What does Stealth Camping Mean?
Stealth camping refers to overnight parking or camping in locations aside from a designated
camping area in a campground or RV park. There are many different styles to stealth camping as there are campers who choose this option for their overnight parking.
As the name suggests, stealth campers choose locations where they can park and stay relatively undetected by outsiders who don’t know that this is what they are doing.
Is Stealth Camping Illegal?
Stealth camping is generally not illegal, so long as the camper is abiding by all national, state and local laws and ordinances. There are many locations that do prohibit overnight parking or camping, but many more that either specifically allow or do not explicitly restrict the activity either.
If you choose to stealth camp on private property, explicit permission from the land or business owner is required in order for stealth camping there to be legal. In those instances, the stealth aspect refers to passersby or others, not the land or business owner of the property where you are parking.
The legality of stealth camping on city streets depends greatly on the municipality and local ordinances. As a stealth camper, parking on residential streets may not provide a good night’s sleep under bright city street lights, but it is usually a safe option, if the city allows it.
How To Stealth Camp With Minimal Issues?
Choosing a good vehicle for stealth camping is important, and where you desire to car camp can certainly play a significant role in the vehicle that you choose.
Choose A Good Vehicle
White, windowless cargo vans White, windowless cargo vans are an excellent option to provide you with maximum privacy in both urban areas and dispersed camping areas. These cargo vans blend in well on city streets, in parking lots, and are also not out of place on BLM land.
BLM land is land maintained and set aside for public use by the Bureau of Land Management and are often found around national parks or other areas that are more remote.
Without all the windows that most other vehicles have all around, these cargo vans provide the stealth camper with the opportunity to move around inside the vehicle undetected by those outside of the vehicle.
Conversion vans are similar to the white, windowless cargo vans and can provide you with more creature comforts such as built-in beds, kitchenettes, and might even have running water or other luxuries. These vehicles make a great stealth camper van because they blend in well in urban or suburban areas where van dwellers might choose to park in front of someone’s house or in a parking lot. Many van lifers choose a conversion van for the amenities that they can offer.
Passenger vans are another option to consider when looking into stealth camper vans. While not as luxurious as a conversion van and provides a bit less privacy than windowless cargo vans, these vehicles are also quite good at hiding in plain sight in urban areas as well as some dispersed camping locations. This makes them good for everything from quick overnight camping to full blown van life.
For those who are looking to still have a large interior space inside their vehicle while blending into urban and suburban spaces, minivans are a great option for stealth camping. If kept clean and in good repair, minivans can park undetected in many parking spaces of businesses or unassigned spaces in apartment complexes, on city streets, or even in urban areas.
Similarly, SUVs provide comparable space and blend into these surroundings well, making SUVs a safe and reliable option for a stealth camping vehicle.
If you’re looking to keep your footprint small, what about a Toyota Prius? These hybrid vehicles also get excellent fuel economy as well as a roomy interior for a car, which makes a Prius another popular option for stealth campers. The downside to a Prius is that there is significantly less cargo capacity compared with the larger vans or SUVs.
However, what they lack in cargo space they make up for in nimbleness and the ability to park virtually anywhere.
Another option for keeping a smaller footprint while also keeping the ability to stealth camp in more remote, wild spaces than car campers or camper vans can easily go to is a Jeep. The quintessential off-road vehicle, Jeeps can easily navigate roads across BLM land or remote trails to stealth camp in more of a wilderness environment than any of the aforementioned vehicles have the ability to do.
This is a significant benefit for those single stealth campers who enjoy finding free camping spaces around national parks or land management sites.
Some large SUVs can also fit this niche, especially if outfitted with 4-wheel-drive or other off-road equipment which will allow the driver.
For those stealth campers who are looking for maximum cargo space and who doesn’t care to go off-road or to dispersed camping locations with their vehicle, box trucks also provide a unique option.
While a little less traditional for driving around, and certainly not a stealth option for parking on a neighborhood street or in front of someone’s house, box trucks blend in well in most urban areas, truck stops, grocery stores or even church parking lots. They are a form of urban camouflage that can truly hide in plain sight in most cities.
Make Sure Your Vehicle Isn’t Obvious
It is extremely important, no matter where you choose to stealth camp, that you make sure that your vehicle isn’t obvious and that it does not stick out from its surroundings so as to identify it as a camping vehicle. Considering the type of vehicle when choosing where to park helps significantly in this regard.
For instance, you would not want to park a box truck in front of someone’s house on a neighborhood street as that would draw attention to you and your vehicle.
However, parking a minivan or Toyota Prius on a neighborhood street would draw little to no attention to most passersby. Relatedly, if you are choosing to stealth camp at a rest stop or parking lot, a box truck or cargo van would be excellent options, as they are more expected here and would not draw attention from those driving past.
Don’t Stay in One Place Too Long
After choosing locations where your vehicle is less obvious as a stealth camper, moving frequently enough so as not to draw attention to your vehicle is also important. Depending upon where you choose to park, that might mean arriving late and leaving early, only staying parked for a few hours before moving to another location, or simply moving your vehicle throughout the day each day.
Vehicles that do not move fore extended lengths of time are much more likely to draw attention than vehicles that follow similar patterns of movement as other vehicle in that location.
While you might be perfectly fine stealth camping on land management land or in a free campsite on public lands for a week or two, if you are parking at a rest stop or truck stop, a few hours to overnight is generally the length of time that parking in one location is acceptable. If you stay much longer than that you are much more certain to draw unwanted attention. Sometimes rest stops have limits to how long you can park.
In that case, setting an alarm to wake you in time to be able to move down the road again before you reach that time limit is not only courteous, but will also help keep unwanted attention away from your vehicle.
Keep Your Vehicle Clean
Another important factor to consider in order to have minimal issues with stealth camping, particularly in urban or suburban locations is to keep your vehicle clean. While it does not have to be spotless or freshly detailed, it should be as clean and well-maintained as the average vehicle in that same location.
While freshly washed and waxed vehicles might also draw unwanted attention, if your vehicle is excessively dirty or in disrepair compared with others in the parking lot or on the street where you are parking, it is going to draw attention from passersby who are more likely to investigate what you are doing there.
Even if you are parked in a perfectly legal location for stealth camping, an unexpected and unwanted knock on your window in middle of the night is going to ruin a good night’s sleep and make your car camping experience much more stressful.
Find a Safe Spot
Equally important is the necessity of finding a safe spot to park. This can be extremely subjective. If yours is the only car in a secluded dispersed camping location, that is not the safest spot to park for the night.
Choosing a campsite near other campers is a much safer alternative. When choosing city stealth camping, being the only car in a parking lot might be less of a concern if it’s in a well-lit, higher traffic area.
If you are choosing to park in a parking lot with several other vehicles, be mindful of the other cars parked nearby. No matter where you choose to park, it is important to close all of your windows and keep your driver’s seat clear so that you can move into it and drive away without wasting time removing items from the driver’s seat in the event of the need to move quickly to a safer location.
Once you park in your stealth camping location, stay inside your vehicle unless you are parked at a rest stop and get out to use one of the picnic tables to eat at, a truck stop, or similar location where you might use the facilities or purchase items from the store before returning to your vehicle for the night. In that case, once you have done what you need to do outside of your vehicle, return to your car and then stay inside.
The more that you move around outside of your vehicle, the more attention you are likely to draw to yourself. In parking lots or on city streets, in particular, outside movement is one thing that makes a vehicle stand out from its surroundings, and if your goal is stealth camping to remain unseen, moving around outside will only deter you from that goal.
Arrive Late and Leave Early
If you are parking in a parking lot, truck stop, rest stop, or similar location, it’s courteous to arrive late and leave early so as to not fill a parking spot that someone stopping for a short stop or a patron of the business could use for any longer than necessary. This is also important in order to remain stealth.
If your vehicle is parked for what others deem to be too long, you are more likely to receive a visit from a security guard or police officer inquiring about what you are doing. It also opens yourself up to those who might be up to no good to identify your vehicle as one to target for theft or vandalism if it seems out of place in the location. Keeping your stay as short as is reasonably possible will help minimize these concerns.
Stay Quiet, Be Nice
When stealth camping, whether in urban or remote locations, it’s always important to be a good neighbor. Stay quiet and be nice to those around you. Unnecessary noise or disrupting the peace will draw the attention that you do not want, and you are much more likely to be asked to leave, even if you were given prior permission from land or business owners.
They are extending you a courtesy by allowing you to camp on their property, and it’s important to respect their space, including guarding the peace and tranquility of the property while you are staying there.
Consider The Risks Before You Camp
As you are choosing whether or where to stealth camp, it’s important to consider the risks before you camp. Are you choosing a location that is safe and secure? Are you choosing somewhere that is visible by others so that you are not alone, especially if you are stealth camping solo?
Are you prepared to move quickly should you determine that’s necessary in order to stay safe? Where are the nearest authorities who could assist you in the event of an emergency situation. All of these are important questions to ask before choosing somewhere to stealth camp for the night.
Without considering each of these, you might inadvertently put yourself into a dangerous situation, at worst, or find yourself moving abruptly at an inopportune time, at best, should you find that your choices are riskier than you are comfortable with.
Where To Find Stealth Camping?
There are many options for locations to stealth camp, and which you choose will depend largely on where you want to be for that night.
Neighborhoods are a good option for residential camping, particularly if you have a friend or relative who will allow you to park in their driveway or in front of their home for the night. While you still want to be courteous and not arrive too early nor stay too late the next morning, with the homeowner’s permission you will have much more flexibility to come and go. Some neighborhoods prohibit camping on the streets, especially those with HOAs.
Many homeowners associations frown upon car camping, so if you know that a neighborhood falls under an HOA, check to make sure that it’s permitted in their bylaws and covenants. If you are choosing a neighborhood that does not fall under a homeowners association, it’s still valuable to do your due diligence to make sure that camping in your car on city streets in that city or locality is permitted.
Sometimes there are limits to how many days you can park and stay or there may be a requirement to move your vehicle to a different spot each day or after a certain number of days.
Even if you are parking in a friend or relative’s driveway, there may be restrictions to take into account that are important to note before you park to car camp there.
Store Parking Lots
Store parking lots are often good locations. Many Camping World stores, hardware stores, or even some smaller independent businesses may allow you to park overnight in their lots. There will always be crs parked overnight so you can blend in while stealth camped. Always call ahead or go inside of the store to confirm with the manager if overnight parking is permitted.
The last thing that you want is a knock on your window in the middle of the night from a security guard because you parked in a lot that does not allow overnight parking. Once you have confirmed that overnight parking is allowed in a store’s parking lot, it is courteous to make a purchase from the business.
Camping World might be a good place to purchase any camping supplies that you might need, you might pick up a necessary piece of hardware or tool from a hardware store, or eat dinner in a local restaurant, if that’s the business whose parking lot you are staying in overnight.
As they are extending a service to you by allowing you to camp overnight, it’s a gracious response to patronize their business.
Apartment Buildings with Unassigned Parking
Sometimes apartment buildings have free, unassigned parking spaces. These are good options for overnight stealth parking in cities. You’ll want to arrive late and leave early in this instance, because you do not want to take spaces that are usually occupied by tenants or for tenants to draw too much notice of your vehicle in the lot.
Parking in the same lot frequently will also draw more attention to your vehicle than you probably want to, so choosing the same parking lots infrequently to stealth camp in will help to keep you stealthy in your car camping.
Can You Park Overnight at Walmart?
Can you park overnight at Walmart? The answer to this question varies, depending upon the store. It is also highly regional and something that you have to inquire about at each individual store. Some store managers prefer not to allow overnight parking in their lots and when you ask they will tell you that you’ll need to find somewhere else to park for the night.
Others are restricted by city or county laws, in which case overnight parking in any lots in those towns will be limited or not permitted. For the vast majority of Walmart stores, if you call ahead or go inside to speak with the manager they will allow you to park overnight.
They might request you to park in a specific area of the lot, to be gone by a certain time in the morning, or limit the number of consecutive or combined days that you may stay in their lot. Some managers may have no restrictions for you, in which case you can park where and whenever you please to stealth camp in that parking lot.
As with any other business, it is courteous to make a purchase from the Walmart if you do decide to camp overnight in their lot.
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Hospital Parking Structures
Sometimes hospital parking structures provide a safe location for stealth camping. Again, the statutes and laws vary from town to town, and you may have to pay a small fee to park in the parking garage, but it can provide a safe place to stay for the night. Is this an option you have ever considered for stealth camping?
Cabellas stores, like Walmart, are often friendly to overnight parking. While permissions vary from one store to the next, many not only allow overnight parking but some also provide dog kennels or running water to fill water jugs or bottle from, which is exceptionally nice if you don’t have another good option for getting fresh water while stealth camping in the city.
24-hour restaurants are another option to consider. While these diners like Denny’s or Waffle House or similar around-the-clock establishments are typically less busy during the overnight hours, there is often a pretty steady influx of patrons in the lot. If you are parked more out of the way, it is unlikely that your vehicle will draw much attention and with other cars coming in and out of the lot throughout the night few will notice that yours does not move for several hours.
An added bonus to parking in the lot of one of these restaurants is that you can either enjoy a hot dinner or breakfast the next morning in the restaurant.
Similarly, Cracker Barrel restaurants and stores are generally overnight parking friendly places. They usually have RV parking, so if you’re in a larger vehicle like a box truck or large SUV you will have plenty of space to park. The lots are also usually well-lit and near major highways, making them easy to find and visible, improving your safety and security of staying there.
Like 24-hour restaurants, when staying in a Cracker Barrel parking lot, you can enjoy a hot homestyle meal for dinner or breakfast the next morning. You can also do a little shopping inside their country store for many basic items or gifts.
Another option to consider are marinas. While they are often bustling during the daytime, at night the parking lots of marinas are fairly spares, yet you are rarely fully alone as there are usually on-site staff and sometimes boaters stay overnight on their vessels in the marina. For a quiet and restful night’s sleep, a marina is hard to beat.
Hardware stores- especially big box stores are usually a good place to find a nights parking. They tend to be pretty quiet during the night, but will usually have enough other vehicles around the lot that you can blend right in.
If you are looking for a quiet, unused parking lot, industrial parks are a great option in many cities. You might need to garner permission from a security guard, if there is one on the property. However, if you arrive late and leave early so as to not interfere with business hours when employees need to use the parking lot, these are a great option for overnight parking where you can stay quite stealthily.
In some areas of the country casinos offer free overnight parking. Sometimes you’ll need to register or go inside and sign up for a player’s card before being permitted to stay overnight, but there’s rarely a requirement to actually play any games, only to sign up for a card.
While it might not be the quietest or least trafficked location to stealth camp, there is guaranteed to be security which will be circulating around the lot regularly, ensuring a high degree of safety for you while you are sleeping.
Hotel Parking Lots
Like casinos, hotels sometimes will allow overnight parking, or at least do not prohibit you from doing so. As long as you are choosing a parking space that is not in a prime location right up front or near a frequently trafficked entrance and exit door, there is usually such a broad range of vehicles in hotel parking lots which come and go at all hours of the day and night, if you are abiding by all of the prior suggestions about courtesy and kindness, it’s highly likely that no one will even take notice of your vehicle in the lot with all of the cars parked overnight.
Truck Stops & Rest Areas
Truck stops and rest areas are excellent stealth camping options for overnight parking along interstate highways. At both truck stops and rest areas it is important to park in an appropriate parking spot for your vehicle type. Over-the-road truck drivers typically have very few options for places to stop and park when they reach their driving limit for the day and are required to rest for a specific length of time before they can get back on the road again.
Because of this, it is vital that vehicles that are not big rigs leave all parking spaces that are allocated for semi trucks for truckers and for stealth camping you should choose a parking space for cars or other smaller vehicles.
Sometimes truck stops and rest areas have limits to how long one can park. Remaining mindful of these rules and guidelines will not only keep you camping stealthily, but it’s also kind to move on prior to the end of your time limit so as to allow space for others to park and rest if they need to as well.
While setting up a barbecue or preparing a picnic at the picnic table of a rest area is acceptable, it’s not recommended to set anything up outside such as these when parked in a truck stop parking lot. It is still a business parking lot, after all.
Breweries and Clubs
Breweries and clubs often allow overnight parking also. If you are patronizing the business and the owner permits, at the end of the evening you can simply walk back to your vehicle to sleep for the night. Setting your alarm to depart early the next day and leave not trace of your stay is a kind and considerate thing to do as well.
Church Parking Lots
Church parking lots are often good locations to park overnight for stealth camping. Aside from Sunday mornings and a few other times throughout the week, church parking lots are often more empty than they are full. You can usually find a spot to park that is out of the way and often well-lit for safety to park for the night.
You might call the church office ahead of time to confirm that they allow overnight parking or for them to notify security staff that your vehicle is permitted to park overnight in the lot.
Park On The Street
Parking on city streets are also an option. Many city streets do not have metered parking overnight nor are parking spots on the street assigned to a specific resident. While some cities on the west coast do have laws in place prohibiting car camping on city streets, many do not and stealth camping on city streets might be a great option for the town that you are in!
Stealth Camping Safety
Safety is paramount when camping, especially when stealth camping spots may be in cities or suburban areas like gas stations, or on a residential street. Here are a few safety tips for stealth camping.
Be Aware Of Your Surroundings
The most important safety consideration to account for when stealth camping is to be aware of your surroundings. If you assess the situation and anything seems off, continue to move on until you find a location where you feel comfortable parking overnight. If your gut feeling about a parking spot is unsettled, then that is not the place for you to park.
Know the immediate area around where you are parking, and if you are unfamiliar with an area, parking near others is a wise choice. There is often safety in numbers.
Keep Your Vehicle Secure
It’s equally important to keep your vehicle secure while stealth camping. Always lock the doors when in or out.
Park In Well-Lit Areas:
When you park in well-lit places it deters theft, vandalism, and other crime because criminals will usually choose to operate in darkness instead of in the light, if given the option. While it might require an additional step of covering your windows or finding a way to block out some of the light from street lamps or other bright lights, parking in a well-lit area is a wise step toward keeping your vehicle and yourself secure.
Use An Alarm System:
If your vehicle does not come equipped with an alarm system, consider adding one. While it won’t keep unsavory persons from trying to mess with your vehicle, it is much more likely to discourage them if an alarm were to go off.
Add Locks To Your Vehicle
You can also add locks to your vehicle if you find that there are any doors or compartments in order to further deter theft.
Hide Valuables Well
Besides simply locking or alarming your vehicle, it’s also important to hide your valuables well. Out of sight, out of mind is not only in reference to forgetfulness, but also is important to consider in regards to safety and security. If criminals do not see valuables in or around your vehicle, they are less likely to attempt to break into your vehicle in the first place.
How To Defend Yourself When Stealth Camping
The gun debate is one that often comes up when talking about safety. Whether you choose to carry a weapon on you or in your vehicle or not, there are a few points to consider. Knowing how to safely operate and store your weapon is of critical importance. It is also important to know the laws regarding gun ownership, storage, and public carrying for the state where you are located.
Since stealth camping is in public locations, by definition, knowing and abiding by all laws and regulations is vital to stay both safe and legal when stealth camping with a weapon onboard or on your person.
Dealing With Knocks in the Middle of the Night
If you have taken all of the safety and consideration suggestions into account up to this point, a knock while sleeping overnight is problem not only unexpected but also unwelcome. Instead of immediately opening the door, call out and ask who is at the door or window. If they identify themselves as security, police, or someone else, analyze the likelihood that is might actually be who they say they are.
If you are not already, get to your driver seat before speaking to them through the window. If you find that you need to leave the location quickly, already being in the driver’s seat will save you a lot of time. If they identify as security or police, ask to see their badge or credentials before rolling down the window.
If they ask you to leave, whether you had prior permission or not, it’s wise to pack up and move on. While stealth camping might be legal, if it’s unwanted in that location, it’s best to move on to somewhere more hospitable.
Frank is the Head Hubby, Daddy, and Fix-It Guy of the Roving Foleys clan. He ia an avid traveler and has spent over 5 years traveling full time with his family. he loves helping others learn about the RV life. He has also traveled in Europe, Asia, and Australia with his wife Grainne.