By Ariel Brewster
On most nights, Zach Klein sleeps comfortably in his spacious Tribeca loft in downtown Manhattan. But on a steamy summer night last July, in the city that never sleeps, he slept on the sidewalk in Times Square.
For Klein, 23, and the two friends who also pitched tents on the traffic median in the middle of Times Square, with neon lights instead of stars illuminating the sky above them, this was camping, or to be more exact, urban camping, which can include everything from sleeping on a city park bench to traveling around the world, crashing on friends’ couches.
"The skyscrapers couldn’t have imitated sequoias any better," Klein wrote on a blog. He and Amit Gupta, both photographers and Internet entrepreneurs, wanted to see if they could get away with an urban camping expedition in one of the world’s busiest, flashiest intersections.
"We wanted to do a test run, because we were concerned about logistics and the cops, and, would it even be safe?" explained Klein. Getting permits for a large group of campers proved to be too difficult so they forged ahead with their project on a smaller scale.
For Klein and Gupta, 26, this was just something fun and experimental to do on a summer night. Other urban campers can be penny-pinching travelers who trade tips about camper-friendly public parks or simply couch-surfing itinerants for whom urban camping is both a philosophy and a way of life.
"There are thousands of people in thousands of cities," said Jennifer Metz, a 36-year-old American artist and graduate student who runs an urban camping blog from Holland, her home base these days when she’s not traveling. "They are mostly travel addicts, but they’re also people who don’t like to travel as tourists."
Metz spent a year traveling in South America, Europe and the U.S. Midwest, mostly staying in the homes of friends and family, and is now in the midst of a second 12-month stint of urban camping.
"I’m interested in mobility and simplicity and perspective. For me it has to do with being a modern nomad," she said. "I don’t think it’s recreation, though I find it, for the most part, enjoyable. You have to get out and see the world from different viewpoints."
Metz thought she had coined the term "urban camping" to describe her uncluttered way of life, but she later discovered that many others around the world were also using the phrase to describe different activities and lifestyles.
Though Klein found it too noisy to actually sleep in Times Square, he did see some similarities between urban camping and traditional camping.
"We couldn’t have a campfire, of course. But in a poetic way there are lots of parallels, because Times Square can be a wilderness," Klein said. "Just how out of place you are." He and Gupta said they met dozens of strangers who, whether they were drunk, lonely or just curious, were eager to strike up conversation.
They said 10 cops approached them during the night, but they were able to fend them off with concocted excuses, such as claiming they were camping out for Jessica Simpson tickets.
"No one told us to leave until sunrise," recalled Gupta, and Klein said appearances probably helped. "We didn’t look like vagrants."
Klein and his friends have also taken urban camping to a more out-of-the-way spot, the banks of the Hudson River around 160th Street, where they shared a campfire and made s'mores with homeless men sleeping in the area.
Most veterans advise urban campers to respect the authorities, or at least avoid them. "While many countries in Western Europe or Scandinavia are accepting of vagrants-for-a-night, much of Asia, the Americas and Africa have wildly different attitudes toward copping 40 winks on public lands," wrote Jaime Loucky in an article for Student Traveler, a Web magazine. "Learn the laws and customs before you find yourself face to face with a gendarme at 5 a.m."
Not Always Welcome
According to survey by the National Coalition for the Homeless, 16 percent of 224 American cities have citywide prohibitions on camping, and 28 percent prohibit camping in particular public places.
In the same study, which focused on the criminalization of the homeless, New York City was ranked the 14th "meanest" city in the United States. Sarasota, Fla. was No. 1, because the city has banned outdoor lodging altogether. However, in order for someone to be arrested under this law, the camper must have "no other place to live." Some of the other Top 20 meanest cities were Atlanta, Las Vegas, Dallas, Houston, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, Phoenix, St. Louis and Pittsburgh.
There are other challenges besides law enforcement when it comes to urban camping, such as safety. Student Traveler says urban campers are far less likely to be bothered if they travel in pairs, and recommends keeping your passport and valuables elsewhere overnight.
On her blog, Metz confessed that couch-surfing can also cause a shrinking sense of dignity: "What I thought was a symbiotic relationship turned out to feel, on a couple of occasions, a bit more like freeloading," she said.
In between her two years of urban camping adventures, Metz purchased a house in Rotterdam, Holland, which she said, "gave me more credibility for living the nomadic lifestyle, because then people couldn’t say I was homeless or irresponsible."
But eight months into her second stint as an itinerant urban camper, she found herself feeling a little homesick, even searching the Internet for images of her house.
Klein and Gupta are looking to expand their brand of urban camping ventures. "We’d like it to be a national phenomenon," said Klein, who added that they have heard from someone in Seattle who was inspired to camp out at the Space Needle.
They envision communal camping and have dubbed this effort Operation Pitch Camp. "We’ve been thinking about organizing people across Manhattan, camping on rooftops," Gupta said.
"That’d be beautiful," Klein sighed.