You may be living in a van or a car for a variety of reasons: you want to explore, you got laid-off and can’t afford rent, or you’re trying to save money.
In fact, more and more people are finding themselves in vans, cars and RVs, and not always by choice.
If you’ve found yourself tryng to figure out how to park and sleep in your vehicle, otherwise known as stealth camping, this post is for you.
I’ve stealth camped all over in a Toyota Prius and a Chevy Astro van, and have never once heard the dreaded knock.
If you’re not sure what stealth camping is or how to park and sleep in a city, this guide is for you.
What exactly is stealth camping?
Stealth camping is when you park in a place not necessarily meant for overnight parking. This can be on a city street, residential area or a marina parking lot (we’ve done all three).
I do know that that stealth camping is stressful. You might not be sure where to park, or you’re worried about a knock on your door in the middle of the night.
I get it.
We called ourselves “secret agents” when van camping in cities, most often, in San Francisco. Luckily, we never had a knock or a bad experience
Usually, sleeping in a vehicle on city streets is illegal . That’s why it’s important to be discreet and learn about stealth camping best practices.
What are the best stealth camper vans?
The best stealth van or vehicle is one that doesn’t have anything obvious indicating someone is living inside.
This means you want a rig without logos, decals, huge solar panels, a chimney, etc.
A lot of vehicles work for stealth camping, including sedans, wagons, SUVs and cargo vans. Even a truck with a shell can be easily disguised for stealth camping.
We felt especially safe when we were overnight parking in a city in our Prius, because who would guess two people were sleeping in there?
You want your stealth camper van to look like a regular old van, not a van someone’s living in. Think a van an electrician or a plumber would use.
Old conversion vans like my Chevy Astro are also great as a stealth van. They’re old and don’t draw attention. Most people don’t give my old Astro a second glance!
Here’s a list of some stealth van life vans and vehicles to think about:
- White, windowless cargo vans
- Conversion vans like my Chevy Astro
- Toyota Prius
- Subaru Outback
- A high-roof passenger van with curtains to block light
- Box trucks
Where to park when stealth camping in a city
One tip we’ve heard and use often is that it’s important to change your location frequently when stealth camping. The main goal is not to draw too much attention to yourself.
For example, you don’t want to be on the same residential street every night. This might tip off neighbors who keep seeing a random van pull in late and leave early.
While I do know someone who was living in a car in San Francisco and stealth camping in neighborhoods, we usually try to avoid residential camping.
Neighborhoods have a lot of eyes, and we want to be inconspicuous.
Here are some stealth camping spots you can try. We’ve done some ourselves, and some are recommendations I’ve heard from other van lifers:
We’ve felt extra-nervous when overnight camping in neighborhoods, but if you’re flat out of options, you can consider this. Be sure to pick a middle-class neighborhood that has a lot of cars already parked on the street.
If you don’t see cars, beware. My sister’s homeowners’ association doesn’t allow cars to park on some of the streets, so you’ll definitely stand out if you’re stealth camping.
Again, arrive as late as you can and leave early, preferably before people leave for work.
Finding Street Parking in an Urban Area
One stealth spot we really enjoyed was in front of our gym in San Francisco. This was not a residential area, but a business district. At night, all those businesses closed and the streets were dark.
We liked that our gym was open to 11pm, so we could run in there to brush our teeth and go to the bathroom before going to sleep for the night. Plus, the added activity of all the gym-goers meant our vehicle didn’t stand out.
We’ve heard from some people that you can get away with sleeping in your car outside a bar. While we’ve never tried this ourselves, it could be worth exploring. Just don’t drink and then pass out in your car. You could get a ticket!
We’ve had a lot of success finding free camping in marinas. Plus, many marinas have showers that are coin-operated and easy to access. You can find a nice marina in many coastal cities. We’ve parked in marinas up and down the West Coast.
This is another scenario where its good to pull in way after dark.
Hotel Parking Lots
It’s easy to blend in when stealth camping in hotel parking lots. While we haven’t tried this ourselves, other van lifers report success with a stealth camping spot at hotels. Often, if you pull in late, the staff won’t be walking around making sure vehicles are legit.
Church Parking Lots
This is another scenario we haven’t tried ourselves, but that I’ve read about in van life Facebook groups. Some churches even allow “homeless” people to spend in the night in their church parking lots.
I’d say a good way to do this is to call ahead and find a church that will allow you to stay there. Or do some Googling about the area first to see if you find find a safe parking program.
Hospital Parking Structures
Not only does a hospital parking structure provide a safe place to stealth camp, it’s also dry and somewhat protected from the elements.
Van lifers have given hospital parking lots mixed reviews. Some say security and cameras are a problem, while others say they’ve enjoyed these parking lots and have no problems.
Sometimes, you can pay to stay the night in a hospital parking structure, which isn’t bad for a safe, dry place to sleep.
If you have earplugs and don’t mind the noise of car doors opening and closing, a 24-hour restaurant parking lot is a great place to try stealth camping.
These restaurants are accustomed to all types of vehicles in their parking lots, and most likely won’t be patrolling.
I saw in one van life group recently where a woman slept at a 24-hour Denny’s and was just fine! We’ve slept for a few hours at a McDonalds, but haven’t spent a full night before.
Apartment Buildings with Unassigned Parking
Many van lifers report success with stealth camping at apartment buildings. Choose a parking complex that has plenty of visitor parking and not all assigned spots.
Apartments will generally be fairly quiet and peaceful for stealth camping.
Industrial parks in a city are a great way to try stealth camping. Try to find a parking lot that isn’t by any type of restaurant or bar. This works especially well if you have a cargo van that looks like a work van. You’ll blend in with all the other industrial vans in the area!
Big box stores
There are several big box stores that allow overnight parking. You can try WalMart, Cabella’s, Cracker Barrell, Camping World, Sam’s Club and Home Depot.
Keep in mind that some WalMarts have started cracking down on RVers and van lifers in their parking lots.
It’s recommended that you call the store first to make sure they allow overnight parking so you aren’t turned away.
Some casinos allow overnight RV parking and even encourage it! They hope people will come eat, drink and gamble inside the casino.
You can easily find casinos with overnight parking here.
There’s one rest stop off Highway 101 just north of San Francisco that I’ve slept at a few times. And I’ve often slept at rest stops during my travels through California. In this state, sleeping in rest stops is technically legal for 8 hours.
However, sleeping in rest stops isn’t legal in all states, so be sure to research this before you park for the night.
Truck stops are noisy, but they’re a great place to catch a few ZZZs, especially if you’re on the road. We actually prefer truck stops over rest stops because you can easily find a clean bathroom inside. Some have showers you can use for a fee.
Plus, when you wake up in the morning, walk in and grab a cup of coffee and breakfast!
Where to go to the bathroom when stealth camping
We’ve never had a toilet in either of our vehicles when stealth camping. While it would have made things easier, it was pretty much impossible in a Toyota Prius.
So, we’d find a public bathroom every night before bed so we could brush our teeth, wash our face and relieve ourselves one more time.
Luckily, we could both “hold it” throughout the night and wait to find a restroom in the morning.
I know sleeping through the night without using the bathroom is really hard for most people, so I wanted to give some suggestions on alternatives.
Get a pee cup for your vehicle
Yeah, I know it seems gross, but you can pee inside a wide-mouth container at night in your vehicle. It should be something with a lid, so you can screw it back on tight after you go. You definitely don’t want that spilling!
We’ve used one of those huge mixed nuts containers from Costco with a screw-on lid. We only use it in an emergency in our Chevy Astro van, but it’s been nice to have while stealth camping.
If you’re female and have a hard time aiming into a cup, you can buy a device like the Go Girl female urination device. Yes, I’ve used one and yes, it works!
Put a portable toilet in your vehicle
If you have a large enough stealth camper van and want the convenience of a toilet, by all means, get one! There are some awesome portable toilets out there.
You can get a bucket toilet and a Wag Bag or a small cassette toilet. The Wag Bag can be thrown in the trash, the cassette emptied in a public restroom. I’ve even heard of some van lifers creating their own portable toilet out of a bucket and kitty litter. Yes, it’s been done.
To read more about portable toilets, check this out: The 4 Best Portable Toilet Options for Van Life
Where to find public restrooms
If you need to go to a public restroom, here are some places to look:
- Public Libraries
- Fast food places
- Marinas (sometimes the bathrooms are unlocked)
- Coffee shops
- Retail stores like Walmart and Target
- Rest Stops
- Truck stops
- Dive bars
Some van lifers opt for using a washcloth to wash their faces inside their vans rather than seek out a restroom. You can also brush your teeth with a bottle of water, but try not to do this where you’re parking for the night. It’s too obvious!
How to cook food when you’re stealth camping
If you’re living out of a vehicle for an extended time in a city, you’ll have to figure out how to cook or prepare food.
If you can, have a cooler and a small cookstove on hand for storing and preparing food.
Here are a few food ideas for simple, affordable eating.
Use a one-burner stove
We used this one-burner Jet Boil stove when we stealth camped north of San Francisco. We’d park in the corner of a grocery store parking lot, or in an empty marina parking lot, and cook on the stove inside the van. The stove sat on a cutting board on top of a footstool.
We’d keep our side door half open and our other windows cracked. Keep in mind you do not want to cook inside a van without ventilation. This could result in carbon monoxide poisoning.
If you’re stealth camping in an area that has a lot of parks or day use areas, you can bring your stove to a picnic table and not stand out too much.
You can even use a backpacking stove for simple meals like heating up a can of soup or ramen.
Keep shelf-stable food
If you don’t want to deal with a cooktop every night, it’s also a good idea to keep some shelf-stable food in your stealth camper.
Buy ingredients for peanut butter & jelly sandwiches, protein bars, fruit and vegetables. If you buy fruit and vegetables at a farmer’s market, they can stay unrefrigerated for much longer.
Other good items to have are canned beans, canned tuna, canned veggies, granola bars, trail mix and jerky.
Use microwaves in stores
I know one van life couple who never used a stove or a cooler. They only bought shelf-stable food or food that could easily be microwaved.
It’s fairly easy to find a microwave to use. You’ll often find them at gas stations, convenience stores and some grocery stores. I’ve seen them right inside the entrance of Whole Foods.
What to do if someone knocks
We’ve stealth camped so many times in cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles, and have never received that middle-of-the-night knock.
However, we have heard from van lifers who’ve experienced this, so it is possible, whether it’s a police officer, park ranger or security guard.
One huge word of advice is this: Please, please check and see who is actually knocking on your door before you open your door or crack your window. Make sure it is a law enforcement officer and not a burglar!
If it is a law enforcement officer, do exactly as they say and don’t argue.Don’t try to justify your actions or think of an excuse, just start your vehicle and get the heck out of there, and don’t go park there again.
Most van lifers seem to get away with just a reprimand from a cop and no ticket. Best to keep it that way by cooperating and being polite.
Stealth camping definitely isn’t worth a ticket!
How to Get Your Stealth Camper Ready for Sleeping in a City
There are some ways to make your stealth camper vehicle blend in even more when you’re trying to sleep unnoticed.
Here are our top tips!
Tint your windows or install curtains
When Tom first started sleeping in his Prius stealth camper, he didn’t tint his windows. He felt so exposed lying there in the back hatch. Anyone walking by could look in and see his tuft of hair poking out of a sleeping bag.
After two nights attempting to sleep in his car, Tom immediately paid for a dark window tinting. After that, we felt a lot more hidden when we slept in the Toyota Prius.
My Chevy Astro van has built-in pull-down curtains and tinted windows which are just amazing for stealth camping.
The less you can draw attention to yourself when stealth camping, the better!
Buy dark-colored bedding and a window sunshade
Stealth camping means you don’t want anyone with a roving flashlight to be able to peer into your car or stealth camper van and see you sleeping there.
We invested in dark blue sheets and blankets for sleeping in the Prius, and also would hang a sheet between the two front seats.
To give us even more privacy, we put a window sunshade across the front windows. I swear, nobody ever saw us in the back of the Prius! It was like our own little dark fort.
Now, in the Chevy Astro van, we do the exact same thing. It looks much better than hanging a sheet and helps you blend in with the other parked cars.
This is my very favorite sunshade. The outside is bright silver and the inside is black, keeping the inside of our Astro stealth camper van dark and cozy.
Figure out if you want a pee cup or toilet
As we mentioned above, you’ll have to think about how you’ll go to the bathroom in the middle of the night if the need arises.
Think about whether you’ll need a pee cup with a lid or a small portable toilet.
Remember to park late and leave early, especially stealth camping in a city
I once spoke to a gym manager in San Francisco who lives in a small sedan with his girlfriend and dog. Every night, they park late and leave early when stealth car camping in various neighborhoods.
Parking late and leaving early is a major key in not being recognized when you’re stealth camping in a city. This can also be a great plan when you’re out boondocking and don’t want to be spotted or followed to a remote campsite.
Try to arrive after 9pm, and leave by 6am if you can when you’re stealth camping. The lesson attention you can draw to yourself, the better.
We’ve arrived late and quietly urban stealth camped on city streets, in campgrounds, at marinas, even on the side of the road, and have never gotten caught.
Keep your rig immaculately clean when stealth camping
I always try to keep my 1994 Chevy Astro really clean and organized when parked at a camping spot in a city.
When we were stealth camping in the Toyota Prius to pay off debt and save money, Tom always said to never “look homeless.” We kept the car washed, the insides sparkling clean, and ourselves clean and well-dressed.
We used to play a game where we’d try to guess which vehicles housed van dwellers. It always seemed really easy to pick them out from the crowd of parked cars.
We’ve seen so many ratty vans and cars parked on the side of the street and in parking lots, begging to get a door knock from the police. If you have an old vehicle, that’s fine – just keep it clean.
My Chevy Astro is over 20 years old, and I try to keep it washed and sparkling clean when stealth camping.
Change Locations Frequently
If you’re urban stealth camping in a city, it’s important to change your location constantly. We rarely spend more than two nights in the same place.
Neighbors usually keep a close eye on their streets and will start to notice that weird white cargo van that’s been parking outside their house for a week straight.
One night, and neighbors won’t even bat an eye when you’re stealth camping.
We’ve only stealth camped in neighborhoods a couple of times. We prefer to camp in business districts when we’re in a city, or at marinas, campgrounds, truck stops or state parks. That’s because we do know in neighborhoods, people are keeping a close eye on their streets.
Keep Your Lights Low
When we stealth camped in a Sausalito marina, we never used our phones or anything bright after we crawled into the back of the Prius. Light really stands out when you’re hanging out in a parked car of van, tinted windows be damned.
When I absolutely couldn’t sleep, I’d put my Kindle on the lowest setting and read underneath the blankets.
Now, we do watch movies when stealth camping in our Astro, but we keep the screen dim and make sure all our shades are pulled down as far as they can go.
Plan Your Escape Route when Stealth Camping
It is really important to scout out your parking space before you settle in for the night. I’ve heard scary stories about people trying to burglarize a van when someone is stealth camping!
You should plan out an escape route and envision just how you’ll drive away if someone hassles you.
Can you quickly get to the driver’s seat and move your rig if you feel threatened? Do you know exactly where your key is? How would you react if someone started breaking into your car? Is your phone nearby so you can call 9-1-1 if you need to?
This is why we prefer stealth camping in vans rather than a towable RV or a truck camper. With the latter, there’s no way to quickly get in the driver’s seat.
Another option to protect yourself is with wasp spray. Wasp spray can shoot up to 15 feet and is really painful for someone’s face.
If you’re stealth camping alone on public lands, consider a Garmin InReach so you can transmit your location to friends and family. We use our Garmin when we’re out far in nature without phone signal.
Apps that help you find stealth camping and boondocking sites
There are a couple apps we highly recommend if you want to give stealth camping a try. Apps help you see what’s worked for other van campers, and gives recommendations and sometimes photos of the campsite.
Here are the top van camping apps to try:
We’ve used iOverlander SO MUCH for boondocking and stealth camping. If you open up the app, you can see everything from WalMarts, to rest areas, to truck stops to public lands people have camped on. All the information on this app is sourced by van lifers and RVers.
Plus, it works without cell service. We’ve used iOverlander to find gorgeous campsites in places like Death Valley National Park and the Alabama Hills.
Free Roam mostly focuses on campgrounds and boondocking sites in nature rather than spots in a populated area.
This app is really cool because you can show layers, such as BLM land and USFS land. You can also use layers to check for cell coverage, elevation, smoke and fire hazards.
Park4Night is similar to iOverlander in that it’s all user based and reported. The campsites include stealth camping sites along the highway and legal campgrounds. You can read comments, see photos, and add your own campsites and experiences.
You’ll also see van lifers’ tips and tricks about certain areas. For example, one van lifer said its really hard to park around Carmel, but you can find parking in a supermarket lot.
Camping on Public Lands
If you have the flexibility to go out into nature rather than hang in a city, you should really try boondocking. Boondocking, or dispersed camping, is finding free campsites on public lands like National Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
This isn’t typically called stealth camping as you’re allowed to be there, and it’s much more relaxing.
If you want to learn more about boondocking, check out this post: What is Boondocking? How to Find Free Campsites.
Alternatives to Stealth Camping
If you have a larger RV or truck camper, you might not be comfortable urban stealth camping in cities.
Instead, you can buy a membership to camp on private property. You pay a one-time fee, and then can camp as many times as you like throughout the year.
You do need a self-contained rig to sign up for either of these programs, which means a toilet, kitchen, etc. This won’t work for people sleeping in cars, SUVS, minivans, or campervans without facilities inside.
Here are our top picks:
Boondockers Welcome is a platform that connects RVers with homeowners who host campers on private land.
You pay an annual fee, which is as much as one night in some campgrounds, to have access to thousands of private campsites all over the United States.
With Boondockers Welcome, you’ll typically stay in someone’s driveway or in another parking spot on their property.
The types of amenities offered varies greatly, from WiFi, to hookups, to whether or not you can bring a dog.
For more info, read our article on Boondockers Welcome.
If you haven’t heard of Harvest Hosts yet, this is a really cool site to set you up with camping at wineries, breweries, farms, etc.
You pay a one-time annual fee and then get access to hundreds of free campsites at unique and beautiful locations. The only thing Harvest Hosts asks is that you buy something from the business, like a bottle of wine, beer, or whatever they’re selling. This helps support the business.
I think it’s a great deal – as you pay the one-time fee and then have access to as many campsites as you want during the year. It really saves money on camping.
Final thoughts on stealth camping
Stealth camping in your campervan can either feel like a fun game or incredibly stressful. It all depends on your personality.
I’ve never felt scared or worried while stealth camping, while my partner Tom is usually more wigged-out and paranoid. My thoughts are that if I do get the dreaded door knock, I’ll be kind. I’ll most likely just be asked to drive away, which is fine.
This all being said, I do prefer to camp in my van in nature. Waking up to the sounds of the forest or desert is much better than to cars and exhaust.
For me, van life means exploring hidden spots far away from the crush of humanity. But with that comes times where we need to van camp in a city.
I wish you good luck and fun times in your campervan.
Where do you like to stealth camp that we left out?
Other stories to check out!
- 40+ ways to make money on the road
- The 8 best affordable campervans
- 28 campervan essentials I can’t live without
Kristin Hanes is a journalist who founded The Wayward Home as a place to learn about alternative living. She currently lives on a sailboat and in a Chevy Astro van, and has written articles about alternative living published in Good Housekeeping, Business Insider, Marie Claire and SF Gate. Read more about Kristin here.