Vanlife has become pretty popular in the last decade. Hey, these days you don’t even need a van to be on the bandwagon. Adventurers young and old are ditching their leases and moving into mobile homes of all shapes and sizes. It sounds simple, and in a lot of ways it is. However, there are a lot of challenges you may not have thought of before. Among the most important when you’re on the road is how to car camp anywhere.
After all, you can’t just pull up on the side of the road in most places and expect to spend the night uninterrupted. The police banging on your door and shining flashlights at you are definitely not how you want to wake up. And believe me, it happens. Some parts of the world are pretty chill about the car camper’s nomadic existence. Some places, you are definitely not a welcome member of society.
So, if you’re going to spend a summer in your car, a week on the road, or a lifetime on the fringes of van life, you’re going to need to know how to car camp anywhere you are. It’s a simple skill once you develop a knack for it. However, there are some important pitfalls to watch out for. There are also a number of tricks that will help you stay stealthy on the streets. Today we’ll go over both.
Keep your car discreet
Before you ever get to car camping, you’re going to need to pick your car. Some stand out more than others. In particular, people know to look out for obvious camper vans. If they see you parking your kitted out Westy Van in the same place three nights in a row, chances are they know what you’re doing in there all night.
That’s why these days a lot of vanlifers go for all white painter’s vans with no windows or dark tinting. That way, you just look like a work van, and as long as you don’t park in the same place night after night, you can usually fly under the radar. Just be careful of accessories on the outside of your car that give you away. If you’re like me though, you won’t be buying your car based on your desire to hit the road. You’ll be moving into the car that you already have. If you’re doing that, I have some advice from personal experience.
Number one, getting tinted windows and installing curtains will go a long way. That way no one can see that you’re passed out and drooling on your pillow. Two, be careful of your paint job. Blending in is always better than standing out. My car is a clear example of how not to do this.
The nice thing about living in a car instead of a van is that you can blend into a neighborhood or public park more easily. If you pick your parking carefully, this can actually be a huge advantage on the road.
Be careful of your timing
One of the most important things about car camping in questionable places is being aware of your timing. Don’t pull into a neighborhood at 5 pm and start setting up shop. That’s just when everyone is getting home from work, walking their dogs, and will notice your rig. Instead, find a spot in the light of day, check out the neighborhood, and then come back later when it’s dark, and people are going to bed.
Likewise, some industrial spots will be teaming with workers during shift hours but can be virtually empty overnight. As long as you can be up and out early, industrial areas can often provide long-term parking solutions. Just as long as you don’t get busted. Just be careful of night security. Some big places pay night security to roll around their property and check for suspicious activity just like you. So, it might be a good idea to take an hour or two to observe your intended spot before settling in for the night.
Lastly, there are a lot of spots that open up to you if you can reliably be awake and gone before the sun comes up. Car camping in neighborhoods, industrial areas, and downtown is all a lot more socially acceptable before the sun comes up. This is one of the best ways to milk a spot for longer than it’s worth.
Do good research
In order to have the most success and the least time spent driving aimlessly around strange places wasting gas, you’ve got to do a little research. Fortunately, the internet makes this pretty easy if you know how to go about it. With tools like Google Maps, Google Earth, and freecampsites.net, you can virtually always find suitable camping before you even show up.
When using Google Maps and Google Earth, you have to know what to look for. I usually look for small winding roads on the outskirts of town. Theoretically without houses. Sometimes you can actually see the abandoned nature of surrounding areas. You may also be able to identify plots of land that would be unoccupied at night like nature areas, farming areas, construction sites, etc. If you’re in the US, you can always camp for free on any BLM land as well. This usually includes all national parks as well as plenty of the most beautiful areas around.
If you think you’ve found a spot, zoom in with Google street view and take a look around. Maybe the photos saved into Google will help you identify businesses nearby. Look them up, see what kind of area you’re looking at. Just always keep your eyes peeled for signs prohibiting overnight camping or parking. That’s one of the most surefire ways to wind up with a ticket or a rude awakening in the night.
The best way to find good spots for car camping is the website www.freecampsites.net. This site is like a crowdsource for free campsites all over North America. Each spot has a description, details about time limits, regulations, and things to watch out for. Many are also accompanied by other vanlifers’ reviews and tips or photos about the spot. Using just this website you can travel all over the US without paying for parking once. You can also find some of the most beautiful spots in the country this way. If you want to know more about it, I’ve written an entire article on the subject. Check that out here.
Don’t wear your spots out
One of the biggest mistakes you can make while staying in an area over the long term is to camp too often in one spot. After all, the place that may have been chill for two nights could start to draw unwanted attention if you keep on pulling in for the night. Neighborhoods are commonly this way. When protective dad sees that weird van parked outside once, he might shrug it off. When it happens twice, he might get curious. By the third time, don’t be surprised if he comes to check things out.
If you’re unsure about a spot, it’s best to alternate back and forth between a number of them. Don’t return to the same sketchy spot night after night. By switching up your schedule, you’ll keep concerned neighbors on their toes, and they’re likely to put up with you for longer.
One of the best ways to car camp safely and comfortably, is to make friends. This is really the secret to all types of travel. If you make friends along the way, you could wind up with driveways to park in, tips on good spots, or at least approval from your neighbors. After all, it’s far better to have the neighbors tell you to leave than the police.
You can make friends anywhere you go. It could be the girl that served you lunch, the guys you played frisbee with in the park, or someone you met online. All of these people can become relationships, and then help along the way. You’ll be a lot more comfortable and have a lot more fun if you find a house to park at and friends to hang with than if you’re going stealth in an industrial area.
So, chat people up, be social, and make friends. You never know when you’ll meet someone sympathetic to the cause or who has a big empty driveway. At the very least, you’ll get a bit of conversation out of them.
Don’t cook where you camp
If you are camping on the down low, one of the most important ways to keep it that way is to separate your living habits from your sleeping habits. When people see you busting out the camp stove and cooking dinner outside their house, they’re going to know what you’re up to. If someone who doesn’t want you around sees your car still there at 9 pm, you can bet they’re making some calls.
However, if you go cook dinner at a public park, do your reading, skyping, or whatever else there. Then, when you’ve got everything ready, you go pull into your campsite and fall right asleep, they’re not likely to notice you. Especially if you’re gone in the morning.
So, if you need to use places that are less than ideal for car camping, pull in with your bed made. Ideally, your bed would be in the same cab as your driver’s seat, and you won’t even need to get out of your car to slip into bed and go to sleep. Just draw the curtains, pull up your covers and set your alarm for dawn.
If you follow these rules and do your research well, there’s virtually nowhere in the world you can’t car camp for free. I’ve never received a ticket, and hopefully, I never will. Be careful, camp wisely, and hopefully, you won’t either.
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