In today’s post, we cover the concept of stealth camping.
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!
- 1) What Is Stealth Camping?
- 2) Is Stealth Camping Legal?
- 3) Tips for Stealth Camping
- 4) Should You Stealth Camp?
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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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