Finding an overnight camping spot for your van isn’t as simple as just pulling over and parking anywhere you desire. While it may be tempting, it’s not always legal or safe.
Don’t worry, though! We’re here to tell you how to find good (and legal) stealth camping spots and explain other free or low-cost van camping options, like boondocking.
What is Stealth Camping?
Stealth camping is frequently used in the van life community to describe a situation in which you discreetly camp in your van or RV outside a designated camping area. It can also be done in an area that is not necessarily meant for overnight camping but does allow overnight parking.
Stealth camping is widely practiced on city streets or residential areas but can also be done in other areas like rest stops and big box stores.
Van dwellers stealth camp for various reasons – it’s free, convenient, and usually brings you closer to the thick of things in a city. Van lifers may also stealth camp when they’re on a long road trip and need a free place to pull over and doze for a few hours.
Some alternatives to stealth camping are boondocking or staying at RV parks and campgrounds, which we’ll get to more about later.
How to Find Good Stealth Camping Spots
There are several ways you can get a good and legal stealth camping spot. Here are a few of our suggestions:
Use an App
Nowadays, with technology, there are plenty of apps and websites to connect van lifers with businesses, private owners, and free camping sites to park your van for a night or two.
Some are free to use, while others require a monthly or yearly fee, which is worth it if you plan on taking many van trips! We recommend checking out the following:
- Harvest Hosts - a paid app ($99/year for the classic plan or $179/year for full access) to find farms, breweries, wineries, dump stations, and other attractions where you can park overnight without camping fees. There’s also an option to join both Harvest Hosts and Boondockers Welcome for $169/year.
- Boondockers Welcome - a paid app ($79/year) that connects you with private property owners where you can park your van for free overnight.
- iOverlander - a free, crowdsourcing app where users share spots they’ve camped at. You can see information and opinions about each place.
- All Stays Camp & RV - a paid app that lets you locate campgrounds, RV parks, and other areas to camp, with or without internet access.
Check out Big Box Stores
In addition to using apps, you can directly ask big box stores if they’ll let you camp out in their parking lot for the night. Depending on the state and its laws, some stores may allow overnight parking or camping.
Places like Cracker Barrel even dedicate a few spots in the back for camper vans and RVs. You should check with each location to be sure; give them a call beforehand or go inside and ask.
Some other stores to check out are:
- Camping World
- Planet Fitness/Anytime Fitness/other gyms
- Costco/Sam’s Club
- Lowe’s/Home Depot/Menards
Pull Over at a Rest Stop
Driving a little out of the city and parking at a truck stop or rest area can be a good option. This can also be ideal if you’re on a long road trip and looking for a place to pull over and rest for a few hours. Be sure to pay attention to any signs with parking time limits.
Alternatives to Stealth Camping: Boondocking, RV Parks & Campgrounds
If you’re looking for a more rural or adventurous camping experience, we highly recommend boondocking or staying at an RV park or campground.
Another frequently used term in van life is boondocking. Boondocking refers to free camping that is typically done without hookups and amenities. For this reason, it’s also known as dry, dispersed, or wild camping.
Boondocking differs from stealth camping as it’s done in rural areas and on lands that permit dispersed camping outside a campsite. Boondocking places are often plentiful and easier to find than stealth camping spots.
Plus, boondocking is a great way to immerse yourself in nature and explore the outdoors in a rustic and peaceful setting.
Some common places for boondocking are:
- Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands,
- Forest Service Land (USFS),
- National forests, and
- Other public lands.
On BLM land, for example, you can typically camp for free for up to 14 days. In other places, a small entrance fee or camping permit may be required.
As for anywhere, be respectful of the environment, take precautions against wildlife, and practice No Trace Principles.
RV parks normally charge per night, and while it can get pricey in some places, it’s worth it if you need to park for an extended period, need hookups, or are looking to connect with fellow van or RV lifers. Also, some parks may offer discounts for those who stay for longer periods.
RV parks can be located in urban or rural areas, and their amenities differ depending on the park. Some may offer showers, laundry, and Wi-Fi, while others may not have any amenities. Be sure to research the park you’re planning to stay at beforehand.
Campgrounds can be another great place to park your van. Some campgrounds are inexpensive and may offer discounts during the off-season, extended stays, or for people over a certain age. In addition, campgrounds may offer hookups or amenities like toilets, hot showers, and potable water; however, be sure to check out the details of your campground beforehand.
The only drawbacks of campgrounds are that for some, especially during the peak season, you’ll need to reserve in advance, and it can get pretty noisy.
While stealth camping can be a great way to stay in your van overnight in urban areas, it may be easier to find boondocking spots. Boondocking can also provide enriching experiences for the outdoor enthusiast and can be cheaper than RV parks or campsites. There are plenty of legal, safe ways to get off the beaten path and find a special spot to camp overnight!
For more tips on van life, check out the rest of our blog!