The Ins and Outs of Urban Camping

Tents set up atop One New Change in London. Campers had a spectacular view of St. Paul's Cathedral. EG Focus/flickr

If your idea of camping — if you actually entertain ideas about camping, that is — comes from "Meatballs" or "Wet Hot American Summer," you need to get into the 21st century already.

You don't need the wilderness, a crackling campfire and a bunch of overly frisky camp counselors to commune with nature. Urban camping is a real thing these days. With almost 81 percent of the U.S. population living in urban areas (according to the 2010 census), it's not likely to be going away any time soon, either.

What Is Urban Camping?

Urban camping is what it sounds like: camping, in some form, in an urban setting. The key to that definition, though, is "in some form." Urban camping can take many, many different forms.

Some people like to find an out-of-the-way spot in a public park to pitch a tent. Some will camp on any good-looking patch of unoccupied grass (or asphalt, even).

Some like to slip just off the urban trail — say, in the greenways that so many great cities have now — pitch a tent or hang a hammock and enjoy communing with Mother Nature that way.

Some will slip into their tent in the middle of Times Square. Or in a parking space, in a tent designed to look like a car cover.

A group of people camp on a roof of New York City with Thomas Stevenson
A group of people camp on a roof of New York City. The group was organized by artist Thomas Stevenson, and campers are encouraged to turn off their electronic gadgets while focusing on exploring the outdoor environment within an urban setting. Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Artist Thomas Stevenson built some lean-tos and stuck them on the roof of a building in Brooklyn (pictured above). He invites people up, asks them to bring some food to share, suggests that they unplug and they spend a night camping, under the stars, with the twinkling lights of the big city all around them. One night. No charge.

Other camping experiences are a little more ... structured. Some cities, like Chicago, will open up vast areas of their parks to accommodate campers on specials occasions.

Major League Baseball's Texas Rangers are among teams that invite fans to camp out, for a night, in the outfield of a Major League stadium.

It all depends on how adventurous you're feeling.

What's the Appeal?

We could get into man's basic need to reconnect with nature, and that's probably true enough. But if that's all these urban campers are after, the Grand Tetons, rather than that parking lot just off Grand Avenue, are probably the better choice.

Urban campers look for a place to get away even when they don't have the time to travel to get away. They're looking for someplace different when they don't have the money to go globe-hopping. They're after an experience, but one in which they don't have to squat over poison sumac to do their business. One that's unique, but where they still can get a decent cup of coffee in the morning.

A row of tents in McPherson Square in Washington, D.C.
A row of tents in McPherson Square in Washington, D.C., during the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protest. Ted Eytan/flickr

Is It Legal?

In sanctioned campgrounds, sure, it's legal. But just plopping down a tent at the foot of the First Bank building or in the middle of Central Park, without a permit? Probably not.

A problem here is that many cities find it difficult dealing with both urban campers — the kind we're talking about — and "urban campers," a euphemism many use for the homeless. Cities like Atlanta, for one, have passed laws to outlaw "urban camping" set-ups that the homeless use to semi-permanently camp in city centers.

Whether that's moral — denying a homeless person a place to sleep and the right to be near needed services — is another question. But one-night or over-the-weekend urban campers sometimes face similar restrictions. Loitering is a law on the books everywhere, too.

Generally, it's illegal just about everywhere to camp out on public property without a permit. You need permission on private property, too. Urban campers do it anyway, all the time. Do so at your own risk.

Is It Safe?

If you take precautions, camping in the big city can be nearly as safe as camping in Big Sur. But it is the big city. As any city dweller knows, you have to have your wits about you.

So don't camp alone. Know the area. Let friends know where you are. Make sure your little slice of city heaven has plenty of light.

And, if you're camping on a roof, as artist Stevenson points out on his site, don't forget that: "you are on a roof/be very mindful of the edge."