Today, I’m going to show you how to go stealth camping in the city.
Although the best places to stealth camp vary from city to city, the following suggestions apply pretty much anywhere in the United States.
Remember, these tips are for urban camping in a vehicle – not camping in the wilderness.
How to Find Urban Stealth Camping Spots
Let’s start with a quick look at a few of my favorite places to stealth camp in pretty much any city (big or small) in the United States.
- Residential Streets – Stealth camping on normal, quiet residential streets (with enough other cars to blend in) is my go-to. It just feels safest.
- Store Parking Lots – Grocery store, big box store, and even strip mall parking lots are all decent places to stealth camp, especially if the store is open 24/7.
- Industrial Areas – Sometimes, I like to park in a more industrial part of town. There are fewer other parked cars, but there’s also far fewer people around.
- 24/7 Gyms – Stealth camping in a gym parking lot is possible, especially if it’s a 24/7 gym where your vehicle won’t stand out at night.
- Hotel Parking Lots – Personally, stealth camping in hotel parking lots sketches me out as it’s usually not allowed and they’re often monitored by video camera. But it’s definitely possible in a pinch.
- Bars and Breweries – Vehicles are frequently left overnight near bars, breweries, and other places where alcohol is consumed, so yours shouldn’t stick out.
- Mechanic Shop – Cars are often left overnight at mechanic shops to be worked on in the morning. Park your vehicle in the street nearby (or even in their parking lot) and you’ll easily blend in.
In addition to these stealth camping locations, many businesses welcome vehicle campers (no stealth required).
What to Look for in a Stealth Camping Spot
Here are a few additional tips to identify a safe place to sleep in your vehicle overnight.
- Overnight Parking is Allowed – Never park somewhere that expressly prohibits overnight parking. Always obey all posted signage about parking length limits.
- Not Directly in Front of a Home – When camping on residential streets, I always avoid street parking directly in front of someone else’s home. Your best bet is neighborhoods where the houses are spaced somewhat apart to find a spot not in direct line of sight.
- Some Vehicle Traffic, But Not Too Much – I prefer stealth camping spots with a few vehicles going by at night but also not too much traffic.
- Little to No Pedestrian Traffic – Pedestrians are much more likely to notice you inside your vehicle than passing cars. Avoid areas with a lot of nighttime foot traffic.
- It Just Feels Safe – Above all, choose somewhere that feels safe. Use common sense and leave if you start to feel uncomfortable. Park somewhere that allows a quick exit if an issue arises during the night.
Even after you’ve found a good stealth campsite, don’t be afraid to move to a new location in the middle of the night if you believe someone has noticed you’re sleeping inside your vehicle.
How to Lay Low While Stealth Camping
Just as important as selecting a good stealth camping location is laying low while you’re parked there.
- Use the Right Vehicle – You want a vehicle that no one will assume someone is sleeping inside. Unmarked vans are great. Same with SUVs, cars, and trucks. An RV will stick out, although stealth camping in an RV is completely possible (although much more difficult).
- Make Your Vehicle Stealthy – Avoid anything that makes your vehicle stand out. This includes flashy paint jobs and decals. Roof racks and storage bins can also give you away. Block out all your windows with black-out window shades.
- Don’t Treat It Like Camping – Stay inside your vehicle. Never set up camp while stealth camping. Pull in, go to sleep, and leave when you wake up. Don’t hang out at your stealth campsite.
- Arrive After Dark – Don’t pull up until after dark. You want to minimize the chance of someone noticing that didn’t leave your vehicle.
- Leave Before First Light – Wake up before dawn and leave before first light. Or, leave as early as possible in the morning. Ideally, before most people start waking up.
- Switch Spots Each Night – It’s sketchy to stealth camp in the same spot more than a single night in a row. If you’re staying in the same city for a long stretch, rotate spots as often as possible before repeating.
- Be Friendly and Respectful – If you do see other people around, be friendly and respectful. Act normal. When you act like you belong there, people will assume that you do.
You’ll quickly develop a sort of “sixth sense” for finding good stealth camping spots after your first couple nights sleeping in your vehicle.
Wait, Is Urban Stealth Camping Legal?
Stealth camping is often, although not always, legal.
The answer to this question varies from city to city. Many cities now have laws against sleeping overnight in vehicles and urban camping within city limits.
Even though it’s not always legal, laws against sleeping overnight in a vehicle are not always enforced.
Lay low, remain as unnoticeable as possible, never litter, and treat wherever you’re parked with respect to reduce the likelihood of being hassled.
And, if you do receive the dreaded “knock,” be polite and respectful. Move if you’re asked.
Remember, it’s absolutely essential to never drink alcohol (or otherwise impair yourself) while stealth camping. If a police officer does knock and asks you to move, you must be able to do so.
Personally, I’ve never had a problem with stealth camping.
Although I do it regularly, I never make it a habit and I definitely don’t park in the same spot more than one night in a row.
And, as the folks at Boondockers Bible say, it’s only illegal if you get caught…
They recommend (and so do I) that you pick an urban location where overnight vehicle camping is allowed if at all possible.
Here Are Some Stealth Camping Alternatives
Although parking lot camping is quite similar to stealth camping, I consider them different since the following parking lots generally welcome campers and boondockers.
- Casinos – Many casinos actually allow free camping in their parking lots, especially for self-contained vehicles like RVs and camper vans.
- Walmart – Although not all Walmart locations welcome overnight camping in their parking lots, many locations across the country still do. Call ahead to double check.
- Cabela’s – Overnight parking at Cabela’s is still allowed at most locations. Many have RV dump stations (for a small fee) and even free potable water.
- Cracker Barrel – Boondocking at Cracker Barrel is still allowed at most locations, although every location is different.
- Truck Stops – Flying J, Pilot, and Love’s are truck stop chains that all welcome overnight parking, although you must park in a designated area (not with all the overnighting big rigs).
- Rest Areas – The laws for camping at rest areas vary from state to state. Many states, however, do allow you to sleep at rest stops for a short period of time (often up to 8 hours), although you must stay inside your vehicle.
- Just Go Camping – You might have your reasons for urban camping, but if you’re just passing through and are looking for a place to sleep for the night, there are countless free dispersed campsites located across the country that are likely a more relaxing (if less convenient) choice.
Remember, laws for overnight parking lot camping vary from city to city as well.
Even if, say, Walmart store policy allows sleeping in your vehicle in their parking lot overnight, that doesn’t mean that the city policies allow it.
This is why it’s important to check ahead – with each specific store location – before retiring for the night.
Let Us Know If You Have Any Questions
Stealth camping can be intimidating at first.
But, once you get a couple of nights under your belt, you’ll realize that it’s really nothing to worry about.
That said, if you have any additional questions or concerns, don’t hesitate to reach out for more help.
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