Looking for insight into stealth camping? We’ll break down all of the do’s and don’t to make your car or van the ultimate stealth camping machine.
Many van dwellers have, at some point during their life on the road, stealth camped. Sometimes it’s for the thrill, other times it’s because you’re flat broke and sometimes it’s an emergency and you have no other choice.
Whatever your reasoning, it has become an integral part of van life and is part of life for anyone who goes van camping or car camping.
If you’re a seasoned van lifer or you’ve never done it before and are doing your research, the chances are you’ve heard of the term “stealth camping.” There has been some confusion around the topic so let’s clarify once and for all.
The Ultimate Guide to Stealth Camping – Van Life for Ninjas
You’ve gone out and bought a beautiful campervan, built it out to be the ultimate off-grid tiny home on wheels, and now are ready to hit the road in search of freedom and adventure!
There’s only one problem – Turns out that the ‘freedom’ you were searching for isn’t so free after all.
Campgrounds, national parks, caravan parks – parking your van here for the night can get expensive! And to make matters worse some perfectly legitimate parking lots are covered in the dreaded ‘No Camping’ or ‘No Overnight Stays’ signs.
What is stealth camping?
Stealth camping refers to sleeping in your van overnight in an area that isn’t necessarily designed for camping either for convenience or to avoid paying for expensive campsites. There are many spots that you can stealth camp in and we’ll take a look at them later on in this article.
This could be in a residential, industrial or city street or a parking garage outside of what is typically considered a legitimate overnight parking space. This is usually out of sight from passers-by, businesses or residences. This is so people do not call the local authorities on you.
With the higher caravan park nightly rates and the surge of fuel prices, there is a lot more people in stealth campers. On the other side, authorities do know this and are out in force fining people
The art of stealth van living is to not draw attention to you or your van while doing so. In order to get this right, there are a few tips for stealth camping that might come in handy when you find yourself doing so one day.
Let’s get cracking!
Why Consider Stealth Camping?
In no particular order, these are the reasons why you would possibly consider stealth camping when you’re on your van life adventure:
Stealth camping is all about saving a few bucks. It’s no secret – everyone likes to save money. Stealth camping doesn’t cost anything. It’s completely free. And if you can get away with it, you’re going to save money.
Campgrounds are expensive, and while it might be ok for a night or two. But if you’re paying for accommodation every single night it kind of defeats the purpose of living in a van.
So if you free camp a few nights a week, stealth camping is a great way to save money on accommodation.
Get Away from People
The motivation for many people in van life to quit their jobs, sell up everything, buy a van, and hit the open road is to escape people and their nonsense. Sometimes you feel like being social, and sometimes you just want a bit of peace and quiet.
When stealth camping, you can feel like a bit of an outlaw and get away from the people who might be staying in your campground or nearby for a while without having to drive off far into the wilderness for dispersed camping.
If you’re stealth camping near a city or town, for example, where lots of people come and go all the time – stealth camping becomes really difficult. You might get hassled by police officers (or worse).
This is particularly relevant in cities as there are often all the necessities close by. You can pop in at the local grocery store or hotel parking lots, pick up supplies from Walmart, and fill up with gas. Once you’re done, you can head back out of the city and hit the open road once again.
Or perhaps you want to be closer to a more desirable place to explore the next day. Trailheads and boat ramps are common places to stealth camp in order to get started on an early morning hike, climb or fishing session.
No other options
The also comes a time in every van lifer’s life when there are no other options available to them. The van is out of gas, your next paycheck is a couple of days away, and you’re stuck in a rest stop or gas station.
Your van could also break down and you have no other option than to sleep in the city streets or in one of the residential areas. Life happens and is unpredictable.
Is Stealth Camping Legal?
To answer simply – yes and no. Some states allow you to sleep in your car overnight, while other states and cities make stealth camping illegal.
But overall, free camping is allowed in all states in the US. It all comes down to individual cities’ laws so be sure to familiarize yourself with the laws of the state you’re in.
Conditions that make stealth camping legal/illegal
There are certain factors that might take stealth camping from being legal to being illegal. For instance, make sure that you’re always parked in a zone that doesn’t have any parking restrictions like a No Parking zone.
You’ll also want to be as considerate as possible, especially when it comes to residential neighborhoods and areas where there are businesses. The last thing you want to do is piss off the locals – they’ll call the cops in no time and you’ll have to answer some questions.
Ultimately, stealth camping also only becomes illegal if you get caught. Later on in the article, we’ll give you some of my top tips to avoid drawing attention to you and your van.
Stealth Camping Vans
First and foremost, your van has to fit the part. It needs to be as stealthy as possible in order for you to get away with overnight parking in areas that aren’t technically designed for sleeping overnight.
The last thing you want is to hear that dreaded knock in the middle of the night.
designing a stealth camping van
In order to successfully get away with city stealth camping, there are certain things that you going to want to do and other things that you going to want to avoid in the design of a stealth camper van.
Take note of the following when designing the ultimate stealth conversion vans:
- Avoid big stickers and other decals that suggest it is a camper van
- Avoid bike racks sticking off the back or surfboards on a roof rack – they’re dead giveaways
- If you have big, visible solar panels your van will stick out like a sore thumb
For a more discreet, low profile, and nondescript presence, ensure that:
- Your van is as non-suspect as possible
- You only use the area to park, sleep, and then head out early the next day
- You have a plan for a toilet inside your van to prevent movement in and out
Related: Take stealth camping into considering and check out our ultimate guide for your DIY van build!
Where You Can Stealth Camp
There are a number of different options when it comes to stealth camping locations. They are the best places to overnight and stealth camp as tried and tested by many van lifers.
The following places should get you through the night without a visit from the cops.
Walmart Parking Lot
Most Walmart stores allow overnight parking, but it’s ultimately down to state law and the individual manager of the store in question. Always check in beforehand with regards to state law by giving the store manager a call and checking in.
Related: Check out this post on all of the do’s and don’ts of overnight parking at Wal Mart.
sam’s club Parking Lots
Again, check in with the individual store manager, as per the official website. In the event that you don’t notify the manager, your van could potentially be towed and you be liable for the tow fees.
truck stops / Rest Stops / Gas Stations
Truck stops, rest stops and gas stations are three of the options that are completely legal and will give you peace of mind at night knowing you won’t get that knock on the window. However, they tend to be loud, and crowded and you may not get the best night’s sleep there.
cracker barrel / Grocery Stores
Again, parking at Cracker Barrel is down to state law and the individual store, so make sure to get in touch before. Other than that, it is one of the best overnight parking spots and many stores have dedicated RV and van parking areas behind the stores.
Sometimes grocery stores will also have dedicated places for cars parked overnight.
city side street Parking
Parking in side streets within the city, especially in streets that have bars, is a great option. Many people leave their cars parked outside of bars when they’ve had too much to drink. They will come and fetch their cars the next day, so a van parked outside won’t be too out of the ordinary.
Parking in a busy residential area is a great option for stealth camping as most people won’t notice another car parked in the street. Unless they’re nosy and could replace the cast of Desperate Housewives, you should be good. Just avoid parking in front of driveways and walkways or directly in front of people’s houses.
BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land offers free camping, provided it isn’t longer than 14 days. While it isn’t truly stealth camping, it’s a great option if you’re out in the sticks and need a spot to park your van.
Related: Not sure you want to stealth camp? Check out our guide to everything you need to know about overnight parking in van life.
Staying Safe While Stealth Camping
It is crucial that you stay safe at all times while stealth camping, especially when overnight parking in unfamiliar territory.
When you park your stealth camper van, always be prepared and keep your doors locked at all times during the night. You should also always have an exit strategy should things go wrong. Familiarize yourself with your surroundings so that you know where to exit should you need to make a rapid exit.
As an extra precaution, carry pepper spray or other forms of personal security should you be confronted by someone other than the cops.
Stealth Camping Tips
In order to get the most out of your stealth camping experience, there are a number of tips that will ensure that your experience runs smoothly and there are no unforeseen shortfalls.
One of the best tips that anyone ever told us was to park the side of your van that has the least number of windows towards the street. It is the least conspicuous way to park and will attract the least amount of attention. While window covers are great, they will attract attention and that’s the last thing you want.
Pick the right vehicle
There are stealth camping vehicles that have a high stealth factor, like panel vans and small RVs. If you don’t want to invest in the right vehicle for stealth camping then at least make sure your stealth camper van is dark-colored so it blends into the night easily.
Stealth camper vans are an entirely different kettle of fish. They don’t stick out when overnight camping, whether in residential areas, a parking lot or even in national parks.
A stealth van should also be a neutral color and be free of any stickers or Instagram handles attached to them. There shouldn’t be anything attached to your camper van that people can remember it by. Be as plain as possible and blend in.
Arrive late and leave early
This is self-explanatory. Arrive late at night, ready to settle into your sleeping bag and sleep, and then leave early the next morning before anyone even knows you were there.
This also means no Netflix or movie marathon. Remember, overnight camping is designed to be a quick in and out.
It’s also advisable to invest in some blackout curtains and covers for your windows so that even your cell phone light won’t be visible. A small portable toilet will also ensure that you don’t have to leave your van in the middle of the night. This will attract attention as you open and close your door.
Keep the van looking in good shape
One of the best ways to avoid sticking out and attracting attention is to keep your stealth van in tip-top shape. This means keeping it clean, maintained, and looking sharp.
A rust bucket van with things hanging off it will, no doubt, attract attention. But the interior is just as important.
Residential camping is when you need to be the stealthiest and blend in with the other cars in the street. If your van is as neat on the inside as it is on the outside, it is less likely to draw attention.
Remember, a first impression is a lasting impression. You’re more likely to get let off with a smile and a warning from a cop if you have a neat van and appear to be an upstanding stealth camper.
This not only applies to your van but to you and your appearance. The last thing you want is to appear homeless and scruffy. You’re more likely to get into more trouble and be escorted away.
Avoid high-trafficked area
High-trafficked areas can be a great option for blending in but they can also present their own set of problems. More traffic, whether foot or vehicle, means more eyes to notice you.
This is particularly relevant when it comes to street parking in residential areas. Neighbors notice things – changes to the norm will get make them suspicious and if they see a cargo van or unknown cars parked in their street, the alarm bells are likely to ring.
Another bit of advice is to rotate your camper van parking spots frequently. The best approach is to identify a range of different spots in the area where you plan on camping. This will ensure that you have options should one of the parking lots or other stealth camping spots not work out.
If one of your spots gets identified and you get the dreaded knock on the window and are asked to move, you shouldn’t return to that spot again. Consider it a goner.
Find a well-lit area
This is the last bit of advice when looking for a stealthy spot. It will ensure that your van will be visible at night and will prevent criminals from being tempted to break into your van.
The last thing you want is to have to report a crime where you have done something illegal too. You won’t have a leg to stand on, unfortunately, and if you don’t do this, then it could end up costing you a lot of money or even worse, getting in trouble with the law.
Other Great Stealth Camping Tips
In addition to these key points, here are a few other best practices:
- Make Sure Your License Plate is Obscured by a Background of Trees and Bushes: When parking in populated areas, make sure your license plate can’t be read when driving
- Use camping apps like iOverlander to help find places where you can read about recent reviews before committing to the spot
- Park off the Road: Find a secluded place away from roads or paths where people might be walking around at night.
- Respect stealth camping etiquette – Never park near areas where many people come and go to avoid unwanted attention.
- Camp Near Shelters for Protection Against the Elements – When you park overnight in remote wilderness, it’s a good idea to stay close to shelters or even build your own shelter out of branches so you can keep warm during the night.
- Find stealth campsites – Stealth campers often have a list of places they know about that are good for stealth camping, so it’s worth doing an online search to find out if there are any close by where you’re going.
- Prepare Ahead of Time – When stealth van camping near populated areas, prepare ahead of time and stealth camp stealthily.
- Stay on the Right Side of Legal – It’s important to know the laws where you’re stealth camping, and also stay away from sensitive wildlife habitats or animal migration corridors when camping.
Stealth camping is not necessarily glamorous. And it comes with its share of risk and, occasionally, that knock on the door in the middle of the night.
But when done right, this part of van life is a great way to save money, get away from the crowds and position yourself for the next great day of exploration somewhere beautiful.
Keep in mind that, by definition, you don’t belong wherever you choose to stealth camp. So be mindful of local laws and be respectful of the places and people wherever you settle down for the and park for the night.