With the costs of conventional living continually increasing, many people are looking to van life and stealth camping as a means of saving money.
Whether it’s working in the city or holidaying in the South of France, camping under the radar is a great way to keep costs down and have the freedom to live the life that you want.
I can already hear you asking yourself ‘what does this guy know about stealth camping? Why does he think he can tell us all about it?’
Everything You Need To Know About Stealth Camping From A Genuine Stealth Camper!
Well, I’ve been living this lifestyle for three years now, camping for free all over the world. The first year was spent living in the same city, living in a van while working a full-time job. I saved so much money and followed all of the steps that I’m going to share with you below.
Hopefully, the tips and tricks that I have picked up from my own experiences of both living static in one city and stealth camping over two continents will give you the confidence to give it a try yourself.
And who knows, you might never go back to a campsite again!
What Is Stealth Camping?
I suppose it’s a good idea to start with the basics. Stealth Camping is parking your camper van in any area from urban streets to the middle of the countryside. It’s sometimes referred to as boondocking, free camping, or wild camping.
I lived in my van in the same city in Yorkshire for 13 months while working for a music venue. Not only was my home totally self-sufficient, but I could also park right by the most expensive houses and get the same view for absolutely free.
Stealth camping is all about living invisibly. You leave no trace, and essentially keep yourself to yourself, changing places often so that people don’t pay much attention to you. I’ll come onto these elements more as we progress through the article.
Is Living In A Van Legal?
I’ve already covered the topic of is living in a van legal here on Van Clan. It even comes up first when you type the question into Google! For those of you that don’t want to read the article, however, I’ll sum it up for you below.
At the time of writing, it is not illegal to live in a van here in Europe or indeed in the USA. There is no law that you cannot live in a converted van, motorhome, or RV.
Most people are baffled as to why anyone would want to live this lifestyle, so they’ll either ask you questions and befriend you, or shout at you until you go away.
Trust me, the last one has never happened to me… ever.
Laws On Wild Camping
There is, of course, the fact that the practice of wild camping is technically illegal in the UK, but we’ve never had a problem. Most people that we know have only ever received nice words from the police, who have found this alternative lifestyle interesting and cool.
It’s also illegal to wild camp in Greece, Slovenia, and many other places that my friends and I have spent time in without any problems. Long story short; the police have got better things to be doing than worrying about you.
N.B One of my regular parking spots was actually near a police station!
How Do I Blend In?
Blending in is easier than you think, and that is for one simple reason.
99% of people are lost in their own little world, and are too busy or preoccupied to even consider that you might be living in your vehicle.
That’s the honest truth.
Most people have real problems to be thinking about; when the mortgage is due, navigating a mind-map of their children’s busy schedule, wondering if they can make it to MacDonalds before they stop serving the Breakfast McMuffin.
Sometimes, I would be sat in my van with smoke coming out of the chimney. People would walk past humming or singing without even batting an eyelid. That’s right; I had a coal fire, and people didn’t even notice I was there!
I’ll be giving you lots of tips on how to blend in as we go through this article, but here are a few important ones that are fundamental to this lifestyle.
Don’t Worry What Other People Think
This is your life, not anybody else’s. Most people will think that you’re doing something cool, and it’s a great way to meet neighbours. My girlfriend and fellow Van Clan writer Rose and I didn’t know anyone on our street until we started converting our van.
Only one guy ever got mad at us for drilling in the street. The rest of the people, including the guy with signed and framed photos of adult movie stars all over his living room walls (true story) showed an interest.
Park Out Of The City Centre
Unless you can park right outside your work (something which I did a couple of times when I had to be in early), then it’s much better to park away from the city centre where there are fewer people and more green spaces.
Just because you’re living in a van doesn’t mean you have to hide away from the world. The key is hiding in plain sight, which coincidentally is the first chapter of a book I’ve been working on. (More about that another time).
Don’t Paint Your Van Bright Pink With Yellow Dots On It
Stealth Camping is all about not drawing too much attention to yourself. If you’re boondocking on private land away from the public, then go crazy with your design.
But if you want people to just think that your day vehicle is a camper van and that you’re not sleeping in it, then maybe go for something that blends in like a dark blue colour scheme, or perhaps plain old white.
I have a trick where I put a wheel clamp on my tyre whenever I’m inside the van and whenever I leave it. When I’m inside, it looks like I’ve parked up and left it. And when I’m not in it, I know that it can’t be stolen because there’s a clamp stopping it from moving.
Other people opt for sneaky branding choices, but I’ll get onto that soon.
Picking The Perfect Park Up
There are so many places to choose from when it comes to parking up that sometimes you’ll be spoilt for choice. In Europe and America where there are large forests and sandy beaches, the world really is your oyster.
I’ve been parking up on mountainsides and right beside the ocean for the past two years, waking up in some of the most tranquil places on earth. But sadly, that’s not always possible, and sometimes you have to opt for a car park or at the side of a street.
Most people will tell you that you can park up in a pub or bar car park for free. It’s not free, though, because you have to spend £20 on a meal or $40 on drinks.
I’m talking about completely free park ups. And here’s how to find them.
Finding A Good Street
Finding a good street for stealth camping is pretty easy when you know how. Just look for where people park their cars on a morning before going to work in the city, and you’ll usually be able to find the free spots.
Areas next to open land are always a good bet. You can crack your door while you’re cooking and the rest of the world will still be none the wiser.
Parking in residential areas can sometimes be a bit tricky, and to be honest, it’s best if you don’t. The last thing that you want is to be slap bang outside someone’s house, as they’re more than likely going to complain.
Instead, find roads leading off residential areas. Get used to parking on slopes, and look for where other motorhome owners park their weekend warrior campervans that come out once or twice a year.
If you do need to park on a street, then try not to make a habit of using the same one all the time. Switch your spots around.
Switching Up Stealth Camping Spots
I had two or three regular spots when I was wild camping in one city. I would go between a road next to a horse racing course, a sloped road beside a college, and an industrial estate near a science lab.
Parking on small industrial estates with houses nearby is quite common. Many people in the surrounding neighbourhoods will leave their cars there, and people don’t tend to walk through that often. This was one of our favourite spots as it was one of the most inconspicuous places and was pretty close to work.
Of course, you should always be aware of your surroundings too. One night, while laughing at a TV programme, a guy knocked on out window and asked what we were doing. He was a security guard and pointed at a sign that said ‘we can see and hear you’.
I think it must have been a part of the spooky science lab, and he must have thought that we were trying to case the joint. We moved soon after and left it a couple of weeks before we used the area again.
Parking On Forest Land
If you’re blessed with having BLM or National Forest land nearby, then your stealth camping routine will be a lot simpler. The only residents that you need to worry about are bears, and they don’t tend to judge you if they see you in your underwear.
You can camp in rural forest areas in America for free, providing that they are not National or State Park sites. The same goes for Scotland here in the UK, where there is a ‘right to roam’.
The main rules are that you leave the place as you found it, do your ablutions away from water sources and paths, and to respect other boondockers.
Can I Use Apps To Help Me?
Of course! My favourite app that I have used throughout Europe and the United States is Park4Night. It’s a community-driven app that allows people to log different areas that they have stayed in and to write down their experiences.
This is a great way of finding where truck stops, rest areas, and wild camping spots are located. It can really help you with your stealth camping weekly routine and is an invaluable tool for picking relaxing parking spots while travelling around the globe.
Living The Van Life While Working
Why do we pay hundreds and thousands of pounds out in rent and bills while working jobs that we don’t like or are underpaid for?
When I started living in a van while working, I instantly saved £1,000 a month on rent and bills. That’s a huge amount, and the money went straight into our travel back-up fund for our worldwide adventures.
Living and working in a van was far easier than people think, and that’s because our van is our tiny home. It’s tall enough to stand up in, we’re 100% self-sufficient when it comes to electricity, and we have all of the same appliances that you have in your house.
Where Do I Shower Or Go To The Toilet?
Showering at gyms is a great way to keep clean while living in a van in one place. Depending on how much you want to spend, you can go really fancy and get a gym with a pool and a hot tub and kick back with the rich folk.
Rose and I found the cheapest 24-hour gym with showers. With us working in a music venue, sometimes we would both finish pretty late, so we wanted somewhere that was open all hours. You get a passcode and let yourself in, so there’s no receptionist to wonder why you only spent 10-minutes in the gym and came out with wet hair.
More often than not, we’d work out. Sometimes, it would literally just be for a shower. I would shave my head in there and spend ages chilling under the hot water. Again, I did this for 13 months and no one knew or cared.
While travelling full time, we wash in our sink. We also have a toilet that we empty in designated disposal areas, all for free. We had the same cassette toilet in our van while living static too, and we used to empty it down another toilet in Rose’s grandparent’s garage. Simple
What If I Don’t Want a Toilet In My Van?
24-hour supermarkets are great. Pop in for a snack, visit the loo, and leave. Or just run in to the toilet if you’re desperate. No one is counting how many times you visit the loo over a period of a year.
Where Do I Get Water?
Once you start looking, there are taps everywhere. You develop a tap radar that you never knew you had, like a walking water diviner.
We filled our canisters up at work or at an outside tap by Rose’s grandparents or a friends house most of the time. We’ve also filled them up from parks and once or twice by a graveyard.
When we’re travelling, we use everything from mountain-side hand pumps to taps installed by the local council to welcome vanlifers to the city or town. Van life is much simple in countries other than the UK…
Stealth Camping Safety
What Things Should I Be Looking Out For?
There are a lot of horror stories when it comes to people stealth camping. There tends to be a notion that you’ll be murdered in your sleep or that goblins will take you away in the middle of the night.
I can confirm that neither of these things have happened, although you do tend to be more aware of what’s going on around when you’re living in the open.
Use your gut is the advice that I always give people. It doesn’t matter where you live in the world, it’s not hard to tell when you’re in a bad area. Stay away from places with broken glass or tonnes of graffiti. Likewise, parking next to a pub where rowdy drunks might be leaving from is also not a good idea.
What To Do When Things Go Sour
The UK celebrates 5th November by setting off fireworks to mark Guy Fawkes attempt to blow up the houses of parliament. I remember one year when a group of ‘youths’ were firing rockets and fireworks right by our van.
They didn’t realise that we were inside, and it freaked us out a little bit. But did they do anything to us? No. They were just fooling around and being kids.
Another time a drunk guy threw chicken at my head and chased me as I was trying to get into my van. He fell over, smacked his head on the curb, and I ran to hide behind a friend’s bin. I called the police, and they sent the man on his way.
The best thing to do is to stay calm in situations like these and try to rationalise. Or run like crazy and try to avoid acquiring a greasy chicken face.
Is It Safe Parking In the Middle Of Nowhere?
I would argue that it is, and stealth camping in a forest is one of the most peaceful and relaxing things that you can do. It’s just you and the tranquil sounds of nature.
What more could you want!
It’s got to the point where I prefer parking alone on beaches or in forests. Kids will arrive from time to time to do drugs or smoke or play Yu-Gi-Oh while listening to rap music. They just want to be left alone like I do, so it’s all fine.
My rule of thumb is that if I see houses in the distance or I have signal to call for help if I need it, then I’m fine. We, as humans, always seem to think that people are out to get us or attack us.
Most people on this earth are nice; it’s important to remember that. If you hear a car pulling up next to you in the middle of the night, it’s probably just another camper or a couple on a romantic rendezvous. Not everyone is a gun-toting drug dealer with a hatred of camper vans!
A Visit From The Police
People say that you’re not a true vanlifer until you’ve had a visit from the police. You’ll be lying in bed or making your breakfast, and there will be that unmistakable knock on the door. Sometimes, it might even be accompanied by flashing lights!
I never had a visit from the police while living in the UK. IT happened once in Spain when a friendly officer asked to see our papers, and twice in Italy, both times from the Carabinieri (military police).
The first was to tell us that we couldn’t park in the graveyard car park (it was close to Venice, and he let us stay if we promised to tell everyone on Park4Night not to come there anymore).
The second was when we accidentally parked in a prostitution hotspot. They told us to move for our own safety, not because we weren’t allowed to be there. They spotted the UK license plate and ‘gently’ advised us to find somewhere else to stay.
I always tell people to arrive somewhere in the daytime to scope a place out. But in this instance, the prostitution hotspot looked like a lovely country lane with a stately home when we arrived.
Check your surroundings every now and again throughout the day. If shady dudes start prowling past your van at 6pm, then it’s probably time to get out of there. We didn’t realise at the time because we were both ill and having a sleep, but boy did we move fast once we saw what was going on around us!
Leaving Your Van Unattended
Do you leave your house in a morning worrying whether you’re going to be burgled? What about your car? Our readers will probably be split evenly between yes and no right about now, and people have the same feeling about leaving their campers.
Again, most people don’t go about breaking into cars. Most people don’t get burgled. But sometimes, the worst happens.
A lot of stealth campers don’t have windows because they want to attract as little attention as possible. My van has windows (it had a chimney for a while for crying out loud), but they are the plastic kind that can’t be smashed.
Leaving your van from time to time is something that you just can’t avoid. You can, however, take some necessary steps to ensure that your camper is safe and secure.
Important Safety Measures
Things to make your van more secure and give you peace of mind –
- Fit a GPS tracker to the vehicle. Hardwire it in so the battery never runs out.
- Install some external locks on the van doors. Make your van look impenetrable so thieves will pass it by.
- Use a steering wheel lock and a wheel clamp to deter thieves.
- Place all valuables in a safe and don’t leave them lying around for people to see.
- Park under a street light if you can so your van is illuminated. Thieves don’t want people seeing what they’re up to.
Tips On Building A Stealth Camper
I’ve read a lot of articles that say things like ‘your van doesn’t need to be a home because you’re just living out of it’. To me, that’s a load of rubbish. A good stealth camper needs to feel comfortable as well as passing under the radar. The last thing you want is a bare shall with a mattress in the back!
If you’re working full time, then you do have the luxury of charging up some gadgets at work and possibly using the washing machine from time to time. But the last thing you should be doing is staying in Costa’s until 10pm just to use the WiFi or for charging up your Kindle.
Make your van as stealthy as you want on the outside, but don’t skimp out when it comes to the interior.
So you’ve bought your Transit van or Promaster and you want to start designing. You’ve gone for a camper van roof vent because you don’t want people to know you’re a camper, and you’ve installed solar panels that sit flat to the roof.
So far, so good.
Now you need to think about the electrical set up inside. With no windows, you can still have spotlights on the roof, an inverter for powering up games consoles or TVs, and a comfy sitting area for relaxing with a cup of tea. Get some of these Battle Born Batteries, and you won’t go far wrong!
Bigger vans are easier to live in full time as you can move around in them. Living full time in a small vehicle like a VW California Camper will be tougher, especially because popping the top will give the game away.
Must Have Items
If you’re camping in cold places, then a heating source is an essential bit of kit. While I’ve already proved that stealth camping with a wood burning stove is possible, having a diesel heater with a silencer is much easier and cheaper to run.
Power is essential if you’re living in your vehicle too. Having USB chargers and one of our best 12v inverter models to hand will allow you to charge up on the go and not prowl around coffee shops like a joule junky looking for sockets.
And while some people might suggest just using a coolbox, having a fridge is one of the main things that makes a van feel like a home. Being able to put snacks and fresh vegetables inside without wading through an ocean of ice just feels nice, and you always have something in if you get a little peckish.
Logos and Branding
I mentioned this briefly earlier, but if you wan’t to go under the radar, then don’t pick a van with a bright mural or big picture of your face on the side.
Logos instantly attract attention; we like to read things as we’re walking by, when we’re not looking at our phones, that is. If you have your Instagram handle up on the side of your van, then people will be able to see what’s inside your van and all of the tech that you use. The same goes for your website or YouTube too.
We’ve spoken to lots of vandwellers who have bought highway maintenance vans because of the logos on the side. Not only can they go unnoticed in many areas, but they can sometimes sneak into closed-off places to park!
Another guy that we met at the gym said that he was going to decorate his van like a ‘mobile baked potato’ business. He planned to have branding on the outside, and a small chimney in the middle which would look as though it was part of the potato-baking process. Genius!
Keep It Low Key
Lastly, stealth camping is about keeping things low key. Yes, you can play music, but don’t draw attention to yourself by blaring it out loud with all of your windows open.
Setting a table and chairs outside your camper is frowned upon in pretty much in every country I’ve been through. The Sardinian police have no problem with boondocking, but they will fine you for ruining the scenery with plastic furniture.
Try to keep everything contained in your vehicle and minimise the space that you and your belongings ‘spread out’ into. If you have windows, open those and look out rather than opening your door. The less you visually shout about your position, the fewer people will know, or even care that you’re there.
Happy Stealth Camping!
I hope that these tips have been useful and that they have given you more advice and ideas on how to stealth camp safely and effectively.