Is it a cargo van, or is someone living in it?
If you’re going to be parking your campervan overnight in an urban area, you’re going to want to blend in. When you pull up to a parking lot in a bright-coloured large and tall van with customizations and accessories hanging outside, you are going to draw attention to yourself. While it is difficult to make your campervan completely unrecognizable from the outside, there are many tips to help your van melt into the general landscape of vehicles.
Does it look like anyone is living in the campervan? No? Then you’ve found a good stealth campervan!
What is Stealth Camping?
Stealth camping is overnight camping in your van in a public place. Basically, finding a spot where you can overnight park a vehicle without drawing attention to yourself. Hopefully, people from the outside will see a regular van parked outside and assume no one is living in it.
For many people who will live the van life for a while, they will need to stealth camp every now and then. How covert your campervan needs to be will depend on where you will be camping.
Why would you want to stealth camp?
- If you’re travelling through a town, you may need to stop overnight.
- If there are no campgrounds nearby, or they are all full, you are going to have to find a place to sleep.
- If you’re camping anywhere, you are going to want to not look obvious to thieves.
You will need to stealth camp at a certain point, no matter how backwoodsy you plan to be during your van life adventure.
Before you start stealth camping…
Stealth camping is illegal in many places due to problems with break-ins, too many stealth campers, and stigma against homeless people.
No campervan is going to be 100% hidden. You would have to live literally in the back of a cargo van to not draw any attention to your vehicle, and even the very fact that you are living in it will draw attention to the van.
Remember to balance comfort with stealth. Don’t pick a van that will obviously stand out but don’t skimp on safety and comfort options just to blend in. If you are going to make this your life, you will need to find something in between blending in and surviving comfortably.
For example, a low or regular roofed van may fit in better, but if you will be living out of your van long-term, or if you are tall, it may not be worth the discomfort of a lower ceiling.
Make sure to follow safety precautions when you are stealth camping. Don’t park in sketchy areas, don’t park in illegal or private places, and install customizations that add to your safety (like vent fans) even if they may draw attention to your van.
We do not recommend stealth camping when it is illegal in your urban area. There are often options in town where you can camp in your campervan without it being illegal. There are numerous resources where you can find free places to camp in your specific area, ultimately when in doubt, ask.
Best Stealth Campervans
Before buying a van, figure out if you will be doing mainly stealth camping. If you are, picking an inconspicuous van should be your top priority. If you are not, keep some of these tips in mind when choosing a van, but select the van that works best for the lifestyle, you’re aiming for.
Picking the right van for stealth camping is essential. Choose a van that you think will blend into your location. For example, Mercedes Sprinter vans and Ram Promaster are often used as cargo vehicles around cities, so it will not raise any red flags to see one parked outside. If you plan to stealth camp in the wilderness, picking deep green or camouflage tones can help you blend in. If you choose a smaller van for your conversion, you can fit into parking spots and not tower above other vehicles.
Here are some of our picks for the best camper van conversions for stealth camping. Our choices are focused on stealth, not necessarily comfort or best value, although we did keep this in mind.
Please note where you will be driving when you are choosing a stealth camping van. If you’re in a location with many Ram Promaster delivery vans, like the USA, this could be a great option. In a different country, a Ram Promaster could draw a lot of attention.
This unassuming vehicle can be seen on the streets in the UK or Europe. Fitting comfortably into a parking spot is an excellent choice if you plan to stealth camp in the UK or Europe.
This German couple has an ideal stealth camper van set up with their VW. In Germany, it could be assumed this is just a cargo van from the outside.
This British family of five lives out of their VW T5. They have added a pop-up roof to their van, but it is still relatively inconspicuous.
This French family also lives out of a VW Crafter 4×4. The white colour blends in, and it is not overly showy.
VW generally are not a good choice for stealth campervans in North America.
Ram Promasters are everywhere in the US. Amazon uses them as their delivery truck. If you want to really not draw attention to yourself, pick the low roof option. High roof options will literally stick out in a parking lot. The Ram Promaster is also a reasonably common campervan conversion, so there are plenty of resources for you to use.
Mercedes Sprinter vans can also be converted to a stealthy campervan. Choose white or grey colours to blend in and pay attention to your surroundings. Sprinters can be very popular in Australia and parts of Europe. They may stick out in certain parts of the US.
This family painted their Sprinter to look like a construction vehicle.
Ford Transit Cargo Van
While living in a van with no windows may seem claustrophobic, the Ford Transit Cargo Van is as inconspicuous as it is comfortable. With three different roof heights to choose from, pick the one that best combines secrecy with comfort. And without the flashy Mercedes logo, it is less likely to be a target for thieves.
Interior Features for Stealth Camping
Even if you decide on a different model, look for vans in neutral colours like white or silver. Opt for a cargo van whenever possible and put minimal windows. Here are some other things to look for.
We know that living in a van can be difficult sometimes, and letting light in can make living out of your vehicle feel homey, but windows can draw a lot of attention. How many professional vehicles do you see with windows other than in the cab? If stealth is your priority, opting for no or minimal windows is the best choice.
- Window covers.
So, your van is going to have to have some windows, at least in the front. Maybe, you’ve compromised and put windows in the back or one extra on the side. In any case, you are going to want to make it difficult to see into your campervan. Choose tinted windows if at all possible. Buy blackout blinds. Your goal is for people to not be able to see into your campervan, even with a flashlight. If you plan to be stealth camping in the city, you will want people outside to not see the light radiating out.
- Separate cabin and living space.
Going along with covering your windows, you also will want to have heavy curtains or another method of separating the cabin and living space so that people cannot see in from the front.
Many van dwellers find that their kitchen sink drips water when they drain it. To prevent this, wait to do your dishes until you are out of an urban area. Using a water stopper in the sink can prevent this as well. The last thing you want is to draw attention to yourself with a small leak. Dripping water out of your van is a tell-tale sign that someone might be living in there.
Consider your toilet situation when stealth camping. If you’re camping in a parking lot, for example, you can run into the gas station or store before going to bed and hope that you won’t need to go during the night. If you know you won’t be able to hold it, consider installing a toilet or portable toilet in your stealth camper van. Check out our article on how to choose a portable toilet for your van here. If that’s out of your budget you might need to use a designated pee can or female urination device for when nature calls.
If you haven’t installed a shower in your campervan or only have an outside shower, you’re going to have to wait to wash off till you’re out of an urban area, get a gym membership with a shower, find a campground with showers, or give yourself “towel showers” inside your van.
You might want to install a small cook stove for your campervan if you’re going to want to make warm food. Keep in mind that you need ventilation in your van if you will be cooking in it, so install vent fans and/or crack the windows if you plan to use your stove inside. If you only plan to stealth camp irregularly, you can stick to outdoor cooking and rely on pantry items. If you’re lucky, you might find stores with microwaves, like Whole Foods.
Consider buying lighting that is easily dimmed or not easily seen through the curtains of the campervan. Purchase specific lighting for when you’re in stealth mode, and don’t park your vehicle until you’ve completed activities that require lots of light. LED string lights are a great choice.
You don’t want to be making a lot of noise when you’re stealth camping. Don’t park your van until you’re almost ready for bed. If you’re going to watch or listen to something, use headphones so that no one outside the campervan can hear anything.
- Solar Panels.
Solar panels can draw a lot of attention to the fact that your campervan is, in fact, a campervan. If you don’t want to give up on solar, put a roof rack on your vehicle so that the solar panels are less visible.
- Vent Fans.
For comfort and ventilation in your van, you’re probably going to want to install vent fans. Vent fans are hard to conceal. If you’re going to go 100% stealth mode, avoid vent fans, but generally you’re going to want to install them for the best campervan experience. If you want to combine comfort with stealth, install the fan on the roof.
- Air Conditioning.
Air conditioning can be big, bulky, loud, and a considerable energy sucker. If you aren’t going to be able to plug your campervan into an electricity source for a while and/or didn’t install solar panels, installing air conditioning in your stealth campervan might not be your best option. There are, however, indoor air conditioning models if you don’t want to install one outside and duct silencers to reduce air conditioning noise.
- Outdoor Gear.
Take all bikes, boats, and other outdoor gear off of your van. Not only does this make it obvious from afar that your van is not a professional van, but it also might draw the attention of thieves.
- Shore Power Plugs.
Installing shore power plugs can also draw attention to your van. Install them on the factory hitch for the plugs to be less visible.
- Off-Road Wheels.
Off-road wheels are going to draw a lot of attention to your van in an urban area. Keep your special tires for off-roading and use regular tires to blend in.
- Other Customizations.
Any unique customizations are going to make your van stick out. Extra windows, extra-long, high height, etc., is going to make your campervan stick out.
Where to Park
Looking for a safe place to park can be challenging. Here are some of the best places to park in urban areas.
- Big Box Stores.
Many big box stores allow overnight parking of campervans and RVs in their lots. Ask the store first. Some US Walmarts allow it, as well as home improvement stores like Home Depot.
Find a 24-hour gym and stealth camp in the parking lot. You might even be able to get a workout or a shower in.
- Apartment parking lots.
While parking in residential areas can be a red flag, many large apartments and condo complexes have free parking. Because residents likely don’t know everyone in the complex, it’s an excellent way to avoid suspicion.
If you can find a motel parking lot that does not require vehicles to register, it can also be an excellent place to blend in.
Many mall parking lots are pretty large, and there are random vehicles that stay overnight, so you won’t be the only parked car.
Find a good park that does not close at night. Enjoy outdoor activities during the day and then wind down for bed in your campervan at night.
- Street Parking.
Find streets with free parking after a specific time and have a relative number of cars parked on the road so that you don’t stick out as much. Head out in the morning before paid parking starts again. Be aware that camping on the street may be illegal in some places.
Many establishments won’t think anything of a vehicle being left on the premises overnight, depending on the location.
- Gas Stations.
Check with the gas station before, but many gas stations, especially 24-hour gas stations, won’t mind you parking your vehicle overnight.
- Truck Stops.
While truck stops might not be super urban, you can often find them on the way out of town. Parking your campervan overnight wil notl raise any red flags, and you might be able to have a shower at the rest stop.
Where Not to Park
- In front of houses.
It is best to generally avoid residential areas, as most homeowners know what vehicles their neighbours drive. If you are going to camp in a residential area, avoid parking in front of a house to avoid suspension.
- Wealthy or sketchy neighbourhoods.
Wealthy neighbourhoods are more likely to call the police if a strange vehicle suddenly is on their street. You also do not want to stay in a sketchy part of town to be safe and avoid theft.
- Dark streets.
While it may seem like a good idea at first, parking in dark areas can be a safety hazard. Make sure you’re parking on well-lit streets in good parts of town.
- Private property.
Check for “no trespassing” and “private property” signs before setting up camp. Remember that even if there is no sign, it does not mean that you are allowed to park there. Do thorough research before stopping.
How to Look Like You Aren’t Stealth Camping
- Exit from the front.
So, you’ve followed all the steps to park in a safe, legal space out of suspicion, but you open your side door to show the world that this cargo-looking van is actually a campervan. Exit from the front doors when you are stealth camping so that no one has to know your secret.
- Don’t camp in the same place two nights in a row.
If you camp in the same spot, you are more likely to arouse suspicion. Ideally, only spend one night in the same location and no more than two nights if absolutely necessary.
- Arrive when other people are around.
Depending on where you are camping, it may be best to pull up when other vehicles are parked. Think about it, would you be suspicious of a car that pulls up during regular business hours? You probably wouldn’t even notice. But if you see a van pull up late when no one is around, you’re much more likely to be concerned.
- Leave early.
Don’t loiter on the street or parking lot. Think of it as only a place to sleep and then move on to a more stable location as soon as possible.
- Keep your van clean and professional looking.
Have you ever seen a professional vehicle covered in mud? Probably not. Keep your van meticulously clean and try to look somewhat professional as well in case you run into trouble.
- Add professional bumper stickers.
If you really want to play the part of a professional, purchase dog grooming or plumbing decals for your campervan to make it look like it is used for business. On the other hand, avoid all stickers or decals about anything else to avoid standing out.
- Don’t move around in the vehicle.
When you’re parked, avoid moving around in the vehicle so that the van isn’t shifting on the outside.
- Wait to do dishes.
Many sinks can leak out of the van. Make sure nothing you use in the van is leaking outside.
- Keep the lights dimmed.
You don’t want anyone to be able to see inside
- Limit noise.
Use headphones if possible and avoid loud conversations.
Safety Tips for Stealth Campervans
- Keep your keys nearby.
Sleep with your keys, or have them within arm’s reach, just in case you have to go in a hurry.
- Have an escape route.
Park in a way that makes it easy to leave. Leave space in between vehicles if you’re street parking. Back into a parking stall so that you can drive straight out. You want to be able to get up and go as easily as possible.
- Purchase locks.
Because urban stealth camping can attract thieves, you may want to purchase deadlocks for your campervan doors to make it just a little bit harder to get into.
- Install a security system.
You can also fit your campervan with a security system for an added layer of protection.
What to Do If Someone Knocks
Even if you follow the tips and tricks in this article, there will likely be a time during your stealth camping adventure that someone knocks on your van door. Before opening the door, make sure the person who is knocking is a police officer, security guard, park ranger, or someone with an official position. You do not want to be opening your door to thieves.
If it is an official, follow all instructions and warnings. Move your vehicle if they ask, and do not return to that spot. Don’t get ticketed or towed!
Where do you think you’ll be stealth camping? Let us know in the comments below!