Van Life: Should You Stealth Camp or Not?


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Stealth camping is one of the ultimate forms of freedom in the modern world. It’s just you, your van, basic supplies, and wherever you want to be. It can be amazing, but it’s also not for everyone.

You live the van life, but you might want to not stealth camp all the time. Stealth camping involves spending the night in unconventional locations, eating shelf-stable food, and keeping your van inconspicuous.

Safe stealth camping is all about having enough knowledge that the activity becomes common sense, but you want to feel safe. Read on to get familiar with all that entails stealth camping in a van.


What Is Involved in a Stealth Camping Trip

Stealth camping involves staying the night off roadsides, parking lots, and other unconventional locations. The point is to settle in late, get a night of good sleep, leave early, and leave without anyone knowing or caring that you stayed there.

Some people choose to make this an entire lifestyle. Others integrate it into a road trip. 

Vans are ideal for stealth camping because they don’t scream camping the way RVs do, and the camper can readily hop into the driver’s seat and leave. Someone using a trailer or pick-up truck camper wouldn’t have the same versatility.


Stealth Camping Versus Traditional Camping

The easiest way to understand if stealth camping fits within your comfort zone is to compare it to traditional camping.

Traditional camping involves rigid planning such as: 

  • Stay at a designated campground. 
  • Locations provide bathrooms, electrical outlets, check-ins, and an assigned lot. 
  • Cook over an open fire, keep your lights on, and be almost as conspicuously “I’m camping here” as you want. 
  • You may also be in a group or around others camping in a group.

Stealth camping tends to be solo and less organized such as: 

  • Van looks like a worker vehicule or business van, usually completely white with almost no apparent window.
  • Lights are down and even off, including your phone. 
  • You’re blending in. 
  • Whether in a city, off a highway, or a remote road, you scout a safe location and leave without disturbing human or animal locals.

Both styles of camping still require the basics. 

Everyone still needs to pack the same hygiene items, enough food, water, medications, phones and chargers, sleeping supplies, and have shelter be it a van or a tent.


Van Stealth Camping Strategies

You want to exercise some street smarts when stealth camping.

Stealth camping requires planning for following local, state, and federal laws. National parks outlaw camping in non-designated areas, while many cities outlaw overnight parking on certain streets and parking lots. Otherwise, you’ll also want to avoid parking by “no parking” signs. 

Stealth is about not attracting attention, and flirting with the law attracts attention.

If you brush up on rules in some of the areas you might camp at, you can avoid issues and know how to find an ideal location at a moment’s notice.

Ideal locations often include parking lots for big box stores, hotels, churches, and 24-hour businesses. Otherwise, you can find roadside rest areas and some major visitor centers along interstate highways. You want a place that’s well lit, relatively quiet, and easy to access. In cities, you want to have other cars around to make your van look ordinary.

In remote areas, you’ll want to avoid creeks because they can have flash floods.

There are apps to help you find locations to stealth camp like iOverlander, Free Roam, Park4Night. And wherever you go, try to text someone you trust where you are.


Prepping a Van for Stealth Camping

Some van stealth campers go beyond just packing the basics and sleeping in the vehicle, by retrofitting their van. You can cook on a stove in a van if you keep a door open. Small cookstoves like one-burners and backpacking stoves are also handy for cooking outside if you stop at a park. 

Sleeping off the roadside and in parking lots can make you feel exposed, which is why many people tint their windows or add curtains. 

Even sleeping in dark bedding and having a sunshade over the windshield can fix the problem.

You can also minimize the likelihood of someone visiting you by keeping your van clean. You want the van to look like an average parked car, not a homeless person living inside or someone on the run.


Urban Stealth Camping

In town, you may think that sleeping in a residential area would feel safer. But actually, residents are motivated to notice what’s going on outside. If you pick a middle-class neighborhood that already has many cars parked out in the street, you can blend in. 

Otherwise, you’re far more likely to be left alone in a commercial area. A plain-looking van will look like just another parked car.

Other urban areas stealth campers have had good luck in include parking lots at marinas, gyms, industrial parks, apartments with unassigned parking, and casinos. For decades people have claimed you can sleep at a Walmart when you get too sleepy on a road trip, but in recent years, some anecdotes claim Walmart has been wary of what’s going on in their parking lots.

One hazard urban stealth camping has over wilderness camping is restrooms. Being near restaurants that stay open late or start early will help.

You might feel more restful about stealth camping if you keep a designated, properly-sealing urine container. You might even get a portable toilet that’s leakproof and odorless such as the Rumia Portable Toilet (available on Amazon.com).

If you’re a woman, you might have an easier time with an easy-to-use and versatile female urination device such as the SPEENSUN Female Urination Device (available on Amazon.com). Once you have in-van bathroom options, you’re fully autonomous in your vehicle.


Wilderness Stealth Camping

While much of the advice applies to stealth camping in natural areas, there are a few more points to consider. You may not have the option to park in an area with lighting to deter thieves, but the wilderness equivalent would be to avoid trashy, leveled sites that squatters have used.

If you want to sleep outdoors while stealth camping, you may use the ultra-compact Survival Frog Tact Bivvy Sleeping Bag (available on Amazon.com) rather than a full-fledged tent. That way, you’re a small sight and mobile. This sleeping bag is actually a thermal survival blanket that compresses into a very small storage bag, which makes it easier to take anywhere.

Also, pick a spot uphill or under low trees and near bushes so that you don’t stand out.

More info:
Is It Safe to Sleep Outside Without a Tent?
How Long Do Down Sleeping Bags Last? 

Final Thoughts

Look over this information and ask yourself important questions to decide if stealth camping is for you. Would you feel safe using these strategies? 

It’s not for everyone, but those who do it love the freedom and quickly develop a good sense of staying safe and unbothered. You might also ask if you prefer urban or wilderness camping and how much you want to retrofit your van.


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Here are some of my favorite van life essentials:

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Martin

As an independent traveler, I try to share my positive and negative observations about van life as well as tips and tricks to make your life on the road easier. I travel and work in my old RV and would greatly appreciate a coffee from you if you find my content useful.

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