Taking short trips on local trails around my house while still recovering from a foot injury led me to an encampment of tarps and trash littered across the woods. In this moment, I wondered what others would think when finding homeless camps while backpacking and what they would do. I believe with some brief assessments and action, one can remain safe as well as help those possibly in need.
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AllOutdoor Coverage of Encountering Homeless Camps and Transience
Table of Contents
Step 1: Assessment
For the uninitiated, some may not know the difference between whether Corporal’s Corner is doing a challenge overnight video on a local trail or whether there are people who have decided to live in the woods for one reason or another.
What Defines Homeless Camps in the Woods?
A homeless camp, better known as an encampment, is where an individual or individuals who are unsheltered reside temporarily, typically in standards lower than expected poverty guidelines display. Now, let’s get something clear, homeless camps typically indicate homelessness and poverty, but there are those who also just give up with modern society and escape to the woods. We are not going to classify those like that guy who lived in Lincoln, Montana as Homeless, per say…
Homeless camps or encampments found while hiking are often made from timber pieces, tarps, pieces or parts of discarded furniture and sometimes cardboard or forklift pallets. The longer the encampment is used, more often, the condition of the temporary residence improves, albeit the discarding of refuse in an irresponsible manner. Camps with worn out tarps, unused fire pit, and lack of newer trash has likely been abandoned.
Step 2: Determining Action
Hiking trips more often than not are safer than city living in terms of human-to-human contact and interactions, according to AT’s data. After reading this, it does not mean you need to be a nervous nelly and make sure someone is watching your six, 24/7. Stay alert, make best judgements and stay educated.
The easiest thing to do once stumbling upon active homeless camps is to turn 180 degrees and peace out. While mental health concerns are not always correlated with homelessness and/or poverty, there is a strong relationship between them. An individual or individuals in the woods are not often seeking the medical, mental, or personal hygiene needed which can lead to further distress for the residents.
I’m not saying you’re going to be stabbed to death just because you see homeless camps in the woods or on a trail, but there is still a greater than zero percent chance that something could occur if you continue onward, or loop back past this location again. I hate to bring up that incident on the AT that happened in 2019, along with rare others over the years.
After assessing whether the camp appears recently active, figure out whether you are comfortable with your skills and gear to continue. If not, go somewhere else.
Continuing on the path when comfortable, check whether you have cell service and let a friend/family know what you’ve seen and where you are in case of something happens. If you have an InReach or other satellite comm system, send your location and a quick note to someone.
Encounter with Transient Individuals?
When running across individuals who appear homeless, remain polite and brief and decide whether to continue or head back. If there is a confrontation, or communication begins, follow the following recommendations:
- If things feel weird, or if anyone’s giving bad vibes… Get out in a way that does not aggravate the people living there.
- Just like in the bedroom, have a safe word or phrase out on the trail that indicates to skedaddle. Make sure it’s not super awkward. People are going to know something is off when you say ROMEO TANGO FOXTROT, I REPEAT… ROMEO TANGO FOXTROT. Something that fits into everyday conversation, but is agreed upon works best.
- “Did you leave the tree straps this morning?”, when you didn’t even have a hammock.
- “Are we having pineapples for (Lunch/Dinner/Snack)?”
- “Dude, my scoliosis is really acting acting up right now.”
- It is unlikely, but if someone is fit enough to follow you for distance and things get weird, drop weight and make haste if need be. Despite your pack probably having a value higher than your first car, ditch it and get out if anything becomes confrontational. The bag isn’t as important as your life, and it’ll act as a carrot to possibly prompt someone to stop and scrounge through it.
- Go off trail if you know the area well enough to get back on, or back to your car/etc. Best way to do this is trying to remain parallel with the trail. Secondary to that, you can travel as the crow flies to the destination or nearest road if close enough
- If you’re wise, you at least have a pack knife with you, likely LCP or something else if you’re reading this site. Don’t be afraid to protect yourself at any instance where someone displays any aggression. Stopping the aggression and the person displaying it is key. You’ve likely had the training whether you need to get the person to stop in their tracks and travel opposite of your direction or whether a Mozambique drill is necessary.
- This is an action only you can choose and the consequences may not matter if your life is in danger, but do always be aware of the consequences of self defense in our litigious world.
Step 3: After the Observation or Encounter
No matter what, if you have had an encounter that felt off or unsafe, let others know this has occurred to be able to let others know. This doesn’t mean you’re being a Karen, it means you’re increasing the likelihood others will not encounter similar or worse things than you did.
- Let others know you’re okay and where you are. Hopefully you left a note in your car, but letting people know you’re A-ok is a good thing.
- Simplest, maybe not best way: 911
- If on public land, contact National Park Service 24-Hour Dispatch/Communications Center: 1.866.677.6677
- If on the Appalachian Trail (AT), you can email their Incident Report account once comfortable/have service: [email protected]
A lot of states have sites to report when homeless encampments of any sort are found. The sites are so varied, I have to recommend you seeking these resources yourself. If your location has homeless response units with crisis teams or social workers, this can be an option, too.
What I Did…
Since there were signs of this location being an active encampment, and this area being historically known for substance users to squat here, I decided to help. It must be my old social work license rearing its head up or something…
As dumb as you guys may think I am for doing this, I went back the next day with a gallon zip lock bag with a printouts of community resources for homeless individuals. You can access a lot of local information on Find Help or Housing for Urban Development’s Homelessness page. While I know mental health and disabilities are tied very closely to those who are homeless, the solution can be call the cops, but I believe opportunities for getting help are just as important. If the camp is still active in a few weeks, I’ll likely let a city cop buddy of mine know about it and see if he knows who they are.
I am not recommending anyone to return to a homeless encampment, but I felt secure enough doing so. If you’ve ever run across a homeless encampment in the woods, share in the comments!
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