“Stealth camping” is a term that appears frequently in van life. For those who are still learning the ropes of this lifestyle, this can get confusing. What exactly is it? When do you even need to do it?
Let’s answer some questions about stealth camping!
What is Stealth Camping?
Stealth camping is when you are being very discreet about sleeping in your vehicle. You do this in order to make it look like nobody is inside of the van so you can go unnoticed. Van lifers typically stealth camp in unestablished campsites, parking lots, city streets, and other unconventional camping areas.
Why Stealth Camp?
Van lifers have to resort to stealth camping in places where camping is not allowed. There are many areas that have strict camping bans or even make it illegal to sleep in your car. This can be incredibly difficult to work around if there are no designated camping spots in the area (like in the middle of downtown).
Stealth camping techniques can help you stay undetected in these areas to avoid getting bothered by police or receiving a ticket.
Where CanYou Stealth Camp?
There are many camping apps that can help you find places to stealth camp. Previous campers can share spots where they stayed undetected and unbothered through the night. However, even these apps may provide limited – if any spots – especially in less popular areas for van dwellers. In that case, you want to keep backup locations in mind. Remember to leave no trace wherever you go!
Public parks and residential areas
I would say these are some of the best spots to stealth camp. Public parks tend to have unrestricted overnight parking and are usually in a safe area. Many of them are also located near residential areas where you can blend in. These residential areas might also have parking spots alongside them that you can grab. Chances are you won’t be bothered since you likely won’t be the only one parked there.
Street camping is another great and pretty reliable option. While it’s less private, many street parking restrictions end in the evening and don’t start again until the next morning. With street stealth camping, you need to be mindful of the parking signs and leave when it’s necessary and avoid street sweepers.
Unconventional parking lots
While Walmarts and Cracker Barrels typically allow overnight parking, there are a few unconventional parking lots that you can likely get away with if you’re careful. These include hotels, casinos, supermarkets, empty/abandoned lots, “park and rides”, and even highway pull-offs. If there are no “No Overnight” signs, chances are the spot is a safe bet.
Places to avoid
Keep in mind that there are some areas where you shouldn’t try to stealth camp. Try to avoid parking near schools or other areas with children to avoid any trouble. These areas are closely monitored and will be taken much more seriously if you’re caught. Shopping plazas and malls also tend to have strict overnight security that will not hesitate to kick you out.
I’ve stealth camped by public parks, in street parking, in residential areas, in dark backroads, and more. So far, I haven’t been bothered in any of these spots! Let me share some tips.
What You Need to Stealth Camp
There are a lot of items that can be super helpful in making your van look stealthy.
Window covers and curtains
When you’re stealth camping, the most important thing to remember is that you don’t want to call any attention to yourself. Having window covers and curtains is an extremely important precaution to take. You don’t want anybody to be able to look inside of your van and see that you’re in it. Having these items will block this view and keep you hidden.
While your window covers should block out most light, it’s always good to take an extra precautionary measure. Try using a headlamp with the red light setting on. Red light scatters far less than other colors (especially white) and can help preserve your night vision.
In my Nissan NV, I installed LED lights that have darker light settings for when I’m stealth camping.
Stealthy camper vans
It’s important to note that not all vans are equipped for stealth camping. If you feel that stealth camping is something you will do often, you want to get a van that is less noticeable. Vanagons and Sprinters are commonly recognized as camper vans. Vans with decals, bike racks, massive solar panel setups, or ladders to lead to a roof rack are also less than stealthy.
More plain-looking vans are better for stealth camping. I have a Nissan NV 2500 – these are typically known to be work vans, so they blend in. I only installed one window and have one small solar panel on the top to avoid attention.
Stealth Van Camping Tips
Still feeling nervous? Here are some tips to make your stealth camping more successful.
Arrive late and leave early
You will hear this phrase a lot. This is one of the most common ways to stay undetected! Don’t show up somewhere around dinner time and plan on hanging out until noon the next day. Instead, find somewhere else to hang out until you’re ready for bed and move to your sleeping spot then.
Stay quiet and limit movement
Remember, you don’t want anyone to know you’re inside! Don’t play any music, watch anything out loud (use headphones!), or talk loudly. Try testing out how soundproof your van is beforehand to know what your sound limit is.
Also, try not to move around too much. The slightest movement can shake your van! You want to complete your bedtime routine before you reach your sleeping spot, especially if you have to convert your seating area to a bed. You also don’t want to exit your van for any reason while stealth camping – this will allow people to immediately recognize you as a camper.
Keep all doors, windows, and fans closed
Remember – this is not a campsite! You don’t want to swing open your side door and let everyone see what you have going on. Running your fan can also generate noise and draw attention. If you have a pop-top, that’s a dead giveaway, so you want to keep that down as well.
Keeping everything closed will help your van look stealthier and uninhabited. You want to pass as a normal van, not a camper van.
Stealth camping has saved me in a ton of situations where I wasn’t able to move to a place that had designated camping spots. As a van lifer, you will definitely find yourself in situations where stealth camping is necessary, especially in urban areas.
Familiarizing yourself with common stealthy camping spots can save you a lot of headaches. Getting the right items to keep your van lowkey can do most of the stealth work for you. Keeping stealth tips and tricks in mind can help you do everything you can to stay undetected!
With your preparedness, stealth camping does not have to be as scary as it seems! I hope that this article has given you all of the information you need to safely and effectively stealth camp!