This post is all about stealth camping. Sounds pretty ninja right? We’ll dive into what forms of stealth camping there are, how to be safe and then take a closer look at stealth camping in a car – how it’s best done, which cars are best and what to pack.
What is stealth camping in a car?
As mentioned above, it’s any kind of camping where you try to not be seen as camping by anyone. Let’s focus on stealth camping in a car here. You still try not to be seen as camping because it’s either safer for you or people might not like it if you sleep for free close to their patch, or even if it’s in the wild, that patch of land belongs to someone.
The car makes it easier not to be seen as camping when you sleep – but it also depends on what type of car you are sleeping in. If it’s a caravan – you’re busted. Everyone will assume you are camping there even if you are parked overnight and sleeping in a hotel. Same thing if it’s a big van with obvious camping gear and custom work. Just a van or any normal car are best for stealth camping – they are seen as just a car. It’s what this website is all about – microcampers are the least conspicuous campers because they are expected to be parked pretty much anywhere (and you can’t take them too much off the road, where say a Sharan would stick out if you don’t have a proper 4×4 with high wheelbase).
I think it’s important to mention that you are not trying to be unseen – it’s ok if people see you doing whatever in that spot during the day. People do all kinds of weird shit during the day anywhere :). You just don’t want to be seen as camping or getting ready to. There’s also spots and spots. Most of the time, I pick a spot where people don’t mind seeing me as camping – public land where I don’t trespass or break any (obvious) rules. Make it easy for people to ignore you – let you go.
You might have heard the term boondocking, which means taking your camper to an off-grid location with no camping equipment or connections (water, electricity, camping tables etc). It isn’t exactly stealth camping, but it’s close.
Why do people stealth camp?
- The primary reason is very likely the desire to get away and have some quiet time. Imagine a typical official camping ground – plenty of people around, you have neighbours, it’s noisier. If you camp in the wilderness, there’s no one around you. Or there are some people during the day, but only animals, crickets and the wide-open sky at night.
- Getting closer to nature – you can find a spot away from the hustle and bustle of society. Just you and nature, no signal, no Wi-fi, no bills. The only thing you care about is what to eat, whether to chill or do some hiking and cleaning up after yourself (!!). Because there are no people around, it’s likely you’ll spot or hear more animals, there’ll be less light pollution at night.
- The adventure – there is no protective fence around you. There are no public lights. No guard. Only you, your kit and nature. It’s a very different feeling if you hear a deer mating call close to you on a dark night than neighbours chit-chat in a camping ground :).
- Money – it’s free. You can probably secure a quiet spot closer to nature by spending some money too, but the adventure part will be missing. Free, quiet, close to nature and adventurous – not a bad night out! If you are not stealth camping in nature, say you’re on a road trip and just sleep in a public car park, most of the other reasons don’t apply, but the money one still does. Perhaps the adventure one too! That’s how I started car camping and discovered the microcamping world – we hired a Fiat Panda in Greece for 20 EUR/night and slept in it for a week :). (We later hired a much newer VW Golf just to conclude that it was easier to sleep in the Panda – flat, not ergonomic seats meant more “bed” when you lower them down + less worry about scratching it…).
- (potentionally) less hassle – you drive in your car to a spot and sleep in it. No worries about booking accommodation in advance. But you do have to find a good spot and that can be quite a mission sometimes!
Did I miss a reason? Share yours in the comments section!
Is stealth camping in a car safe?
Stealth camping in a car can be very safe if you know what you’re doing – and follow some basic and common-sense rules. It’s certainly safer in a car than in a tent, hammock or just sleeping on the ground. Respect your surroundings – if you don’t bother anyone and don’t advertise yourself, you should be pretty safe. If you are not seen, nothing can happen to you. Here’s some more tips to keep you safe:
Stealth camping in a car safety tips
- lock the car, use a tailgate lock if you need to let air (safer than an open window)
- keep the noise down – even if people notice you, if you’re not bothering them, the majority will get on with their day and leave you alone. But if you annoy them with loud music or shouting at night, they might just come over to tell you off or send the local police to do so.
- put all your stuff inside the car or hide it away, don’t leave it around the car (chairs, table, water canister etc). Don’t leave any food or garbage outside – the smell might attract some wildlife… or annoy some locals.
- don’t be cheeky or rude – you want to be respected, so respect others around you – don’t park on land that clearly belongs to someone, behind a fence even if a gate is open
- stealth camping in nature
- stay away from sight – don’t just park off the road, but try to park behind a corner, bushes, trees – away from the view of passing cars or people. Even if you think no one will pass there – more often than not, someone will. You might not be in trouble (i.e. it might be a friendly local just nosing around), but it could be an “entrepreneurial” local looking for a quick buck. The more people notice you, the higher the chance of one of them being a dick or worse.
- be very careful with fire – better not to have one or have a camping stove instead. It’s safer for the forest and its dwellers (most forest fires are started by humans, campfires being at the top of the list). Aside from the risk of a forest fire, it also advertises your position for kilometres away (the smoke) and can irritate local landowners, hunters or other nature enthusiasts.
- pick a spot that’s easy to drive away from – should you need to get out of there quickly, you don’t want to be stuck in the mud.
- clean up after yourself – leave only footsteps (car trails are ok too…). You might not get busted for littering, but you will make it harder for others to find a nice spot or you will train local people to hate wild campers for that. Make sure you can return to that spot and it’s as nice for everyone after you as it was when you found it. And yes, it’s ok to shit in the forest, just dig a hole and cover it up. Don’t just leave those tissues on the ground and walk a good distance from the spot, into the forest. The animals won’t mind, the trees might even enjoy it.
- don’t use any detergents, soaps and washing up liquids in streams, rivers and lakes. Use natural biodegradable ones or wash that stuff somewhere else (a petrol station sink).
- have a flashlight handy – you hear a noise, you might want to see what it is. Most of the time, your mind thinks it’s a bear, usually, it’s a cat or a fox pulling at the garbage bag you left outside (in EU. If you’re in an area with a higher concentration of bears, make sure you follow all the rules for camping in bear territory.
- stealth camping in or near inhabited areas, cities, villages
- have your own toilet or find a toilet you can use (a public one, in a bar where you make friends with the owner or person behind the bar). You wouldn’t like anyone shitting around your neighbourhood too. Or just sleep there, pack your stuff in the morning and do the business somewhere in nature 🙂
- arrive late, leave early – the sooner you park at the spot, the more people will notice you. It’s better to arrive there after dark (but it’s ok to find the spot during the day, check it out first. Then go away and return after dark). Leave early – before people wake up and start going to work, jogging etc. You’ll avoid many weird situations like this. You can catch on sleep later – at a quiet spot during the day if you need to.
- avoid dark streets and spots – you’d think the opposite would be true, but you are safer where you (or anyone who wants to hurt you) can be seen rather than at a spot where it’s just you and the weirdo who knocks at your window. This is very individual by the location you pick, there might be cases where a darker spot is fine – make sure you know the area to some extend (is it generally safe? Or is it the dodgy part of town?)
- check Google for any obvious articles or Wikitravel
- use darkened windows rather than curtains – curtains just scream “someone’s sleeping here!” whereas darkened windows are standard. Keep the lights to a minimum.
Did I miss a safety tip? Share yours in the comments section!
What cars are best for stealth camping?
Microcampers! Why? Because a van just screams “a happy camper here!” But a standard family car parked in a car park, near a forest road or basically anywhere is very inconspicuous. It’s just a car.
You’re on the right website then! Step in and explore the world of microcampers – standard family cars you can sleep in or easily convert to a comfy microcamper. Ideas on how to make them reversible microcampers – cars that work both, as a standard 5 or 7 seaters and as a bed on wheels if you need it, whenever you need it.
Here are a few posts to get you started:
Check this one if you want to know which cars are best for stealth camping and more about what makes a good microcamper – our criteria for car camping:
Check this one to decide if you should convert your car yourself or buy a ready made camping box:
Our reviews of the top cars for microcamping:
VW Caddy (Maxi) Camper
(top pick for size)
One of the biggest – small cars, best suited for car camping conversions. Find all about that here – dimensions, review, images, gear, useful links.
VW Sharan Camper
(top pick for size+comfort)
Spacious and great comfort. Choose the Sharan/Alhambra if you plan long drives and want comfort.
Looking for something smaller and very stealthy? Check out these two DIY stealth camper conversions in our pick of the month June.
What to pack for stealth camping in a car?
The less stuff you carry, the easier it is to not be seen camping. Imagine you pull out a big awning with a camping table and chairs – it will be hard to claim you’re not camping there. But if you have most of the stuff inside the car and just make a picnic next to it on a blanket, no one will mind.
Here are a few items that will really come in handy when stealth camping:
Check out our full list of car camping essentials (not only) for stealth camping
A tailgate lock will allow you to let air into the car, but remain locked and safe
A very good one has been suggested by a fellow microcamper rjrdaydreamer.com – see his post to see it in action
Or this car window air vent
A good LED torch / light will always come in handy
A small, easy to carry and hide away camping utensils set with a stove
A camping shovel for… the business (nature stealth camping)
You will find it much easier to dig a good hole with a shovel. It’s doable with a stick, but this shovel will come in handy in other situations too.
Although stealth camping might not be for everyone, it’s fairly common when microcamping. Sometimes it just happens, othertimes you want to stay hidden and undisturbed. Whether you decide do go stealth camping, wild camping, any kind of car camping – I’m sure you will enjoy the freedom it will bring you.