Camping in the city isn’t for everyone. It can be noisy, hanging out outside your van is a no no, and you basically need to act like a ninja after dinner.
Yet, sometimes stealth camping is a necessity – maybe you don’t want to miss a high school reunion or you have a doctor’s appointment early in the morning. So any full-time van lifer should know how to camp in urban areas without getting into trouble.
We have collected the best advice on stealth van camping that’s out there. We scoured the internet for helpful blog posts, videos, articles, and forum comments detailing many van lifers’ personal experience, so you don’t have to.
Before we dig in, it’s important we mention that keeping your van as stealthy as possible involves making some compromises on comfort. This is because, to keep your vehicle under the radar, it should look like a panel van. Ideally, you wouldn’t install any windows, side awnings, solar panels, or AC units. For this reason, some people think stealth camping isn’t worth the sacrifices in comfort it requires.
Yet, you don’t need to camp out of a panel van, if you don’t plan to sleep in cities often. Most van lifers can share a number of stories about getting away with it where overnight parking is frowned upon or even illegal. Joe Russo, who traveled full-time for 8 years in a campervan with his wife, is convinced that you don’t need a stealthy van to go urban camping. According to Joe, the key is not to do it often and to be clever about it.
Let’s start from the beginning, though.
- What is stealth van camping?
- How to stealth camp in a van?
- Is stealth camping legal in the US?
- Legal places where to stealth camp in the US
- Big box stores for overnight parking
- How to find stealth camping spots in the city
- How not to get busted stealth camping
- What happens when you get busted stealth camping?
- How to stay safe stealth camping
- How to keep your van stealthy
What is stealth van camping?
Stealth van camping is a form of van camping focused on blending in with urban environments. It involves inconspicuous vans, low-profile parking, and quiet, respectful practices to avoid drawing attention. Campers must be aware of local regulations to ensure a smooth experience.
Is stealth camping legal in the US?
The short answer is: it depends. Here’s why.
Urban camping has become a problem in big cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles, where there are big populations of homeless people. Unaffordable housing led many to stop renting and moving into their vehicle – be it a car or van.
Some of these people acted disrespectfully, peeing on the street and littering, in the past, so local residents have complained to the city. As a consequence, some states have issued laws to prohibit camping in a vehicle in urban areas. The logic behind these is to push homeless people into government’s programs and social housing. Unfortunately, the laws affect van lifers, too.
Some states don’t have specific laws about sleeping in a vehicle overnight; however, each city can tackle the problem by implementing no overnight parking or time limits in certain areas. These limits are displayed on road signs and can make it awkward to find a legal parking spot.
For example, in places like Seattle there are a limited number of parking spots with an 8-hour time limit; most have a 15-minute or 1-hour limit. Yet, if you google whether sleeping in your vehicle in Washington State is legal, the consensus is that you can do it for up to 8 hours.
So before you drive to a city, make sure you research local laws and ordinances. If there are no official laws in place, it’s a good idea to check blogs and YouTube channels where people share their personal experience. Nothing sucks more than to arrive into a city late at night only to see “no overnight parking” signs everywhere. As you meet more and more van lifers along the way on your travels, you will get used to asking and sharing information about stealth camping spots.
By the way, there is one instance in which sleeping in your car or van is illegal anywhere – if you park on private property or if you’re drunk. In some states, you can even be arrested for DUI.
Legal places where to stealth camp in the US
In states where urban camping is allowed, there are a number of options open to people who need to spend the night in the city.
- Large parking lots, where allowed (check for signs)
- Visitor centers
- Truck stops – here you can usually have a shower and go to the bathroom
- Highway rest areas (check for time restrictions)
- Big box stores (more info on this later)
- Residential areas and city streets, as they are public property
- Near a gym or park
- Industrial areas – you’ll blend in very well
- Near restaurants (ask the manager for permission)
- Near bars – some leave their car for the night, if they are drunk
- Near public libraries – here you can use the bathroom and wi-fi
- In front of mechanic shops
- In marina parking lots
- In hotel parking lots (ask the manager for permission)
- In casino parking lots – you get to use the facilities and have a coffee in the morning
- In secure parking garages
- In church parking lots
- In apartment complex parking lots with unassigned spots
- In airport parking lots – head to the terminal to use the facilities.
Mike and Jennifer from RV Lifestyle say they have camped in city parks, shopping centers, church parking lots, and more without any issues.
Always make sure to look up local regulations and keep an eye out for signs. While this might seem like a chore, it will make you feel a lot more confident when you turn off your headlamp for the night. You will probably also sleep a lot better.
Big box stores which allow overnight parking
Some big box stores allow you to sleep in your vehicle in their parking lot. However, each local store can make its own rules.
Here’s a list of shops which don’t prohibit overnight parking:
- Sam’s Club
- Cracker Barrel
- Camping World
- Planet Fitness
- Home Depot
- Anytime Fitness
- 24-Hour Fitness
Individual store managers can decide whether to allow RV parking based on local laws and parking availability. Make sure you check for signs or ask a manager for permission before settling in for the night.
How to find stealth camping spots in the city
Looking for a parking spot where you’ll be able to sleep without worrying about being disturbed can feel a little daunting.
The most obvious thing to do is to open Google Maps and take a look at the parking lots and residential streets in the area you’d like to stay. However, it can be hard to scan for legal spots when you can only rely on user pictures. A good workaround is to call up a store or restaurant, so you can ask for permission before you drive there.
Here are some resources on which you can find stealth camping spots:
- Trucker Path – an app with details for over 2,000 rest areas
- Allstays – find truck stops, rest areas, and campgrounds on this app
- SNAP – an online map of truck stops around the US
- iOverlander App – an app where campers list and review camping and boondocking spots
- The Dyrt App – if you can’t find a stealthy camping spot, this app shows what campgrounds are nearby.
How not to get busted stealth camping
As you can see, there are a number of good legal options for urban camping. But let’s be honest – sometimes you’re in a pinch and you just need to stop in a city for the night.
Bearing in mind that the best strategy is to camp in places where you’re confident you’re not breaking the law, here are some tips to help you keep a low profile in areas where you’re not exactly supposed to camp.
- Never stay in the same place twice
- Choose roads with little foot traffic – pedestrians are more likely to notice you
- Don’t use any camping gear outdoors, including a slide-out kitchen
- Arrive late and leave early, so there are less people around
- Don’t cook – this creates smoke and makes your windows foggy; prepare dinner in advance
- Don’t go to the toilet or brush your teeth in the parking lot (street)
- Avoid using wheel levellers
- Don’t use the lights inside your stealth camping van, have a head torch handy
- Be quiet and respectful; don’t play any music or make any noise
- Create some breeze by cracking the windows and fan slightly to avoid foggy windows
- Choose residential streets where there are cars parked, so it looks like you’re visiting a neighbor (this tip is from Barefoot Theory)
- Check out places with lots of vacation homes – people likely can’t recognize all of their neighbors’ vehicles
- Avoid parking right in front of someone’s house or walkway – they will notice you and might call the Police
- Leave no trace – take all your trash with you, so people won’t realize you’ve been sleeping there.
What happens when you get busted stealth camping?
Ask any van lifer what happened when they eventually heard the dreaded knock and they will tell you that they were simply told to move on by the local Police or a security guard. In some cases, they had to plead their case and politely ask for forgiveness before they were allowed to leave. The experience wasn’t anywhere near as grueling as you’d expect.
Getting a ticket or seeing your vehicle being towed away is very rare – we haven’t heard of this happening to anyone just yet, although there might be some exceptions out there, of course. For this reason, it’s important you accept the risk of sleeping in areas where overnight parking is forbidden by law.
How to stay safe stealth camping
No matter where you’re sleeping – be it a Walmart parking lot or a residential road – cities aren’t always safe. Here are some tips to avoid getting into trouble.
- Research your spot in advance and check it out thoroughly before you commit to stay – drive around and look for signs
- Always have a safe plan B (like a campground) in case the spot you chose feels unsafe in the middle of the night
- Choose a well-lit area
- Don’t stay in rundown areas
- Don’t post on social media about your plans to go stealth camping
- Trust your gut feeling – if a place doesn’t feel safe, leave
- Park in a position that allows you to leave quickly, with the front of the van facing an exit route
- Keep the keys in a very convenient place – make it the same one every night
- Lock all doors and don’t lower the windows more than a few inches
- Don’t open the door if you hear a knock, try and figure out who it is through a window or hatch
- Never open the side door – lower the driver’s window if you wish to speak to the person who knocked
- If a random person confronts you, leave quickly and without engaging, even if the law is on your side
- If someone claims they’re a cop, ask them for their badge number – a Police officer would show no hesitation
- Keep bear spray and an aerosol noise horn handy for emergencies.
How to keep your van stealthy
If you’re planning to sleep in the city regularly, it’s best if you keep your van as stealthy as possible.
Here are a few ideas to help you plan for and design your rig:
- Buy a panel van. Buy a cargo van, like one of the many ex Amazon vehicles which are for sale at the moment – but make sure to check the mechanics extremely well, as these often get abused. A white van makes for the perfect base for your rig. Avoid adding lots of gear to it or modifying its body much, so you can sneak in and out of cities unnoticed.
- Take good care of your vehicle.
A rundown panel van will attract attention. Fix any bodywork damage and keep the exterior clean. A cargo van that is in good shape and has a tidy cabin will hardly ever look suspicious.
Btw, what do you think about this Volkswagen T6 van? It’s wrapped in vinyl. Will it attract a lot of attention? Now this almost new van doesn’t look like one in good shape. On the other hand, I’m impressed with this transformation. You can buy this rust vinyl wrap film here. Please, share photos of the final result if you do this.
- Don’t add any artwork on the body. We all love those mountain and forest stickers you can attach to the side of a van – they look rad. However, they are a clear sign that you’re camping out of your vehicle. Keep the exterior of your van clear from any artwork. There’s one exception to this rule. If the van comes with stickers promoting a brand like Amazon or, say, a plumbing business, keep them. They will likely increase your stealthiness.
- Keep the gear on the exterior to a minimum. If you install windows, a roof ladder, a side awning, or a bike rack to your van, it will immediately look like an RV to most people. Police officers and security guards will be able to spot it – no doubt. Limit any visible equipment to lay low. A good compromise is to install a single side window or two back windows, so you can park your van with the windows facing a wall when you need to.
- Don’t allow people to look in. Make dark covers out of materials like Reflectix to cover all your windows, so people can’t see the furniture or bedding inside.
- Use low-profile gear. If you need to install solar panels and vents, choose the lowest-profile ones available. If your van is tall enough, people driving by won’t notice them.
- Install a toilet inside. Having a toilet, or even just a pee jug, on board will allow you to do your business while parked on the road. This is especially helpful if you need to pee at night.
Are you ready to kit out your very own van and set off on the adventure of a lifetime?
At Van2B, we make high-quality Sprinter conversion kits and kits conversion packages for Ford Transit and Ram Promaster. Our bed, kitchen, and cabinet units are made in our California workshop out of premium materials. Check out our conversion van parts. We deliver for free to the Lower 48.