If you live in a van, chances are you’ll need to sleep in a city for a few nights on occasion. No one wants to be woken up at 3 am to “the knock” and told to move, so whether you’re visiting friends, stocking up on essentials, or you need to be in a city for work, following these tips for stealth camping can help reduce the risk of drawing attention to yourself or your van when parked overnight.
Because van life has become so popular over the last few years, a lot of people know how to recognize camper vans by now, but there are still ways to stealth camp as long as you’re conscientious and respectful when doing so.
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Learn our best tips for stealth camping and sleeping unnoticed in urban areas.
What is Stealth Camping?
Stealth camping is the act of camping in an urban area that is not necessarily meant for overnight camping. While there are no “campsites” when you stealth camp, there are plenty of legal places to park overnight in your van without drawing attention to yourself. A few common places to stealth camp are residential areas and city streets, which we’ll go into more detail on below.
Is Stealth Camping Illegal?
With the growing popularity of van life, stealth camping really isn’t so stealth anymore. As more people are living in their vehicles, some by choice and some not, many cities like San Diego and Santa Barbara have made it illegal to sleep in your car. Unfortunately, these cities have experienced people acting disrespectfully, littering, and going to the bathroom on the streets and in parking lots. Like you would out on the trail, stealth campers should always follow the Leave No Trace principles.
It’s up to you and the risk you’re willing to take on stealth camping in cities where it is technically illegal. Even if it’s legal, always make sure to follow any posted signs about no overnight parking, parking time limits, and street cleaning days to ensure you’re not ticketed.
Tips for Blending In While Stealth Camping
I’ve stealth camped numerous times when I needed to be in a city or town and here are my best tips for blending in:
1. Make your van as non-suspect as possible
If you plan on frequently stealth camping in cities, you’ll want your vehicle to be as non-suspect as possible. Fewer windows and not having a ton of stuff hanging on the outside of your van – like bikes, AC units, an awning, and high-profile solar panels – will make it more difficult for someone to tell the difference between a work vehicle and your home on wheels.
You also want to avoid putting your Instagram handle or any noticeable artwork on the outside of your van if you want to be stealthy. The key here is to try and blend in and make it seem as if no one is living in the vehicle.
Now with that being said, my van isn’t very stealthy and we’ve always gotten away with stealth camping. Having a clean and well-kept van is very important. This means keeping the front of your van totally clean, or better yet, putting up all of your window coverings immediately after parking so no one can see inside.
2. Only use your overnight parking spot for sleeping
The golden rule of stealth camping is “arrive late, leave early”. Try not to hang out in your van with the lights on and curtains down at night. It’s best to hang out somewhere like the beach or a park while you’re eating dinner and only go to your overnight parking spot when you are ready to turn in for the night. If you can show up after dark, even better.
As soon as you get to your spot, put your privacy shades up, dim the lights, and avoid going in and out of the van so you don’t draw attention to yourself. If you need to run your fan, don’t open your vent all the way. This is an easy giveaway that someone is sleeping inside.
In the morning, get up and move your van. Head back to the beach or park where you can go about your normal morning routine. Again, we want to be respectful when stealth camping, so don’t overstay your welcome, especially if you’re in a residential area.
3. Have a way to use the toilet inside your van
You should have a way to go to the bathroom inside of your van if you are stealth camping. If you’re parked in a neighborhood, you don’t want to be going in and out of your van when you need to pee in the middle of the night. You definitely can’t pee outside on someone else’s property.
If you don’t have a toilet in your van, a pee jug (like a wide-mouth Nalgene bottle) is a good option. For going #2 while stealth camping, carry emergency wag bags or drive to the nearest public toilet.
Where to Park When Stealth Camping
The first rule of thumb for stealth camping is don’t park anywhere where there are signs that say “no overnight parking.” If you ignore these signs, you’re asking for the dreaded “knock” from the cops. Here are a few places I’ve found that provide good options for stealth camping:
Neighborhoods with Street Parking
When it comes to parking, what has worked for us is to find a spot in a neighborhood where most people park on the street. If people don’t have driveways and everyone is parked on the street, someone isn’t going to notice if there is a new car on their block. Most people would just assume that the van must belong to a neighbor or someone visiting a neighbor. This is much better than parking in a quiet residential neighborhood where a single random van on the block would appear suspect.
I do recommend that you avoid parking directly in front of someone’s house or walkway.
If parked in a residential neighborhood, you’ll want to relocate your vehicle first thing in the morning and also avoid parking in the same place for more than a couple of nights in a row so the neighbors don’t get suspicious.
Industrial Areas or Near Bars
Another good option for overnight stealth camping are industrial areas and neighborhoods with bars. Oftentimes, people might leave their cars parked overnight to avoid driving home after drinking, so a parked van wouldn’t be out of the ordinary.
Big Box Stores
Some big box stores usually allow overnight parking. This can depend on what state you’re in and whether the manager of the store allows it. It’s always a good idea to call ahead or go in and talk to the manager to make sure overnight camping is allowed. Our personal favorite is Cracker Barrel, which usually has designated overnight parking spots for RVers and vans in the back of their parking lot. Here is a full list of businesses that may allow overnight parking (again, this varies by location, so always call to check!)
- Cracker Barrel (most have dedicated overnight parking spots in the back)
- Camping World (sometimes have free water, dump stations, and electrical hook-ups)
- Planet Fitness/Anytime Fitness/24-Hour Fitness
- Lowe’s/Home Depot/Menards
- Costco/Sam’s Club
If you’re in a state like Nevada or Arizona that has casinos, these can be a good place to stealth camp. Casinos typically have large parking lots that are well-lit and safe. Many casinos also have restaurants and shops that are open 24/7.
Harvest Hosts & Boondockers Welcome
Harvest Hosts helps connect RVer’s and van lifers with farms, wineries, breweries, and museums around the country for a free place to spend the night. Many locations are rural, but there are some Harvest Hosts in cities – like museums, breweries, and distilleries. Most places do require an advanced reservation and only allow you to stay 1 night. You can check out Harvest Host locations here and if you want to sign up, use this link to get 15% off your membership.
Boondocker’s Welcome connects you with private property owners who welcome overnight campers. These are often in driveways, fields, or backyards and some allow multiple-night stays. You can get 15% off your membership using the code BWFRIENDS15.
*To be a member of Harvest Hosts or Boondocker’s Welcome, you must have a self-contained RV with a toilet, water tank, and inside cooking facilities. No tents of any kind are allowed.
Truck Stops and Rest Stops
If you don’t mind commuting just outside of the city, rest stops and truck stops are two perfectly legal places to sleep overnight in your vehicle. Both of these places can be loud due to engine noise and constant traffic, but they’re convenient in a pinch. Note: Some states limit the number of hours you can park at a rest stop, so always follow posted signage.
This is one of the top apps for finding free campsites on the road, and it’s also a great resource for finding places to stealth camp in cities. You can easily see all camping options on the map and click to read reviews and see photos.
Above All, Someplace Safe
No matter where we choose to stealth camp, we try to choose a place that is well-lit and feels safe. If a neighborhood feels sketchy, move on. Your gut instinct is very important for all of your van travels, but particularly when you are staying in cities.
I always like to sleep with my keys in the same place so I can grab them quickly if needed. I also like to park in a place with an easy exit just in case it comes to that, although I haven’t had any issues that required a quick exit in the years I’ve been doing van life.
What Happens if Someone Knocks?
What happens if you get the dreaded knock on your door in the middle of the night? If you are being responsible and are aware of your surroundings, the likelihood of someone knocking is slim. Your goal is to avoid this, so blending in and following posted rules will hopefully help you avoid this in the first place.
If you do get a knock, your first question is, “is that a cop” or “is it someone trying to break in?” Hopefully, it’s the first and not the latter.
Talking to Cops
If it sounds like a cop, then you’ll want to go to your driver’s seat, roll down the window (not all the way), and talk to them. You can apologize, tell them it was late and you were tired and you didn’t want to fall asleep at the wheel. If they ask you to move, simply agree, and move. Don’t argue or you could end up with a ticket.
My policy is to never open my slider door. You don’t ever want to give anyone access to your living quarters, especially in the middle of the night, and that includes cops. Getting into the driver’s seat and rolling your window halfway down is all you need to verify that it is indeed the police and to have a conversation. If it ends up not being the police, then you’re in the position to start the car and drive away.
Do you have experience with stealth camping? What has or hasn’t worked for you? Share your questions, tips, and experiences down in the comments, and make sure to sign up for our van life newsletter here.