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Stealth Camping: What Is It & Is It Legal? Should You Do It?

Stealth Camping: What Is It & Is It Legal? Should You Do It?

In today’s post, we cover the concept of stealth camping. 

We’ve written before about free overnight RV parking and we’ve addressed the question “Can you camp in Walmart parking lots?” But stealth camping is a little different.

While it’s fairly common, stealth camping is primarily reserved for travelers with certain types of rigs. After all, how “stealthy” can we be in a 43′ diesel pusher towing a Honda? 

But, just because we can’t do it doesn’t mean we don’t want to let our readers who can be stealthy know more about it.

So, let’s investigate the ins and outs of stealth camping!

What Is Stealth Camping?

The term “stealth camping” isn’t really camping in the true sense of the word. It’s more about finding a place to spend the night unobtrusively, and then carrying on with your travels the following morning.

So, while the term seems to refer to overnight camping, it’s really more about simply sleeping overnight in a free spot, and leaving early the following morning without anyone even realizing that you’ve been sleeping there.

A van parked in the city might be stealth camping

Discreetly parking on a city street overnight may be acceptable – or not – depending on local laws.

We’re talking about overnight parking spots on streets in a suburban or urban area, in parking lots, rest stops, truck stops, and the like. Some people even park in hospital or hotel parking lots. But should you? Is it even legal? More on that later!

But, while RVers like us can spend a night in a rest area or a truck stop, or in a Walmart or Cracker Barrel parking lot with permission, we can’t really be stealth campers due to the fact that we stick out like a sore thumb and few parking spaces will accommodate a rig like ours.

For this reason, stealth camping is generally a facet of van life. This is because it’s far easier to find free parking for a camper van than it is for a larger type of RV. 

But even items like vent fans and solar panels can indicate that a van is actually an RV and someone might be living inside.

In essence, if your rig can look like a regular van parked on the side of the road overnight with no one inside, then you’re probably a candidate for successful stealth camping – as long as you observe some reasonable habits.

Have a super-stealthy vehicle that doesn’t even have an RV roof vent fan? Need some air anyway? How about one of the camping fans we recently posted about?

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A hotel parking lot is a possible stealth camping spot

Some people actually park overnight in hotel parking lots from time to time. But this can be risky for a knock on the door from security in the middle of the night and may be frowned upon.

Is Stealth Camping Legal?

That depends, largely on local ordinances. In many areas, it’s illegal to park overnight and remain in your vehicle on public property. In some places, it’s literally illegal to sleep in your vehicle. But these rules are generally made and enforced by a local municipality.

For this reason, it’s important to understand the laws of the areas you frequent with regard to stealth camping. 

In some cases, you may see signs that clearly indicate “No Overnight Parking” or something to that effect. The same is true for city and state parks and beaches, and even for many rest areas.

Look carefully for signs that indicate that you’d be violating a law if you were to park there overnight. Such as a sign as you enter a town that says “No parking on any street from 2 AM – 4 AM” or something to that effect.

The best thing to do anytime you intend to park overnight in a public place is to seek permission whenever possible.

Tips for Stealth Camping

There are a number of things you can do to minimize the potential for trouble when you want to do some stealth camping.

Blend In

Again, if you’ve got a rig that is obviously an RV, unless you’ve got permission to park overnight, you’re probably asking for a late-night knock on the door. 

If you’re able to blend in with the other vehicles parked in the area, you’re more likely to be successful as a stealth camper, as long as you don’t draw attention to yourself in any way. The less it looks like a vehicle that’s used for sleeping or living, the more likely you’ll be left alone.

An older RV parked in a rest area parking lot.

It’s pretty hard to be stealthy in most RVs. This is why stealth camping is generally a practice reserved for camper vans and van conversions, as well as car campers and minivans.

Don’t Set Up Camp

Don’t pull out your rear kitchen and start cooking a meal on your portable camp stove. Don’t brush your teeth outside the rig and spit in the street. You get the idea.

The goal is for no one to have reason to suspect that you’re camping overnight or that anyone is even inside the vehicle.

Arrive Late, Leave Early

Experienced stealth campers get themselves all ready for the night in another location, (including covering windows, walking the dog, preparing for the night, etc.) and then drive to the place where they intend to spend the night, and just crawl into bed (from the inside of the van if possible).

Arrive late, when there aren’t likely to be as many people walking around to notice you, and leave early the next morning and find another place to brush your teeth and grab breakfast, etc.

Stay Only One Night

An unknown vehicle, even an obscure one, may attract attention simply by showing up too frequently. 

When stealth camping, it’s best to choose your location carefully and then stay there for only one night. In other words, don’t push your luck!

This doesn’t mean that you can never return to the same location. But again – the object is to not draw attention to yourself. If you stay for several nights in a row, you’ll do exactly that.

Choose Your Overnight Parking Area Carefully

You’ll tend to be less likely to be noticed in areas where many other people park their cars for the night. 

For example, if you park on the side of a street where lots of people are legally parked overnight, your vehicle will be far less likely to be noticed.

On the other hand, if you choose a quiet residential street where anything out of the ordinary causes neighbors to become suspicious and call the police, you’ve lost your “stealthy” status.

This is why many people choose busy city streets, parking lots of 24-hour businesses like all-night grocery stores, etc.

As we mentioned earlier, some people feel safe parking overnight in hotel or hospital parking lots where there are lots of other cars. Just remember that hotel or hospital security could come a-knockin’, so be prepared for the possibility if you choose to park in these places.

Seek Permission

Need to get a night’s sleep and can’t find a safe place to park overnight?

Call a nearby church or local business and ask permission to park in their lot overnight. But stay away from schools!

Hardware stores (Lowe’s, Home Depot, etc.), camping stores (Cabellas, Camping World, LL Bean), and other stores may have policies that prohibit overnight parking. Or they may have no choice due to local ordinances. But if they don’t have those policies explicitly displayed, simply asking for permission may find you granted a safe overnight spot.

A cargo van parked in a rural location with no one around is probably stealth camping.

Asking permission to stay overnight at a reasonable location in your clean, unobtrusive rig is generally the best practice to maintain whenever possible.

Keep Your Vehicle Clean and Well Maintained

A vehicle that’s clean and in good shape is less likely to draw attention and suspicion than a beat-up vehicle that’s falling apart.

Keep your rig in good shape and tend to oil leaks and such so that you’re not causing people to be wary of you based on the condition of your rig.

Find Places Where It’s Legitimately Free to Park Overnight

Check out our post on free overnight RV parking and prepare in advance to sleep in a perfectly legal location and get a good night’s sleep not worrying about a midnight knock on the door.

Casinos often invite campers to stay the night in their parking lots. Here’s a list of RV-friendly casino locations in most states that you may want to check out. 

In fact, you should also check out our 7 best free camping apps for the avid boondocker.

We’re just coming up on 2 decades of full-timing, and we camp for free overnight quite a lot (not stealth camping, since as we mentioned, our rig can’t do that). We’re happy to say that in 20 years, we have never once gotten the dreaded knock on the door in the middle of the night. (Hope we didn’t just jinx that! LOL)

Should You Stealth Camp?

The bottom line for stealth campers is to obey the law and keep a low profile.

This means remaining as obscure and discreet as possible and being respectful of the areas where you park.

It’s always best to stay where you’re permitted to park overnight. And fortunately, there are many legitimate places to do just that.

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Pat OConnor

Monday 31st of October 2022

It might be better to distinguish between a temporary stop while in transit, and overnight camping. One can try to be stealthy when traveling and looking for a "rest stop', but I would suggest trying to better plan the trip to find highway rest stops or known parking lots. You can spend and waste a lot of "sleep" or "rest" time looking for a curb or lot to park for a couple of hours. Think of your reaction if you woke up one morning and a motorhome or trailer was parked on your street. We are not entitled to park anywhere just because we travel in our homes. We should also be aware of others and try to do the right thing - not the thing that might be subject to interpretation. Just a thought - not a sermon. Be well and stay safe

Roger

Saturday 29th of October 2022

If a sign, person, or ordinance says "No Overnight Parking," what does that really mean? If I pull in at 9:00 PM and want to get a three hour nap and leave just after midnight, was that "overnight parking?" What if I'm putting in a long travel day and don't stop until 1:00 AM, then leave again at 6:00 AM -- is that "overnight parking?" I think there's room for argument in each of these cases...

Michael Nistler

Saturday 29th of October 2022

When returning to California after a long day of driving, we opted to pull over at the Boomtown/Reno casino for a delicious dinner at their diner. However we wee surprised to find out that overnight parking is now a NO-NO in Reno/Sparks based on a City Ordinance a few years ago (lots of homeless problems).

That said, as long as we moved over to the spots where dozens of truckers were running their engines we were told it would be okay as long as we left early in the morning which was our original intent.

So just like our California rest areas adjacent to our Freeways, it's okay to pull over "a few hours" to rest, but not to openly sleep the entire night.

Happy Trails,

Michael and Grace California Travel Videos

TheRVgeeks

Saturday 29th of October 2022

Thanks for sharing, Michael & Grace!

Carol

Saturday 29th of October 2022

Some towns, like mine, allow overnight campers in the school parking lots during the summer. They figure extra set of eyes and a presence helps deter crime.

Chuck Potter

Saturday 29th of October 2022

I see that you folks have an antenna company advertising with RV Geeks. I'm interested in purchasing one for my travel trailer but I have questions. I've called them and they sent a text back telling me to use email to contact them, which I did. They responded two days later asking what needed. I explained that I"d like to purchase one but I had some questions. I included my name and phone # wrequesting to speak with with a technician so I could make a decision. However with all the information provided them, they will not contact me. Can you folks get them off the dime?

Thank you.

TheRVgeeks

Saturday 29th of October 2022

Hi Chuck! If you can provide us with a little more info, we might be able to help. Specific companies don't actually advertise on our website/blog. But there are two ways you might see a product listed. The first is if we feature something in a post. Is it possible you saw the antenna you're interested in while reading our recent post about TV antennas here? https://www.thervgeeks.com/rv-tv-antenna/ If so, please let us know which one it was, and we may have some additional knowledge about the company. The only other way you may have seen something advertised on our blog is via an ad. We don't have any control over those, but again, if you let us know what brand and model you're looking for, we might have some additional info about it.

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