How to camp in Central Park without getting arrested (PHOTOS)

Camping in a NYC park is the ultimate adventure…

Growing up in the suburbs, I never thought I would spend the night camping in Central Park. As a slender female unskilled in martial arts, I actively avoided strolling through any New York City park at night.

But when I won a spot in the New York Parks Department’s annual camping lottery last summer, I could not resist the chance to sleep in Central Park. The jewel of the New York City parks system, Central Park is also the site of notorious 1980s wildings and serves as a backdrop for gang warfare in the classic film The Warriors.

The park officially closes at 1am, so the camping lottery is the only legal way to spend the night in Central Park.

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Winning the Camping Lottery

After unsuccessfully applying to the Urban Park Ranger’s camping lottery dozens of times over the past two years (each park holds its own lottery select dates), I felt like I had won the Powerball. I had snagged one of just 30 legal camping spots in Central Park! I immediately cancelled my travel plans, dusted off my sleeping bag and set out for an urban adventure in Manhattan with my husband Jake.

It turns out camping in Central Park is not as creepy as expected, although my small group of campers was under the protection of an Urban Park Ranger and two interns with access to a baton and walkie talkie. While we did not encounter any drug-addled rapists, robbers or gang members, I did get lunged at by a leash-free dog and spotted a semi-feral raccoon.

Evening activities included an al fresco dinner of military-style rations served in a plastic pouch, a nighttime nature walk on 110th Street and a group jam session with Spanish guitar and bongos (Editor’s note: marijuana was not provided).

It was a fun, unusual and totally free experience that I won’t soon forget. The only item we had to provide was a sleeping bag! Scroll down for photos and details of our Central Park camping adventure.

Setting Up Our Tent

We arrived at the northwest corner of Central Park before dusk on a Saturday morning and found our way to the campsite– a flat stretch of parkland surrounded by a paved walkway. It was a highly trafficked, very visible spot near the park entrance and was filled with picnicking families and joggers. This was definitely not wilderness, but it was tranquil by New York City standards!

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After meeting our Urban Park Ranger, Rob, a friendly East Villager who moonlights as a rock musician, we picked up our tent and found a nice spot far from the campers with young children. (That was our strategy for ensuring a quiet evening, but it would ultimately backfire).

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The tents were large and free, although they weren’t the easiest to assemble. Jake and I have plenty of camping experience and own our own tent but found it tricky to assemble the massive tent provided by the Parks Department. I made an executive decision to take photographs of the process so Jake could concentrate on assembling it himself. (He did not seem very pleased).

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Jake made good progress, although some of our neighbors were struggling. Ranger Rob helpfully pitched in with the assembly for the campers without prior experience.

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We didn’t have our air mattress or even sleeping bag pads to make our sleeping arrangements more comfortable. The enormous tent looked sparse with just two mummy-style sleeping bags.

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Still, we did a dry run and it seemed like the sleeping bags were comfortable enough. We hadn’t used them since our camping trip in Alaska over 5 years ago!

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While we packed light, we brought our headlamps and industrial-strength bug spray, which were helpful. I went a bit overboard on the spray, covering my entire body and the tent with harsh mosquito-repellant chemicals. Who knew what kind of mega insect was lurking in the Central Park wilderness?

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Meeting Our Fellow Campers

After our tents were erected, our motley group of campers assembled around Ranger Rob for an ice breaker exercise. This was a tough one; we had to go around in a circle saying our names and an animal that starts with the same letter. But we also had to recite the names and animals of the two dozen people who went before us! This was a good natured bunch, so we didn’t feel too bad about messing up.

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The game was effective at associating each camper with an animal, even though we soon forgot their real names. We’d refer to people as “Tiger” or “Eagle” the whole night. Most of the animals were benign, but one mom introduced her son as “Semen” and said his animal was a snake, so twenty people had to repeat “Semen Snake” every time it was their turn to recite the names. It was hard to keep a straight face!

Central Park at Night

Most park visitors cleared out when night fell and we were the only people in this stretch of Central Park besides a sprinkling of dog walkers.

After a leash-free dog howled and bounded towards me, I learned that dogs are allowed to roam Central Park without leashes after 9PM and before 9AM. Fortunately, when the dog pounced, I was right by the bathroom hut and was able to run inside and shut the door behind me. The other campers were at a loss, since it seemed like a harmless dog was driven mad by the sight of me. When I was out of sight, the dog trotted away. I swore I didn’t have any Snausages in my pockets!

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I was expecting to see stars after sunset, but there are so many lights in Manhattan that it never truly got dark at our Central Park campsite. The sky had a purplish tinge that looked almost supernatural.

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Police cars patrolled the loop around our campsite every few hours, but we never came across any signs of mischief and did not feel unsafe. If anything, it was less sketchy than our past camping trips– like sleeping in a crocodile-infested national park in the Australian Outback.

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There wasn’t much to do at night beyond the sparse organized activities. Jake and I played cards for a while on the picnic tables by the bathroom.

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We also experimented with our DSLR camera, taking pictures in the low light at various settings. This camping excursion is geared towards families that go to bed early, so if you are a night owl you should bring your own entertainment.

Dining on Military Rations

We were curious to see what would be served for dinner. Images of campfires and s’mores were top of mind, but the reality was closer to Doomsday Preppers.

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We lined up around a metal table and each grabbed one plastic pouch labelled “Complete Meal.” These were military-style “meals ready to eat” (MRE’s), the same grub that soldiers eat overseas. Since the NY Parks Department camping season was well underway, the best meals were gone and most of us got the vegetarian chili. I was happy (being a vegetarian) but worried that the sparse public restroom would not be able to handle the output of this meal.

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An MRE contains everything you need to heat a multi-course meal in one package. We poured a small amount of water into a plastic pouch filled with chemicals, then added the pouch of “chili vegetariano con frijoles” and waited several minutes for it to heat up.

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My chili got lukewarm in the chemical oven but Jake’s pouch never heated up. Still, both of our chili dinners were equally unappetizing.

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I skipped the shortbread cookies but ate the pouch of nuts and dried candied fruits. Tellingly, the one family at our campsite who had previously won the camping lottery skipped the MREs and brought their own meal in tupperware.

Guided Night Hike

The evening’s most highly-anticipated activity was the night hike led by Ranger Rob. This was our chance to explore the unlit, remote areas of Central Park in the middle of the night. Who knew what we would find?

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We gathered around Ranger Rob as he pointed out interesting natural wonders like a cherry tree, a glacier rock and a white pine tree popular with owls. We didn’t see any birds but we did spot a raccoon, which inspired a frenzy of flash photography.

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This being a free event in New York City, there was a requisite “weirdo” who hiked in bare feet, talked loudly over Ranger Rob, smoked cigarettes on the trail (earning him a reprimand) and trailed so far behind the group he had to be fetched by Ranger Rob. Of course he ended up sleeping in the tent next to ours!

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The walk took us through underpasses straight out of a 1980s movie, but without the muggers. We were glad we brought our headlamps since the trail was pitch black.

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We only encountered a few other people in Central Park as we made our way across the northern edge, just below 110th Street. We passed a young couple talking on a bench and a few lone guys walking. We imagined we were interrupting a drug deal– probably due to our disappointment at not finding any truly shocking scenes.

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After I peppered him with questions, Ranger Rob revealed these camping excursions are sometimes a bit seedy. At a prior campsite in the Ramble (also known as the Brambles), a notorious gay hook up spot, campers on a night hike came across a couple of guys pulling up their pants. We were jealous– that would be quite a story to tell at the office on Monday!

Late Night Jam Session

After the hike, when official activities had ended, Ranger Rob and the two 20-something female interns started a drum circle. Ranger Rob played Spanish guitar and we were all invited to tap along on random instruments. I shook a sand-filled egg that sounded a bit like a castanet. Despite the campers’ enthusiasm, we all sounded horrible except for Ranger Rob.

I soon gave up and retired to our tent, where our attempts to sleep were interrupted by our crazed neighbor, who carried on loud cell phone conversations from his tent. We groaned when we heard him say, at midnight, “Call me back in an hour.”

Tips for Central Park Campers

After a restless night, we woke up at the crack of dawn and started to take apart our tent. The program is very short– we arrived at the park at 6PM and had to be packed up and ready to leave at 8AM– so we did not have time for a leisurely breakfast. In fact, no breakfast was provided.

If you want to camp in Central Park, these are our top 5 tips:

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#1. Enter the camping lottery. Don’t try camping illegally in Central Park unless you (a) have no other options, (2) aren’t scared of the cops and (3) aren’t scared of anyone else that could be lurking in this urban jungle.

#2. Bring headlamps! You’ll be lost without them and a flashlight is annoying to carry.

#3. Bring snacks and cards. If you normally stay up past 8PM, you will get bored.

#4. Bring a camera with manual settings. You’ll want to take photos at night.

#5. Set up your tent near a family with kids. They tend to go to bed early and keep quiet.

Would you camp in Central Park?

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About Leslie Koch

I'm a New Yorker with a passion for travel and art. I founded after returning from a year-long backpacking trip around the world. Find me on Twitter at @leslietravel.