What Is Stealth Camping? Stealth camping is sleeping in your vehicle without drawing attention to yourself. This is similar to boondocking which generally refers to sleeping overnight on BLM or free public lands.
Is sleeping in your car illegal? In some areas, sleeping in your car overnight is illegal. Most of the time these are local ordinances because neighborhoods have had problems with messy, aggressive, or just too many van dwellers taking over the streets.
By following a few common tactics you can stealth camp comfortably, find legal areas to park, and avoid unwanted attention.
Pick The Right Vehicle
If you’re planning on sleeping in cities a lot, acquiring a stealth vehicle will be a big advantage before you start your adventure. That said, with proper planning nearly any car, truck or van can work.
When choosing your stealth camper, pick something inconspicuous that won’t stand out. Standard white cargo vans and mini vans are good choices. You want something that doesn’t look like it is set up to sleep in.
Avoid vehicles with bright colors or large signage. Don’t post your Instagram handle, bumper stickers or anything memorable. You want to be as forgettable as possible; even something like a sign for handyman company is easier to remember than nothing.
Construction vehicles and box trucks are also good selections. They can park discreetly in the city or industrial areas but may not do as well in some neighborhoods.
Conversion vans will give you more room than a standard minivan but they also tend to blend in fairly well. Most people won’t give these vehicles a second thought if they are clean.
Keep Your Vehicle Clean
Many people won’t mind seeing a standard white cargo van parked on their street. But if the van is rusted out with junk on the roof and dirty windows they’re going to be more bothered.
Keep you van washed and interior clean. If people do glance inside or you get a knock from the police, you want to look like you are a stable individual. It doesn’t have to be fancy, just keep your ducks in a row and don’t let trash build up. Your first impression will help a lot with your interactions with the public.
In addition to this rule, keep yourself clean. Whether you chose the van life – or the van life chose you – it’s important to not look homeless. If you can’t care for yourself, then others won’t trust you to care for their streets or parking lots.
Arrive Late and Leave Early
The best way to stay stealth camp is to arrive late at night and leave early in the morning. When you go to park, be ready for bed. Cover your windows and keep the lights out. This is not the time to sit in bed and watch TV or try to cook food. Don’t open the doors or pull any objects out of the van.
Eat your dinner in a different area like a public park earlier in the evening. This will allow you to air out your van afterward so there’s less condensation or movement.
Cover your windows with a dark shield or curtain as soon as you arrive. Reflectix is not a great choice for this because it’s shiny and attracts attention.
Have a plan for going to the bathroom inside your vehicle if necessary. If you don’t think you can make it through the night, park near a 24hr. gas station or convenience store that you can run into.
Don’t dump any liquids or trash. Keep everything in the vehicle and move as soon as you wake up in the morning. Even moving just a few blocks will be enough.
Rotate Parking Spots Frequently
Avoid parking in the same location two nights in a row. If you stealth camp in the same city for long periods of time, try to map out 7-10 different locations and rotate through them. Once you are “busted” in one, you should not plan on returning to it.
Picking A Location
Mostly Legal Store Parking Lots
Finding a good stealth camping location is something you will get better at over time. For starters, seek out 24 hour businesses like Walmart or Casinos. These places sometimes encourage overnight parking because you are more likely to purchase things from their store. Call ahead to see if they allow overnight parking. Many, but not all of these locations do.
Remember to be respectful. Don’t set up camp in the parking lot. A few bad van lifers can ruin the prospects for everyone.
Most Walmart locations will allow free overnight parking in their parking lot. This makes for one of the best last-minute sleeping opportunities. Many Walmarts are open 24/7 as well so you will have free bathrooms and shopping items at your fingertips. Be aware that not all Walmarts offer this. We highly suggest going inside and asking the store manager if it is OK to spend the night first. In a few locations it is illegal to park there overnight so to avoid any late-night run-ins with security be sure to check ahead.
Many Cabella’s stores work the same as Walmart, although usually catering to more of the RV and trucker crowd. They sometimes have a separate parking location behind the store! Frequently they will have a security guard on location. Be aware that Cabella’s is not open overnight so you will have to find somewhere else to use the restroom. We have successfully stayed the night at Cabella’s and the experience is about what you would expect from any parking lot. If you do not see a sign indicating truck or RV parking, be sure to check with the store first. In fact, it’s best to do this regardless.
Numerous Cracker Barrel restaurants have free overnight camping in their parking lots. These are very abundant in the eastern two-thirds of the US. Overnight cracker barrel parking spaces are generally in the back and marked with a sign indicating they are for buses and RVs. Speak with the manager before pulling into these as some people have reported the manager wanting smaller vans to move to other parts of the lot overnight, or keeping certain sections open for early deliveries. Nonetheless, this is a safe place to stay overnight.
Often Home Depot or Lowes hardware stores will allow you to spend the night in their parking lot. This is also a great place to do some quick fixes on your vehicle. Be sure to speak with management ahead of time as this is not offered at all locations.
Other Retail Stores
Some Sam’s Club and Costco locations have large lots where you can stealth camp as well. Smaller strip malls and 24hr gyms regularly have cars parked around them throughout the night that you can blend in with.
Casinos can be a great place to spend the night because they are often open all night to use the bathroom, have cheap food and you can even have some fun. Not every casino is going to be open to overnight parking so be sure to check inside first. If you want to get an idea of what is available, here is a list of proven RV friendly casinos.
Truck Stops & Rest Areas
This is a controversial one as some truckers will tell you overnight parking is reserved for the workforce only. You don’t want to get in the way of someone working, or leave them with nowhere to park. Sometimes law enforcement will prevent anyone who is not a trucker from staying overnight at a rest stop. That being said, we have come across a few rest stops that do have free overnight parking or camping. These are generally the larger ones and sometimes have picnic tables or pavilions as well. It will be up to you to assess each rest stop and determine if it is a legal option or not.
Breweries and Clubs
Overnight parking is sometimes overlooked outside late night breweries and clubs. Follow the rule of arrive late and leave early at these locations.
Truck Stops and Rest Areas
Truck stops and rest areas along highways are good places to stop overnight. Not every truck stop is friendly to overnight parking but many are. The ones that are not will have signs with restrictions or hourly limits for parking.
Truck stops many times have bathrooms and vending machines. Flying J truck stops also have pay showers which is a nice bonus.
Be courteous to truckers if you choose to park here. Never park in a spot intended for a semi, as they require special long pull-through spaces.
A few other businesses to consider are car repair shops, churches, motels, hospitals, RV lots and parking garages. These businesses usually have other cars parked in their lots overnight so you can fly under the radar.
Check the rules of train stations and park n’ rides. These can also be a good place to spend the night.
Take caution with these suggestions however. Sleeping in your car overnight in these lots may be illegal so be aware of your surroundings and consider the type of city you are in before parking.
Park On The Street
Overnight parking on the street in an industrial park or neighborhood is one of the safest ways to camp stealth. Find a semi-busy street with other cars parked that look like they will be there a while.
Pay attention to signage and avoid any area with meters or no parking signs. You can often find small industrial areas just off the freeway. These are perfect places for box trucks or white cargo vans. Be aware of your surroundings and follow the safety tips below when parking here. Don’t stand out – it’s not a good idea to be the only car in an area parked overnight.
Avoid nice neighborhoods and gated communities. Do not park directly in front of someone’s house. Try to look for side roads and streets with other cars parked overnight.
Parking For Free On Another Traveler’s Property
Couchsurfing.com is a website that lets you find a host willing to spend the night on their ‘couch’ for free. This is a volunteer community with the idea being that you will volunteer your couch to someone in the future. We have had success on couchsurfing.com finding people willing to lend us a driveway for the night. This is a fun way to meet new people, learn about the area, and chances are you’ll probably get a free shower out of it as well.
Similar to couchsurfing, boondockerswelcome.com is a directory of people willing to let you park overnight on their property. This site does charge a small fee to belong, but if you get three good reviews they will waive the yearly cost. This can be a fun way to meet new people and pay it forward in the future.
Boondocking and BLM Lands
The suggestions above are for stealth van living in the city. If you are open to exploring nature there are far more legal and free options available to you. Read our post on how to find free camping.
Boondocking and camping on free BLM lands can be a much more enjoyable experience than parking in the city. You may need more supplies, but you’ll find that it is more private and comfortable than stealth van living.
Stealth Camping Safety
If you follow the rules of arrive late, leave early, and change locations frequently you shouldn’t have many problems with safety. Along with that, there are a few other tips to follow that will make you feel even safer.
Be Aware Of Your Surroundings
Often the best indicator of a good parking spot is using your instincts. If an area just doesn’t feel safe, don’t park there. You are in a vehicle so it’s easy to move a few exits down. Get comfortable with the idea of stealth van living first. Park overnight in legal store areas like Cabela’s and Cracker Barrel as you get a feel for stealth camping.
Over time you’ll be able to better recognize city streets or neighborhoods that are more friendly to van dwellers.
Always park in an area with a clear exit. Keep your doors locked and keys nearby so you can take off if something does not feel right. Don’t try to stand your ground or confront folks who are loitering around too much. You’re in a giant vehicle, and can use it to drive away.
Park under a streetlamp or in a well-lit area. You can use window blockers so it is not so bright inside your van.
The different views on this are a bit controversial. Almost every break-in for a van is an opportunistic thief trying to score some free stuff. Unless you’re trying to create a Fort Knox with metal grated windows, it’s pretty difficult to really secure your van. Many people attach bolted locks on their doors that can only be released from the inside.
As far physical defense, the best thing to do is take some classes on close-quarters defense or CCW (concealed carry firearm). Take the classes in advance, as they may change your mind about how and what you want to defend yourself. Most will emphasize that avoiding the situation in the first place is the best defense. In our two years on the road, we’ve avoided anything remotely sketchy and haven’t had a single incident that felt unsafe.
Carrying a firearm is a heavy responsibility, and even if you do successfully defend yourself with one it’s not smooth sailing. Also consider that if you’re traveling to different states, the legality of carrying a firearm varies so drastically that it makes it very tedious to keep track of.
If you’re considering pepper-spray, remember that bear spray comes in larger cans, but is about 10% as potent. You want human defense pepper spray. Again, though, if you use pepper spray in a van, you’re likely to get a lot of back spray on yourself, which isn’t a good position because you’re backed in a van and now can’t drive away either.
The Dreaded Knock
When you stealth camp every night, chances are good that at some point you may get the dreaded police knock. If this happens, just be courteous and respectful. Do not try to hide out in your vehicle, as it can turn into a ticket and tow quickly.
Almost all of the time, police check on you because they’ve been called by someone who noticed you or you are in a bad neighborhood. Most of the time they don’t want to be kicking you out either, but they have a duty to enforce the law. If they do have a bone to pick, it’s almost always because previous overnighters have been disrespectful. Be honest and explain that you are taking advantage of the mobility of living in a van.
It is rare to get ticketed on a first offense unless you are obviously parked in an illegal area. Ask them if they can suggest a better place to park. If they ask you to move, do not argue. Just move.
Make note not to park there in the future and continue on your way. Getting caught for parking somewhere overnight is not a big deal and happens from time to time. Do not let fear of this discourage you from enjoying the freedoms of van life.
Tips For Building A Stealth Camper Van
Often new van lifers think it’s necessary to build a stealth camper/adventure mobile hybrid. We encourage you to choose one or the other. Most people do not spend 50% of their time in the cities and 50% of their time in nature. Think about how you intend to use your vehicle before starting a van build.
If you have a job in the city and will be living out of your van, build a stealth camper.
If you’re taking a long sabbatical from work, or planning to live off-grid for an extended period of time – build an adventure mobile. Don’t worry so much about being stealth. You’ll be able to find a few spots as you need them. A truly stealth build is needed for people spending a long time in the same area.
With an adventure vehicle you can have visible solar, bikes hanging off the back and more space. Contrary to what you may believe, most people will not give an adventure vehicle a second thought if they see it parked at Walmart for a night.
Anyone planning to spend 80%+ of their time in National Parks, state forests or BLM land should just build an adventure vehicle and not worry too much about stealth van living. You will find this makes your build easier to plan and you shouldn’t have a problem parking in the city for such a small amount of time.
Stealth Van Living
As a full time stealth camper, you have a lot more to be aware of when building your van. The most important thing to keep in mind is blending in.
As stated earlier, picking the right vehicle with no decals or excessive rust is the first priority. Solar power and vent fans are going to be a giveaway that you’re living inside. Follow the golden rule:
You’re living out of a van, not in it.
Phones, laptops and tablets can be charged at a Starbucks, McDonalds or a library. If you’re living in the city, you should try to spend as much time as possible in the city and not in your van. Take advantage of free spaces like malls, libraries and parks.
If you use your van just at night, you’ll be unlikely to need a lot more power. Solar panels become less necessary. Consider a battery isolator or B2B charger for small amounts of power. You can also purchase smaller battery banks that plug into a cigarette lighter for electronics.
Use a cooler rather than a 12V fridge, or forgo food storage all together. Grocery stores become your fridge.
Take showers at a gym or community center. While it’s possible to build a shower in your van, this is less practical for a stealth camper because it can lead to excess moisture and condensation.
Have a portable toilet in your vehicle. This will take away a lot of the stress of having to run into a gas station or store every time you need to use the restroom.
Cook food at a park or away from your overnight camping spot. Foggy windows are one of the first things that people notice when a van is parked outside. You want to try to avoid this as much as possible.
When it’s cold outside, foggy windows may be unavoidable and that’s why arrive late, leave early is so important.
Do not set up camp in a parking lot. Don’t pull out a lawn chair and a grill outside of Walmart. This type of behavior is going to lead to more locations banning overnight parking. Overall, be respectful and stay behind the scenes.
Stealth van living is a great way to avoid paying rent and give you more time to enjoy the city. Stay vigilant and it can be a rewarding experience.
Remember The Context
There are two closely related subjects that get intermingled in relation to what you are entitled to for sleeping on the streets. One is the logistics of the matter and the second is the morality of it. We want to address the former and leave the latter open ended because it is a charged subject with no easy answer.
The reality is that “public” doesn’t mean “free use”.
Public streets are available to everyone; and everyone must follow the same rules. These streets are paid for by taxes and often have local ordinances determined by local residents. In cities with a large homeless population or good weather, strict no sleeping overnight laws are written because the locals are reacting to a problem they’ve had.
Problems can range from simple crowding to trashing and destabilizing their neighborhoods. And residents don’t have the fortune to be able to just drive away if things get ruined like van dwellers do.
Regardless of what you think is fair, the reality is that you are going to cause yourself and others a lot more trouble by trying to resist getting kicked out of a place you’re not wanted. It’s a lot of work and you won’t find success often.
If you’re living van life to reduce stress and live more free, then there are plenty of places to re-locate rather than fighting this mental and social battle.