Living in a DIY conversion van sounds like fun, but when you consider the money you have to pay for campsites to park your van when you’re away from home, you’ll agree that this can sometimes be discouraging.
Plus, it sucks even more for people who have put a lot of time researching the best vans for van life along with putting effort, and money into building their own van.
But like many van lifers, we have found a unique way to live our lifestyle without worrying too much about the many restrictions of living in a conversion van.
Instead of thinking about the many regulations that come with living in a van in urban areas, we have opted for sneak camping, which is becoming incredibly popular for people who live in conversion vans.
Having done extensive research on sneak camping, we have put together some helpful tips you can leverage to find a free space you can park at night.
Whether you know it as dispersed camping, boondocking, or stealth camping, just know that they all mean the same thing.
Though it is free most of the time, you can sometimes face issues like illegal car camping.
Keep in mind that when it comes to stealth van life, you’ll always find van parking and truck stops across every city in the US, especially on all rural highways and in between.
Read our guide for everything you need to know about stealth van life.
What is Stealth camping in a van?
Stealth van life or stealth camping, as many people have come to know it, is growing increasingly popular in the US.
And for those new to this trend, it will interest you to know that it involves parking your conversion van in areas not necessarily marked for overnight parking.
This can be anywhere from residential areas to city streets to national parks or even marina parking.
And just so you know, stealth van life can be stressful.
On the one hand, you may not know where to park your van.
On the flip side, you can get worried about hearing a knock on your door when you should be sleeping in the middle of the night.
With a lot of experience on our sleeves and because we have mastered stealth camping, we will show you some tips and best practices for stealth van life, especially considering that sleeping in your vehicle, especially on city streets, is illegal.
Let’s get started, shall we?
Top tips for stealth van life in the city to avoid “the knock”
This is where stealth camping skills come alive, especially because it is hard to find a parking spot for your conversion van in cities.
Plus, most parking spots are paid for and are pretty expensive.
And if you’re a visitor to a town, it can be somewhat challenging to find a safe area for overnight parking.
Let us also add that if you’re new to a city, you may have to drive around several hours, looking for a place to sleep.
And the most annoying part is that you may be woken up by a sudden knock on your door in the middle of a beautiful sleep, which is even worse.
Over the last couple of years, we have read incredible stories about the sneaky skills of van lifers, and today, we want to show you some tips that should help.
Here is the deal, illegally sleeping in your conversion van isn’t always fun.
Plus, many aspects of van life aren’t as appealing as you’d imagine.
Unfortunately, this is the only option available to many people, especially for people visiting major cities across the US.
Here is how you can make it work.
Park your van with the windowless side looking at the street
If you plan on parking your van by the side of the road to enjoy a decent sleep, we suggest you park the van with the windowless side looking at the street.
Also, you can park the side of the van with fewer windows facing the street.
More so, having window covers will do you a lot of good.
Unfortunately, when you have window covers installed in your van, you’ll attract attention as people may start asking what you’re covering up.
Plus, law enforcement agents and police may get tipped off about your window covers, especially when you’re sleeping in areas not meant for that purpose.
Arrive after dark and leave early
One of the cardinal rules of stealth van life is arriving late and leaving early.
Whether you’re in a city, rest areas, national parks, or in no man’s land, abiding by this rule will save you a lot of headaches and allow you to get away with a lot.
If you want to take advantage of free parking, especially in campgrounds, we strongly suggest you visit campgrounds at night.
A good idea is to show up at 9 or 10 at night and leave around 6 to 7 am.
Keep an eye out for street cleaning
Of course, you want to avoid this, especially during street cleaning.
That said, it’s best you show up immediately after street cleaning is over.
You’re sure to find an empty street with plenty of legal street parking during this time.
Park your vehicle close to trees or an area with some kind of cover
It’s always wise to park your van in a location with some type of cover.
Doing this will ensure you’re not exposed.
Also, it gives you covering when you pee at night, making things easier for you.
Find well-lit spots
This is super important for safety.
Your instinct will convince you to find a dark spot to hide, but to be honest, this could end up backfiring.
And just so you know, burglary and car prowling often occur in dark, isolated alleys.
Something as simple as a street light could prevent intruders from coming close.
Change location every night
Changing location every night is a brilliant idea.
And guess what, it doesn’t have to be a drastic change.
All you need to do is find a new parking spot every day.
In many cities across the US, you can legally park your can in one place for 72 hours.
However, once people start noticing you, you might have some issues.
If you decide to explore this option, ensure you don’t stay in the same street or neighborhood for more than a month.
Find other vans
If your conversion van is the only one in the area at night, there is every likelihood that you’ll attract attention.
To prevent this, it’s best to park your car in a parking lot with plenty of vehicles.
This should help you blend in effortlessly.
But if you don’t like to park your car in a full parking lot, you can look around for a parking lot with a few other vehicles.
Safety tip: It’s best to sleep with your head away from the street.
This will ensure your injuries are less severe if another car crashes into your camper.
Perfect locations for stealth van life camping
Are you looking for a brilliant spot to park your van when stealth camping?
Check out our list of top places that are great for stealth camping, especially if you find yourself in an unfamiliar city.
Legal street parking
Many states and cities across the US offer legal street parking.
And just so you know, street parking is only paid for a specific time, usually between 6 or 8 PM.
Outside of these times, you can enjoy free overnight legal street parking.
That said, we suggest you leave early, at least before it becomes paid parking once again in the morning.
Hotel parking spots
Suppose you’re looking for a great parking spot when stealth camping; you won’t go wrong exploring hotel parking lots.
Top hotels, including Holiday Inn, Quality Inn, Best Western or any other top chain hotel, should offer a parking lot for their customers to park.
Even though they may not have enclosed parking or parking passes, it’s best to show up at night.
During this time, you’ll sneak right in.
Big Box Stores
Walmart and other top stores are places you want to check out.
Unfortunately, in large cities where crime and homelessness are skyrocketing, Walmarts have banned overnight camping.
That said, if you’re only going to stay for a night, we doubt if you’ll run into any issues.
Big box stores like Lowes and Home Depot have proven to be more receptive to overnight guests.
This nationwide store allows for overnight parking at every outlet.
However, you want to ensure you don’t overstay as they only allow for single-night parking.
Twenty flour hour businesses
Over the years, stealth van lifers have found gyms and laundromats as the perfect destination to park their vans overnight.
And since these businesses operate around the clock, you are sure to find other cars parked in their parking lot.
Strip mall’s parking lots
Strip malls and mall parking lots provide large parking areas with minimal policing.
So if you’re hell-bent on finding a great parking lot for your conversion van, we suggest you consider these locations.
Since they are designed for evening stopovers, you won’t be disappointed to park your stealth van in this location.
Another thing we love about truck stops is that you get to enjoy other services like showers and water refill stations.
At truck stops, you’re sure to get all your auto services without sweating.
Unfortunately, many truck drivers aren’t very happy with van lifers using their facilities, so keep an eye out for some not-so-cool reactions.
Bars and breweries
If you’re looking for free overnight parking for your van, we strongly recommend checking out local bars and breweries in small towns.
A good place to start is to visit the bars and sample a few of their drinks until late in the evening.
And since most bars and breweries offer large parking lots, you can simply park your car until the next day.
The truth is that many bars aren’t necessarily worried about a van parked overnight.
Parks and industrial parks
Everyone loves a big park.
Plus, it is a legal area to park your vehicle.
What we love most about these locations is that you’re allowed to spend some morning working out, cooking outside or inside with an indoor grill set and enjoying the scenery.
Also, they often provide designated parking spots, just like you’ll find with street parking.
However, keep in mind that this location is mostly deserted at night.
Extra tips for comfort: We always encourage van lifers to seek out a flat parking space.
This will ensure that your bed is properly leveled, allowing you to enjoy a wonderful night’s rest.
Plus, this will prevent you from rolling right off your bed.
Is it okay to stealth camp in a residential area?
This has spurred many arguments among van dwellers.
To be honest, we don’t see anything wrong with that.
50% of the time, most van lifers park their cars in residential neighborhoods.
In places like Florida, it’s easier to find parking spots in residential areas than in other locations.
Camping in residential areas: Top tips you should know
- Before you visit any residential areas for rest areas or camping, it’s best to explore the neighborhood beforehand. The truth is you’ll run into some issues whether you decide to camp in a wealthy neighborhood or an unsavoury one.
- Here the catch, wealthy people don’t want van lifers congesting their streets. Also, people living in unsavory neighborhoods are often suspicious of people parking their vans in front of their homes.
- If you decide to camp in a residential area, it’s important you don’t park directly in front of people’s homes, especially if they are awake.
- In order not to raise eyebrows, we suggest looking out for apartment complexes. Most people won’t be suspicious about an extra car parked close to them.
Finding showers and bathrooms while stealth camping
If you plan to go stealth camping in box trucks or work vans, then you ultimately have to figure out how you’re going to shower and use the restrooms.
And to be honest, this can be a little tricky.
But not to worry, we have you covered.
Here are some tips to effortlessly find a restroom pitstop when you just can’t find a bush to do your business.
- Use the restrooms at gas stations
- Most grocery stores have a restroom, so it’s best to take advantage of this.
- Rest stops are also a brilliant option.
This is one of the areas most van lifers have problems with.
But by taking advantage of some of the tips we provided, you should be able to find other options when the bushes just won’t do.
Even when you find a bush to do your business, it is very likely it would look flimsy.
Plus, the excruciating cold of winter can make things even more difficult.
Besides finding restrooms as you travel, you may also spend long hours looking for places to have a hot bath.
Read on for some helpful tips on how to score a hot shower.
Finding a hot shower
There are many ways to find a hot shower.
Here are some of them you’ll love.
- The easiest way to find a hot shower is to get a gym membership. And so you don’t end up spending a fortune, it’s best to opt for a cheap gym membership. A gym membership at a national gym should work just fine.
- Take advantage of truck stops. These guys usually offer a hot bath to truckers.
- National parks and campgrounds also offer a free hot shower, so make sure you consider this option.
- Another amazing way to get a hot bath is to explore the loverlander app. This brilliant app for vanlifers provides users with options to search for shower facilities.
Places you should avoid when stealth camping
The stealth van life can be all shades of fun, but guess what, you don’t want to run into any issues with the authorities or put yourself in harm’s way.
That’s why we have put together a list of places you need to avoid when stealth camping.
Here, check out some of them.
Around train tracks
Trains run almost all through the night and there is every likelihood that you’ll be woken up one too many times from your sleep.
The train rumbling and blaring horn is enough to distort your sleep.
So it’s best to avoid such locations when you can.
Wealthy neighborhoods and sketchy areas
As we earlier stated, camping in either wealthy or sketchy neighborhoods isn’t such a great option as you may arouse suspicion or make people in those locations uncomfortable.
Also, you don’t want to park your car on the main street, especially in a neighborhood with a lot of bars.
We also suggest you avoid Home Depot parking lots, especially if you notice that the place harbors a lot of homeless people.
At all times, we strongly recommend assessing the situations and using your best judgment.
Stealth camping in the wilderness
Given our years of experience, we know for a fact that camping in rural areas and wilderness is way easier than stealth camping in cities.
And that’s because it is pretty easy to find a parking spot in this location.
That said, here are some great apps that should help you find legal boondocking spots.
This wonderful app provides stealth campers with a definitive guide to all the incredible campsites in the US.
Whether it is free or paid, rest assured that this app will provide you with all you need.
Plus, there is an option to find campsites around your area.
Allstays Camp & RV
This superb app makes it easy to find RV parks, hookups and campsites around you.
Plus, you get seamless access to general camping services.
We love this brilliant app because of its unique proposition.
Using this app, stealth campers can search for campsites, showers, wi-fi and a host of other information.
And because the app has a robust community, you can also get useful information from other van lifers.
This app works almost like couchsurfing.com, only that this one is built for van lifers.
If you’re looking for people who are happy to provide their driveway or property for overnight guests at no fee, then this is the place to look.
Every state in the US has BLM land.
But if you’re interested in the most scenic BLM land perfect for van lifers, then you should visit Utah.
For those who don’t know what BLM land is, it is federal land that is allocated for free sleeping.
It is also sometimes referred to as dispersed camping.
Unfortunately, while it is free, it has no amenities.
So keep that in mind.
Frequently asked questions
How much would you spend to build a stealth van?
If you’re planning to explore stealth camping, then you’ll need to get a conversion van.
While you can buy one that is already prebuilt, you can decide to build one yourself.
If you decide to build a stealth van, you’ll end up spending between $7,000 to $10,000.
Where is the perfect place to sleep in a van?
If you live in a van, there is every likelihood that you’ll find it pretty challenging to find a spot to sleep.
That said, you can take advantage of BLM areas, National Grasslands, and National Forests for sites you can park and sleep.
Other great places for parking and sleeping spots include rest areas, hospitals, hotel and parking lots, Walmart and more.
Does the law allow people to sleep in their cars?
There are many states in the US where it is legal to sleep inside your car.
For instance, some states have over 100 parks where people are allowed to sleep in their vehicles without paying.
This is designed to give states control over people’s activities.