[NOTE: I’ve blogged all these how-to posts before, but am gonna re-run them on occasion, since folks may have missed them, and many of them have been updated or expanded since they were first posted.]
For many van-travelers, finding a place to temporarily camp is not a problem: they stay out in the countryside (known as “boondocking”) where they can be completely self-contained and isolated. Most federal and state lands allow campers to stay as long as two weeks before moving, and many van-campers make their way around the country by going from one such spot to another. It’s a great way to see lots of national and state forests and unspoiled natural areas.
While I do travel to these kinds of places, however, my primary interests are things like museums, zoos, and historical sites, and since these are in the cities, my van camping tends more to be of the urban variety. (And, I need steady access to wifi to do my job on the road.) Generally, I move from city to city to see the sights, which makes me something of a minority amongst van-campers, many of whom avoid cities as much as possible (perhaps only going into town every few weeks to stock up on supplies). My urban camping also means I can get away with a much more minimalist setup than could someone living fulltime in the rural boondocks, who needs to be much more self-reliant and have greater storage for food, water, and other things.
When it comes to finding a place to park for the night when you are traveling in a camper van, the first place most people think of are highway rest stops. These are found along most interstate highways: they have parking spots, vending machines for snack foods and drinks, restrooms, and places to walk the dog.
But, as odd as it may sound, in many states it is illegal to sleep in a vehicle at a highway rest stop, and overnight parking is prohibited. Many states that do not flat-out ban overnight parking will instead limit the length of time you can park at a rest stop: anywhere from two to six hours.
The enforcement of these rules seems to vary a lot from state to state and even from place to place. I have often spent the night at a highway rest stop in states where it is prohibited or limited, and never had any problems. But it remains true that parking at a rest stop is only a short-term option, useful for spending a single night while traveling between cities but not good for long-term stays. And there’s a fair chance you will get rousted out by the cops.
There are a few other places that are often found along rural highways which allow RVs and campers to park overnight. But when it comes to options for long-term urban camping, the place of choice for most van-dwellers is (or at least used to be) the local Walmart.
As a matter of corporate policy, Walmart allows overnight travel parking in its lots, and welcomes campers, truckers, and RVers. The company knows that people with camper rigs have some disposable income, and that we will be running into the store all the time to spend money on things like water, food, paper towels, or whatever. Sadly, though, as vandwelling becomes more and more popular, we get more and more stupid people doing stupid things in the parking lot (such as trying to move in and stay forever, and/or dumping their garbage all over the place), which leads to more and more Walmarts banning us. Indeed, many cities are now passing laws against “camping” or “sleeping in a vehicle” anywhere within the city limits. It has made things a lot harder for all of us.
It is possible in some of the cities with ordinances that, if you remain un-noticed, you may be able to slide by if you park overnight anyway. I have done this many times. Most places don’t mind (or even notice) having overnight vans and won’t enforce the ordinance, as long as you are not a pain in their ass. But it is also possible that the local cops will view anyone sleeping in a van with suspicion (especially if they notice that you’ve been there a few days, or if it’s illegal to overnight), and will roust you out. If they really want to be pricks, they’ll impound your van and make you pay to get it back.
The people whose job it is to know you are there, will always know you are there: they know exactly what to look for. But nearly all cop knocks are complaint-driven. The cops have better things to do with their time than knock on vans, so they usually don’t bother anybody unless someone complains, or unless you are parked someplace that is illegal.
So the purpose of “stealth” really isn’t to hide from the cops. The cops have better things to do with their time and probably won’t bother with you. And in any case they already know all the tricks, and will always be able to tell that you are living and sleeping in the van: they know what the solar panel on the roof and the condensation on the windows means. You simply can’t hide from them. The primary purpose of “stealth” is to avoid attracting attention from the ordinary public. If someone in the neighborhood happens to think you are suspicious and reports you to the coppers, then the police are obligated to respond and roust you out, even if they would not have done so on their own.
The trick is, I have found, not to park where nobody knows you are there—that is simply impossible. The trick is to park in places where nobody cares you are there. If nobody gripes about you being there, nobody will call Johnny Law.
But if you park overnight where it is illegal or where you are not wanted, you can expect that 2am knock on the window. If the cops do show up tapping on your window, you are at their mercy. Kiss their ass, offer to leave, and hope for the best.
Alas, it takes some experience and some smarts to know what sort of places are generally okay to park and which are not. For those who can’t figure it out, the learning curve is very steep and very short, and they’ll get pretty tired of that 2am knock on the window. Two of the most commonly-cited reasons for vandwellers to quit are “it was too hard finding places to park at night” and “the cops kept hassling me”.
To be completely safe and legal in areas where overnight parking is not allowed, you would have to pay to spend the night in campgrounds, RV parks, or motels. Many van campers simply avoid the whole problem by not staying in cities where overnight parking is illegal. Alas, however, that list gets longer all the time.