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When most people imagine van life they picture cruising down deserted highways, waking up next to the ocean, or camping deep in the mountains.
For many van dwellers, though, stealth camping in a city is a way to save money while still being able to work or attend college. And let’s not forget that more and more people are living in vans and cars through no choice of their own.
Whether you’re planning on spending a lot of time stealth camping, or you just want the option of dropping into a city unnoticed from time to time, you’ll need a stealth van that won’t draw attention.
This guide will help you choose the best stealth camper van, plus you’ll find tips for finding the best places to park, staying safe, and making your vehicle as low-key as possible.
Table of Contents
What Makes a Good Stealth Van?
The main idea behind stealth camping is to sleep in your vehicle without anyone knowing you’re there. Not only is spending the night in your van illegal in many cities, but there are also safety concerns – so you’ll want to fly under the radar!
The ideal stealth camper van blends into its surroundings and doesn’t attract any attention. This doesn’t mean you have to find a magical cloak of invisibility, but some vehicles are certainly more inconspicuous than others.
Make sure there aren’t any signs, stickers, or decals on the outside of your van. Although some folks imagine a fake business logo might help disguise their stealth camper van, the reality is that this will only make your vehicle more memorable. Plus, your van could be a target for thieves if they think tools are inside.
Another thing to avoid while stealth camping is any external gear storage. Bikes and kayaks strapped to your stealth camper are a dead giveaway that van lifers are snoozing inside.
Keeping windows to a minimum will save you from having to worry about prying eyes and will also help disguise the fact that your vehicle is being lived in. A great way to let light into a windowless van is to install a skylight. You can even make a cover of some sort to ensure no light escapes from your van at night.
The Best Stealth Vans
Choosing the right vehicle for stealth camping really depends on how much time you plan on spending in an urban area.
If you have your heart set on a VW camper or a school bus conversion, you’ll obviously have a harder time blending in, and it’ll be more difficult to avoid attention from police or concerned neighbors.
That said, there are tons of options when it comes to finding a stealth van that’s functional, comfortable, and innocuous.
Classic Cargo Vans
Completely familiar, yet totally forgettable, a cargo van might just be the ultimate stealth camping van. These vans can be found everywhere in cities across America, and we’re so used to seeing them that we don’t even notice anymore.
The most popular options among van lifers include the Ford Econoline and Chevy Express. Thanks to their high sales figures throughout the years, these stealth vans are affordable and economical, and parts are cheap and readily available. Not only that, but you’ll have no problems finding a mechanic to address any issues that might arise.
Inside, a cargo van is a blank canvas, just waiting for your awesome conversion. That said, there isn’t a ton of headroom, so you won’t be able to fully stand in your van.
If you want the ultimate stealth van, you might want to pick a white cargo van with no windows that looks like it belongs to an electrician or plumber.
Panel Vans: Sprinter/Transit/ProMaster
These vans feature long wheelbases, plenty of interior headroom, and boxy shapes – all of which make them ideal for converting into a camper.
Sprinters, Transits, and ProMasters are all available as passenger vans with lots of windows, but it’s the cargo van models that make the best stealth van. Like the classic cargo vans mentioned above, these have become a common sight in urban areas, making them ideal for use as inconspicuous stealth campers.
These vans – especially Sprinters – are the most expensive options on our list. That said, there are plenty of used vans available if you’re willing to search and be patient. Be aware, too, that Sprinters can be quite expensive to maintain and you’ll need to find a Mercedes dealer for any services and repairs.
Small Conversion Vans
Conversion vans were super-popular in the ’90s and early 2000s, and there are loads of them still being used.
Both Dodge and Chevy made lots of conversion vans, that are ideal for solo travelers or couples. Not only do they make for a great stealth van, but conversion stealth vans are very affordable, too. If you’re prepared to spend time searching, you can pick up a conversion van for under $5K.
Small conversion vans often come equipped with storage cabinets and a bench seat that converts to a bed. You might even find one with a TV and microwave. Although insufficient headroom can be an issue, if you can score a hightop conversion van you’ll have plenty of room to stand inside.
If you’re looking for a compact, affordable, and simple vehicle for your stealth camper, then a minivan is a surprisingly effective solution. A minivan is spacious enough to fit a good-sized bed, yet so ubiquitous that no-one will give it a second look.
There’s way more space in a minivan than you might think, and once you fold down or remove the passenger seats there’s more than enough room for sleeping and cooking. Although many minivan dwellers like to keep things simple, there are some who have installed a kitchen, table, and even a toilet!
Ford Transit Connect
The Ford Transit Connect has become one of the most popular inner-city delivery vans, thanks to its compact size and maneuverability. You’ll fit a Transit Connect in just about any parking spot!
Like other cargo vans on our list, the Ford Transit Connect makes the ideal stealth camper van. It’s also perfect for those on a budget – you’ll pay as little as $6K for a used model, and the Transit Connect gets up to 28mpg, making it really fuel-efficient. Thanks to its popularity, parts are affordable and easy to find, so you won’t pay too much if something goes wrong.
Although you won’t be able to stand up in a Transit Connect, there’s plenty of room for creating a comfortable living space. If you don’t want to do your own conversion, companies like Ursa Minor specialize in affordable Transit Connect conversions, adding LED lights, a bed, and storage.
A box truck might not be the first thing that springs to mind when you’re considering a vehicle for full-time living, but these powerhouses make excellent stealth camper vans.
Box trucks don’t have any windows to give the game away, and we’re so used to seeing them used as moving trucks and by maintenance professionals that we hardly notice them at all.
Box trucks are surprisingly affordable and easy to find. They’re often retired from a fleet once they hit a certain number of miles, but you can almost guarantee a box truck has seen regular maintenance during its working life.
Thanks to a box truck’s shape, there’s plenty of interior headroom and the conversion opportunities are almost limitless. A box truck camper could be a simple affair, with an air mattress, cooler, and camp stove. Alternatively, you could create an epic stealth camper with a bathroom, full kitchen, and tons of storage.
Toyota Prius or other small cars
A Toyota Prius is a great stealth camper because nobody would ever think someone was sleeping in the back. With a Prius, you can fold down the back seats to create a bed space perfect for one or two adults.
Many people love living in a Prius as you can use the hybrid battery in “Ready Mode” all night long for either AC or heat. Some Prius dwellers say keeping the car in Ready Mode all night long uses just 1-gallon of gas.
How To Make Your Van Even Stealthier
No matter how much time you’ll be stealth camping, you’re going to want your stealth van to be as inconspicuous as possible. Let’s take a look at some of the steps you can take to ensure an undisturbed night in the city.
The ideal stealth camper has no windows, whatsoever. That might be unrealistic for many people, though, depending on the type of vehicle they’re camping in. Tinted windows are a great solution, especially for passenger vans with lots of windows. High-quality window tinting will ensure that no-one can see inside during the day and you’ll still have a well-lit living space.
Even the best window tinting won’t be effective at night when your lights are on, so you’ll need to use some kind of window covering.
Reflectix is the most commonly used material for many van lifers, but it’s shiny and not ideal for stealth camping. One solution is to make your own window inserts, using Reflectix, cardboard, and black paint.
Perhaps the best idea, though, is to make blackout curtains that cover every inch of your windows and can be attached using hooks or magnets.
Even the best window coverings are going to leak a little, especially if you can’t control the brightness of your interior lights. An easy solution is to install a dimmer switch, along with a simple LED light strip. Even better, think about installing a couple of strips on separate dimmers – one mounted near the floor.
This way you’ll have low-key illumination that’s bright enough to see by, but which can’t be detected from outside.
Concealed Solar Panel
Solar panels on the roof of any vehicle are an obvious sign that it’s used for camping. The fact is that solar panels are such a great way to provide off-grid power, that many van lifers aren’t willing to contemplate doing without them.
Unfortunately, most solar panels are quite bulky and need to be mounted with a couple of inches of space underneath in order to perform efficiently.
Even if you can park in a campsite with electrical hookups, solar panels offer more versatility and freedom while you're on the road. The more power you can get outside of the grid, the easier it is to live and travel on your own terms. Flexible solar panels allow you to roll them up when they're not in use to save space. They're also easier to post on the roof since they can curve with the teardrop design. A teardrop trailer must-have accessory.
There are super-thin, flexible solar panels that can be adhered straight onto your vehicle’s roof. These are pretty awesome, and if your stealth van is dark-colored, the solar panel should blend in well.
Another option is to install a bulky roof rack over existing solar panels. This will disguise them quite well and, of course, provide extra storage space for when you’re out on the road.
Stealth camping demands you have some kind of toilet inside your van. After all, you can’t be sure you’ll have access to a public bathroom and you don’t eat to attract unwanted attention by exiting your stealth van in the middle of the night.
There are many options when it comes to portable toilets, ranging from affordable cassette-style toilets to pricier compostable options. At the very least, you should have a lidded bucket for nighttime emergencies!
Cab Access From Inside
This is especially important if you’ll be stealth camping in a box truck or larger cargo van. You just never know when you’ll have to leave a parking spot in a hurry, and you’ll want to be sure you can access the driver’s seat from your van’s living area.
If you plan on converting a van, remember to leave enough space so that if the dreaded window knock comes, you can quickly get ready to move on.
How To Add Ventilation to a Stealth Camper Van
Making sure you have enough ventilation in your stealth van is really important. Moisture buildup is one of the biggest challenges of living in a van, so it’s no wonder a rooftop vent fan is considered one of the essentials of any conversion.
After all, just imagine camping on a steamy city night, in a stealth van without windows or ventilation. It might be enough to make you wonder why you ever decided to live in a van!
If you decide that you simply must install a rooftop vent fan, try to find one that matches the color of your vehicle. The MaxxAir MaxxFan 5100K is great option. It comes with a built-in rain shield and you can choose between black or white. For a lower profile, the FanTastic Fan is another option to consider.
Another option for ventilation in your stealth camper van is to use interior fans. This only really works if you crack the windows, which won’t always feel like the safest thing you could do. One way to overcome this issue is to use window vent shades. These fit snugly and securely into partially opened windows, allowing for decent airflow while giving you more peace of mind.
Places to Park For Stealth Camping
Depending on where you choose to park, overnight camping may or may not be legal. Often, it’s hard to know, so it’s best to operate under the assumption that it’s best if no-one knows you’re there!
Remember to arrive late and leave early. Keep your area nice and clean, and don’t dump liquids. Avoid parking in the same spot for more than a couple of days, and be as quiet as a mouse!
Big box stores.
Gone are the days when all Walmart parking lots are considered fair game for overnight camping – both stealth and otherwise. That said, quite a few Walmart, Home Depot, Cabella’s and other big box stores do still allow overnight camping. Your best bet is to call the store ahead of time, just to make sure.
More often than not, casinos are conveniently located and have enormous parking lots. In many cases, casinos allow overnight camping, and even encourage it. After all, it means campers may be tempted inside to hit the bar and gamble!
Rest areas and truck stops.
How long you can spend in a rest area varies state by state, but chances are you’ll be able to camp for at least eight hours, making them a great place to stop if you’re tired on the road. You’ll find way more amenities at a truck stop, but it can get really noisy and truckers can sometimes be a little unfriendly toward those they view as taking up space in their domain.
The best places to find street parking in a city are often semi-commercial areas close to major highways. There likely won’t be too many people around, and your stealth van will blend in with any commercially owned vehicles.
Quiet residential neighborhoods can sometimes work for stealth camping, but you’ll have to be careful: it’s much more likely that you’ll be reported as suspicious by a concerned resident.
The more experienced you become in stealth camping, the more places you’ll find. Consider using boondocking apps like iOverlander and freecampsites.net, where you’ll find user-generated reviews of stealth camping spots in the area.
Some other parking spots that get mixed reviews from van lifers include church parking lots, hotel parking lots, 24-hour restaurant parking lots, and outside bars and clubs.
Conclusion on the Best Stealth Vans for City Living
Although it’s definitely possible to create the ultimate stealth van – with no windows, no solar panels, and no ventilation – there aren’t many people willing to sacrifice this much comfort. That said, as long as you choose your parking spot wisely, don’t draw too much attention to yourself, and don’t outstay your welcome, it’s definitely possible to stealth camp in most vehicles.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this article! Feel free to leave any tips or questions in the comments section below.
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