Whether you’re just passing through a city on a long road trip, heading into an urban area to pick up supplies before heading out on an adventure, working or visiting friends and family, occasionally you’ll find yourself in need of a quick, quiet overnight parking space in the city for you and your van.
Welcome to the world of stealth camping, arguably one of the necessities of van life!
I’m Helen from trailandkale.com and I’m delighted, once again, to be a guest on the Sprinter Campervans blog to answer everything there is to know about Stealth Camping!
In this post we explain what stealth camping is, how to stealth camp respectfully and generally undetected, and stealth camping tips including where to find good street parking, parking lots, and other locations where you should be able to safely stealth camp for the night.
If you enjoy this post, you’ll also love reading all about ‘Boondocking’ in your camper van next.
What is stealth camping?
In the world of car, RV and camper vans, stealth camping is the term used to describe subtle overnight camping in your vehicle in an urban area that is not specifically designated as a camping site, such as city streets or parking lots.
Unlike staying at a camping site, or dispersed camping in public lands such as BLM land (where you can generally find free camping and stay for up to 14 days at a time), it’s generally best to limit your overnight camping stays to one night, including ensuring you arrive late and leave early the next day.
This is one of the least glamorous aspects of van life, but also one of the most convenient ways to stop overnight on a quick trip into the city to stock up on supplies, go to an appointment or meeting.
Is stealth camping illegal?
Every city and neighborhood is going to have different laws and local ordinances regarding overnight parking and sleeping in your car, van or other vehicle.
Urban areas are not like public lands where often campers can find free, legal camping. In many cities and neighborhoods, sleeping overnight in a vehicle is actually illegal.
Therefore, it’s important to check local laws to ensure you don’t contravene them.
If you do, the chances are that if you park on a city street overnight you will be noticed by a member of law enforcement or reported to them by a suspicious local resident – not good for anyone, and you won’t get a good night’s sleep!
Also be aware that in areas where there’s legal street parking and overnight camping in a vehicle is not explicitly illegal, it may not be tolerated by local residents.
Residents may be suspicious of unusual vans or cars parked overnight in parking spaces that are normally empty (or even more so if it’s where they usually park, themselves) which is one of the many reasons to be very mindful of where you choose to park overnight.
Some places are much better suited to unobtrusive, undisturbed stealth camping than others, and we share a few examples of places that can make good choices for you to stealth camp in, later in this post.
Tips for stealth camping
Here are some helpful tips for stealth camping to help you successfully find a suitable place to park.
Arrive late, park after dark and leave early
Successful stealth campers use their chosen stealth camping parking spot for sleeping overnight.
That means getting there late, leaving early and when you are parked there, being as subtle and quiet as possible, so as not to disturb anyone nearby or draw attention to yourself.
Don’t act like you’re camping or living there
Once you’re parked up, your objective should be to make your van look like just a regular van that’s been parked overnight, not a camper.
So no outdoor cooking, sitting with the sliding door open, playing music or making multiple trips in and out of the van to take your dog out or find a public bathroom.
Get (or build) a stealth camper van
To avoid drawing unwanted attention to yourself and your vehicle, it helps a lot if your van looks more like a builder’s van and less like and RV or someone’s home on wheels or adventure rig, so it blends in with other vehicles parked overnight around it.
That means that conversion vans best suited to stealth camping tend to have minimal decals, minimal exterior gear such as lights, bumper and storage modifications, and ideally few or no windows in the cargo area.
If you’re planning to build your own DIY camper van conversion, you can really lean into the stealth camping vibe by keeping your stealth camper van minimal and – well, stealthy, on the outside.
If your van does have windows and exterior mods, then you can minimize its camper van vibe by ensuring you have good quality blackout window blinds so nobody can see you, or your lights, when you’re inside the van.
It also helps to keep lights and fan speeds off, or down low after dark, so people outside are less likely to notice that someone is inside the vehicle.
If you don’t have a van and are planning to do urban car camping, the same concept applies – it’s just more difficult to black out all the windows and still make your car look like a regular parked (empty) vehicle.
Have a clean vehicle
Even if you have an older vehicle that has seen its share of adventures, you can make your van look less suspicious to local residents and businesses if you keep it clean and well cared-for.
People tend to accept the presence of well-maintained, clean vans better than a dirty vehicle that is considered to be more of an eyesore.
Research areas before you stealth camp
It helps to know the area you plan to stealth camp in. Is it a safe neighborhood?
How much traffic (vehicle and foot traffic) does it get during the day, and at night?
Do local businesses have proactive security guards who may take an interest in a new van parked up at night, or are there loads of other cars and vans regularly left there, so you’re more likely to blend in?
Aside from the basics of being stealthy and finding a relatively safe place to park your van, car or truck, does the area have good amenities? For example, is it near a public park or other area where you can use the bathroom facilities before you park up for the night?
These are all considerations to have in mind when picking the perfect spot. Getting to know other people who stealth camp, such as experienced van lifers who are more familiar with the area is a good way to learn about the better places for stealth camping.
Have a way to use the bathroom inside your van when stealth camping
Stealth camping is a lot easier if your camper van has a toilet installed – whether that’s a composting toilet or portable one, so you can use the bathroom before and during the night without leaving the vehicle.
If your van doesn’t have a portable toilet, then get yourself one, or at least a pee cup or bottle that you can use overnight and empty out the next day – because nobody wants to hold it in all night, or go hunting around for a public restroom in the middle of the night.
It also goes without saying that it’s not acceptable to go to the bathroom somewhere that’s not an actual bathroom facility (this is not only gross but a great way to have someone complain about you and give other stealth campers a bad rep).
Plus, getting in and out of your van at night is not especially stealthy behavior.
How to cook meals when stealth camping
Consider not cooking a hot meal if that’s going to require you to have your doors or windows open.
This mostly applies if you have to cook using gas; if your van has an induction cooktop then you don’t need the same level of ventilation as gas cooking (although your van could get warm and smell of food!).
Otherwise, you could cook dinner before you park overnight, or grab a pizza or takeout from another local business to enjoy while you stealth camp.
Avoid overnight parking in the same place two nights in a row
By ensuring you change locations frequently, and moving on from your space after one night, you’re signaling that you’re not planning to start ‘doing van life’ permanently in that location – you just stealth camped there for one night only.
Park facing out
Aim to park somewhere you can easily drive off if you need to, quickly, in case you are unfortunate and get harrassed (or have someone attempt to break into your van with you in it – it does happen).
It is also wise to ensure you have good access to quickly get to the driver’s seat and know where your key is if you need to grab it in the middle of the night.
How to find good overnight camping spots to stealth camp
Not all city streets (or parking lots) are created equally when it comes to stealth camping options. Here are some popular places to consider when looking for a suitable stealth camping spot.
Street parking in business or mixed-use districts
City streets that regularly have vehicles parked overnight are usually a good option for stealth camping.
Generally, your van is less likely to get noticed in a business district, around industrial parks or mixed-use area where lots of vans are also parked overnight and it will blend in.
Compared to residential neighborhoods, there are less likely to be many people around after business hours, so assuming you consider it to be a relatively safe area, then you may be on to finding a good overnight parking location for an uneventful night.
Areas with a lot of bars may be a good choice (if you don’t mind the increased potential for noise) as they can typically have a lot of cars left overnight by bar patrons who’ve opted to get a lift home and pick their car up the next day.
If you do look to park in a residential neighborhood, be extra respectful and mindful of where you park and what you do once you’ve arrived there. This includes avoiding parking right in front of someone’s house or driveway and looking for a quiet area where your van will not be very obvious or at all obstructive.
You’ll probably want to avoid neighborhood watch areas where residents are more likely to be particularly vigilant of strange vehicles appearing after dark.
A camper-friendly business’s parking lot
A number of big box stores, casinos, truck stops and 24 hour restaurants are camper-friendly, meaning they are usually accepting of, or actively encourage, people with RVs, van lifers in camper vans and other vehicles to stay overnight in their parking lot.
Management allows you to stay overnight on the company’s private property because they hope you will also choose to visit their business during your stay.
For example, many Walmarts allow overnight campers in RVs and vans in their grocery stores parking areas – and hopefully you’ll head into the store to pick up groceries while you’re there.
For a list of more of these businesses (that are understandably very popular among the van life community!) head over to our ultimate guide to van life.
Hotel parking lots
Hotel parking areas can be good options for overnight parking because they always have a number of cars coming and going – that is, unless the hotel requires paid parking or takes vehicle registrations on check-in.
Generally, hotels in suburban areas rather than downtown city centers are going to have more relaxed parking rules than those where space is more of a premium.
An apartment complex’s unassigned parking
Many apartment complexes have unassigned parking areas for guests or residents’ second vehicles, and we know of van lifers periodically parking in such places for a night at a time, over long periods of time.
That said, one of these locations is not a highly recommended van life steath camping spot because your van may well be taking up space that a resident needs – so there are other, more considerate places to choose.
Truck stops are a great place to quickly find some overnight parking where you shouldn’t be disturbed.
However, they’re not the quietest, with trucks arriving and departing all through the night.
Highway rest areas
Most highway rest areas have a time limit of several hours, so you can’t rely on them if you plan to camp overnight for the full night.
However, if you just need a few hours of sleep, then these rest stops can be an essential way to get some much needed rest for you to continue on your van life journey more safely.
What to do if someone knocks on your window
If you are stealth camping and woken in the middle of the night by a knock on the door or window, it’s important to find out who it is, before opening any doors or windows.
If it’s the police or a private property security guard then our suggestion is you head to the front of your vehicle and open the window enough to speak with them.
Once you’ve confirmed it is indeed the police, be polite and if they ask you to move, simply apologize and leave without a fuss – hopefully avoiding a ticket in the process.