Do you have a small camper van or class B RV?
If so, you may be able to stealth camp! Stealth camping is the art of sleeping somewhere, such as in a parking lot or on the side of the street, without anyone knowing.
Stealth camping is great for staying in the middle of a city, sometimes even right in the Downtown area, when you don’t want to pay for camping or the closest campground is too far away from where you want to visit.
In this guide to stealth camping, we teach you everything you need to know to attain ninja camper status! Let’s dive in.
Table of Contents
- What is Stealth Camping?
- How Do You Stealth Camp?
- What are the Best Stealth Camper Vans?
- Where to Park When Stealth Camping in Cities
- Where to Go to the Bathroom While Stealth Camping
- How to Cook While Stealth Camping
- What to Do if Someone Knocks On Your Van
- How to Get Stealth Camp Ready
- Apps to Help Find Stealth Camping Spots
- 3 Free or Cheap Alternatives to Stealth Camping
- Final Thoughts on Stealth Camping
What is Stealth Camping?
To sum it up, stealth camping is the art of sleeping somewhere without anyone knowing. This can be done in a van, car, truck, or any other type of vehicle.
The main thing you need to worry about when stealth camping is how to stay undetected. If you can do that, then you’re good to go! For the most part, urban stealth camping is legal – however, there are a few instances where stealth camping is illegal.
Larger cities prohibit you from stealth camping, but not all cities abide by the same laws. Many cities have made it illegal to park your car along city streets between the hours of 2:00 AM to 5:00 AM.
This means, police and parking enforcement can use these laws to evict you from your parking spot, or even give you a citation. The last thing you want to hear is the dreaded knock on your camper van from a security guard ready to give you a ticket.
But don’t worry – we’re going to provide you with all the tips for stealth camping you’ll need to slip by undetected!
How Do You Stealth Camp?
The first step to stealth camping is finding a good spot. This spot should be out of the way and not too obvious (street parking works, but it’s not the most hidden place to go stealth camping).
You also want to make sure it’s legal to camp there. Some places, such as national parks and large cities, have strict rules about where you can and can’t camp. We’ll talk more about that later.
When in doubt about the laws, keep your activities as quiet as possible so you don’t draw attention to yourself. And most importantly, always clean up after yourself!
What are the Best Stealth Camper Vans?
There are a few things you want to look for in a stealth camper van. First, it should be small and compact so it’s easy to park and doesn’t take up too much space.
Second, it should be dark in color so it’s less likely to be noticed. And finally, it should have blacked-out windows so people can’t see inside.
Some of the best stealth camper vans on the market are:
All of these vehicles look inconspicuous enough to go nearly unnoticed. You should have no problem with overnight parking in these, as long as you have tinted windows and aren’t the only car in the parking lot!
Note: Some parking lots do not allow overnight parking. However, you may be able to get around this if you wake up early (at least between 3 am and 5 am). This is typically when the opening shift would begin to come into work, so it’s best if you’re out of the parking spot before then!
Where to Park When Stealth Camping in Cities
When going to an unfamiliar city, you’ll have the best luck finding overnight parking at the following spots:
While tricky, you are able to stealth camp in some neighborhoods. We highly recommend finding a middle-class neighborhood with plenty of other cars parked on the residential street.
If you don’t see any other cars, we don’t recommend overnight parking.
Finding Street Parking in an Urban Area
One of our top tips for stealth camping is to find an overnight parking spot in a business district.
Typically, people will be going in and out of buildings, causing it to be a bit busier leaving your van to look inconspicuous in the parking lot!
Our number one piece of advice for this one? Don’t drink a ton and then get into your van. Worst thing that could happen? A police officer could come knocking and see you sleeping in your van, notice you’ve been drinking, and write you a fine.
Marinas are typically a good place to go stealth camping and tend to have coin-operated showers that are easy enough to use! You’re typically able to stay in a marina lot overnight, too!
Church Parking Lots
Some churches allow homeless people to sleep in their parking lot overnight – we see absolutely no reason why they wouldn’t let you do some car camping in the parking lots.
To be respectful, we recommend calling a few churches ahead of time – just in case they have events going on in the morning and need you to clear out.
Hotel Parking Lots
Tons of van campers have had success staying in hotel parking lots. It’s easy to blend in with all of the other cars, which makes stealth camping a breeze!
Hospital Parking Structures
While you could do some overnight camping in hospital parking lots, we’re not sure we recommend it. There are security cameras, which can make it hard for overnight camping.
You can potentially pay to stay in a hospital parking structure, but the chances of van dwellers being able to stay for more than one night is slim to none.
Typically, there’s so much heavy traffic going in and out of 24-hour restaurants that the employees won’t bat an eye at you staying there.
Keep in mind that staying here might be loud, but it’s safer than city streets!
Apartment Buildings with Unassigned Parking
You won’t find better overnight parking than in an apartment complex! However, you’ll need to make sure you pick a complex that doesn’t have assigned parking.
Otherwise, you’ll be taking up someones parking space and we guarantee you they won’t be happy about that!
Have you seen those cargo vans that look similar to work vans? Do you have a cargo van yourself that sort of looks like a work van?
Good news – you might be able to get away with staying in an industrial park. You’ll blend right in!
Big Box Stores like Walmart or Target
We know one thing’s for sure – whether you’re stealth camping because you’re on a road trip or just trying to get away for a few nights, you’ll need to hit up some grocery stores.
Why not try to stealth camp after getting your groceries at no extra cost to you at all? Whether you stay at Sam’s Club, Target, or Walmart, we’re sure you’ll be able to find parking. Walmart even allows overnight parking for RVers, so you shouldn’t have a problem. Just make sure you talk to someone inside and ask them before you stay in the parking lot, because not all big box stores allow this.
So many other van lifers have stayed at these big box stores (ourselves included) and with all the other cars parked outside you’ll fit right in. You could call the store manager ahead of time to make sure you’re able to stay overnight if you’re worried!
Did you know that most casinos are more than okay with van lifers staying in their parking lots? In fact, they encourage it!
While we’ve never done it ourselves, you might be able to stay for extended period of time if you go into the casino to eat, drink, and gamble!
Staying at a rest stop is one of our favorite ways to go stealth camping. It’s safe to do, you’re able to arrive late, and you’ll find that most people park here to take a quick nap.
Keep in mind that not all rest stops are legal to sleep at. Depending on where you’re going, we recommend you do some research to make sure the rest area you plan to stay at welcomes you!
As noisy as they are, truck stops are a great place to do some stealth camping. You’ll be off the city street, away from most cities, won’t be near someone’s house, and you’ll typically see an RV parked nearby.
Not to mention, you could go into the truck stop to grab some food and coffee before you leave!
Regardless of where you choose to stay, free camping is always a great idea!
Where to Go to the Bathroom While Stealth Camping
While you could get a portable toilet (or have a pee cup on hand), you’re can also check for these places when you’re stealth camping:
- Gas Stations
- Public Libraries
- Fast food places
- Marinas (sometimes the bathrooms are unlocked)
- Coffee shops
- Retail stores like Walmart and Target
- Rest Areas
- Truck stops
- Dive bars
If we had to pick a favorite place to use the bathroom, we’d go with a local coffee shop. Grabbing some coffee before hitting the road is a must for us.
However, if you need to do more than use the restroom (such as shower), we’d highly recommend stopping at a truck shop. You need to have your own soap, shampoo, and conditioner, and there’s typically a fee between $7-$10.
Just be respectful if you take a pit stop at truck stops and try to keep in mind that while you’re stealth camping, truck drivers there have to stop a few times a night just to stay awake!
How to Cook While Stealth Camping
If you’re stealth camping in a van, you’ll want to have a portable stove to cook food. This way, you can cook without having to start a fire.
Some of the best portable stoves for stealth camping are:
As for food, you’ll want to keep it simple. Stick to easy-to-cook items like hot dogs, burgers, and ramen noodles.
Check out these camping meals to get an idea of what you can cook in your van!
What to Do if Someone Knocks On Your Van
If someone does happen to knock on the door to your van, always figure out who it is before you open the door. If it’s a police officer or park ranger, open the door and talk to them. As long as you’re respectful and calmly explain yourself, and listen to what they have to say, you’ll rarely get smacked with a ticket. Usually they will just ask you to leave or even let you stay until morning but tell you not to stay there again.
We had a situation while camping in Kauai, Hawaii where park rangers banged on our door at 3 AM and shined flashlights inside. We just explained to them what we were doing, and they let us be (before this happened, we had read about the cost of a Hawaii trip and wanted to choose the cheapest option for us!). Just be smart, follow laws to the best of your ability, and never give the officers an attitude! It just makes things worse.
How to Get Stealth Camp Ready
Ready to start stealth camping? Here are our top 7 tips for preparing your camper van for the stealth van life:
1. Tint Your Windows & Install Curtains
The last thing you want is people to see inside your camper! To keep people from seeing inside all the windows, we highly recommend paying someone to tint them. The fewer windows you have, the less expensive it’ll be.
Another option is to manually install curtains. Some campers come with curtains already, but if yours doesn’t, it’s an easy fix!
2. Have a Dark-Colored Interior
Nothing says stealth camping quite like this! Having a dark-colored interior will help tremendously if someone shines a flashlight in your camper (as long as it’s dark, half the time they won’t be able to see you).
3. Park Late & Leave Early
In order to avoid authorities, it’s highly recommended that you arrive late and leave early. Typically, you’d want to arrive around 9pm and leave no later than 6am.
4. Keep Your Rig Clean & Organized
One of the most underrated tips for stealth camping? Keep your rig cleaned! The last thing you want is your rig to be so messy that it looks homeless. A dirty, unkempt van will be spotted by nearly everyone that passes it.
You’ll want to keep your rig as organized as you can at all times so you can leave at a moments notice. As long as you’re able to make it to the drivers seat within a moments notice, you’re good!
5. Don’t Stay in the Same Place Too Long
You never want to get too comfortable and attract attention when you’re stealth camping. As long as you change locations frequently, keep to yourself, keep the noise level down, and leave after a good night’s sleep, you should be good!
6. Keep Lights Dim or Off
As tinted as your windows may be, it doesn’t fully keep out all sources of light. Bright lights from your phone, TV, or laptop can be spotted (especially at night). Just keep this in mind when you watch TV in your rig – we recommend turning the brightness down as low as it can go!
7. Have an Escape Plan
If you need to leave quickly, it’s important to have an escape plan. Know where your keys are, where you’re at, and how to drive away if you need to. This is especially important if you plan on staying in your vehicle full time.
Apps to Help Find Stealth Camping Spots
Here are a few apps you can download to find stealth camping opportunities:
iOverlander is one of the premiere apps to use if you are an avid overlander or traveler.
With iOverlander, you can find some of the best campgrounds, hotels, and restaurants to help you enjoy your travels to the max!
Although this app shows you all camping options in your area, you can find free camping locations as well. Overall this app does an amazing job at covering all possibilities for camping and eating, while also providing free camping options.
2. Free Roam
FreeRoam is a non-profit focused on helping you find great campgrounds and enjoy nature in a respectful, sustainable way. You’re able to search for campgrounds using powerful filters, plan a trip, and find stops along your route with FreeRoam’s trip planning feature.
There are ton of guides on boondocking, dispersed camping, product reviews for the great outdoors, and more!
With Park4Night, you’re able to find a nice place to spend the night or just have a good time. All you have to do is follow the guide to your destination by using your GPS or smartphone and then share your thoughts with the Park4Night community! There are currently 215,666 referenced places to visit (and that number grows all the time).
4. RV Parky
RV Parky is another fantastic website that was built and updated by a full-time RV traveler and with the help of people within the RV community.
This website will help its users find the campgrounds and free camping areas that will best fit their needs. Whether you are looking for an established campsite within a campgrounds or a free camping area to set up your own camp, this website will be perfect for you!
3 Free or Cheap Alternatives to Stealth Camping
1. Boondockers Welcome
Boondockers Welcome is a platform that connects RVers with homeowners who host campers on private land.
The $50 yearly membership gives members unlimited access to stay at any one of the 2903+ Host locations. That’s about the cost of a single night at a campground.
Many of their guests have crossed the continent, staying with hosts the entire way!
2. Harvest Hosts
Harvest Hosts members can visit and stay overnight at any of our 2748+ stunning locations without any camping fees! How is this possible? Because their members support the Hosts they visit by purchasing local wines and products, all while making lasting memories!
All you have to do to become a member is pay a one time annual-fee of $99 and then you’ll get access to hundreds of free campsites at unique and beautiful locations!
3. Boondocking on Public Lands
Boondocking is a great way to camp for free or cheap and there are many boondocking amazing locations around the world.
You may not know this, but there are actually some free campgrounds on public land. This could be anything from BLM land to National Parks!
Public lands are managed by various government agencies including:
- National Parks Service (NPS)
- Forest Service
- Fish and Wildlife Services (FWS)
- Bureau of Land Management (BLM)
The best way to find camping spots on public land is by using an app or website like Recreation.gov, Campendium, iOverlander, or Freecampsites.net that we’ve listed above.
Final Thoughts on Stealth Camping
If you’re looking for a way to save money while traveling, stealth camping is definitely the way to go! Here are some awesome camping hacks and tips you can use while stealth camping, too!
Although it takes some getting used to, it’s a great way to travel and see new places without spending too much. Just make sure you know the rules and regulations of the area you’re visiting and always be respectful of your surroundings.
Also, if you plan on stealth camping in the colder months, we highly recommend getting a better diesel heater before you go!
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