Stealth Camping: A Complete Guide + 31 Tips For Your Next Trip
Does camping on abandoned rooftops, cemeteries, or private beaches sound fun to you? If so, stealth camping might be right up your ally. In this article, we’ll teach you how to stealth camp the right way so you’re ready for your next covert adventure.
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What is stealth camping?
Stealth camping is the act of secretly camping in a location while remaining completely undetected without leaving a trace. The thrill of stealth camping comes from the level of freedom you experience when you can make virtually anywhere your campsite. Sometimes stealth camping is referred to as urban camping, scamping, guerrilla camping, wild camping, or free camping.
Using stealth camping techniques you can spend the night tucked away in the treeline instead of an expensive hotel. Or have the opportunity to travel across the country for very little money. Some people stealth camp in their cars or trucks and are spending the night in a new places all the time.
When using a car or truck, stealth camping can be an excellent way to travel the country on a budget without spending money on campground fees, motels, or rental cabins.
When covertly camping you’ll often find you need specific stealth camping gear that’s different from what you’d take when camping normally. Some people even make special stealth camping modifications to their vehicles in order to blend in better and be more comfortable.
If you want to see stealth camping in action, check out YouTuber Steve Wallis. This guy is the Canadian Bob Ross of stealth camping, and I thoroughly enjoy watching him find new challenging locations to camp from.
Is stealth camping illegal?
Depending on where you choose to camp will deem if you’re considered trespassing or not. Camping out in an abandoned building may be considered trespassing, while stealth camping in your van in a Walmart parking lot is perfectly legal.
Laws fill vary depending on where you are. For instance, there is no nationwide law in the United States against sleeping in your car, however in Minneapolis you can be fined if caught sleeping in your vehicle.
According to the the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty bans on sleeping or camping in public is becoming more popular across the country. From 2011 to 2014 city-wide camping bans increased 60%, mandating fines up to $1000 and even jail time.
While most of these laws are in major cities it can be tough to know exactly where stealth camping is legal or not. Large cities like Palo Alto are cracking down on public camping and sleeping in vehicles due to a sharp rise in homelessness.
It’s clear these laws seem highly ineffective, but getting caught at the wrong place at the wrong time can still carry a hefty fine.
This is why picking your location, and choosing the right stealth camping gear is critical to a successful night. While these laws may be in place, don’t let them discourage you. With the proper planning you can make sure you’re on the right side of the law, and at the very least avoiding detection.
We are not lawyers by the way, just fun-loving travelers. ?
Where To Find Stealth Camping Locations
The best places to stealth camp are off the beaten path, don’t get much traffic, and are away from prying eyes. Some of the best places to stealth camp are national parks, rooftops, beaches, cemeteries, abandoned buildings, and lakes.
If you’re not sleeping out of a vehicle you have a lot more flexibility and places to tuck yourself away in. A van might be cozy, but its still more noticeable than a tarp and a tree hammock. And of course, a van is a lot less noticeable than a full sized RV.
Use Google Maps to scout out a location from above, check for dense foliage you cab=n use for cover, paved roads that might get traffic, and parking spots for your vehicle if needed. Check for old industry along rivers, or dense untamed foliage along railroad tracks, just don’t camp too close to the tracks itself.
Try to avoid:
- Hunting grounds.
- Well lit areas.
- Roads, trails, and footpaths.
- Residential property.
- Storm drains.
- Dry riverbeds. (these areas can frequently flood)
- Unsafe rooftops and structures.
- Rough neighborhoods.
The beauty of stealth camping is you can camp where ever you want. Near a waterfall, in an abandoned building, off the side of a freeway, on a small island in the middle of the river. It’s about what you want to experience, and how much risk you’re willing to take on.
Stealth Camping Gear
Your stealth camping gear will vary depending on if you’re camping outside, or inside a van.
Overall you want your gear to be portable, durable, stealthy and affordable. The less you can back on your back the less suspicious you’ll look while moving to your campsite and the quicker you’ll be able to change locations.
Here’s a list of stealth camping gear you’ll want to make sure you have:
- Low-profile backpack (20-26 liters)
- Camouflaged bivy or hammock tent
- Slings for hammock tent
- Headlamp with red light mode
- Breathable lightweight sleeping bag
- Wool sleeping bag liner (for colder nights)
- Inflatable lightweight pillow
- Flashlight with red light mode
- Dyneema Fiber Hex Tarp (Keeps rain out and UV protection for hammocks)
- Water purifier
- Portable firestarter
- Titanium cup (for food and water)
- Folding trench shovel (Good for concealing small fires, and natures call)
- Mini first aid kit
- Ultralight folding stove
- Lightweight folding utensils
- Folding tree saw (Quieter than chopping wood)
- Spare paracord (Great for repairs and spare tiedowns)
- Collapsible water bottle (Good for when you find a clean source of water)
- Mini water purifier
- Folding pocket knife
- Pepper spray
- Folding machete
Having the right gear is important, so we dedicated an entire page to the best stealth camping gear for a more detailed review of the gear listed.
If you’re stealth camping from a van, check out our stealth van gear review for your ride.
Where To Sleep When Stealth Camping
When camping outside picking the right place to sleep it crucial, not only for remaining undetected, but also staying safe. Pick areas that are close to where you want to be, but not alongside any established path. Underneath a bridge might seem like a good place for stealth camping at first, but you’d be surprised how much traffic the under side of bridges get.
Fisherman tend to walk along the river and usually under bridges, same thing goes for park rangers. Bridges often shelter the homeless year round, and there are plenty of better places for you to setup camp.
In most cases you’ll want to be elevated and off of the ground. This keeps you warm and dry if you get rained on. Durable lightweight hammocks are my favorite places to sleep while stealth camping. Simply find an area between two trees, or two columns, and attach your hammock to either side. The great thing about a hammock tent is that’s lightweight, so you don’t have to fuss with a bunch of stakes, poles, and ties-offs.
Another added benefit to sleeping in a hammock tent is flexibility. With the right insulating blankets hammock tents can hold in heat incredibly well, making it a viable setup for winter explorations. If you do plan on stealth camping in the winter, try to have grey or white colored gear to better blend in.
Alternatively bivy style tents are lightweight and low profile for those who aren’t a fan of hammocks. Bivy tents can be setup in just a few minutes, and are a cozy way to keep a small footprint while stealth camping. You’ll often see bivy tents at remote research camps or out in safaris where weight management is crucial, and blending in seamlessly with the environment is a must.
Since bivy style tents are used on the ground, you’ll need a sleeping mat most cases, and have to be camping on level ground.
Tip: Hammocks don’t have to be high off the ground. Hammocks positioned lower offer more concealment and less silhouetting.
If you’re on foot, you’ll have to get creative for stealth camping locations before the sun goes down.
Here are some great stealth camping locations:
- Behind a haybale
- In a large cemetery
- The woods of a golf course
- A private beach
- A baseball dugout
- Behind a hotel, 24-hour gym, or Walmart
- In a park
- Off season campgrounds
- Amphitheaters during off season
Setting Up Camp
The best time to setup camp is right before dusk. With sun setting you’ll have enough light to get everything ready for darkness, without shining your flashlight around in the middle of the night.
Having a headlamp with a dimmable light and red light option is a great hands-free way to setup your tent or hammock before bed. Try to avoid having a campfire at night. Yes, it can be tempting but if stealth is your number one priority skip it, and use a butane heater to cook your food. Alternatively if you’re only spending a night or two, dense protein bars are filling and don’t require a fire.
If you must have a fire do it at dawn or dusk. Dig a hole and conceal it on three sides and only burn dry sticks and kindling for small fire. This will help keep odor and light to a minimum and avoid any unwanted attention. If you need wood, consider using a reliable folding saw rather than an axe. I’ve noticed axes make more noise than sawing away at smaller trees for wood.
A better alternative is to either cook with butane, or a camping stove with firestarter tablets. The tablets are my personal favorite alternative to a fire, as they give off very little light and produce no odor or smoke. Each tablet lasts about 10-15 minutes, more than enough to get your water to a boil. Butane is more reliable but weights a bit more.
If you’re weary of people or animals entering your camp at night, consider setting some noise traps before bed. A simple string and cans be set as an early warning system and usually gives you enough time to get upright and ready for whatever is in the area. I’d also recommend carrying pepper spray or bear spray to help defend your camp from unwanted predators.
With that said it’s always good to have some things prepacked to leave in the early morning. This includes tools, trash, and any food you may still have leftover. A key part of stealth camping is returning the land back to it’s original condition. Make sure you cover any clearings you have made and to of course take any trash with your when you leave.
Stealth Camping in a Van
For people who want to stealth camp in their vehicles, places like Walmart that offer overnight parking 24/7 can be good places to scout out when traveling long distances.
Stealth camping in hotel parking lots can also be a great option, you’ll have access to vending machines inside, laundry services, and maybe even a free breakfast. ?
Some great places to park when stealth camping are:
- Hotel parking lots
- 24 hours stores like Walmart or Costco
- Truck stops
- National parks – (Sometimes reservations are needed but this is often free)
- Casinos – (Often free, sometimes for a small fee. They want you to gamble!)
- Churches – (Getting permission first is usually best)
- Cracker Barrel – (They allow RV parking as well)
- Any land owned by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM)
- Any land owned by the Wildlife Management Areas (WMA)
- National Grasslands
Tip: Keep an eye out for where truckers park overnight. Oftentimes if they can park on a property, so can you.
Avoid parking on residential streets or places where there are no other cars around. Your van might blend in during working hours, but after everyone goes home you might stick out like a sore thumb.
Make sure your vehicle isn’t blocking any pathways, driveways, or garage doors and make note of any parking restriction signs in the area.
Avoid parking in:
- Private property
- Rough neighborhoods
- Residential areas
- City streets
- The same place for too long
Scope out the area ahead of time, you’ll want to get a feel for the neighborhood during daylight hours, but also watch if the environment changes as it gets dark.
Consider only spending a night or two in one spot to avoid attention. Assuming you are traveling around to different spots this shouldn’t be too hard for many who stealth camp in a vehicle.
While it can be beautiful to park and spend the night in a forest, many parks are patrolled and you’ll quickly be discovered during closing time. Consider camping outside for stealthier approaches.
Best Van for Stealth Camping
The best van for stealth camping are medium sized vans with either no back windows, or tinted windows. Avoid having “van life” stickers, flashy features, and items like bikes or surfboards mounted on the van.
At the same time you’ll want to avoid looking like the “creepy white van guy”, so white utility vans aren’t always the best option either. If you choose to go with a utility van, keep the vans outside appearance clean, and be extra cautious how your vehicle can be perceived when seen in the same area repeatedly.
Below are some of the best vans for stealth camping:
- Ford Transit
- Ram ProMaster
- Dodge Sprinter
Volkswagens and converted school buses may look fun, but draw way too much attention when stealth camping. If you’re broadcasting your van life lifestyle thieves will know you have way more valuables inside than a normal vehicle. Not good.
The Transit, ProMaster, and Sprinter all have their own different cargo sizes and wheel base. The larger your van camping space, the longer the wheelbase, and the longer the wheelbase the less maneuverable the vehicle becomes. Longer wheelbases mean wider turns and usually more difficulty going off road, especially up steeper hills.
All three brands have three different sizes of their vans. Small Wheelbase (SWB), Long Wheelbase (LWB), and Long Wheelbase Extended Bed (LWB-EB). Most stealth camper vans that are used recreationally can stick with SWB or LWB vans. With extended bed vans you get more room, but become a lot more bulky, and stand out more on the road and when camping.
You’ll have to consider if you want to have a shower or toilet onboard, how comfortable you are with driving larger vehicles, and how much you want your van to stick out when parked covertly.
If you’re shopping around for stealth camper vans, use the chart below to compare the different versions of vans:
|SWB||8’10” Cargo. 130″ Wheelbase||8’10” Cargo. 136″ Wheelbase||10’3″ Cargo. 144″ Wheelbase|
|LWB||10’4″ Cargo. 148″ Wheelbase||10’6″ Cargo. 159″ Wheelbase||13’9″ Cargo. 170″ Wheelbase|
|LWB-EB||12’10” Cargo. 148″ Wheelbase||11’8″ Cargo. 159″ Wheelbase||15′ Cargo. 170″ Wheelbase|
How to Stealth Camp in a Car
Stealth camping in a car is possible, but not nearly as comfortable or organized as a van would be. In most cars you won’t be able to lay completely flat so sleeping is a serious challenge for anyone around the six foot height range.
Some crossover vehicles like the Subaru Impreza could be modified to sleep in when putting down the rear seats. You would have just enough room to lay down and that’s about it. A big issue is being able to lay flat on top of the folded seats, as well as staying comfortable with changing temperatures and limited airflow.
In stealth camper vans many people build a simple wooden flat baseboard for their bed. This could be done for a car, but it would be a lot more challenging and take up much needed room that cars are already lacking in the first place.
YouTuber BeatTheBush actually has a super clever video on stealth camping in a car. Basically he converted his 4 door sedan into a stealth camping car by hiding his sleeping area with some Amazon boxes marked as ‘donation’. Check it out below.
30 Stealth Camping Tips
Below are some general tips you can use when trying to camp stealthily. These are for both stealth campers sleeping outside, as well as those camping inside of vehicles.
If you have any of your own tips, be sure to leave them in the comments below!
- Do your research first. Know where you’ll camp, what the law is, what the weather will be, and how you plan to enter and exit your campsite quietly. If you’re in a van know where you’ll park, and have a backup spot planned if you have to suddenly leave.
- Have the right stealth camping gear. Camping away from others means you have to rely on yourself. Make sure you have the proper gear, and an emergency first aid kit along with a form of communication if things go south.
- Try to enter and exit between dusk and dawn. Use the fleeting light to your advantage so you can setup camp. By the time you’re done you’ll be under the cover of darkness. You don’t want to get stuck in the pitch dark without your camp ready.
- Have an escape plan. If someone spots you and you need to go fast, have a route in mind that you’ll take. If a bear or wild dog attacks, know where you self defense tools are and where you’ll exit to.
- Avoid using light at night. This means no fires if possible. If you choose to have a fire, have it contained and surrounded on all sides to conceal the light. If you must use a flashlight use a red flashlight.
- Use gear that blends into your surroundings. These are normally dark greens, browns, and sometimes grey colors. Wear clothing that blends in as well. Deep navy blue is best at night, while solid black actually makes you stand out more.
- Watch for trail cams and other security. Keep your eyes peeled for trail cams, security patrols, and security cameras. You obviously want to avoid these.
- Avoid camping along already established trails. Joggers, hikers, or property owners might be able to spot you along their normal route. As a rule of thumb, the harder it is for you to get to a campsite, the stealthier it will be.
- Avoid silhouetting against the night sky. Make sure you and your camp does not stand out against the background or the skyline. If you’re camping somewhere elevated like a hilltop this can be more challenging to conceal.
- Pack light so you can move quick. In the event you have to leave camp quickly you won’t have time to break down a large tent. Pack essentials, and audit your stealth camping gear often to see if there’s anything you can cut.
- Avoid camping near flood zones. Check the weather before you leave and makes sure you’re not in a flood zone, or down the way from a overflow sewer. A flash flood in a dry riverbed or flushing of hydrants could leave you soaked, and possibly even drowned.
- Keep your numbers low. Generally the more people you have with you, the more likely you are getting spotted.
- If you get caught, have a story. If you’re caught, be prepared to peacefully leave. If you’re camping somewhere strange, consider having a story as to why you’re there in the first place.
- Keep fires small, and underground. By digging a pit and keeping the fire small, you avoid unnecessary suspicion. Position the fire under thick branches to dissipate the smoke, and use only dry sticks and kindling for fuel. The best time for a fire is during the haze of sunrise and sunset.
- Use what others leave behind. Not only does this clean up the environment, but it can help reduce what you bring into the site. For instance, old cinder blocks can be transformed into low-profile makeshift stoves.
- Make sure your stealth camp van has proper airflow. Many custom vans come with their own ventilation fan installs that circulate air up and out. This can help protect from carbon monoxide and propane gas leaks. Having a CO2 monitor installed is also necessary.
- Hide valuables in your stealth camper van. Break ins do happen. In addition to keeping your van locked and alarmed when away, consider installing some hidden compartments during your build. These can hold a spare key, passports, credit cards, or emergency money.
- Save money planning your meals. It can be tempting to eat out a lot while on the road. Having an energy efficient fridge for your vehicle and a portable stove helps you avoid that temptation, while eating well on the move.
- No shower? No problem. For extended trips, not all stealth camper vans have showers built in. A little known trick is to subscribe for a 24 Hour Fitness membership and use their showers along the way. There are 400+ 24 Hour Fitness gyms that span across 17 states in the US, and countless other gym chains you can choose from as well.
- Know your number when it comes to power. If you have lights consider using LED, and know exactly how much electricity each appliance uses.
- Avoid flashy looking stealth camping vans. The goal is to blend in. Ideally you’d rather look like a work van from the outside, than a sleek brand new Sprinter.
- Use blackout curtains to stop light leakage. A can lighting up at night can draw unwanted attention, and overhead lights can keep you awake. Good vehicle blackout curtains are a must, and usually can attach with magnets or Velcro.
- Cook food and drain water before parking for the night. Smoke from the overhead fan can alert others, especially if you’re parking overnight in the cold. Water often leaks under vans, which could attract attention depending on where you are.
- Always exit from the front of your van. Not only does it look strange if you’re leaving from the back, but it gives people the idea you’re spending a bit too much time in your vehicle.
- Practice good van safety measures. If you receive a knock on your van, ask who it is. If it is the police, move to the front of the vehicle and speak with them. If you’re not sure if it really is the police, ask them to read their badge number. They should be able to do this quickly and accurately. Never exit from the side of your van in these situations.
- Keep your front seats clear. If you do need to leave in a hurry, you don’t want to be slowed down by junk in your front seat.
- Know your local wildlife. If you’re outdoors, be familiar with the types of threats you may encounter and how to navigate them. Bears, scorpions, and skunks can seriously mess up a good nights rest. Plan for these encounters as you travel to new locations.
- Know the local language. For those traveling abroad, know a bit of the language. A simple, “Excuse me” or “I’m sorry” can get you out of potential trouble.
- If you’re on a bike, stash it. Bikes are reflective, and oftentimes a target for thieves. Consider locking up your bike near camp, and using a dark green cover that blends in with your environment. Since you won’t be able to bring the bike inside a tent, you can cover it with either it’s own cover, or with a tarp that is pitched at an angle.
- Be aware of hunting seasons. While you should make sure you’re not stealth camping on hunting grounds, you might find yourself in an area where you’re not sure. Know when hunting seasons start and try to avoid areas you think might be used for public or private hunting. You don’t want holes in your tent, or you!
- Access your camp from a distance. One you’re setup, see how visible you are from the nearest trail or road. This will give you a good idea of just how concealed your camp is. Leave a light on in your camp and see just how visible it is from afar. This will also you device how much light you’ll be using at night, and if you’ll be able to covertly have a fire.
They both rely on stealth and mean the same thing. Camping in urban environments usually requires a level of stealth to remain undetected, while camping on a private beach may not be ‘urban’ but still require you to camp covertly.
Yes, Costco and Walmart allow vans as well as RVs to park overnight. Park towards the back to leave room for shoppers.
If your vehicle is insulated than yes. If not, most vehicles lose heat quickly. Staying inside your car can be warmer especially if there are harsh winds outside.