What is Stealth Camping and is it Legal?

TABLE OF CONTENTS

When I was in college, my friends would refer to me as “Sneaky Spencer” because of my penchant for slipping in and out of rooms unnoticed. It’s a habit that’s infiltrated every other aspect of my life, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m quite good at flying under the radar.

Perhaps it’s because of this trait that I enjoy stealth camping so much, whether I’m going out by myself or with people that I know. But what exactly is stealth camping? And if you know anything about it, you might also be wondering: is it legal? You can find answers to these questions and plenty of others in the article below.

Key Takeaways:

  • Stealth camping involves camping while staying as hidden as possible.
  • Stealth camping can be legal, but it’s important to respect local laws and signage.
  • Class B vans are ideal for stealth camping due to their inconspicuous appearance.
  • Avoid extended stays, minimize noise, blend in, and prioritize privacy and security.
  • Campers should choose well-lit areas, be prepared for unexpected visitors, and have quick escape plans.

So… What Exactly is Stealth Camping?

blue tent by a lake in the mountains

You’ve probably heard of dispersed camping (also known as dry camping or boondocking), but have you ever heard the term stealth camping before? It’s not the same as dispersed camping, though you can do both at the same time, and in fact, that’s probably what you’ll end up doing most often.

At its core, stealth camping is camping while staying hidden. This could be in an urban or rural setting, you could be in a tent or an RV, it could be at a campground or somewhere along the street… Your options are almost endless when it comes to stealth camping.

That being said, “stealth camping” is a term primarily used to describe RVers who want a safe, comfortable place to spend the night without spending an arm and a leg to get it. A large, Class A RV isn’t a great choice for stealth camping because of how massive it is, but Class B vans are perfect for the job. Since they look like a normal delivery van, Class B campers have a much easier time flying under the radar.

silver sprinter van parked on gravel in front of a mountain

Stealth camping can be done legally, but there are plenty of people who decide to take a less than lawful approach (which we don’t recommend). For RVers, signs that say “No Overnight Parking” are worth paying attention to. If you see any signage that indicates you can’t park in a certain place, it’s best to respect the law, unless you want an unwelcome knock on your window at 2am.

Otherwise, there are plenty of places where you can legally park an RV overnight. I’ve done it in a number of places, including a church parking lot, shopping centers, and city parks to name a few. You just have to do your research beforehand to make sure there aren’t any restrictions in whatever city or municipality you find yourself in, since these differences can vary widely.

When it comes to tent camping, my best piece of advice is to familiarize yourself with BLM land and other dispersed options. Assuming you don’t stay for too long (more than 14 days, generally speaking), you can legally camp anywhere on public land. Of course, you can stealth camp at a regular campground as well, but one of the only benefits to doing that is keeping other campers from interacting with you. That is, unless you enter more of a “gray zone” that pushes the boundaries of legality.

A couple years ago, my friend and I were camping in Colorado. We were hopping around to different campsites almost every day, and somewhere along the way, I contracted a pretty crippling illness. I didn’t have the energy to make it our campsite that first day I was sick, so we found a closer campground, waited until nighttime, and made camp in an open lot. We didn’t make a reservation; instead, we slipped in after most people were already asleep, and left early the following morning before the sun came up.

At the end of the day, I consider that experience to be a true example of stealth camping. While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend camping that way, it can come in handy during emergencies.

How Stealth Camping Varies by Country

You’ll hear the term stealth camping in both the US and the UK (and possibly other countries as well). For the most part, both countries are referring to the same practice when they use this verbiage, though there are some minor differences that are worth noting.

For example, in the UK, stealth camping is also used to describe a form of wild camping that focuses on survival and bushcraft. Since people aren’t allowed to practice this skillset in the front country, they’ve started referring to it as stealth camping, out of a desire to not draw attention to their actions.

How to Go Stealth Camping

man in blue shirt sitting in a red van zion national park

Any camping trip can be turned into a stealthy experience, but there are a few tricks that you can follow if you want to pull it off successfully. Since your goal is to stay as low key as possible, I’d recommend following most, if not all, of these tips the next time you want to go stealth camping.

Don’t Get Too Comfortable

The more you settle in, the more conspicuous you become. Trust me when I say that people will notice your outdoor table, chairs, generator, string lights, and other larger camping items. If you’re in an RV, the locals might start to worry that you’re a squatter moving in; if you’re in a tent, you’ll be getting a lot of unwanted attention.

Make it a point to keep most of your gear packed up, aside from the essentials. It’s best if you maintain the mentality that you won’t be at that location for very long, because in all likelihood, you won’t be. As we’ll mention in the next point, successful stealth campers rarely stay in one place for more than a night or two, which doesn’t leave much time to get the grill going and the TV set up.

Don’t Stay in One Place for Too Long

The longer you stay in one place, the more likely you are to be noticed. When it comes to stealth camping, your ideal scenario is arriving at your campsite late in the day and leaving early the next morning. Depending on where you are and how you work out the timing, it’s possible that no one will ever know you were there.

Assuming that system doesn’t fit with your schedule, you certainly can spend more than one night in the same place. Just do your best to keep a low profile, and avoid attracting any attention to yourself. However, as a rule of thumb, I would avoid spending more than one night parked in a residential area (assuming you’re in an RV). Even if it’s legal, the locals might get nervous seeing an unfamiliar van or RV parked outside their windows, and as a stealth camper, that sense of angst is the last thing that you want to create. When possible, I would suggest avoiding these residential neighborhoods altogether, just to give everyone peace of mind.

Don’t Do Anything to Draw Attention to Yourself

green tent in green hills foggy clouds

Avoiding notice should be your primary goal, and to do that, you’ll need to take some preventative measures. If you have dogs with you, make sure they don’t bark. Do your best to stay quiet in other ways as well, which means you should keep from shouting instructions, playing music too loud, or clanking your cooking equipment. Any loud, obnoxious noise that might draw attention is going to be your worst enemy as a stealth camper.

At the same time, you don’t want to be skulking around, trying to hide as soon as someone starts walking or driving by. Lowering the suspicions of those around you is also part of your goal as a stealth camper, so do your best to blend in and act natural.

Benefits of Stealth Camping

Stealth camping is for people who value privacy, security, and a closer connection to nature. Since your primary goal is to fly under the radar, you’ll be working hard to minimize any contact with other people, and you’ll be following Leave No Trace principles to the best of your ability. After all, the smaller your environmental footprint, the less likely anyone will notice you were ever there. However, aside from those general benefits, there are a few specific things that make stealth camping more attractive:

Spend the night close to nearby attractions. Is there somewhere in particular that you want to visit? Instead of sleeping in some faraway campground, it can be a lot more convenient to hole up on a nearby street for the night (if you’re in an RV).

Save money. Campground reservations can cost a shocking amount of money, especially if you’re an RV in need of hookups. Assuming you can make it without water, electricity, or sewage, stealth camping can play a significant role in keeping your wallet happy.

It’s convenient. Once you’ve found a legal place to spend the night, there’s nothing more convenient, efficient, and hassle-free than stealth camping. By nature, the entire process should be simple and tactical, giving you the minimal number of hurdles to jump through in order to avoid raising suspicion.

It gives you new experiences. Stealth camping lets you spend time in locations that the average camper will never experience. It’s a fun way to explore your surroundings, hang out close to local attractions, and provide that thrill that comes from “sneaking around.”

Concerns with Stealth Camping

old white van with graffiti on it in a city

As you might expect, stealth camping still has its flaws and safety concerns, despite all of the benefits. In an effort to stay discreet, you’ll lose some of the protection you get from setting up at a campground with other campers. When you’re in an RV, anyone can come knocking on your door or window during the night, whether it’s a cop or someone more unsavory. When you’re in a tent, they can just unzip your door.

Needless to say, it’s incredibly important to choose your campsite wisely, especially when you’re in the city. Try to stay in well-lit areas, and keep pepper (or bear) spray on hand to deter any unwelcome visitors.

If you’re driving an RV, consider backing into a parking space so that you can quickly pull out if necessary. Do everything you can to set yourself up for a quick escape or a solid fight, in the event that you run into trouble during the night.

Meet the Author!

By the age of 20, Spencer had already tackled some of the most famed mountain ranges in Europe, Asia, and North America. His mission is to help others accomplish their own outdoor-related goals, even within the time constraints of a 9-5 job and a busy life schedule.

43 thoughts on “What is Stealth Camping and is it Legal?”

  1. Stealth camp all the time with tent and folding bike … only impediment is weather …. Set up at early evening , leave early morning .

    1. I’ve done this in my car. But didn’t know it had a name.
      I’ll get tried and need to sleep for a few hours.
      Didn’t know it had a name.
      Car may not be a big deal, but when a person needs to sleep, they should sleep.
      All night truck stops, National Forest, Camp sites, City Parks.

    2. Lawrence L Huber

      I guess I have stealth camped most of my adult life. I use a tent and load the Jeep Wrangler and go into the BLM wilderness on trails virtually never used as far as possible from people. I carry at least a high power revolver and a high power lever action rifle for security. I just called it camping though as RVs are NOT camping.

    3. I used to ride my bike in and out of towns and remote places, I would carry a setup so that I can haul all my gear into a tall tree to sleep high in the upper canopy way above what was going on far below, if I had to sleep on the ground I had camouflage burlap for making a low cover in the brush

      1. No kidding! I have been doing it for almost 70 years! My daughter was only five days old the first time I took her!! ❤️❤️❤️

  2. I’ve been on the road for 25-30 years and my advice is its better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission,its an inexpensive way of life and has many benefits,join a chain gym for hygiene or make a solar shower, definitely want solar power because once paid for your one and done.a sprinter type vehicle is the best undercover unit out there and will allow you to go unoticed in many areas. Good luck Dan

    1. Since off grid and van living has become more of a trend, Sprinter vans may be good choice for a number of reasons from space and durability to other luxury features, however I think cargo van living is better at stealth living than sprinters. When you see a dark tinted sprinter only 1 thing comes to kind and that’s “ off grid living” when you see a plain cargo van you’re not sure if it’s a work van, passenger van or stealth living. That’s one of my few reasons why I chose extended cargo van. No bells and whistles just off grid stealth living

      1. Suzanne Dubroff

        Cargo vans are the way to go. My husband did it for years while working for a trucking company. He loved it.
        Cheaper than Sprinters when it comes to maintenance. Good luck to all!!

        1. I had friends that traveled in a vw camper bus from massachusetts to alaska they stayed in hospital parking lots overnights then ate in the hospital cafeteria in the morning.

      2. The irony is that stealth camping can be seen as illegal and unlawful, where as a homeless person can pitch a tent or setup a structure on private property or an open sidewalk and they are almost protected. Mind you I get the plight of the homeless so don’t come for me.

  3. Did primitive camping in the blue ridge mountains… And so piece full not a soul around but beautiful wildlife … used umbrella to keep fire dry during rain.. and used river water to clean dishes and bathed.. I did a lot of homework on finding gorgeous spots… But I did find plenty there…

  4. Looking to embark on a year long adventure in my SUV with a tent that mounts to the back of it. Any advice for such an adventure?

    1. I just did 12k miles across the USA in my f150 last year.
      Advice: ditch the tent and just sleep in the SUV. Put a small, comfy mattress back there and make plenty of storage.
      Ok, you could use the tent in really remote areas. But 90% of the time you just drive until you get tired and then you want to pull over and sleep. And 99.9% of the places you’ll be camping are LOUD. There’s no way you’ll be sleeping in a tent at a truck stop, rest stop, Walmart, cracker barrel, or any other public place. You’ll get zero sleep.
      My truck bed camper is 3″ thick with 2″ of foam. Everything is sealed. No windows. Only the peephole let’s any light through. And noice is still a factor in some places.

      When you wake up each morning in a beautiful location, have coffee and breakfast in bed with the rest hatch all the way open towards the best view or the sunrise. This was probably my favorite thing each day.

      Also, get a 4’x8′ 1/2″ or 3/4″ hard foam sheet at the hardware store and make well fitted inserts for each of your windows. Paint them black on one side. It will cut the noise and light a bit, and helps hold heat and cooling.

      Have your radiator serviced and just idle all night for air conditioning. Cheaper and quieter than a generator.
      Use a catalytic propane heater in the winter when you can’t have electricity.

      Get a good, long extension cord. And also buy a 30a and 50a adapter so you can use RV parks if you decide to. RV parks will never tell you that you can use a regular household cord for some reason. Those two adapters will be your best friends at times.

    2. Oh, my little truck also has a 100w solar panel, a battery bank made from old mobility scooter batteries, a 5000btu air conditioner, a small peltier air conditioner, a 12v cooler/ice box, a small inverter generator, lighting, a tv, an electric kettle, a one burner electric cook top, and all the basic comforts.
      It also has a rocket stove, a built in step, two gallons of extra gas storage, 5 gallon water tank, and a homemade 5 gallon bucket toilet (which I never actually used).
      The batteries charge from solar while I’m parked. But they also are plugged into the 7-wire trailer plug which charges them any time the truck engine is running.
      The trailer wiring also powers lots of LED tail lights on my camper bed because it sticks out a little over 2 feet from the back bumper. Your SUV won’t be a problem there. 🙂

  5. Homeless in San Diego

    Well, in San Diego, California….it is now completely illegal to stealth camp; whether in an RV, car, truck, van, in any tent, under any canopy, and/or sleeping under the stars naked like Adam and Eve before that one misguided day (lol, you all get my meaning). Although the local law was passed to curb homelessness, in real everyday life’s practice, its legal effects run amok and against any stealth or even regular camper; with exceptions for specifically-created and operated campsites. So if in San Diego, CA….better watch out, don’t start to cry, gonna find out how naughty you are….the San Diego Cops are coming. Good luck, God speed, and the best of all wishes to and for all good-natured efforts.

    1. I was recently reading that the reason San Diego cracked down on stealth camping was that campers were taking up all of the parking spots along the beaches and waterways so that San Diego residents who pay to live in the city could not find a place to park to visit the beaches, snorkel, scuba drive, surf, or use their watercraft. They would often have to park several blocks away and walk to the water carrying heavy scuba gear and other items.

  6. Walmart allows overnight parking for trucks, RVs, cars. Years ago my girlfriend and I traveled across the US for several months. We had a rooftop tent on my Jeep. Walmart were open 24 hrs back then, so we had access to restroom facilities at night. We would also camp at highway rest stops and truck stops. We were only slightly hassled by state troopers at the toll road rest areas. Supposedly not supposed to stay the night or sleep in your vehicle at most of them. But when we politely explain that hotels are not in our travel budget and we are too tired to safety drive, they were understanding and let us rest.

    1. Walmart has started to cut down on overnight camping in certain areas. Reason is to many problems like abandon campers to people craving on the parking lot and leaving it.

    2. Depends on the location, staff and security type.
      My local 24hr Wal-Mart is near a major highway interchange. They have posted “no overnight parking” signs for more than a decade, even before the pandemic.

      Honestly though, it might not be very stealth mode but, even with those signs. If you can locate staff or security, just ask permission. Depending on the situation, you should at least be able to get enough rest (with out window knocks) to safely get back behind the wheel.

      If it is more of an emergency or for public safety. Even a small sign or note in the window reading something along the lines of: Too tired to drive safely. Will depart soon…or within a certain window of time. Depending on your style you could throw in a little apology for them being inconvenienced, please & thank you for letting you park and being undisturbed long enough, to safely get back behind the wheel…

  7. The deeper our planets population grows, the further I want to separate myself. Camping in general is a passion, but camping without others knowing is a goal.

    1. The population of the planet is no longer growing, it’s collapsing so you won’t have to travel as far to get away.

  8. Going back about 30 years ago would bicycle camp with a friend. Use to stealth camp. Sometimes down old abandoned dirt roads, power line property and sometimes Rail road property. Not sure if any was legal. We were very quiet no fires and never stayed more than one night.

    1. I used to do this when I was younger. I had a Ranger pick-up with a camper shell. A twin mattress fit between the wheel wells. At the head of the bed, I had a cooler with block ice and food supplies I could access from the cab and in the back. Shower curtain rod to hang clothes. Side space for tools, cooking, camping, fishing, and cleaning equipment. Used overflow parking at state park campgrounds and hiked to shower facilities. Public water access ramps and hospital parking lots were good to hide in. Those days waiting rooms had coffee, tea, and hot water available. I had installed a 4″x4″ power box with a pig tail plug inside the bed if I found a power outlet I could connect to stealthily. I just wish they had the battery and solar charging systems that they have now.

  9. I stealth camped across the United States in my Subaru Outback 7 and 1/2 Weeks only stated a campground once in Death Valley the rest of the time it was parking lots streets desert BLM land various places. I do stealth camping when I’m not traveling weekly in various places the experience is amazing great article thank you for sharing. Tony – Random Adventures 2.0 on YouTube

    1. We did it in a Subaru outback for a while but I’m too big for the Subaru, I had you sleep diagonal to fit
      I now have starting driving a larger Mercedes-Benz type station wagon called an r350 wagon it’s much more spacious and comfortable, the only thing is we lost the fuel mileage, but it does pull a small trailer or boat well and with the heavily tinted stock windows hardly anyone can tell you’re sleeping in the neighborhood

  10. I remember my father picking some odd places to spend the night when we traveled cross country (With trailer or RV). Once we spent several hours sleeping parked right against the fence of a RV sales lot in clear view of the freeway.

  11. I’d like to camp on beaches or wooded land on long island. Wife can drop me off I walk in woods or onto a secluded beach after hours and bivwac. I eat once a day so no food or cooking.

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