I have a confession to make…I’ve been sleeping around. No, not in the “I need to get a shot for this,” sense. I’m talking about overnight camping in public places.
I’ve stayed at municipal parking lots and garages, rest areas, Walmarts, BLM and public land, state and national parks, and private campgrounds. Each has its charms and drawbacks. I WILL pay to camp overnight if the location is worth it, but whenever possible, I like to stay someplace that’s free.
This post is not a definitive guide to stealth camping, all the places I’ve stayed, or even my favorite spots. What it IS, is a list of interesting places I’ve slept overnight without incident and some tips for making them work. It’s meant to show you what is possible when you hit the road in your minivan RV. I also hope that it helps to remove some of the mystery of camping in places that are not the typical KOA type campground.
I’ll cover some stealth spots first.
Free Stealth Camping
Stealth camping generally means that you are staying overnight in some place that you technically aren’t allowed to. It requires that hide the fact that you are sleeping in your van.
Minivans are the ultimate stealth camping vehicle. Nobody thinks twice about them. The ubiquitous presence of minivans in cities and suburban neighbors means that you can slip into places that a full-sized panel van cannot. Plus, you don’t look like someone who is ready to kidnap children with their white panel van…
Before I cover some of my stealth camping spots, a few stealth camping TIPS are in order.
- You’ll want to black out the windows (see this how-to for making stealth camping blackout panels) and use as little light as possible. Light leakage creates the biggest risk that you will be discovered. It also helps to section off the rear of the van with some curtains, like the ones I made here.
- Once things quiet down outside, try not to move around. You may think you are being quiet, but when you move, the vehicle springs can creak and squeak. Anyone within 100 feet will notice this on a quiet night. So, when stealth camping, try to get settled in by 10 pm or so. The other benefit is if you get rousted by the cops at 3 am, you’ve already had 5 hours of sleep.
- Whenever possible, don’t be the ONLY vehicle in the lot or on the street. The more vehicles around you, the less you will be noticed. Try to blend in.
With those tips in hand, here are some of the spots I’ve overnighted, without paying a dime. In some of these are places I was told I absolutely could not stay overnight. I can’t guarantee your results will be the same, but if you keep a low profile you should be able to get a good night’s rest, especially if you are in a minivan camper!
Estes Park, CO
Everyone I talked to said that the cops will kick you out in a minute if you try to overnight in Estes Park. That was not my experience. I crashed in the Cleave Street municipal parking lot from 11pm to 7am without incident.
It wasn’t really a choice. I had planned to go back to my site at Glacier Basin campground at nearby Rocky Mountain NP. However, a late dinner in town led to a conversation with some bikers and a stop at the Wheel Bar. When I left a couple hours later, I decided it was not a great idea to drive anywhere. But I had a good night’s sleep in this lot and nobody bothered me. That was probably more about being in a ubiquitous minivan than anything else. There were also 2-3 other cars in the parking lot, so that helped me blend in. Last, it was a cold night so I could leave the windows up, stealth panels in place. Your results may vary, especially if you are in a full-sized van or RV.
Disney All Sports Resort
Why would anyone go to Disney and then sleep in their van? Simple, I was dropping off my better half for a Run Disney race where she was sharing a room with friends. Rather than pay for my own room, I thought I’d test out the stealth camping scene at Disney before heading for RTR 2018.
Note that although Disney takes down your plate and license information at most of their hotels (Contemporary Resort, DVC sites, campgrounds, etc.) this is not the case at many of the value resorts (Carribean Beach resort, Pop Century, etc.). However, these parking lots are still monitored by security cameras and patrols, so stealth is in order. Your best bet is to come in with a bunch of other cars (which happens as the parks close) but I just parked in the afternoon and crawled in around 11 pm.
I parked in the back of the lot, so I would not show up on camera if I got out of the van during the night. However, I think a better approach would be to park where the lot is already full. That’s because a TON of people came back at 1 am after an extended magic hours park visit and pulled in around me. My sleep was briefly interrupted between 1 am and 2 am by tired parents and whiny kids who had a little too much magic for one day. In the morning I woke up to an approaching weed wacker around 7 am. I waited for the groundskeeping crew to move along and rolled out the side door. No problems.
It seems that a lot of vandwellers talk about finding spots in a big city. It’s not my scene, but for younger people, I understand wanting to be where things are happening. Also, with some full-time vandwellers, it may not be a choice. They may have work nearby or can’t afford to leave the area. So let me offer some tips, based on my experiences in Austin, TX. Austin has all the charms of a large city, along with some of the drawbacks. It’s crowded and growing fast, which makes for some good stealth camping spots.
If you are going to try this, stay out of the downtown areas when possible. They are more heavily patrolled and it’s also more likely you’ll have some other kind of trouble with break-ins, etc. Instead, move out toward the suburbs and look for apartment complexes. In the case of Austin, there are dozens of very large apartment complexes outside of the city center and northwest of the city. Take a cruise through one and look for spots that don’t have a number on them. These are usually for guests, so an unknown vehicle is not a cause for suspicion. Often these spots are in front of the leasing office. Get in after dark and leave before 7 am. This works especially well on the weekends, where there are a lot of people visiting and partying.
If you can’t find something inside a large complex look on the surrounding streets. It is usually the case that there are not enough spaces to go around, so overflow parking tends to be on nearby streets. Don’t forget to watch for no parking signs. If you do see local police or private security patrolling, there’s probably a reason and it’s probably not anywhere you want to park in the first place.
Public Parking Garages
This is my least favorite form of stealth camping, but I’ve done it in a pinch. You have to be sure they have overnight parking and it helps if there is no attendant. If there is, take note of how close he/she is watching the video monitors.
Where I normally suggest parking and going right to bed when stealth camping, the parking garage is one place I think it’s better to wait a couple of hours. If someone noticed that you parked and did not get out of the van, they will probably knock sooner rather than later.
Parking garages work when you want to stay late in the city for music or nightlife. Otherwise, I’m not sure why you would want to park in a city. But that means that other people will be partying and leaving late into the night. Garages are giant echo chambers, so you might want some white noise if you are a light sleeper. However, one benefit is that many are sheltered from the outside and stay warmer in cold weather. They are also mostly tornado proof.
One last point about stealth camping. It’s mostly for urban and suburban areas. In rural areas, anyplace you stop is like likely to be private land and that kind of trespass is something I’d recommend against. I’d much rather deal with a trained police officer than a farmer with a nervous trigger finger…
Boondocking is when you camp without hookups, be they water, power, or sewer. While all stealth camping is boondocking, not all boondocking is stealth camping. In fact, boondocking usually isn’t stealth camping at all because it happens where it’s permissible to stay overnight. A boondocking stay can also be overnight, or for an extended period of time. Here are some of the places I’ve boondocked for free, or for a minimal charge.
Walmart “how-to overnight” articles have been done to death, so I’ll make this brief. I overnight at Walmarts when I’m traveling through an area, on my way to someplace else. They are a convenient place to resupply, clean up, and (mostly) feel safe. I’ve stayed at various Walmart locations (Escanaba, MI–Dubuque, IA–Fairmont,MN–NE–LA–FL–IA) and despite what you might read on the internet, there are plenty that still allow overnight parking. One of my first YouTube videos was about this subject (from the Fairmont, MN Walmart) and although the advice is mostly common sense, it’s still worth watching if you are new to this.
Basic Rules about parking overnight at Walmart:
- Check with the manager. I always say, “Do you allow overnight RV parking and if so, where should I park?” I don’t volunteer that my “RV” is a minivan. Be sure to note the time and the name of the manager in case someone else challenges you later. It may be that not everyone is familiar with the policy. I have had conflicting answers at the same Walmart. Find the person at the top of the food chain.
- You are parking overnight, not “camping”. Don’t set up chairs, cook outside, dump anything, or otherwise look like you are settling in. Just like parklands, pack it in and out.
- 24 hour Walmarts are more likely to allow overnight parking, from my experience.
- Buy something. Even better, have your purchases in hand when you talk to the manager. They are doing you a solid by letting you stay and use the bathroom, so buy something you need for your trip.
- Be gone the next morning. Most 24 hour Walmarts vacuum the parking lot at 5 am, so that probably won’t be a problem.
BLM and Public Land
This is by far, my preferred method of overnight camping. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages many areas where you can stay up to 14 days at NO CHARGE. Usually, you will need to register at some check-in point. This is generally a “camp host” that is staying there or set up right outside. It could also be a local office. Some BLM areas have campsites and others are “dispersed” camping where you drive in and park anyplace that’s not a road.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of these areas are west of the central time zone and certainly west of the Mississippi River. If you can get to one, BLM camping areas can be quiet places where you can hang out for a while. Most do not have bathrooms or water so you need to carry it in and carry it out.
BLM camping areas can also be remote and that’s one of their main attractions. If you are not used to being alone in the middle of nowhere, it can be spooky for some people. That feeling passes with time, but fear of camping alone is so common, I wrote a post about it here.
Other Public Lands
It doesn’t have to be BLM land to have free camping. Small town park areas and easements are two other places that often allow overnight stays or camping. If you are not sure about a place, the local police station can often point you in the right direction. I know that sounds weird, but here I’m talking about LEGAL places to stay. The cops generally know where the permissible areas are. Often these areas are adjacent to major tourist attractions. One such place is…
Route 240 outside of Badlands National Park
I found out about this location from following some other nomads on YouTube. It appears that the area is an easement for access to some cell phone towers. There was a lot of free space in September, but your results may vary in the summertime. You can read about free camping outside the Badlands in my post, here. Or, watch my video here:
The US Forest Service manages our forestry resources and also maintains some fantastic campgrounds! I’ve stayed in them in Colorado, South Dakota, and Michigan, finding that they are generally well maintained. Often times they have toilets, water, and/or dump stations. All of the camping I’ve seen in national forests is designated. That means you can only camp in designated campgrounds, rather than picking a spot “anywhere” like you do on BLM land. That’s probably so no one burns the forest down. Also, it’s not free. Fees usually run less than $20 and often less than $10 per night, which IS better than a private campground.
Look for the “National Forest” script for camping and recreation areas (which sometimes ALSO allow camping).
The procedure at a National Forest campground is to stop at the gate or bulletin board and take an envelope. Drive in and pick out a spot, filling out the tab from the envelope. The tab gets left at the campsite on a post or clip and you return to the check-in spot with the envelope. Put your money inside and you are done. You’ll pay for all the days up front and your tab reflects how long your spot is reserved for. You can now come and go as you please.
Some National Forest areas will also have a campground host if you get stuck or need info about the facilities. Some, not all. I’ve found that most state parks follow the same kind of procedure for check-in, so I won’t cover them here.
Roadside Rest Areas
The whole point of roadside rest areas was supposed to be to reduce driver fatigue by providing a safe parking spot. The modern world being what it is, many states now prohibit overnight parking at their rest areas. However, in the less densely populated regions of the Midwest and mountain regions, I’ve never been bothered regardless of the actual law.
Rest areas are almost always fine for a nap. Overnights can be a little different. If you are a light sleeper, there will usually be people driving through all night. If you are near the trucks, it can be noisy as well, since they generally idle through the night. I’ve also found that many of them cant the parking lots for drainage, meaning that your bed is not level. It’s not a great idea to put out your RV leveling ramps if you are trying to keep a low profile, so you may not have the most comfortable night if you can’t find a level spot.
Whether or not you can park overnight at a rest area, varies by state. Some, like Texas, allow overnight parking at any state rest area. Others like Illinois and New York are more restrictive. The pattern usually (but not always) follows the states that normally restrict everything else you do, as well. So if you try to park overnight in Massachusetts or New Jersey, for example, expect to be hassled. This site has links to which states allow overnight parking and to what degree. Do your own research and if in doubt, just call the State Police for that state and ask about the law and level of enforcement. I found the western states were pretty cooperative when I explained why I was asking.
If you do stay at a roadside rest area overnight, use some common sense for an enjoyable stay. Don’t look like you are “camping” by setting up chairs or cooking outside. Who would do that? I’ve seen it multiple times. I’d also park near a light. Even though you can be seen by police passing by on the highway—you can be seen by police passing by on the highway, which is sometimes a good thing. I’m not a thief, but I would think this would discourage one.
I also try to avoid the areas in the direct path of two major cities (for example, St. Louis and Chicago, or Detroit and Flint, MI). These roads tend to be traveled more by drug runners and although they may not have an interest in YOU, the areas are more heavily patrolled and the police are more likely to notice a car that’s been parked a little too long. I also avoid the rest areas that are within major metropolitan areas for obvious reasons.
National Monuments and Parks
Some national monuments allow camping and the procedure is identical to what you find in the national forests. National monuments are technically NOT national parks and they are not national forests. Monuments are designated by the US president and parks are funded by Congress. However, are both intended to preserve lands for future generations, so keep that in mind while you are camping there.
I’ve stayed at a couple national monument campgrounds including Aguirre Spring and Devil’s Tower.
National Forests, on the other hand, are a renewable resource and managed differently. The camper is welcome but secondary to the purpose of the managed area.
You might be surprised to learn that RV camping in an actual national park can be very limited. There are only two designated campgrounds in Badlands National Park that you can drive to. Arches National Park has only one. However, there is often BLM or National Forest land nearby, so check a site like Campendium, to find everything that’s available.
You wouldn’t think that I’d need to talk about paid, private campgrounds, as they are the easiest to figure out. However, when I first went out on the road I discovered that vans are not welcome at many of them. Many cater to large class A rigs and the retirement community. That’s fine, I didn’t want to stay at your crappy park anyway! Actually, I respect their choice to do this because they are private companies. Some RV parks won’t even let an RV in that is more than 10 years old. Others don’t allow pets. Again, that’s fine by me, I’m just warning you to check ahead. One exception is KOA, which generally allows van camping. At the very least, you’ll be able to get a tent site and a place to park. I’m not a big KOA fan but one exception is the Palmer Gulch KOA behind Mount Rushmore. I’ve talked about it elsewhere on the site, but it is an actual RESORT, it doesn’t just say that on the sign. I’ve stayed there twice and found it to be exceptional.
Now Get out there!
There are lots of options for free and discount camping and you don’t have to try them all in one week. Pick one that you feel comfortable with and start there. As you get more familiar with the experience, you’ll branch out and before you know it you’ll be on the open road, sleeping around, and having fun!