People often refer to parking overnight in an inhabited area as “stealth camping.” Unless your Sprinter has no exterior adornments, no condensation on the window glass, local license plates, and absolutely no light showing through the window covers, it’s unlikely you’ve gone unnoticed. What’s more important is that you are not disturbed.
Often when we’re on the way to somewhere else, or if we’re visiting friends, we’ll end up parked on a city street and sleeping in the van.
More and more cities are becoming hostile to this type of behavior. Partly this is due to the unfortunate rising number of homeless people who live in cars, vans, and RVs full time, and partly it’s just neighborhoods having “not in my back yard” attitudes towards larger vehicles. Even if there aren’t specific ordinances against on-street camping, you probably don’t want to draw attention to yourself.
It’s not so much a question of whether the neighbors know you’re there or not – it’s more whether they care that you are there. At one end of the spectrum they might care that some dirty crusty van dwellers are reducing their property values. At the other end of the spectrum, if the aftermarket wheels on your van are worth more than most of the other vehicles on the street, they might care in a more criminal way.
If you want a quiet, undisturbed night there are some sensible precautions you can take.
Urban camping, not stealth camping
First, let’s call it “urban” rather than “stealth” camping. There’s no way that any van blends in. A high-top van with windows, a roof vent, or worse still solar panels, makes it pretty obvious that it’s a camping vehicle. The trick, then, is to make it look like it’s not an occupied camping vehicle.
First, don’t spend any recreation time at the location you intend to use overnight. Eat, get the van as ready as possible, and only then drive to your planned overnight location. This way you aren’t in and out of the vehicle, adjusting things, talking, or shining lights through the windows. Anybody watching would see you drive up, then the van goes dark. Like you’ve parked up and left it for the night.
Your van itself gives several clues to how you’re using it. Overnight you’ll create condensation on the inside of the windows unless you have a source of ventilation. Watch for any light shining out through windows or the roof vent. Obvious “camper” accessories like a pop top, gnarly tires, ladders and roof racks, awnings, or solar panels will make it clear that this isn’t just a work van. Even if your solar panels aren’t visible from street level, remember that looking out from an upstairs window means looking down on your van’s roof.
A diesel or propane heater is noisy. If it’s a quiet neighborhood, the heater noise is different to a car engine and it’s likely you’ll be heard. Of course, if people can’t figure out what the noise is, they may not associate it with someone being inside the vehicle.
If you must get in or out of the van, the driver’s door is quieter than using the sliding door, and is a more usual door opening sound, so less likely to draw attention.
Voices from inside carry a long way outside the van. So do sounds like dishes being put away, sneezing or laughing, or TV or music. That’s even true through a layer of Thinsulate insulation, sound dampener, and interior walls.
Location, location, location.
Obviously, if you’re in a commercial RV with garish graphics on the outside, then it’s pretty obvious that the vehicle is potentially also somebody’s home. If you have really close-fitting blackout blinds and if you don’t use your propane appliances or TV, you may just be able to convince the neighbors that the van is just parked up, but it’s doubtful. If you use your slide-out or put your lawn chairs up under your awning, then you really haven’t understood the concept of low-key camping and you deserve a visit from the local law enforcement. Thanks for ruining things for the rest of us.
Whatever you’re driving, you’re less likely to stand out if you end up in a high-volume residential neighborhood with on-street parking. Curbside parking in the suburbs may seem more attractive, quieter, and even safer, but if there aren’t a lot of other vehicles on the side of the road, you’ll stand out more. In any case, check whether there are other big vehicles around. There may be a covenant against it. That’s more likely in higher class neighborhoods.
You might be tempted to stop in or near a park or other public area because they have restroom facilities. While it’s good to have one available, some parks lock their restrooms over night. If they don’t, the location may well be used by less desirable folks.
The slightly-out-of-town alternative
Rather than parking in a residential area, you can find out if the local Walmart allows overnight parking. Typically Walmarts are welcoming to RVers and other travelers because they know folks will spend money in the store. They are open 24 hours, have a restroom and cafe, and well-lit parking areas. However, due to the volume of travelers, some stores in popular areas do not allow overnight parking and will move you on. Check online first, and then when you arrive, ask at the service desk whether it’s OK to camp outside the store. Make sure you park well away from the building and don’t stay for more than a few nights at one store.
Casinos are another 24-hour option. Even if you don’t gamble, they have toilet and food facilities. Like with the Walmart option, check in with the property before you just park up for the night. Often you’ll need to register your vehicle or park in a specific area. Registering sometimes involves becoming a casino “member,” but that often comes with some kind of perks like discounted food or gaming credits. These places aren’t a charity. Make sure you are giving the company something in exchange for the overnight camping spot and use of their facilities. The whole idea of casinos turns me off, but the people watching opportunities are excellent.
Mercedes dealerships will often have a line of Sprinters outside. This is one of the few places where your vehicle may blend in! If you park close to (but not blocking) the service area, you will most likely not attract the attention of any local security patrol. You also have a potential good excuse for being there, should you get approached.
Freeway and truck stop rest areas are a last resort. Truck stops like Love’s and Flying J often have overnight areas. Check inside the store before you park up. Although some freeway rest areas have “no camping” signs or time limits, it’s unlikely that you will be bothered if your van looks decent. However, these locations will be noisy. As the night wears on more truckers will stop, and they tend to idle their engines all night long. Those with refrigerated trailers will be running the reefer unit too.
Before you turn in for the night, think about what types of early morning activity could be happening around you the next day. You might get woken up by deliveries, school traffic, trash collection, or local buses. Hopefully you didn’t park somewhere that blocks access to a dumpster, garage, or entrance, or on a street that gets swept or cleared of snow on certain days.
Also consider that you could be disturbed at any point during the night. Do you have a flashlight handy? Your van keys? Clothes? If you have to move on in a hurry – either because law enforcement asked you to or because you’re feeling threatened – then the last thing you want to be doing is rummaging around for some pants to put on.
If you are approached at night, do not open your door. If you need to communicate with someone outside, make sure you can see them, and then wind down your window enough to talk. Move on if you are asked. Often it’s for your own safety, because the area changes its use pattern at night and is less desirable than you imagine.
Wherever you end up parking, lock your doors. There’s a button on the dash for that. It’s probably best not to use the key fob to lock up if you have alarm, because even if you switch off the motion detector, you’re likely to forget to disarm it before you open the door. Then the alarm will sound. Cover blown.
Making urban camping as stress free as possible
We got our van to escape from cities. Sometimes though urban camping is a necessity. We know we’re not ever going to be stealthy, but we do our best to blend in.