Ever want to camp — undercover?
According to stealthcamping.com (who we’d think would be the authority), stealth camping is “the act of sleeping in non-conventional areas without trace or discovery.”
And thanks to the increasing numbers of people looking to live a minimalist lifestyle focused on experiences over things, stealth camping is taking the world by storm. There’s a specific movement around stealth camper van conversions, allowing stealth campers the opportunity to combine the flexibility of the stealth camping lifestyle with some of the basic comforts of home.
In this post, we’re going to walk you through everything you need to know about stealth camping, including stealth van living, how to find a stealth camp, and, importantly, whether or not any of this is even legal!
What is Stealth Camping?
As mentioned above, stealth camping is all about finding places to sleep (and live) that aren’t the typical, conventional ones the people around you would expect. Living in a street-parked camper van is stealth camping, but so is pitching a tent in an unmarked place in the BLM desert.
Stealth camping is an attractive option because, for one thing, it’s low-cost. In many cases, you can find totally free places to camp your van or pitch your tent, and you have the added bonus of being able to be pretty much wherever in the world you want to. For instance, rock climber Alex Honnold famously lived in his van for years so he could spend his time bouncing between his favorite U.S. national parks and other wilderness areas to complete climbs on his bucket list.
If you have a full-time job, living in a stealth camping van may allow you to drastically cut your expenses and pay off debt. It provides mobility and simplicity, and is certainly a step above living in your car!
Of course, you can’t just throw your van into park or set up your tent anywhere you please; if the land is privately owned, it might be illegal. The good news is, there are plenty of stealth camping communities on forums and even Facebook, and they all can offer great insights as to how to live this unique lifestyle.
But we’ll also offer some of our own tips below!
How to Stealth Camp
So, how do you go about camping in a van on a semi-permanent basis?
Along with finding legal places to stash your stealth camping van, RV or trailer — which we’ll talk about more in just a little bit — there’s also the matter of thinking through exactly what you need in the van to make it truly livable! After all, living in a tiny space might be attractive for a lot of reasons… but it can also be a challenge.
When thinking about the question, “What is the best stealth sleeping van?” — the answer is going to depend based on your specific needs. While it’s possible to buy small trailers and Class B RVs or sleeping vans ready-made off the market, many stealth campers choose to build their own van conversion, because it gives them the opportunity to figure out exactly what they need and customize their home on wheels accordingly.
Start with paper and pencil. What would you like in your van? Where will you relax? Eat? Watch TV? You will need an area for a bed, drawers, a kitchenette, plus water and electrical systems. A van is a small living space, so every area of the floor plan is important. What do you need? What would you like? Where are you willing to make compromises? You won’t have space for non-essentials so every choice is important.
Now that you have a rough idea of your needs, ask yourself the big question. Where will you put your bed? Your bed is the largest factor in the floor plan, and everything else will adapt around it. In the video above, this couple found a way to use wall space for their bed. Other people use convertible couches, and some rig Murphy-style beds.
Once you decide on the type of bed you need, the rest of the design must work around it. Remember, you are going to need storage. Is there a way to use the space under or over your bed to hide things from sight?
The height of your van’s interior can be a major factor in planning. Be sure that you have enough room to make your bed, and deal with blankets, pillows, and sheets. This is a continual frustration for many van dwellers. Think ahead and avoid this problem.
You will need accurate measurements of the interior of the van, the wheel wells, and the height of the ceiling. Are you planning to leave any of the seats in? If so, you must plan around them.
Create several versions of your dream home, then look at each for potential flaws. If you don’t need it, remove it. It’s important to have a simple floor plan.
The kitchen is the second most important area of your van home. Will you cook inside or out? In the video, our Australian couple made a fun, tailgate kitchen that provided instant ventilation. This will only work well if you live in an area with warm weather year-round. If you need an indoor kitchen, remember to consider both safety and expense. You are in a tight space, and it’s easy for everything you own to smell like pizza, popcorn, or Chinese take-out. Cooking outside removes the smell factor, but you may want to consider an awning or a pop-up tent for cover.
Custom-made kitchen inserts are expensive, but are available on ebay. Not in your budget? Check out Pinterest for clever ways to re-purpose furniture. Re-purposed furniture is a great option for storage. You will need the kitchen and food storage to be easily accessible inside your rig.
Finally, don’t forget the insulation. If you plan to live in your van, you will need to insulate. If you don’t take the time to do this, your van will be burning hot when it’s warm outside, and frigid when it’s cold. Most people use a basic silver bubble wrap insulation. It’s easy to install, and doesn’t take up a lot of space.
Stealth Camping Tips
Once you have your dream van (or whatever kind of RV footprint best works for you), it’s time to get into the more advanced stuff: figuring out how to make van camping work in the long term! Stealth camping is great in theory, but in practice, it can be hard to find free places to camp in. After all, campgrounds do have owners who want to make a living — at least the private ones — and many of America’s nationally preserved wildernesses also require entrance fees to support their maintenance.
There’s also the issue of organization, not to mention the need to find community. But here’s how to take on all of those challenges and succeed.
Find legal places to stay (for free, if possible.)
What is for many people the most attractive part of stealth camping can also present the biggest obstacle. Free places to camp don’t exactly grow on trees!
That said, they do exist — and thanks in particular to the magic of the internet, it’s easier than ever to find them. We’ve listed some of our favorites tips for doing so here, and also recommend checking out websites like Free Campsites and Campendium, which can help you find viable free and low-cost options all over the country with the help of their useful filters.
Keep it organized.
If there’s one key to van camping, it’s keeping your space organized. After all, living in such a small footprint can get cramped in no time, even if you’re a dedicated minimalist! Making sure everything has its own place (and committing to actually keeping it there) can go a long way towards keeping your camping van from becoming a claustrophobic mess. Here are some of our favorite RV organization tips.
As awesome as full-time, low-cost travel can be, it can also be a very lonely lifestyle. If you really want to find yourself camping in a van happily in the long term, you’re probably going to need to find some community… and fortunately, others are in the exact same position!
This can be as simple as following the r/vanlife subreddit, or you might try joining a member community like Escapees. This RV club is a great one for full-timers, because it hosts a variety of convergences and gatherings to bring nomads together.
Stealth Camping Safety
Stealth camping is fun and affordable… but if you’re not careful, it can also be a little scary, particularly if you’re alone. A van parked on the side of a busy highway is definitely not the safest place in the world to sleep at night, for instance.
However, many people comfortably and safely pull off full-time van dwelling. It’s all about keeping your wits about you — and taking a few precautionary steps. For example:
- If you’re totally alone at your campsite, avoid leaving your RV for long periods of time.
- Don’t leave valuable items in your camper at all, or if you must, hide them well and make sure they’re not visible from the window.
- If camping alone, consider leaving two pairs of shoes outside of your camper door to indicate that more than one person is living there (even if they’re not).
- Avoid illegal parking situations, even if they seem tempting.
- Consider caravaning or traveling in groups whenever possible.
Stealth Camping FAQ
Let’s finish out this article on stealth camping with some answers to a few of the most commonly asked questions!
Is stealth camping illegal?
It depends! There are plenty of places you can find free overnight parking, at least in the short term. That said, many stealth campers do straddle the line and sometimes exist in a legal gray area, “moochdocking” on private property, for instance.
When is it a good idea to stealth camp?
Stealth camping is a good idea when you can find safe, legal parking, can afford the right kind of vehicle for your needs and you’re enthusiastic about traveling.
When is it a bad idea to stealth camp?
Stealth camping is a bad idea if it’ll throw the rest of your life into chaos (for instance, making it difficult for you to meet family obligations or get to work), or if you aren’t in a position to afford a van or trailer right now. You can always try out the stealth camping lifestyle by renting a small RV off the peer-to-peer market at RVshare!
Steps to finding a stealth camping site
We recommend using sites like freecampsites.net or Campendium to find free stealth camping sites. Another option is to sign up for Boondockers Welcome, which does carry a small annual fee but will connect you with individuals who welcome overnight campers to their locations for short periods of time.
Can you set up a tent anywhere?
Unfortunately, no, not anywhere! Although tent camping can be even stealthier than van camping, you would probably get in trouble if you tried to set up your tent in, say, someone’s front yard. Stick to the steps outlined above for finding free, safe campsites!
This post may contain affiliate links.