permission.
You can sometimes ask for permission and the answer will be no, in which case you must find another spot to stay the night. If you do not ask for permission and attempt to camp while evading law enforcement, you are at risk of getting a ticket or worse.
Overall, it is better to arrive at your destination early so that you can check local ordinances, websites, and signs for rules or regulations before asking permission in person. If you are denied, you can always ask for recommendations on safe and legal places for urban camping.
The hazards not only come from getting in trouble with the law but also being exposed to individuals who may not have the best intentions.
There is an inherent risk of others approaching you, as you are camping exposed and out in the open. For this reason, it may be beneficial to camp out in your car if you are staying in a public or city park. Whether you are in your car or a tent, be sure to keep all of your belongings out of sight and secure. Do your best to stay safe and vigilant, scoping out the area for a few minutes before setting up a tent.
Another free overnight option? Parking lots. Usually, parking lot camping only applies to those who have an RV or motorhome or are going to stay in their vehicle. If you simply need a free spot to pull off the road for a night, consider an expansive and open parking lot, such as those of a large department store or casino.
Don’t expect any amenities or hookups, but it is a free and quick option if you have nowhere else to stay. Still, be sure to check all laws and regulations before pulling in for the night as some parking lots don’t allow loitering.
What Do You Need to Urban Camp (for free?)
When most people hear the word camping it conjures images of tents. It is possible you will want to use a tent when urban camping, but it is more likely that you will not want to use a tent. Unless you are camping on your friend’s rooftop terrace or at a public campout event, a tent can draw the wrong kind of attention in an urban environment.
It is usually safer to camp in your car than in a tent. A car will draw less suspicion from shady individuals and law enforcement thinking you are up to no good. A car is also a way to keep your belongings are your person more safe and secure.
There are obviously no facilities or amenities when you are urban camping for free. If the city is hosting, they may set up porta-potties; if you are camping on your own then you will not have this “luxury”. You should plan to use the restroom at a gas station, store, or restaurant before settling in for the night.
A parked car, like a tent, is susceptible to the weather and temperature outside. This means that it is a good idea to pack layers. You may want your sleeping bag, or you may not. It is a good idea to plan and pack for all types of weather and temperatures.
Finally, you should plan to eat out or bring food that requires no cooking or utensils. As most parks and parking lots don’t come with electricity hookups or fire rings, plan on dining on ready-to-eat meals or snack type foods.
The free version of urban camping is more of something that happens out of necessity, rarely is it by pure choice. The hazards of coming into contact with dangerous individuals, getting into trouble with the law, and having no access to facilities are not highly sought after.
If you are hoping to camp in an urban environment while having a safe and enjoyable experience, consider choosing an urban glampground.
Urban Camping at a Campground
If you are not just passing through, but hoping to camp outdoors under the ambient glow of the skyscrapers, consider an urban campground.
It is almost like glamping. The tents are a bit posh and there is typically some food and services provided. Most urban campgrounds are on rooftops and other buildings.
The Gwen in Chicago has equipped one of their terraces on the sixteenth floor with a glamping tent. Guests can stay in the luxury tent outdoors and be treated to perks such as s’mores and transportation to and from the hotel.
Similarly, Strongbow Headquarters in Toronto decked out the rooftop of their building with glamping tents, potted plants, and grass to create a faux orchard. They offered a trip to their urban campground to a few lucky guests.
M&M and NASCAR created their urban glampground on the infield of the Kentucky Speedway. The event had luxury canvas tents complete with air mattresses, rugs, and other homey furnishings. They also provided bathrooms, three meals a day, and plenty of NASCAR themed perks.
Events and locales such as the ones mentioned above are excellent examples of urban camping at its finest. It is not a somewhat dangerous camping experience had out of necessity, but a way to legally and enjoyably camp in a city environment. Still, these experiences can be rare, difficult to obtain an invite to, and expensive.
Urban glampgrounds and campgrounds have been on the rise. Marketed as “the easiest way to get away”, these experiences offer an escape from the daily grind without having to travel to the country.
Glamping tents are popping up on privately-owned rooftops and terraces in cities around the world. Governor’s Island, an island in the New York Harbor, hosts 37 glamping tents and has a ban on automobiles. This pedestrian and cyclist-friendly island is just outside the city and the epitome of getting away without having to getaway.
A New Way to Camp
Whether you are just passing through and are relegated to urban camping for a night, or you do so by choice, urban camping is a markedly different experience than traditional camping. However, just as when you camp in the woods you need to be aware of your surroundings and pack adequately to ensure that you have a safe and enjoyable time.