Wild Camping in Developing Countries

A guest post by Jay Kannaiyan- Around the World Traveler since March 2010, blogging about his trip over at Jammin Global.

High Altitude Camping

High-altitude camping at Lake Canapa, 14,000 ft in the Andes of Southwest Bolivia.

As I journeyed through Latin America on my Suzuki DR650 motorcycle, with all the possessions that I would need to survive on the back of my bike, I was anticipating the experience that completes motorcycle travel: camping. Arriving at a place chosen to be home for the night and then setting up that shelter, perhaps getting a campfire going and being a part of the nocturnal outdoors is to me a quintessential experience of overland travel. It also completes that feeling of freedom that comes with traveling on a bike; a freedom to choose where to spend your night.

I know that camping isn’t for everyone, but since I wanted to extend my budget (by staying in fewer hotels) and simply wanted to get to know the nomadic lifestyle, I made wild camping an integral part of my trip. I have comfortable-enough minimalist camping gear that doesn’t burden my luggage and allows me to enjoy the experience when camping becomes an option. And just to be clear, camping in the wild or the bush refers to not staying in established campgrounds.

I started camping from Peru onwards and after a few nights of sleeping in my one-man Catoma Twist tent, I formulated a strategy to help me in deciding where it was safe to camp. Although rural areas of developing countries are generally safe at night, there are some countries where it isn’t advisable to wild camp in a fabric tent, but by taking a few pre-cautions, I managed to do it with no issues.

Camping with Piglets

Camping with piglets on a farm in the remote pampas (savannahs) of northern Bolivia.

When I was traveling across the Pampas (savannahs) of remote northern Bolivia, as a part of my journey through the TransAmazonica in Brazil, camping was the only option due to the lack of urban areas and their hotels. I was riding through the world’s largest rainforest, which is located in the Amazon Basin, an area as large as Australia but with a population density lower than that of Mongolia’s. That meant there were a lot of wild animals about and just making camp in the bush would not have been prudent. So, I opted for pitching my tent in front of rural houses.

Two to three hours before darkness, I would start paying attention to farm houses that I rode across and marking them as a waypoint on my GPS so that I could come back there if needed. As I’m riding along, I usually wave to most locals that I make eye contact with, to immediately establish a friendly relationship. In this same way, I like to stop at a ranch where I can see the owners outside their house, giving me information of the security situation. In hot climates, most people are lounging outside, so this information is my primary decision maker. That can also be read as, “Don’t stop at houses with no one around!” I broke this rule within a few days since there was no other house around and the owners, a young caretaker couple had gone into town to buy groceries. So, you can have hard-fast rules, but should still know when to break them.

Dense fog of the Amazon forest in Brazil

Waking up to the dense fog of the Amazon forest in Brazil, where I stayed with this remote farmer.

Upon approaching the head of the household, I first introduced myself: where I am from and where I am going on this trip (I usually give a far enough known location so that they understand that I’m a traveler and not just a lost tourist). Then I ask them if I can put my tent here for the night and most everyone accepts. For Brazil, I memorized how to say these basic phrases in Portuguese using Google Translator and that got me through the Amazon. With rural people being as polite as they are, besides welcoming this impromptu guest, they also offered me a warm meal and a bath.

Even though I was now camped in someone’s compound, there were still always dangers lurking. Someone could rob my bike at night or assault me in my tent and rob me. Most likely this won’t happen and it hasn’t, so far, but I like to always just be prepared, because you never know. My strategy is to put the tent as close as possible to the bike and tie a cable between the bike cover and a tent peg. I bought a 15 inch machete in Bolivia for $3 and slept with that by my side, wrapped in a sweatshirt. The plan was that if someone tried to lift the bike cover at night, it would disturb my tent and I would spring out wielding the machete. I still haven’t had the chance, but I’m ready. These tactics might not be effective in real situations, but at least thinking this way increases my situational awareness and that is the basis for surviving.

A roaring campfire in Northwest Argentina

A roaring campfire in Northwest Argentina on Ruta 40.

With urban development accelerating in the developing world, there are very few places where a hotel can’t be found for the night. But what’s the fun in traveling from one concrete abode to another? I encourage you to add more camping in your next travel and get closer to nature and the people who live with it.

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