It’s certainly not glamorous but stealth camping is very helpful in a pinch.
Although it’s most often utilized by full-time vandwellers, especially those attempting to live and work in the city, this type of urban undercover camping is a good skill for all van campers to learn as it enables you to find a spot to park and sleep for the night in pretty much any city.
Here’s the lowdown on safely stealth camping in a van without drawing unwanted attention to yourself.
What Is Stealth Camping?
Stealth camping is simply camping in an area that doesn’t officially allow camping or overnight use without anyone else knowing.
This can be done in a tent or even in a camping hammock, although the term most commonly applies to overnight camping in a vehicle, usually in an urban environment.
The goal is to keep a low profile. Make people think your van (or other stealth camping vehicle) is unoccupied. You don’t want anyone to know you’re sleeping inside.
Most stealth van campers park on streets in residential, commercial, or industrial areas. You can also park in parking lots. Because of the lack of campground amenities, stealth camping is somewhat similar to boondocking, although you’re in a city rather than out in nature.
Perhaps the most important stealth camping tip is to always stay inside your vehicle. Don’t set up chairs, cook meals, or hang out outside of your vehicle. Many stealth campers utilize blackout curtains so no light escapes from the inside of their van.
This is also why many stealth campers prefer unmarked cargo vans. These vans are plain and nondescript. They won’t draw attention. Most people will probably just assume they’re a work van parked for the night.
Remember that sleeping in a vehicle overnight is illegal in some places. But, even if it’s not strictly forbidden, I’ve found that keeping a low profile and minimizing my presence is the key to a successful (meaning uninterrupted) stay
Where to Go Stealth Camping
For vehicle stealth camping, I prefer to park in a quiet residential neighborhood with minimal foot traffic where most houses are spread out.
At the same time, I try to select a neighborhood with plenty of other cars parked along the sides of the street and at least a little bit of vehicle traffic.
Basically, you don’t want to park somewhere your vehicle will look out of place. You should select a street in a neighborhood where there’s enough other parked cars that no one will notice a new one in the mix.
On the other hand, some stealth campers prefer commercial or industrial areas with less prying eyes. They feel more comfortable parking in a location where fewer people live.
Personally, I find that residential areas feel safer. I like knowing that there are other people around if a problem arises, even though this means that being extra stealthy is even more important!
I’ve found that most stealth campers develop a sort of “sixth sense” for finding good overnight spots after a little while. With a little practice and common sense, you’ll learn how to pinpoint which spots are best to stay overnight.
In addition to street parking in residential, commercial, and industrial areas, some stealth van campers stay in hotel, hospital, or 24-hour grocery store parking lots as well as rest areas – pretty much anywhere that cars regularly park overnight is a good option to look into.
Of course, you must also follow all parking rules. Only park in areas that allow overnight parking. Follow any additional parking regulations.
Most important is to use your chosen spot only for sleeping. Take care of all your other business elsewhere before driving to your stealth camping spot. Never stay in the same spot two nights in a row, even if you’re sure you can get away with it.
Many full-time stealth campers rotate between a handful of spots. Don’t hesitate to move to a backup spot if you feel unsafe, think someone is on to you, or your chosen spot otherwise isn’t as good as first expected.
I always arrive after dark and leave before first light. Once again, stealth camping is for sleeping only!
It’s smart for newbies to spend their first few nights in legal parking lots like Walmart, Cabela’s, and Cracker Barrel, all of which offer free overnight parking at some locations. This gives you the ability to get a feel for stealth camping and to finetune all your systems.
Best Vehicles for Stealth Camping
In my opinion, a cargo van is the best camping van for stealth camping.
The key to selecting the best stealth camping vehicle is to embrace the commonplace. You want a vehicle that looks like any other parked on the same street.
This is why cargo vans work so well for stealth camping. They offer plenty of interior space for a completely comfortable and functional camper van build but are plain on the exterior. From the outside, a cargo camper van looks just like any old commercial work vehicle.
Of course, you can get away with stealth camping in pretty much any vehicle from a VW van to a truck camper to an RV. The problem is that these stick out far more. It looks like someone would be sleeping inside of one. So, you’re at a greater risk of getting hassled.
Generally, it’s okay to urban stealth camp in such as vehicle every now and again but you definitely want a completely unremarkable vehicle if you plan to stealth camp on a regular basis or live in your van full-time.
No matter what type of vehicle you choose, make it as unmemorable as possible. This means no stickers, no bright pain jobs. Even a roof rack, a built-in awning, solar panels, a roof vent, or a roof box can draw unwanted attention.
Stealth camping can be a great way to get some shuteye when you’re in the city.
It’s most effective in cargo vans and other “normal looking” vehicles, although it can be accomplished in camping vans and even RVs if you’re lucky.
Check out our top 21 van camping tips for more tricks you can utilize for your next stealth camping adventure!