When you’re new to van life you might have a lot of questions including “Will I have any issues camping and sleeping in my van especially in cities?”
It’s common to have these concerns. We did too before we started living in our van full time.
Stealth Van Camping is a lifestyle so low key that most people walking by your van might not even realize that someone is living inside.
This is helpful to avoid confrontational situations with business owners, security guards, police officers, and homeowners that might not always want a campervan parked in front of their street or business.
There are a few things to consider if you plan to spend a lot of time living in a van. In this post we cover 20 tips and resources on how to be better at stealth camping in a campervan.
Pick A Van That Blends In
Picking the right van can make a huge difference in your experience with stealth camping.
When we first started thinking about living in a campervan full time we looked at many different vans. We settled on a Ram Promaster because Promasters are some of the most common work vans and easily blend in. Promaster vans are not exactly “cool” but it is pretty easy to stealth camp in one.
If you choose to go with a more unique van like a Skoolie or Westfalia, you are more likely to draw attention to your home on wheels – but that isn’t always a bad thing. We’ve met plenty of van lifers that travel in unique cars and most people want to meet them, see their builds, and hear about their experiences.
Stick To Simple Colors
White color is one of the most common colors that is used for vans in construction, transportation, and other businesses. This is the color that we chose for our Promaster van. Our van itself was actually used for business before we purchased it.
Even during our trip down the Pan-American Highway, most locals assumed that our van was a work van or a Colectivo (local public transportation vehicle). We got flagged down for rides quite frequently and we often stopped to give locals a lift – but you can imagine their surprise when we opened the doors to let them in.
Some other simple van colors to consider are grey, black, and silver.
If you choose to get a color that’s more lively like red or green, you’re naturally going to stand out more. Again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing – unless you’re trying to blend in.
Think About Stealth During Your Build
If stealth is something that you are concerned about, here are a few things to consider during your build that can help:
- Keep it simple. Don’t add too many “extras” that might draw attention. Our van looks so basic on the outside that often even other overlanders don’t spot it.
- Don’t hook up anything to the outside that gives you away like a bike rack or a surfboard.
- Avoid adding decals or stickers that make it obvious that you are a van lifer.
- We added windows in our van to help with air circulation but it is easily the most obvious giveaway. Something to consider during your build.
- If you have windows, tint them so it’s harder to see inside.
- Get a roof rack so people can’t see the solar panels and the ceiling fan.
- Get a portable travel toilet in your campervan so you don’t have to leave your van to search for a restroom especially at night.
- Add in a built-in stove so you don’t have to cook outside. We installed a stainless stove with two burners that makes it easy to cook meals inside our van.
Add Privacy Curtains
Our van has large windows so adding privacy curtains was a must. Curtains can block people from peeking inside and prevent theft. The less someone can see inside your van, the better it is.
We used custom curtains that my mom made for us. She hand sewed these curtains to fit into the windows and added little magnets for the front curtains to keep them up.
For the main window, we got an extra-large windshield cover that fit our Promaster window. This window cover works well but I wish we would have also installed curtains separating the front passenger area from the rest of the van. Curtains would be much easier to close than trying to pop in a large window cover every time we stop.
Install Dimmable Lights
Another thing to consider in your build that might help with stealth camping is installing lights that are easy to turn off and can’t be seen through the curtains.
For our main lights, we installed LED Puck Lights that we can control with a switch. If we want to be more stealthy we can turn on the back lights and keep the front lights off.
We also installed dimmable LED string lights that we can adjust as needed. Our LED string lights have a remote control so we can dim them from a bright to a barely noticeable setting.
Get Noise Cancelling Head Phones
Along with getting dimmable lights, you might want to get a set of noise-canceling headphones to watch movies or Netflix inside your van. With headphones people won’t be able to hear you from the outside and you won’t be disturbed by outside noises either.
Wait To-Do Your Dishes
For those who plan to live in a campervan full time, you’ll be likely doing a lot of cooking and cleaning.
During our van life trips, one of the easiest giveaways that we are living in our van is doing our dishes and draining the sink water on the floor. Often this water leaks out from under our van catching the attention of people passing by.
You can easily avoid this by using a water stopper in the sink. When in doubt, just hold off from washing your dishes until you’re in a remote dirt area where leaking water is not as apparent.
Keep It Clean
Another thing we learned from living in a van is that if there is any trash around where we park – most people will assume that we left it, even if we didn’t.
During one of our road trips, we found a beautiful remote location to camp at. Late in the evening a group of people showed up, started to play loud music, partied all night, and left their beer cans all over the place. In the morning when the park cleaning crew showed up they assumed that it was us.
If we see any trash laying around where we camp, we try to pick it up because it draws less attention to us – and is just better for nature.
When it comes to stealth camping in a van, you want to draw as little attention to you as possible. One way to do that is by arriving at your designated parking spot early while there are plenty of cars and people on the street. If you arrive at a location late after all street traffic has stopped, there is a high chance that your arrival might catch someone’s attention.
Personally, we try arrive at our chosen camping spot well before nightfall.
In certain situations, however, you might want to do the opposite. If you plan to stay at a motel parking lot you might want to arrive late and leave super early before the hotel staff notices.
Don’t Move In The Van Too Much
Before you arrive at a camping spot, try to get everything done including dinner, dishes, bathroom needs, etc. The less you move around once you get to a location, the better it is.
This way when you get to the camping area you can dim the lights, relax and hang out undisturbed.
Don’t Stay In The Same Spot Too Long
As a rule of thumb, when stealth camping we never stay in the same spot for longer than a day or two. After a couple of days, your van is sure to attract someone’s attention so it’s best to rotate your camping spots.
While a business might not care (or even notice) that you spend a night in their parking lot, they might start getting concerned after a couple of days have passed and will come knocking on your door.
If you’re paying for a parking garage or a camping spot, you don’t have to worry about this. But when stealth camping in places that you’re not sure about, it’s best to play it safe.
Always Exit Your Van From The Front
Whether we’re heading to the grocery store, out on a hike or to a coffee shop, we always leave our van through the front doors. Unless we feel 100% comfortable with our surroundings, opening the side door will draw more attention and instantly show people passing by what’s inside your van.
Unfortunately, we had to learn this lesson the hard way after hanging out on a major street with our door open to circulate the air. A stranger that was walking by stopped by our van and tried to get in. My husband saw him, blocked him, quickly shut the door and we took off. Thankfully nothing else happened of this incident but from now on we always keep the main door closed especially in busy areas.
Where To Stealth Park
Finding places for stealth camping in a van will highly depend on your lifestyle. If you’re someone who plans to live in a van while working full time in a city, your camping spots will differ from someone who constantly travels around.
We fall into the second category. During our two-year van life journey, we moved around a lot and rarely spent a day or two at the same spot. Here are some places that we recommend for stealth camping from our experience.
I never appreciated Walmarts until we started to live in a campervan. Walmart stores are open late (sometimes even 24-hours), can be found in many countries outside of the US, and are usually campervan friendly.
I say “usually” because not every Walmart allows RV parking and in one instance police came and asked us to leave after spending the night at a Walmart. Some US Walmarts don’t allow overnight parking anymore and often have signs posted in their parking lots indicating so. But outside of the US, we’ve never had issues staying at a Walmart especially after asking for permission from the overnight security guards.
Another great thing about staying at a Walmart is that you can also use their bathrooms and shop for groceries before you leave. As full-time van lifers with very limited fridge space, we normally go shopping every other day. It’s super convenient if you can do both – grocery shop and spend the night at the store’s parking lot.
Truck & Rest Stops
When we first started traveling in a car, we would dish out $20 for camping spots every night. We didn’t know anything about stealth camping or where to find free spots. On one of our trips we came across a rest stop and spent the night there. It was like a new realization set in – why are we spending all this money when there are plenty of free camping options?
Although truck and rest stops are personally not my favorite places to stay at, they are often the easiest to find. Truck and rest stops are very convenient because they have restrooms and often showers at a small cost.
Internationally gas stations often offer overnight parking that is similar to truck stops. We frequently stayed in gas stations when traveling down the Pan-American Highway.
Some countries have super fancy gas stations that even include hot showers, free wifi, restaurants, kid’s playgrounds, and other amenities.
If you’re unsure about staying at a gas station, just check with one of the attendants for permission.
National Forests are amazing for overnight camping, especially for van lifers.
Unlike National Parks, National Forests are pretty lenient about van camping. In a National Forest, you can park and spend the night just about anywhere whether it’s a random side road into the forest or a trailhead parking lot – unless it’s specifically prohibited with a sign.
National Forests also allow “dispersed camping”. Dispersed camping places usually don’t have access to services like bathrooms, trash, firepits, and other amenities that established paid campgrounds do.
This leaves you with a variety of options for stealth camping in National Forests but do minimize your impact by sticking to roads and places where someone has camped before. Don’t create new camping spots by driving on growing vegetation like plants and grass.
Similar to National Forests, BLM lands are very campervan friendly and allow parking almost anywhere as long as it doesn’t say “closed to camping” or conflict with other authorized use of land.
Dispersed camping is allowed on BLM lands up to 14 days without having to move around. After that BLM land management asks campers to move so it doesn’t create a long term negative effect on the land.
Having a gym membership is a nice perk for van life especially in the US.
Along with offering a place to stealth camp other gym advantages include restroom access, showering and staying in shape while living in a van.
Some of the most popular gyms for overlanders are:
- Planet Fitness. One of the cheapest gym options and has over 2000 clubs all around the US.
- Anytime Fitness. It has over 4000 locations in 50 countries and can be accessed 24-7.
- Crunch Fitness. My personal favorite and one of the fastest growing chains in the US.
Motels are a convenient place to spend the night if you’re passing through an area and are not sure where else to go. Often motels have vans parked in their lots from guests staying there so it can be easy to blend it. Just look around and make sure that you don’t need a special parking permit from the hotel to stay in their lot.
Use iOverlander App
iOverlander is our go-to app for finding stealth camping spots. iOverlander app is based on reviews left by other van life travelers and has been a lifesaver for us especially for traveling through Central & South America. Just about every person we met traveling the Pan-American Highway used this app for finding camping locations and it was also a great way to meet other people.
The campsite reviews on the iOverlander app include location, ease of access, cost (if there is any), WiFi accessibility, and more.
Avoid Residential Areas
When traveling in our campervan we try to avoid parking in residential areas especially in front of people’s houses. We had the police called on us once after parking in a residential neighborhood and our van was reported as “suspicious”. The police officers who came to investigate were pretty understanding but they did ask us to leave in the middle of the night and find a new place to stay.
Most people who live in houses for a long time know what cars their neighbors drive. If they see a new vehicle parked on their street for a long time, residential homeowners are likely to start getting curious or concerned.
If you do park in a residential area, try to park on a side street or where there is plenty of space between houses. If you park directly in front of a house you’re more likely to catch the homeowner’s attention.
Or instead of parking next to a house try to find an apartment complex. Most apartment complexes are large so they have a lot more people and cars coming in and out. It’s much easier to stealth park outside an apartment complex than a suburban area.
Watch For Street Signs
Parking in large cities is just difficult. Street parking is always very limited and there are lots of rules and regulations to watch out for.
When parking in cities make sure to keep an eye for:
- Private property signs. We avoid parking in lots with private property signs because your chances of getting towed are much higher.
- “No parking” signs.
- “No overnight parking” signs.
- Street sweeping signs.
When In Doubt, Ask
“It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission” doesn’t always work when it comes to stealth camping. Parking where you’re not supposed to can lead to a ticket, getting your van towed or even the police called.
If you’re ever wondering if it’s ok to park at a location, just ask. We’ve done this quite a lot especially with businesses, grocery stores, or gas stations that we’re unsure about and usually, the security guards or attendants have no issue with us staying there. As long as we’re being respectful and follow their guidelines, most places don’t have a problem with us spending the night.
Get Magnetic Stickers For Your Campervan
One way how you can get creative with stealth camping is by getting magnetic stickers for your van that make it look like a work van. People tend to be less suspicious of business vehicles parked in their neighborhoods than if they suspect a person living in a car.
When choosing what type of business stickers to get stay away from anything that appears expensive (like electronics) and might lead to break-ins.
Stick with businesses that are less appealing like dog grooming, cleaning services, gardening, dry cleaning, etc.
Get Some Construction Items
If you don’t want to get stickers for your van, you can also get some construction items and place them in the front seat like a safety vest, hard hat, safety goggles, and a clipboard. You can get these items at your local Walmart or buy them for cheap on Amazon.
Always Have An Exit Route In Mind
The first thing that we do when we arrive at a new location to spend the night is park in a way that would allow us to leave quickly. That means parking in reverse or leaving plenty of space in between cars when parallel parking.
This way if something ever goes down or if we’re asked to leave, we can simply start the car and drive off instead of struggling to get out.
While this post covers lots of resources and tips for stealth camping, keep in mind that we spent almost two years living in our van and rarely had any issues. Most people that we met were just curious about our journey and wanted to know more about our travels.
Looking for more van life resources? Make sure to check out some of our other popular van life posts below:
- 10 Best Promaster Van Conversions To Inspire You
- 10 Things You Should Know Before Living In A Van
- Driving The Pan-American Highway? Here’s All You Need To Know
- Our DIY Campervan Kitchen Set Up & Essentials
- 15 Things We Learned From Traveling In A Campervan
Interested in how I capture photos on my trips? Here is my suggested camera gear that I use to create my images:
- Main camera: Sony a7II Camera With 28-70 mm Standard Lens
- Polarizer Filter for the standard lens (helps eliminate reflection and enhance color especially on super bright days): Amazon Basics 55 mm
- Wide Lens (great for nature shots): Sony 16-35 mm F4
- Polarizer Filter for the wide lens: Amazon Basics 72 mm
- Small Tripod (to stabilize photos and eliminate blur): JOBY Gorrilapod
- Memory Cards: SanDisk 32 GB
- Batteries: Sony Camera Charger Set
- Camera Bag: Lowepro weather-resistant bag
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