The Ethics of Ninja Camping


Private Property and Paddlers' Rights

What is "ninja camping"? It's the tongue-in-cheek term I use to describe a serious issue: secretly camping on private land without permission from the landowner. Although ninja camping subscribes to a questionable ethics insofar as it technically involves trespassing, it is not intended as a dubious or illegal practice. In fact, ninja camping is often a necessary, practical response to the situation posed by many rivers in Iowa and in other states whose waterways are governed by similar laws.

Ninja camping addresses the inevitable clash between private property rights and the practical logistics of planning a multi-day paddling expedition through private lands by trying to find a respectful, unintrusive (albeit still technically "illegal") compromise. Read on to learn about the ethics and ethical dilemmas involved in "ninja camping."

Arbitrary Rights: Meandered vs. Nonmeandered

In Iowa, if a river or stream is classified as a "meandered stream" the river banks and the land up to the "high water mark" (where permanent vegetation begins) are legally considered to be public lands. Most of the Des Moines, Cedar, Iowa, and Turkey rivers, as well as the lower portions of the Maquoketa, Wapsipinicon, and Skunk rivers are considered "meandered." Paddlers who use the "meandered" portions of these rivers may legally camp on the banks below the high water mark without fear of being kicked out or prosecuted by local landowners. Unfortunately, as Nate Hoogeveen notes in his book Paddling Iowa, "there is little rhyme or reason as to which streams were meandered and which weren't" so many of the best paddling rivers in Iowa—the Upper Iowa, the Yellow, the Volga, the upper two-thirds of the Maquoketa—never received the "meandered" designation. Consequently, paddler's rights are severely limited on these rivers because the landowner legally owns not only the river banks, but also the land beneath the river. In other words, if you aren't floating, you're technically trespassing.

Hoogeveen provides the following explanation of the Iowa Code's description of criminal trespassing:

Criminal trespass is not simply the act of being on someone else's property. The Iowa Code describes it as entering property without permission to use, remove, alter, or damage the land, or to hunt, fish, or trap on the property. Simply crossing someone's property to get around a fence, for example, is not trespassing, an idea supported by case law. However, if a landowner has posted "No Trespassing" or "Keep Out" signs along the riverside, you are violating that landowner's rights if you set foot on his or her property, because you are knowingly going against that person's wishes. If you are stopped at a sandbar along a nonmeandered stream and the property owner notices you, you could be asked to leave. In that case, you should do so immediately and without argument. (Hoogeveen, Paddling Iowa, 10)

As Hoogeveen's explanation makes clear, the "meandered" or "nonmeandered" designation makes little difference to day-paddlers who suffer only a minor inconvenience if they are asked by the landowner to move on down the river, but to multi-day travelers in search of a place to make camp, "nonmeandered" streams and rivers pose a serious logistical and ethical problem. Public campgrounds do appear along some of Iowa's "nonmeandered" streams, but often the distance between them is either too short or too long to appeal to a multi-day paddler who wishes to log a consistent amount of mileage per day, to adhere to a carefully measured itinerary for traversing the river, or to travel through portions of the river which afford no such campgrounds over a significant distance. Similarly, paddlers who do plan to "hop" from campground to campground (to avoid overnight stays on private property) may find themselves in unfortunate circumstances if low water levels or a minor injury slows their progress more than expected, forcing them to camp before reaching the next public campsite.

A related conflict (relevant even to day-paddlers) results when landowners on both sides of an impasse in the river (such as a dam) post "No Trespassing" or "Keep Out" signs along both sides of the impasse. The presence of the signs makes it an act of "criminal trespassing" to set foot on the lands since the landowners have technically expressed their wishes to keep you out, yet portaging obviously requires access to one bank or the other. I encountered just such a situation during my recent trip down the Maquoketa river, at the first dam south of Dundee, IA. The landowner on the east bank had posted more than 20 "No Trespassing" signs in a short, 200 ft. stretch along the east side of the dam, and the landowner on the west bank (the portageable side) had posted at least two similar signs. My options were (1) to paddle miles back upriver to the previous access (out of the question, given the strong current) and end my trip before it had rightly begun or (2) to "politely disobey" the signs and portage as quickly and unintrusively as possible. I chose the latter option, and though my activity caught the attention of the landowner's dog, luckily no one came out to yell at me.

Resolving the Conflict

What can be done to make "nonmeandered" streams more accessible and hospitable to multi-day paddlers? Well, the ideal solution would be to re-classify all of Iowa's scenic paddling rivers as "meandered streams" in order to legalize the very fair guidelines which govern such streams; namely, the right to occupy and use (respectfully, of course) the river banks up to the high water mark. Unfortunately, this development does not seem likely, at least not in the near future.

Another solution, of course, is to simply avoid taking multi-day trips on "nonmeandered streams" except in cases where the trip can confidently be planned around available public campgrounds. This is unquestionably the most "legal" course of action, and the course that should be preferred whenever possible, but it doesn't resolve the fundamental logistical problems mentioned above and it places strict limitations on the nature, length, and duration of the trip by forcing it to adhere to the limited camping options available.

The third solution is "ninja camping": using the private land secretly, but respectfully, in a manner which minimizes intrusiveness and respects the landowner's property rights as much as possible, except to the extent that they may render the river unavailable to paddlers. Ninja camping is never the rule, but the exception—a practice to be reserved until all other, more licit solutions have been exhausted—and it requires careful adherence to a strict code of ethics.

Ninja Camping Ethics

Ninja camping is implicitly unethical to the extent that it involves "using" another person's property without their permission. My own ethics chafe against that side of it, but on the other hand, there is something rather absurd (legally speaking) about upholding paddler's rights to the waterway as a matter of public trust but depriving them of even the most meager accommodations along the shore so that they can enjoy and explore that waterway at their own pace, rhythm, and pleasure. Until the law catches up with practicality, I think a reasonable case can be made for the "virtue" of ninja camping. That said, if it is to be truly ethical and successful, certain rules must be followed:

  • Rule 1: Avoid ninja camping whenever possible.
    Ninja camping is a last resort. Try your best to plan your route around established, public campsites. That said, I firmly believe no trip should be denied simply because no such public accommodations are available, so if a particular leg of the journey does not afford a public area, ninja camping should be considered.

  • Rule 2: If you have the opportunity, ask the landowner's permission to camp.
    Once again, ninja camping is a last resort. If you spot a landowner out in the field as you're paddling through, call out to him. Let him know your situation and ask his permission to camp on his property. If he gives you permission, fine. If not, honor his wishes and move on.

  • Rule 3: Make camp late, an hour or two before sunset, and depart at sunrise.
    This rule is both ethical and practical. By making camp late and departing early, you minimize your time and intrusiveness on the landowner's property. This reduces the likelihood you will be a nuisance and also reduces the likelihood (once darkness sets in) that you will be detected and asked to leave.

  • Rule 4: Choose a secluded location—an island, if possible.
    The more remote the location you choose (out of sight of houses, roads, paths, etc.), the less likely you will annoy anyone with your presence or attract attention to your campsite. Whenever possible and safe, camp on an island in the middle of the river. Landowners are less likely to begrudge your presence if you camp on an island than if you are on their shores or in their pastures, which feels more intrusive. If you can help it, try not to camp in a pasture near livestock (cows, etc.). Aside from the danger of spooking or disturbing the livestock, you also want to avoid any dangers livestock may pose to you if they come trampling through your campsite in the dark.

  • Rule 5: No noise, no fires, no trace.
    The number one reason folks don't want campers on their property is the risk of nuisance and/or property damage. If you were the landowner, would you want to have to put up with loud outbursts, potentially hazardous fires, litter, or human waste? Of course not! So don't subject other landowners to it. Be quiet. Don't light any fires. Don't leave any trace behind. Don't destroy or alter the property in any way. Come and go like a ninja (hence the name "ninja camping") so that, ideally, no one will ever even know you were there.

  • Rule 6: If you are detected, apologize, explain, ask permission, and offer compensation.
    Call me naive, but I still believe most people are reasonable and understanding. If a landowner discovers you ninja camping, you should instantly apologize and acknowledge you are in the wrong. Be courteous and civil. Explain that you were running out of daylight and needed to get off the river. Assure him you will not be loud, light any fires, or leave any litter behind. Tell him you will be leaving at sunrise. Tell him that, for safety's sake, you would be grateful if he would allow you to stay put until sun-up. Also, offer to pay him something in return for his courtesy. (I think $10 or $15 is fair, as it is typical of the camping fees at many campgrounds in Iowa.) If you explain your situation and offer a gesture of good will, few folks will likely send you away.

  • Rule 7: If necessary, move on or face the fire.
    If the landowner's temper gets heated, it is best to leave, but only if daylight permits you to do so safely. If it is already too dark, it could be dangerous to continue down the river, so I would again appeal to the landowner's sense of decency and generosity, making sure to emphasize that he is asking you to risk life and limb by sending you out in the dark. If he still insists you go, it is probably best to tell him you will gladly face the repercussions of the law if he would like to contact authorities, but I would not venture down the river in the dark. It's not worth your life. Better to face a judge and a fine if need be. Under the circumstances, if you've observed all the rules, it is unlikely the repercussions would be dire since your reasons for camping and your concerns for your own safety are legitimate.

So there you have it: the art and ethics of ninja camping! While I do not advise any paddler to adopt ninja camping as a regular practice, I have had to resort to it several times in my life, and though it is technically illegal, I do think it is "ethical" if the paddler practices the rules laid out above. Ninja camping still violates the letter of the law against trespassing, but it accords with its spirit by avoiding any damage, nuisance, or destructive use of the property in question. Hopefully, paddlers' rights will continue to expand until the issue disappears. Until then, be silent, be stealthy, and be respectful! Come and go like a ninja! Leave no trace!

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© 2006, Wesley Kisting

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