Van life has been a growing phenomenon in recent years, particularly as advancements in technology, the prevalence of WiFi, and a growing list of relevant applications and services for vanlifers have become more available.
About half of the people who participate in vanlife do so full-time, and find ways to make a living and live cheaply while on the road.
For those that live on the road full-time to others that travel in a van for a shorter period of a few months, stealth camping is a great way to overnight for free in cities and towns across the globe.
What is Stealth Camping?
Stealth camping really is exactly what it sounds to be; camping overnight in your vehicle in an area that is not designated for camping. Stealth camping can be overnighting on a residential or city street, or sleeping in your car after parking off-road on public land.
In the central U.S. and other remote areas of the country, you can camp for free on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land or in the national forests, and about 50% of vanlifers use this option for camping.
But what if you want to see the amazing cities this country has to explore? Around 14% of vanlifers sleep for the night on city streets and parking lots, while 7% find a parking spot in residential neighborhoods.
For the hardcore stealth campers out there, the only camping that counts as ‘stealth’ is the kind in urban areas where you’re not technically supposed to sleep in your car.
Public land that has been designated for free camping “doesn’t count”, and neither does the Walmart parking lot where the store manager gave you the thumbs up.
However, the tips and suggestions in this guide would apply for approved vanlife camping as well as the more extreme stealth camping situations where you’ve parked on a street in the middle of a city.
When is it a Good Idea to Stealth Camp in a City?
Stealth camping is an excellent way to overnight in new places for free (or extremely cheap). If you have the courage to try it, it can be a very good way to travel and save money. It is only a good idea to stealth camp in urban settings if you have the right vehicle, though.
Some forms of remote or wilderness stealth camping are better with a tent, but you should probably avoid sleeping in a tent in urban environments because you’ll likely appear to be homeless.
Generally speaking, it’s a good idea to stealth camp in a city when you can find legal parking in a safe, well-lit spot, and you’re passionate about traveling.
If you have a taste for adventure and you’re willing to try unorthodox methods of seeing the world, stealth camping may be an excellent way for you to travel.
When is it a Bad Idea to Stealth Camp?
If you don’t own or can’t afford a van or car capable of stealth camping in the city without being conspicuous, stealth camping is probably a bad idea.
Again, you may be able to find some spots to stealth camp in urban areas in your tent, but you may get into trouble with the police or homeless individuals who are living on the streets.
Stealth camping is also a bad idea if it brings chaos into the rest of your life, such as disrupting your work or making it hard to meet your obligations to your family.
For digital nomads and solo or couple travelers without kids, however, stealth camping can work very well as a way to see the country while on a minimalist budget.
Is Stealth Camping Illegal?
Stealth camping is not necessarily illegal. However, you should always check state laws to make sure that sleeping in your car is not illegal in the state in which you’re planning to stealth camp. You should also avoid areas where signs prohibiting overnight parking are posted, since you’ll either be asked to move by security or police patrols, or you may even find yourself with a parking citation or even a boot when you wake up in the morning.
At worst, your vehicle may be towed while you’re sleeping inside.
Never park in areas where “Private Property” or “No Trespassing” signs are posted, since you cannot feign ignorance if you get caught and you probably WILL get caught.
Can I Get a DUI if I Drink in My Vehicle Before Sleeping?
In many states, you can get a DUI if you’ve been drinking before settling down for the night to camp, but there are a couple of things you can do to to mitigate this risk:
Sleep in the back of your car, not the driver’s seat
If you sleep in the back and take measures to make it harder for you to drive, your chances of avoiding a DUI will be stronger.
Some ideas include moving the driver’s seat forward so that you couldn’t just climb forward to drive away, and put things on it to further obstruct your driving abilities.
Don’t leave the keys in the ignition
This follows the appearance of intent to drive idea, and keys in the ignition looks pretty strongly like you’re planning to drive. Instead, keep them in a secure spot but not necessarily on your person.
Sometimes you can still be charged with a DUI for sleeping in the back of your parked car after drinking, even if you clearly had no intent to drive.
Since this is the case in all fifty states, it’s best to find a local DUI attorney to argue your case if you get charged with a DUI.
Which is Better, Stealth Camping or Campgrounds?
While campgrounds often have facilities such as restrooms, showers and sometimes coin-op laundry, there’s always a nightly fee for overnighting in these establishments.
Alternatively, stealth camping is usually completely free, provided you don’t get caught and stuck with a fine or jail time.
Stealth camping can also be done almost anywhere, from busy cities to remote land. Campgrounds are typically few and far between in the heart of cities, which are popular destinations for vanlifers who want to travel the country on a budget.
The experience of stealth camping can be a bit of a rush, even if you don’t get caught.
You can find interesting and often beautiful campsites for one night only, and although you shouldn’t stay for the daylight hours, these locations can offer a nice view when you first wake up in the morning.
You also won’t get bored with your camping spot if you’re staying in a different one every single night.
However, some vanlifers may get fatigued with the constant shuffle and uncertainty that comes with stealth camping night after night, and may want to break it up with a couple of nights’ stay at an established campground to change things up and have a break.
How to Stealth Camp
Successful stealth camping isn’t really something you can do without a little bit of research, the proper vehicle and gear, but luckily, this guide should have everything you need to sleep stealthily in your car in the city.
Choosing the Right Vehicle for Stealth Camping
As you might expect, it’s pretty hard to be stealthy if you’re overlanding in a converted Greyhound bus or even an RV. Vans, SUVs, and even small buses are far more covert for stealth camping.
To keep your vehicle in optimal condition for parking overnight without suspicion, you should skip the stickers, decals and other identifying details because the goal is to be as unnoticeable as possible.
Power and ventilation are essentials of vanlifing, but for stealth camping purposes, you should outfit your rig with low-profile fixtures to remain unnoticed.
A plain white utility van is an optimal stealth camping vehicle because it would have enough space for a bathroom, bed and living space, without being so large as to be an obvious camper.
Passenger vans and SUVs can also make good stealth campers, however, they are smaller and may not have enough room for a bathroom set up.
You should also do your best to keep your vehicle clean and orderly, inside and out. A clean vehicle doesn’t raise much suspicion.
Even if someone thinks you might be sleeping inside, a van with a tidy exterior won’t make them feel nearly as uncomfortable as a beat-up car that looks like someone is living in it.
If you get caught, a tidy interior communicates the same stability to the police or a security patrol, and you’re more likely to get a slap on the wrist instead of a fine or jail time.
Must-Have Stealth Camping Gear
In addition to the right vehicle, you should equip your urban stealth camper with some essential gear so that you can be the most inconspicuous as you overnight in the city:
Blinders or dark curtains for all windows (Reflectix should be avoided unless it’s covered in a dark fabric, since it’s shiny and reflects light)
Fan or sunroof for good airflow and reduced condensation - add screens if you’ll be in an area with mosquitos or other bugs
Dim light source that you can use very briefly in a pinch
Defensive tool such as a whistle, taser or pepper spray (to use if someone tries to break into your vehicle while you’re sleeping inside)
Designated water bottle or closed container for urinating inside your vehicle in an emergency, if you don’t have a bathroom or composting toilet (empty it in a public restroom)
Safety Tips for Stealth Camping
Safety is important whether you’re stealth camping out in the wilderness or in the heart of a city, but urban stealth camping can carry additional safety risks.
A bear isn’t going to be able to break into your vehicle, but a person could. Be sure to follow these tips to stay safe when you park for the night in the city:
Be aware of your surroundings
Note how busy the nearby roads are, whether there are lots of people walking around, and if there’s a lot of trash or other signs of less-than-ideal goings-on.
Park in well-lit areas
By choosing parking lots or city streets that have good lighting, you can increase your safety and still camp stealth - as long as you have dark curtains or privacy panels to hide that you’re inside.
Pro tip: If your windows are tinted, street lights will reflect off of them to hide the fact that you’re sleeping inside the vehicle even more than they would on a dark street.
Have an exit
Don’t block all of the doors so that you’re trapped in your vehicle. If the police or security comes knocking, you’ll want to present a tidy living space.
And if a burglar attempts to gain access or a tow truck starts hooking up your car, you will want to be able to get on the move again quickly.
Keep your keys within reach
Hang the key ring from a carabiner or hook that’s near your exit so that you don’t have to go hunting for your keys if you get a knock on the door or you want to dart away in the wee hours of the morning.
Rotate parking spots
If you’re planning to be in a city for a couple of weeks, scope out several different options for overnighting, and rotate through them.
If you get caught at one of them, cross it off your list and don’t return. This is also important to prevent would-be burglars from having the time to case your car and rob you.
Don’t leave your vehicle unattended for long periods
However, this can be unwise in an urban environment where car prowlers are more common and experienced.
You might come back to find your ‘home’ ransacked and valuable gear or equipment missing.
Never leave valuables in your vehicle
Never leave laptops, tablets, wallets, cameras and other valuable items on view in your car, and you should try to avoid leaving them in your vehicle at all.
If you must leave them behind to explore the city, don’t put valuables all in one spot and make sure they’re not visible from any windows.
You might consider using some or all of your privacy curtains or window covers to help keep things covered.
Super Tips for Stealth Camping
There are a few things every stealth camper must do to be successfully unnoticeable when sleeping in their vehicle in urban environments:
- Cover every window, always
- Spend as little time awake in your stealthily-parked vehicle as possible
- Leave as early as possible, even just to move a couple of blocks (before 6 a.m. is best, but definitely by 8 a.m.)
- Pack it in, pack it out, and always leave the area cleaner than you found it
- If you get caught, it’s best to play dumb, and always be polite, cooperative and offer to move
Steps to Find a Stealth Camping Spot
We’ll list a few free applications and websites that you can use to find free camping a little bit later in this post, but there are a few steps you can follow for finding a good stealth camping spot.
Use Google Maps or another maps application on satellite view to scope out some potential options.
You probably won’t be able to tell if there are gates or signs, but street view may give you more insight. After you have some options, it’s time to check them out.
Always scout out the area ahead of time, preferably in daylight
When it’s dark and you’re tired, you may miss important signs such as dangerous animal tracks or waste, “No Trespassing” signs, or heavily-trafficked trails that may become busy with runners or dog-walkers in the early daylight hours.
You can return after dark, but it’s best not to start your night in the spot while the sun is still up as it increases your chances of getting caught.
Ask the locals
If you’re camping in the heart of a city and you’re not sure about rules with parking spaces that are designated for residents only, ask! You might even be invited for extras like a shower, free food, or even a bed inside for the night.
Worst case, they say “no” and you have to find another spot, or the person may have some ideas for where you can park overnight for free and sleep undisturbed.
Note that Residents-Only spaces DO exist in some cities (such as Key West), and you will probably get a parking citation or towed if you park in a residents-only space.
Some vanlifers recommend asking the police if you see one nearby, but others caution against this since it’s not in the cop’s best interest to have you sleeping in your car in his or her beat.
Don’t park until after dark
Many parks stay open until 10 p.m., and you can safely park and get some work done or watch Netflix until you’re ready to go to sleep.
Your stealth camping spot should be well-lit for safety, but you will want to keep the lights off inside your vehicle to avoid detection.
Don’t get your heart set on a camp spot
Go to one of the other spots you had scoped out, head to a nearby Walmart, or drive out of town to the nearest rest stop. It’ll be late, you’ll be tired and it’s a pain, but you’re better safe than sorry.
Stealth Camping Apps & Websites
One method of finding safe and pleasant stealth camping spots is to use available apps and websites to try spots that other stealth campers have stayed at.
It can be a nice break from scanning Google Maps to hunt down a new location if you can just camp at a tried-and-true spot that other campers have rated.
Some of the most popular applications and websites for finding stealth camping sites are:
You don’t even need to have an account or be logged in to use this website and app, which has a map of free and paid camping options near your location.
You can set the filter for the type of places you’re looking for, amenities you need (such as restrooms or showers), and places that have been rated by other campers more recently.
While iOverlander tends to have more free camping options, another great application and website for finding stealth camping is Campendium.
You can search by category (RV Park, public land, overnight parking, etc.), price and whether they have hookups.
Campendium reviewers also tend to post more pictures and note whether they had cell reception and with which carrier, so that you can get more detail about potential camping spots.
Although it’s a little older than the other two sites in terms of design, this can be a benefit when using freecampsites.net because there can be far more options for sites and there may be more reviews about the specific site you’re considering.
The site also has icons that show different recreational activities you can do while at or near the campsite, if you’re looking for some outdoorsy things to occupy your time.
Another map-based app with lots of filters to refine your search is FreeRoam, which unlike the other sites, also notes weather averages and forecasts for the area you’re looking at camping in.
You can search by campground type, price, cell signal for your carrier, weather, availability, elevation, nearby facilities, and features and amenities.
In some areas, FreeRoam doesn’t have a lot of free overnight parking options, though, so you might be better off using iOverlander or FreeCampsites.net.
There’s a $50 annual fee to use Boondockers Welcome, but it might be worth it, especially if you have a larger rig or one that doesn’t work well for stealth situations.
The website acts kind of like an Airbnb for boondockers, connecting you with hosts who have land or designated camping spots on their property that they open up to overlanders and vanlifers.
However, you have to reserve your spot and plan ahead to camp, which may be a drawback to some.
Still, it beats camping in an unsafe spot in a city or paying $20 per night or more at a campground, and you’ll probably meet some cool new people along the way.
Free Overnight Parking at 24-Hour Businesses
Most vanlifers know that lots of Walmart store locations across the country allow free overnight parking in their lots.
Several other businesses that are open 24 hours a day also let RVers and vanlifers park for free, including:
Sporting Goods Stores
Hunting and sporting goods stores such as Cabela’s are often very friendly to travelers sleeping in their RV or converted van, and some Cabela’s locations even have a designated area in their parking lot for RVs and campers.
Always check with the store manager to make sure it’s okay to overnight there, unless there are signs expressly communicating that sleeping in your vehicle is allowed.
Auto Parts and Hardware Stores
Some hardware stores and auto parts locations are fine with vanlifers parking in their lot overnight for free.
It’s polite to arrive during business hours (even if you leave and come back after hours to camp) to ask a manager if you can park there overnight.
They may ask you to leave by the time they open, and if they’re open 24-hours they might even let you use their restroom facilities (or showers).
As mentioned above, many Walmart locations (although not all - be sure to ask!) will allow you to park and sleep in your vehicle overnight.
There’s a bathroom just inside, security cameras for safety, and easy access to any groceries or other items you may need.
Since casinos and gaming resorts tend to run all night or late into the night, you can often park for free in their lots. Many of them have designated truck and RV areas.
Some may require you to get a parking pass (usually free) from the security station, so be sure to ask.
There may also be other requirements such as purchasing food or shopping, or spending a minimum amount of time playing in order to park for free overnight.
While you might be able to get away with parking overnight without doing this, it’s best to check so that you don’t get towed or receive a knock on the door by one of their security officers in the wee hours.
Rest Areas and Truck Stops
Rest areas and truck stops (such as Pilot or Love’s) are designed for catching a few zzz’s while on the road.
Many have nighttime security to help you rest easier, and almost all have restrooms and vending machines. Some even have showers or free coffee.
At Love’s Travel Stops, you can even get a hot shower in clean facilities with towels and even shampoo or soap, but there’s a fee of $12 per person unless you have a Love’s card (showers are only free with minimum mileage of gas purchased at a Love’s in a month’s time).
Things to Avoid in a Stealth Camping Spot
When scoping out an urban stealth camping spot, there are a few types of places and areas in the city that you are better off avoiding.
Whether for your own safety, the risk of getting stuck, or to avoid breaking the law and getting yourself in trouble, these are the ‘don’ts’ of stealth camping spots:
Don’t camp in a spot if “Private Property” or “No Trespassing” signs are posted. If you notice purple paint on trees or fence posts, this is another way people can mark private land and it will stand up in court if you are arrested for trespassing.
Don’t park in front of or next to people’s homes, businesses or near abandoned buildings or locations where children are present during the day (i.e. schools, day care centers or playgrounds).
Don’t camp next to busy roads or busy running or walking trails, since it will look more suspicious and you’re more likely to get caught.
Don’t camp at the end of a dirt road or alongside a river, canal or aquifer, especially if rain is in the forecast. You could get stuck in the mud when you try to leave the next day, or you may wake up to find your vehicle surrounded by water.
Don’t park for the night on the other side of a gate or fence, since it could be locked or closed come morning.
Don’t park near a railway line if you can help it, since late night trains will probably come by and result in a terrible night’s sleep.
Don’t camp in the same spot two nights in a row, and if you’re going to be in a city for several days or longer, rotate through a good list of a few stealth camping spots.
Tips for Working Full Time While Stealth Camping
In addition to seeing beautiful cities around the U.S., stealth camping in the city can offer a unique experience for digital nomads and vanlifers who work remotely from the road.
Here are some tips that are specific to working full time while you stealth camp in a city:
Choose the right place to work
Most cities have an abundance of Starbucks locations these days, and these cafes usually have good WiFi and don’t mind if you park yourself for a few hours as long as you buy a coffee or snack.
Don’t work out of your car in the same place you plan to overnight. Work during the day from your chosen ‘office’ of the day, and head to your campsite once the place closes or after dark.
Assess your WiFi situation
In a pinch, you can tether to your cell phone with your laptop, but doing this every day can quickly use up your data plan.
Even if you have an unlimited plan, your carrier will likely throttle your data after a specified threshold, so be aware of what that threshold is and what it means (throttling, extra fees, etc.) if you pass it.
Make sure your vehicle is comfortable to work in
Don’t cram your car so full of stuff that you don’t have an area where you can sit and work comfortably, and consider designing a small workspace within your vehicle so that you won’t be distracted if you have to park at a rest stop to get a few hours of work done.
Find a place for a free or cheap shower for your meetings
Set a schedule, and stick to it!
The life of a digital nomad or remote worker can be difficult, but staying organized and sticking to a schedule can help you stay on track.
It’s okay if something comes up that messes up your plan for the day, but if you follow your schedule as much as possible, you’re more likely to be successful at the digital nomad lifestyle.
Summarizing the Stealth Camping Experience
Stealth camping can be a fun and memorable experience for overlanding travelers.
Not only are your living expenses drastically less than if you were living in a house or apartment, you have more freedom and opportunity to explore and see the world!
You probably won’t ever find yourself bored, since you’ll be sleeping and living in a new place almost every day.
While you may have some challenges along the way, the lifestyle can be very rewarding and exciting.
In addition to seeing some amazing places and going to cities you may never have had the chance to visit before, you’ll see a different side of those destinations than you would have if you stayed in a hotel.
There are so many people to meet and things to do, and overlanding while stealth camping at night gives you a lot more room to make the most of vanlife.
It can be scary to park on the street in an unfamiliar city, but if you do it right and follow the tips and steps in this guide, you’ll be well on your way to successful stealth camping experiences.
After 10 years working as a Content Marketer and Strategist, Norelle is currently a digital nomad road-tripping across the US, touring the national parks and cities in a converted Suburban overlander (Follow along on YouTube). Sheloves writing about vanlife and her experiences living in an SUV, seeing the country, and how to make your own RV living style more enjoyable.
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