What Exactly Is Stealth Camping?

Stealth camping, or ninja camping, is like regular van or RV camping, except nobody should know you were ever there after you’ve left. The goal is to attract as little attention as possible to avoid getting spotted and told to leave.

Why do people stealth camp? One of the main reasons that people stealth camp is to avoid expensive campground/parking fees. Others stealth camp out of exhaustion after driving a long time, or to be near a special attraction when they wake in the morning.

Consider this article your one-stop shop for all things related to stealth camping, including which locations are best, how to prep your van, what to do if you’re caught, and more.


Image Credit: Neil Turner / flickr

How To Prep Your Van for Stealth Camping

To avoid unwanted attention when stealth camping, consider these tips on preparing your van:

  • Tinting your van’s windows is a great way to add a bit of privacy and should also help keep the cabin cool in the summer. Just don’t tint them below the legal limit, or you may get stopped and given a ticket.
  • Another option is to soundproof your van. Check the weatherstripping around the doors and windows, as age can cause cracks that allow more noise. You may also consider adding sound-deadening “acoustic” curtains.
  • Electrical hookups aren’t usually an option for stealth campers. You can combat this by installing solar panels in your van and/or carrying extra batteries.
  • Leaving your RV’s door open is another thing that may draw attention, especially if the radio is on or you’re cooking something. Installing an RV vent fan is a much more subtle alternative for keeping the cabin cool.

10 Places That Often Work For Stealth Camping

  1. Legal Street Parking: Street parking is usually paid for until late afternoon. So long as you show up after the paid period is finished and leave before it begins, you should be good to go.
  2. Hotel Parking Lots: Many hotel chains, like Best Western, Holiday Inn, or Mariott, make solid stealth camping locations. Just make sure parking is not enclosed and that a parking pass isn’t required.
  3. Walmart: Yes, Walmart does permit overnight RV parking. Savvy stealth campers have even given this a nickname: “Wally Dock.”
  4. Cabela’s: Many Cabela locations allow overnight parking. However, rules differ between stores, so you might want to inquire first. Look for trailer parking too, which suggests overnight stealth camping is allowed.
  5. 24-hour Businesses: Gyms, laundry mats, and casinos are just some of the 24-hour businesses that should make for a solid 12-hour stay. These places usually see lots of traffic no matter the time of day, helping you to blend in.
  6. Mall Parking Lots: Mall parking is ideal due to having minimal policing. They are also usually well-lit. If you’re lucky, there may even have a designated area for overnight parking, so be on the lookout for signs indicating an overnight parking space.
  7. Truck Stops: Most truck stops tolerate RV camping. Moreover, you’ll usually have access to bathrooms, vending machines, and even water-refill stations. Just be sure to avoid parking in designated spots reserved for passing semi-trucks.
  8. City Parks: Parks can be hit or miss for stealthy campers. Some communities will post signs refusing overnight parking, while others encourage it and even offer free electrical hookups and water.
  9. Big Box Stores: Home Depot and Lowes do allow overnight parking. However, some state laws about sleeping in vehicles may supersede this, so it’s best to call ahead and check before setting up camp.
  10. Church Parking Lots: Religious establishments tend to be understanding of others and will likely permit your RV if you ask permission first. As a rule of thumb, though, parking at a church without permission is now allowed.

Places To Avoid When Looking For Stealth Camping

 

Government Buildings

Usually, government buildings are heavily surveilled and do not allow overnight parking. You’re also far more likely to leave with a fine if you park illegally at an embassy, DMV location, or any other government building.

Privileged/Underprivileged Neighborhoods

An unknown vehicle might be seen as a threat in upper-class neighborhoods, which may lead to someone calling the cops. While you might be able to get away with camping in a lower-class neighborhood, you also up the odds of getting robbed.

Airport Parking Lots

Other than the fact that airports are loud throughout the night, they also require a parking pass for anyone hoping to stay any amount of time. In terms of places to avoid when stealth camping, airport parking lots aren’t a reliable option.

Change Locations Frequently

While you shouldn’t have too much problem finding a place for a night, the last thing you want to do is overstay your welcome and get banned from future visits. For this reason, changing locations frequently is your best bet.

In general, if you can find 10 or so places in the area that let you stay overnight, and rotate between them, you should be set for a longer-term stay. Just be sure to clean up after yourself when leaving so you can keep the location on the list.

Porta-Potty
Image Credit: Ray_Shrewsberry / Pixabay

How To Find Bathrooms & Showers Stealth Camping In The City

 

    • Truck Stop Facilities: While you won’t typically find a truck stop inside a city, they are often found in the outskirts. Truck stops are not only friendly to respectful overnight RV parkers, but they also tend to offer public bathrooms and showers.
    • Add A Portable Toilet: If your RV doesn’t have a toilet, you may consider adding a portable one. Portable toilets are simple to set up/dismantle and typically start under $50. You can also bring a few “Waste Alleviation and Gelling” (WAG) bags as a last resort.
    • Gas Station Bathrooms: Sure, gas stations don’t usually have the cleanest bathrooms, but if you’re in a pinch, they do serve their purpose. For the best experience, check out this 2019 report by GasBuddy, which details which gas stations have the cleanest bathrooms in each state.
    • Body Wipes/Dry Shampoo: There are several personal hygiene products to consider when stealth camping, including body wipes and dry shampoo. If you haven’t heard of dry shampoo, it’s a powder that absorbs dirt, oil, and grease from your scalp without needing water.
    • Public Beach Showers: Many beaches offer public showers for people to rinse off salt and sand. While the water is usually cold, and you’ll likely be out in the open, beach showers do make a reliable option for stealth campers needing a wash.
    • Fast Food Chains: There’s almost always a Chick-Filet, Starbucks, or McDonald’s nearby. These fast-food chains have the best bathrooms, per Business Insider. If the lights are on, you can walk right in.

How To Cook Food When You’re Stealth Camping

 

Avoid Cooking Smelly Foods

For carnivores, there’s not much better than the smell of a sizzling T-bone or drumstick over a hot flame. Yes, BBQs go together with camping, but they also give off an aroma that can draw crowds.

Consider shelf-stable foods like canned tuna, protein bars, and peanut butter as protein-rich alternatives.

Consider Opening a Window

Cooking food when stealth camping in a van or RV does have its hazards (i.e., small spaces, open flames, poor ventilation). Before cooking, consider cracking a window or opening a vent.

You should also check that the kitchen is uncluttered to avoid a potential fire, as a van engulfed in flames isn’t exactly stealthy.

Keep Recipes Simple

The last thing you want is to have to hastily pack and leave when in the middle of cooking a complicated meal with many ingredients. Instead, keep recipes simple so that you can quickly put things away, move to a new location, and then finish preparing your meal.

For a few simple (and tasty) meals to cook when stealth camping, check out these recipes from Harvest Hosts.

Park Ranger Vehicle
Image Credit: DrFrank / Pixabay

What To Do If Someone Knocks

The occasional knock on the door is common when stealth camping. If someone does show up unannounced, don’t be surprised if it’s a security guard or the police telling you to leave. In some states, getting caught means an instant ticket. In others, you may just have to relocate.

Ignoring a knock on the door from law enforcement is not suggested as you may end up getting towed.

If someone knocks on your door at night and they don’t have a badge, you might do best to keep the door closed. Instead, slide a window open to communicate, which should at least keep you safe from someone with malicious intentions.

Finally, if you are told to leave, make sure to notate the location on a map so you don’t return. While you may not have gotten a ticket the first time around, the officer might not be as lenient on the second.

Plan Your Escape Route When Stealth Camping

There are a lot of things that can go wrong when stealth camping, like getting told to leave at 2am, having a bear show up to nibble on your tires, or getting harassed by an aggressive stranger.

For these reasons and more, your best bet is to prepare an escape route ahead of time so you can speed off in a hurry.

First, consider where you’ll go. Police stations, 24/7 businesses, or even just the nearest highway are all more secure than a secluded campsite.

If you’re camped somewhere without cell coverage, a health scare can be disastrous. For this reason, try to keep track of coverage quality before going too far into the wild, as you may have to return to a hotspot in a hurry.

To avoid stumbling, you should always keep the path to the driver’s seat is clear. Moreover, knowing where the ignition key is at all times will ensure you don’t waste time. Consider designating a place to store the keys that’s close to the steering wheel.

Stealth Camping in The Wilderness

Wild camping is essentially setting up camp in an undeveloped wilderness site. Camping in the wilderness is inherently sneaky, making it a perfect option for confident stealth campers.

Of course, there are downsides to wild camping, like not having electrical hookups, cell coverage, or toilets. There’s also the possibility you encounter some larger wildlife, like a coyote or even a bear.

When done right, stealth camping in the wilderness can be an extremely rewarding experience. To ensure your trip is a success, check out the wilderness stealth camping tips below.

 

Wilderness Stealth Camping Tips

              • Don’t Get Lost: You do not want to get lost when wild camping. For this reason, keep track of where you’re headed, notating any landmarks or signs along the way. If directions are not your forte, you can pick up one of the best handheld GPS devices for just $300.
              • Leave No Trace Behind: With the goal of stealth camping being to go unnoticed, you surely don’t want to leave behind a mess. Building a fire pit is fine, but leaving trash is not only bad for aesthetics but can harm wildlife as well.
              • Wear Bright Colors: No, bright-colored clothing is not ninja, but doing so does tell hunters you aren’t a target. According to the International Hunter Education Association, between 700 to 1,000 people are accidentally shot each year by hunters. Wearing bright colors may be what keeps you out of this statistic.
              • Pick A Safe Campsite: Before picking a site to camp, give the area good once-over, scanning for potential hazards like landslides, flooding, and predatory animal droppings. While you can’t prepare for every occasion, you can minimize the chances of a dangerous situation occurring.
              • Be Cautious of Bears: Encountering a wild animal is possible when wild camping. Bears, black or brown, are the biggest threat. If you aren’t sure of how to handle a bear encounter, you may want to brush up on best practices, like staying calm, not running away, etc.

           

          Apps & Websites To Find Stealth Camping & Boondocking Sites

          Having troubles finding a good stealth camping or boondocking site? Well, there’s an app for that, several actually, plus a handful of helpful websites. Below we’ll cover some of the best apps and websites for stealth campers in 2022.

          Apps For Finding Free Stealth Camping Sites

                    • FreeRoam: While FreeRoam has only been around for a year or so, the app has a large directory of campsites with user reviews that you can browse through. FreeRoam also allows you to create a profile so you can save your favorite locations and share them with friends.
                    • Gaia GPS: Gaia is a detailed GPS app that helps users find free camping locations. The unpaid version offers lots of value, but upgrading to Premium allows for map usage even without Wi-Fi. The app also has options for off-roaders, backcountry skiers, and mountain bikers.
                    • Avenza Maps: This offline map app offers nearly a million available maps for you to download. Avenza also allows you to measure distances and plan routes. You can also save locations if you find somewhere interesting that you want to return to.

          Websites For Finding Free Stealth Camping Sites

                    • FreeCampsites: As one of the oldest campsite finding tools, FreeCampsites offers a massive collection of free (and paid) campsite locations. The search feature has many filter options to help you find the perfect spot, including for things like fishing, hunting, rock climbing, and more.
                    • Recreation: A popular camping website that lists over 4,200 government-owned camping facilities and 113,000 individual sites throughout the US. You can even buy entry passes for national parks through the site, as well as sign up for tours.
                    • The Dyrt: Last, but surely not least, is The Dyrt, a camper-friendly site with a detailed map showing campsites across the US. Helpful map icons indicate things like what type of camper the site can accommodate, if pets are allowed, and whether bathrooms and/or shows are available.

          What About National Parks?

          Many national parks allow backcountry campers, but only in designated areas. These camper-friendly locations are usually displayed on trail maps, so be sure to take a gander before starting your search for a campsite.

          Yes, camping in a national park has a cost, typically ranging between $20 and $130 depending on location. Those seeking a day pass can pick one up for around $15 per person.

          Are you allowed to pay for a day pass and then camp overnight? No, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t done. If you attempt to stealth camp in a national park, at least follow the basics to avoid curious eyes, like arriving late, leaving early, keeping noise to a minimum, etc.

          Hammock in Woods
          Image Credit: independentwolf / Pixabay

          Alternatives To Stealth Camping

          If planning escape routes and searching for bathrooms isn’t your thing, you may want to consider an alternative to stealth camping.

          Hammock Camping

          Hammocks are a great stealth camping alternative. These are easy to set up (find yourself two trees in proximity) and they aren’t intrusive. Sure, you’ll need to watch the weather forecast, and safety may be iffy (i.e., thieves, wildlife, etc.), but done right, hammock camping is very rewarding.

          If you don’t yet own a hammock, you can purchase a good one for as low as $20. Spending more adds things like bug nets, a base, and rainproof covers. Check out some of the best camping hammocks in this online review from NYMag.

          Campground Discount Memberships

          Another stealth camping alternative is to sign up for a monthly campsite-discount membership. Depending on the provider, as little as $29 per month can save you as much as 50% at participating locations. Good Sam, Passport America, and KOA are some of the options available.

          Memberships are best for those that camp often, as you’ll surely save a lot vs. paying for single nights, which run as much as $150 in peak season.

          Woman with VW Van
          Image Credit: Victoria_Borodinova / Pixabay

          Final Thoughts on Stealth Camping

          Not everyone enjoys stealth camping, but those that do usually swear by it. If you don’t mind having to occasionally relocate at 2am, and you keep the TV volume low, stealth camping can be extremely rewarding.

          In general, if you are respectful to those around you and clean up after yourself when you leave, you shouldn’t have too many issues. What’s more, thanks to the plethora of available apps and websites, finding a place to stealth camp, and researching the location, is easier than ever.

Featured Image Credit: Michel Curi / flickr