A big part of van life is learning how to stealth camp without getting caught.
But what exactly is stealth camping?
Stealth camping can have a couple of different meanings. Some say its parking on city streets where you’re not technically supposed to be. Others say it’s any type of camping where nobody knows you’re inside your van.
I’d say it usually refers to urban stealth camping, where someone is living and sleeping in a van in a city.
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.
Here are top tips and advice based on what I’ve learned in my experience stealth camping, plus what I’ve heard from other van lifers and RVers.
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1. Pick a stealth camper van
If you’re planning on spending a lot of your time in cities, it’s important to buy a stealth camper van. Think rigs like an unmarked white cargo van, an SUV camper, a Jeep camper, a minivan or even a Toyota Prius.
We felt especially safe when we were urban stealth camping 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 camper. 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:
- A white, windowless cargo van
- A conversion van
- A minivan
- An SUV
- A Toyota Prius
- A high-roof passenger van with curtains to block light
2. Park late and leave early when stealth camping
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 always done this and have never experienced the dreaded “door knock.” 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.
3. Keep your rig immaculately clean when stealth camping
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.
4. Change locations frequently when stealth camping
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.
5. Get your vehicle ready for stealth camping
There are some ways to make your stealth camping van 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 caming 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:
6. Keep your lights low when stealth camping
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.
7. Don’t argue with police or security
If you do get a late-night knock on your window when you’re stealth camping, do exactly as the police officer or security guard says. Don’t try to justify your actions or think of an excuse, just start your vehicle and get the heck out of there.
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!
8. Find a public restroom near where you’re stealth camping
We always knew where we could go brush our teeth and get ready for bed when we’re stealth camping in San Francisco. Try not to brush your teeth where you’re parking or it will be super obvious to people in the area.
We like to use our gym to get ready for bed at night, or we’ve staked out some public restrooms in the areas where we typically stealth camp.
When we stealth camped at a public marina, the same guy would pull in late every night, then smoke a cigarette and pee right outside his truck before reclining in the front seat for the night. Gross!
Speaking of restrooms, try not to drink any liquids within a couple hours of going to bed, unless you have a portable toilet inside your van.
You can even go the bucket route if you’re someone who has to go frequently during the night. This simple bucket toilet is a popular option. Even a jar will do if you’re in a pinch.
9. 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.
10. Learn Where to Try Urban Stealth Camping
So, you want to try stealth camping? Here’s a list of places that have worked for us many times, or places recommended by other van lifers or car dwellers.
We’ve felt extra-nervous when stealth 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.
Yes, we have stealth camped in campgrounds before. We did this at Joshua Tree National Park because the campground was full when we arrived! So, we parked in a cluster of parking spots, making sure to leave really early.
There are some campgrounds around the Bay area where it’s fairly easy to stealth camp. We’ve pulled in around 10 pm and left around 6 am with no problems.
We’ve had a lot of success stealth 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 parking overnight 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!
Places You Can Legally Sleep in a Van
Stealth camping can be really scary, especially when you’re sleeping somewhere you aren’t supposed to be. You’ll be in tune with every sound, and you may not get a very good night’s sleep.
Plus, some people don’t like the idea of breaking the law.
The good news is this. There are plenty of places to sleep in a van legally. Here are the top places to give legal overnight camping, or boondocking, a try.
Many states have a rule where you’re allowed to sleep legally in a van for 8 hours in a rest stop. Be sure to check the rules in the state you’re traveling through, though! Some states don’t have this designation.
Living in California, we’ve spent more nights in rest stops than I’d like to count, but at least I know I won’t be getting the dreaded knock!
Finding free camping on public lands is a great place to try stealth camping. However, you don’t necessarily need to be stealth if you’re camping in the middle of nowhere.
Often, you can camp for free, or boondock, on land run by the National Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management. These amazing boondocking guides show you exactly where to camp in several states:
We own the Utah and California guides, which offer very detailed descriptions of great, free campsites!
WalMart Parking Lots
The WalMart parking lot is a quintessential spot for stealth camping among van lifers. However, some people report getting kicked out of WalMart parking lots in the middle of the night.
The thing about Walmarts is this: each store has a different policy. The best thing to do is call ahead and see if they allow overnight parking before you show up.
Casino Parking Lots
Casinos are a great place to try stealth camping in your van. Casinos usually want people to stay late gambling, and have no qualms if you spend the night in their lot.
If you’re nervous about trying this out, call the casino ahead of time and ask.
We love stealth camping in truck stops because you can wake right up and grab a coffee. Plus, truck stops like Love’s or Pilot usually have a nice bathroom for brushing teeth and using the loo before bed.
The main drawback is that truck stops can be pretty loud, but nothing a good pair of earplugs can’t solve!
Other big box stores to try
Aside from WalMart, there are other big box stores that allow overnight camping. Again, call ahead to see if that particular store has rules.
We’ve heard Cabellas, Home Depot and Sam’s Club are all good options.
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.
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?
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.