The Secret Of Vehicle-Based Stealth Camping

white van parked on a street

With the influx of people joining the van life movement, stealth camping has become a popular option. With that said, what is stealth camping?

Stealth camping is camping without being detected in non-traditional locations. Typically, people stealth camp in a vehicle, but some do stealth camp in a tent. Stealth camping is free and that’s the main advantage.

Read on to find out more about vehicle-based stealth camping.

Why Do People Stealth Camp?

camping car rear tailgate open

Now that you know what stealth camping is, it’s time to talk about why people do it.


The number one reason people stealth camp is because it’s free. People who can’t afford housing live in their vehicles. They need a place to park overnight and sleep. Stealth camping is an affordable way to live.

Other people want to see the country on a budget. Stealth camping is a way to save money while traveling.


Some people stealth camp because they want to be close to a specific location. I read about a young woman who needed to attend a meeting and she wanted to be close to the meeting location.

Others want to be near a beautiful location like a trail, marina, or beach.

Many stealth campers don’t like campgrounds. Stealth camping gives them the opportunity to be away from the hustle and bustle of the campground.


There are people who stealth camp for the freedom that it gives them. Perhaps they can work and live in an apartment, but have chosen to leave the rat race.

What Happens If You Get Caught Stealth Camping?

no parking sign

Contrary to popular belief, stealth camping is not necessarily illegal. If you park in a location where overnight parking is permitted then it’s not illegal for you to be there.

You’ll run into a problem when you park in an area where overnight parking is illegal.

If you get caught stealth camping in an illegal parking location, you’ll get “the knock.” “The knock” might come from a police officer or security guard. Normally, they will ask you to leave. You can also get the knock if you are causing trouble and someone calls the police.

If you’re a repeat offender, or you don’t leave, you may get a citation. Additionally, your vehicle may be impounded.

How Do You Go Stealth Camping?

man relaxes in the back of his car with the tailgate open

In order to go stealth camping, you will need a vehicle to sleep in. There are many ways to equip your vehicle for stealth camping. You can equip your vehicle on the cheap, or spend gobs of money.

Most people who stealth camp don’t have gobs of money.

You will want general camping equipment. Most of the things you need you can buy at Walmart or on Amazon. The most important item that you’ll need is a bed.

You can buy an inflatable or non-inflatable pad that fits in the back seat of your car. If you have an SUV, you can buy a pad that will fit in the rear of the SUV. Alternatively, you can purchase an inexpensive camping sleeping pad.

You’ll also need bedding. Sleeping bags are easy to pack up and stow away. A 12-volt blanket is a good thing to have on cold nights. Just be sure you don’t run your battery down.

You’ll need a way to eat. If you’re in the city you can cook, buy prepared foods, eat fast food, or go to a restaurant.

Restaurants are expensive, so I wouldn’t recommend eating at restaurants very often while stealth camping.

You can find low-cost fast food by eating from the bargain or dollar menu. In these days of high inflation, even fast food can be expensive. Plus, a fast food diet isn’t very healthy.

Many grocery stores sell prepared food or food that is ready to eat. Fruit is a healthy choice and needs no cooking. Some vegetables can be eaten raw. Ready-made salads are more expensive, but a healthy choice.

camping dinner cooking on the camp stove

Another option is to equip your vehicle with a kitchen. At a minimum, you’ll need the following

  • Plate and bowl
  • Cup (can also be used as a bowl)
  • Set of cutlery
  • Mixing bowl
  • Sharp knife
  • Cutting board
  • Water jug

We have a really nice mess set that has most of what you need. You can buy one like it at Walmart. It’s compact and comes in a nice case.

If you’re planning to cook, you’ll also need a cook stove, utensils, and a pan or set of pans.

If cooking in your vehicle, you’ll need a way to wash the dishes. Washing dishes the traditional way uses a lot of water and water has to be stored. If you’re in a small vehicle, you may not have the room or want the weight of water for cleaning dishes.

Here’s another option:

First, scrape all the food off the dishes. A plastic scraper is a handy tool for this. The GSI Outdoors Compact Scraper is my personal favorite. It has a flexible side and a rigid side.

Then, pick up an inexpensive spray bottle at the dollar store. You can fill it with white vinegar and water in a 1:1 ratio. So, half vinegar and half water. Spray the dish and wipe it clean.

While stealth camping, you’ll want to be able to take a shower. If you don’t have a shower in your vehicle, join a gym.

24-hour gyms are great places to work out, shower, and go to the bathroom. Since they are open 24 hours, you can usually find a place near them to sleep without being detected.

In addition, you’ll want to know the locations of the laundromat in order to wash your clothes.

Being stealthy requires that very few people know your location. Of course, you should let close friends and loved ones know where you’re going and when you’ll be back. No one else needs to know.

By the same token, don’t share your location on social media. That way people won’t be able to steal your spot. That way, you’ll likely be able to camp there again.

If someone asks you to leave, go. It doesn’t matter if that person is not a police officer or security guard. If you don’t leave, you’re asking for trouble and trouble isn’t very stealthy.

Have everything ready and packed up in case you do need to leave in the middle of the night. Being ready includes being sober since you won’t want to drive while intoxicated.

Why Is Stealth Camping Popular?

Stealth camping is very popular in the US since the cost of housing is so high. Especially in states like Hawaii, New York, and California. Plus, stealth camping gives a level of freedom from the rat race that society has become.

Where Do You Park When Stealth Camping?

cars parked in a lot

Choose locations that are safe, level, and quiet.


Never stealth camp in a sketchy location. Let your intuition be your guide. If you don’t feel safe, leave the area and find another location. Affluent areas are generally safer than poor neighborhoods.


You’ll sleep better if the location is level. If you’re parked on the side of the road, you may find that the vehicle dips near the gutter. Gravity will pull you to that side of the vehicle and you’ll be uncomfortable. Before you get ready to sleep, make sure you’re vehicle is level.


Places that are away from vehicles and people are going to be quieter. Visit during the day prior to your night’s stay so you can evaluate the noise level. There have been a couple of times when I camped next to railroad tracks. The trains kept rolling all night long and I didn’t get a wink of sleep.


Stealth camping infers an urban local. If you’re interested in dispersed camping, I wrote a piece

There are many locations to choose from when stealth camping:

  1. Parks
  2. Apartment Parking Lots
  3. Sports Complexes
  4. Shopping Plazas
  5. Hotel Parking Lots
  6. Big Box Parking Lots
  7. 24-hour Fitness Gyms
  8. Neighborhoods
  9. Tennis Courts
  10. Football Fields
  11. Commercial Parks
  12. Truck Stops

Stealth Camping Tips

Here are some tips for stealth camping.

Be Quiet

They call it “stealth camping” for a reason. Your goal is to go undetected. Therefore, you want to make as little noise as possible.

If you have a vehicle that makes a noise (like a beep or chirp), disable the sound.

Be Prepared

When stealth camping, you should make the minimum amount of fuss so that you don’t draw attention to yourself.

Make your dinner at a different location. This is especially true if you are cooking outside. Either way, cooking dinner in your vehicle requires lights and movement.

If you don’t have a toilet, go to the bathroom in a different location from where you’re sleeping.

If you have a dog, walk your dog somewhere else so you won’t have to take them out at night.

Choose a location that is away from building entrances.

If you have the opportunity, scout out the location prior to sleeping there. Check for “no parking” signs and steer clear of those areas. You may see “no parking” signs for street cleaning and snow removal. Pay especially close attention to areas that have signs that read, “no overnight parking.” and steer clear of those as well.

Research the local laws to find out if overnight parking is permitted in the area you are camping.

If you are parked parallel to the road, park in front of another car. That way, if a car hits you, the impact will be lessened by the other car. If you are parked in a parking stall, back your vehicle into the stall. This will minimize the impact on you in case of a collision.

Be Invisible

Park where your vehicle will fit in. Park near other similar vehicles. If you’re in an RV, park next to other RVs or near trucks that are overnighting in the same area.

Some stealth campers choose a vehicle that won’t stick out. If you have the choice, choose a vehicle that is likely to go unnoticed. RVs are a dead giveaway. A large RV will stick out like a sore thumb when stealth camping. Plus there are many areas that do not allow RV parking.

Ideally, you’ll want a vehicle that looks stock and doesn’t have many accessories, like storage bins on the roof or attached to the hitch. Visible solar panels are a dead giveaway that your vehicle is a camper.

Arrive late, preferably after dark. Leave early, before the area becomes busy.

Act as you fit in and then you will. Try to look as normal as possible, like someone who lives in the area. Maintain good hygiene and wear normal clothes.

Have a backup plan in case you have to move. The best time to pick a new spot is not when you are muddle-headed from just waking up.

Minimize Lights

Minimize the light in your vehicle. Turn off all the lights. Cover the windows.

Minimize Sound

Minimize sounds coming from your vehicle. If you want to watch TV or play music, wear headphones or use earbuds.

Reduce Shaking

Reduce vehicle shaking. When you get to your stealth camping location, be ready to get right in bed.

Avoid Window Fogging

Do your best to minimize window fogging. Crack a window or open a vent so you’ll have air circulation.

If it’s cold outside, heat your car prior to your arrival at your sleeping location. Likewise, if it’s cold outside, cool the car prior to your arrival. Ideally, you won’t want to be running the heat or air conditioning after you arrive anyway.

Don’t go to bed with wet hair or have wet towels exposed to the air.


With a little effort, you can make stealth camping work for you. Happy camping!

Crystyn Chase

Crystyn enjoys traveling to new locations off the beaten path. She's passionate about RV adventure travel and her desire is to share that love with readers. She is married to Doug and has a playful German Shepherd named Trinity. When not on the road, Crystyn enjoys gardening and food preservation.

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