Vanlife How to: Hygiene while living in a Van/Camper/RV/Car

vanlife hygiene

A common through that many people have when they learn of or consider vandwelling:

“How do you live without a bathroom? Where to you pee? Where do you poop? Oh my god –  Where do you take showers!?  People who live in vans must be filthy. I can’t do that!”

Ok, take a deep breath. Everything’s going to be ok. You’ll be able to poop and pee and keep yourself clean.

What I’ll cover

  • Where to pee. In cities, and out camping
  • Where and how to poop. In cities and out camping
  • How to clean your body. (You don’t need a shower. You need a way to clean your body. Forget about showers. They aren’t as special as you may think)
  • A few other small details

That’s it. This stuff is easy. Once you’ve been living in a van for a few weeks, you’ll be relieved at how simple and easy it can actually be. The things you worried about will be gone.

For women – sorry, I don’t have any specific advice on menstruation, peeing, or makeup. But don’t worry, I’m sure they’ll work out just fine.

vanlife hygiene

 

Super Brief Summary

Since this post is long, but the advice is simple, here it is very quickly for those who don’t want to read the entire post:

  • When in cities, pee and poop in toilets. Also, pee in a bottle and dump it outside
  • When outside of cities, pee on the ground. Each time you poop, dig hole 8 inches deep to poop in
  • Clean your body with a wet bandana. It works very well. Showers are for suckers.
vanlife hygiene
Hello. I’m clean, and I don’t smell bad at all!

 

Forget about bathrooms and showers.

You don’t need them.

Humans have existed for 200,000 years. Toilets have been in use for about 400 years. Indoor showers have been in regular use for about a hundred years. So that’s 199,600 years that humans have lived without toilets and 199,800 years without showers. And most of these humans were not walking around with poop all over them.  I expect most of them were quite clean. Some people or books may tell you that people used to be really stinky, but these are probably declarations made by people who think a shower is the only way to get clean. Once you experiment with simpler ways to clean yourself, stinky people will start to confound you in ways they never did before.

So. Let’s repeat it again. You don’t need showers. YOU DON’T NEED SHOWERS. And when you’re not in a city, you don’t need toilets, and in fact, it’s better for the world if you don’t use a toilet while you’re not in a city.

When it comes to hygiene while traveling, forget about trying to replicate all the things you currently do. Focus on what you need to achieve – being clean, comfortable, and healthy. You’ll find that you can accomplish those in much simpler ways than you’re used to. And you’ll probably find that it costs less, uses way less water, is better for the environment, and maybe is more fun.

PEEING – Where and How

OUTSIDE OF CITIES

Just pee on the ground. That’s it. Nothing more to it. Don’t pee in the exact same spot all the time. And walk a little ways away from your van.

IN CITIES

You generally have two options. Well, three.

1 – Pee in a bottle. Get yourself a pee bottle.  You just need some type of container that you’ve designated a pee bottle. It’s good to have one with a  wide mouth. I use a standard Nalgene 1 liter bottle that is opaque. It works very well except for those times when I really REALLY have to pee – because it’s more than 1 liter. That’s kind of fascinating to me. I used to wonder how much volume my bladder holds, and know I know.

Anyways, you just pee in the bottle, and then dump it out on the ground outside. Dump it on plants/rocks/dirt. You don’t need to worry much about people seeing you dump it out. They won’t expect that it’s pee, and even if they do, there’s not any problem with dumping out some pee.

You’ll need to clean this bottle periodically. You can put water in it, shake it up, and dump it out. You can use soap to clean it. You can just put a tiny bit of soap into it after each time you dump it out. If gets offensively smelly, you’re not cleaning it enough.

A pee bottle is a wonderful thing to have at night. It removes the need to go outside to pee, which is particularly nice when it’s really cold outside. It’s also a lot easier to just take one step out of bed and pee in a bottle than it is to walk outside.

2 – Pee in Toilets. You just find a toilet and pee in it. That’s it. There are publicly accessible restrooms all over the place. I’ve made a list below of places where you can go use the bathroom. Generally, Starbucks and McDonalds are all over the place and they keep their bathrooms clean.

Places with toilets that you can use:

  • Fast food restaurants
  • Nicer fast food restaurants or sit-down restaurants (more likely to be clean)
  • Fancy restaurants. Don’t worry, just walk in there and walk straight to the bathroom. Nothing bad is going to happen to you.
  • Hotels (nearly all hotels have public restrooms on the first floor. If you’re on the hunt for a luxurious toilet, go to a luxurious hotel)
  • Libraries
  • Courthouses
  • Gas stations (but they are generally to be avoided)
  • Grocery stores
  • Book stores
  • Coffee Shops
  • Bars
  • Some parks
  • Box stores like Wal-Mart and Target
  • Buildings on college/university campuses

These are also where you’ll poop while in cities.

In most ports of most cities, you’re never more than a couple blocks from a bathroom you can use.

“What about when I have to poop in the middle of the night!?”

You won’t. When’s the last time you had to poop in the middle of the night?

Your body has a keen way of knowing what frequency of pooping is good or acceptable, and adjusting to it. When I lived in the city, I’d poop multiple times every day. Now while I’m out camping, I never have to poop more than once a day. Your body just understands and adjusts to make things easier.

3 – Extra Option – pee on the ground. While you’re in cities, it’s still an option to pee on the ground. Whether this is a good idea depends a lot on where you are and how many people are near you. You probably won’t want to do this often. Don’t get yourself in trouble for it.

POOPING – Where and How

IN CITIES

Use a toilet. The same kind of ones where you pee sometimes.

If some day the need arises to poop inside your rig, here’s a way to do it:

  • First, you pee. In your bottle or on the ground. Get all your pee out! Of course, if you really have to poop, this isn’t all that easy, but try hard, it’s worth it. You’ll find out why.
  • Get three or so plastic grocery bags or trash bags. Put them inside each other so you’ve got three layers of bag.
  • Put a bunch of paper towels down in the bottom of the bag. Don’t be stingy with them.
  • Squat and poop into the bag. If you do pee some, get it on the paper towels. That’s why you put a lot of them in there
  • Wipe and put your toilet paper in the bag. Tie it up, if there’s enough bag, double it around itself and tie it again.
  • Go put it in a public trash can. Quickly. Probably the kind that’s outside and that a person who’s walking their dog would put their dog’s poop in.

OUTSIDE OF CITIES

Poop is meant to go in or on the ground. Once you finally poop outside, and are comfortable with the process, you’re probably going to feel particularly good and accomplished after you poop. How often do you feel that when you poop in a toilet?

Here’s what you do:

In your van, set up a “poop hike bag”. In the bag, have a little shovel. I use a small gardening trowel, like this one. Also, have a roll of toilet paper.  If you have a bag that you can dedicate to this purpose, leave them in the bag, so when it’s time to go poop you don’t have to get out all three things, you can just grab the poop bag and you’re ready to go.

Wait until you really need to poop. Also, it’s ideal to time your urinating so that you will also pee a lot when you poop. It works much better that way. If you end up leaving to poop and you have just recently peed, it’s worth bringing along a some water. So:

  • Grab your poop bag. (If you just peed lately, bring at least half a liter of water)
  • Walk off away from the van and other people. Walk in a direction where you think there will not be many rocks, or where there will be at least some spots without a lot of rocks. You’ll get used to figuring out where these places are.
  • You might as well walk quite a ways and make it into a little hike.
  • Find a spot on the ground where it looks like you can dig a hole. Generally, you want a spot without a lot of plants growing (ideally, none), and without any rocks on the surface. A place that looks like it will be easy to dig. You also might as well do it in a spot that has a nice view. I tell you what: I’ve pooped with some amazing views. Sure beats looking at a wall, a magazine, or a phone screen.
  • Get out the shovel and start digging. Dig a hole least 8 inches deep and about 6 inches wide.
  • If you run into a lot of rocks, or some really big rocks right away, consider finding a different place to dig your hole.
  • Digging the hole can be hard work, and it can take a while. It’s most difficult where there is clay or where there are many rocks. It’s the easiest in a desert area where there aren’t many rocks. Don’t skimp on the depth. Get it at least 8″ deep. There’s no need to dig any deeper than 10″. But if you’re digging in a really sandy area, the deeper the better. As you’re digging the hole, put the dirt and rocks that you dig up into a pile about 1 foot away from the hole. Don’t just throw it wherever. You’ll need this to refill the hole.  If you feel like you can’t dig a hole, consider whether it would be easier to find a different spot to dig. If it’s just hard and it will be hard everywhere, take your time and keep at it. If it is physically very hard for you, well, then you’re getting some good exercise, and you’ll get stronger. There is technique to digging, and you will also improve your digging skill and get used to what type of digging motions work well for you and how to get large rocks out of there.
  • Once your hole is ready, find yourself a solid looking stick. Get one that’s 8″ or longer, and at least twice as thick as a pencil.
  • Now it’s time to poop. Get out your toilet paper, drop your pants, and squat over the hole. Focus on having the right body position so that both your pee and your poop go into the hole, and not any of it goes on your pants or shoes. I’m generally leaning back a bit while squatted, which gets my feet ahead of me and out of the way. I’ll usually have one hand behind me to support my body, and use the other to aim to make sure I pee into the hole. I’ve wondered if I should take off my pants so I can have my legs wider, but haven’t tried that yet.
  • If you’ve done like I recommended and waited until you really needed to poop, you’ll bee able to poop quickly. That works better because it gives your pee less time to soak in to the ground.
  • Then, wipe with your toilet paper and put it into the hole. (Generally, the official recommendations are to pack out your toilet paper. I’m pretty certain that if you follow my directions, you don’t need to bother packing it out).
  • Pull up your pants
  • (if you knew you wouldn’t have to pee and brought water, now is the time to dump it into the hole)
  • Pick up the stick. Put it down into your poop and pee and toilet paper and stir it all up. Focus on mixing the toilet paper and the poop together and breaking up the toilet paper. Keep stirring and mixing it until it appears homogenious – like mud – and until you can’t recognize any of the toilet paper. It should look like really we mud at this point. Push some of the dirt back into the hole and mix that with the poop. Do a few scoops . This will help the poop break down into soil faster. When you’re done stirring, break the stick about in half by pressing it down into the hole or against the side of it. Let the bottom end of the stick (the end that has poop on it) drop into the hole.
  • Refill the hole. As it’s getting full, keep track of where the hole was. Move all of the dirt/rocks that you dug out (and some extra) onto and above the hole. You’ll have a little mount/hill.
  • Stand up and step/stomp on that hill to compress the dirt. If you didn’t dig your hole deep enough, this is the point where you’ll learn about your mistake and maybe get a dirty shoe.
  • Put your shovel and toilet paper back in your bag.
  • Think about how great you feel, and how good the dirt right here is going to feel as it gets all the nutrients and such that you just gave it.
  • Walk back.
  • Wash your hands with whatever method you use. A simple method is to get a paper towel wet and wipe down your hands, and then use some hand sanitizer.

That was a lot of writing about a simple process. I’ve included a lot of detail to allay whatever concerns or confusion you had. If it seems like this is difficult or a lot of work, don’t worry, it’s not bad. I’ve found that it actually works out very nicely as it’s a way to assure I go out for a walk every day.

vanlife hygiene
Did I just spot a good place to poop?

 

Cleaning Your Body

A reminder first – the goal here is to get your body clean. It is NOT to re-create the same methods that we’ve used at bathrooms in houses or apartments.

When it comes to finding a good method to clean yourself while traveling, here are some of the important criteria:

  • How clean you get
  • How easy or difficult it is to do
  • How long it takes
  • How much enjoyment or discomfort it may cause
  • How much water it requires
  • How much equipment you need and how much it costs
  • If there’s a chance of making a mess in your vehicle or getting water where you don’t want it
  • If you’re getting things wet, how long they take to dry
  • Whether it’s possible to use this method inside your vehicle

If a method fails badly on any of these criteria, it’s not a very good method. The best method should do well on all of these criteria.

vanlife hygiene

 

Why showering is for suckers

Or – the inefficiency of trying to recreate showers on the road

A shower requires a lot of water. In a home bathroom, a shower puts out 2 to 5 gallons of water per minute. Take a 5 minute shower, and we’re talking 15 gallons. That’s 126 lbs of water. LOTS of water.

Now, consider what happens with the water when you take a shower. Your skin is mostly impermeable, which is nice because that means it’s waterproof. So, when the water comes out of the shower-head, some of it hits your body and some goes straight to the ground. That water that hits your body mostly bounces right off or runs down you onto the ground within a couple seconds. So you’re getting, on average, about 1 second of use out of almost all the water coming out of the shower head.

This is an incredibly wasteful way to use water. When you have a seemingly infinite supply of fresh water, and it is nearly free, that doesn’t seem to matter. But when you have to carry and drive your water around, that starts to matter a lot.

To expand on the numbers and make this even more clear: If you were going to go out camping for one week, and would take one shower each day, that would use about 100 gallons of water – which is over 800 lbs and would take up a lot of space. You’re not going to haul that much water around. So what can you do? You can use less water. That would help. Maybe you use 20% as much water. That’s still a lot to carry around. Maybe you use 10% as much, that’s still a lot. When most of the water you use is going to touch your body for 1 second and fall to the ground, you just can’t win.

See – showering is for suckers.

There are other problems with showers. It is equipment intensive. You need something to store all that water in. You probably need hoses and a showerhead or valve. You’ll probably need a way to heat the water. You’ll need to only take showers when you’re in a secluded place, or you’ll probably want some kind of curtain to set up around you.

Forget about all this. You don’t need a shower. You just need to clean your body.

vanlife hygiene

 

 

You Don’t Need Soap

Soap is also something that’s for suckers. Well, not entirely. But – soap is is overused like crazy. It has been consummerized to a ridiculous extent, and an insane amount of money, time, and materials are wasted on soap.

Let’s go back to the starting point here – we’re talking about cleaning your body. Again, your skin is generally impermeable. When dirt gets on you, most all of that dirt just sits on the outside of your skin. You can use water alone (and something like your hand or a washcloth) to remove 99.5% of the dirt. Using soap, you can remove 99.7% of the dirt.  Yeah, soap is for suckers.

Soap is more useful for cleaning materials that absorb dirt – like fabrics. Cotton and other materials can soak up moisture. When they get muddy, that dirt gets ~’inside’ the fabric much more than it can get inside your skin. Soap helps remove the dirt from the fabric. (Soap essentially works by adhering to dirt, and the soap is easier to rinse away than dirt, so when you rinse away the soap, it takes the dirt with it.) But on your skin, dirt is so easy to rinse away that soap becomes nearly useless.

Does this sound surprising? I dare you to do an experiment – go without soap for one week. If you’re hesitant, you could just start by not using shampoo. Continue taking your showers, and still clean yourself. You just get your hair and body wet in the shower and rub them with your hands. You should probably rub them a bit more than if you were using soap. But since you’re not using soap, the shower is simpler, and the time you had spent managing and using the soap is replaced by rubbing yourself more. You’ll still get nice and clean. See for yourself. (While you’re doing this experiment, I still recommend using soap on the few parts of your body that get the dirtiest – like your butt and maybe your armpits and feet. Eventually, you’ll realize you don’t really need soap for those, but let’s start small here).

Ok – so – showers are for suckers, and soap is for suckers.

You don’t need a lot of products

Here’s a picture of all the hygiene products I use:

vanlife hygiene

I probably should have also included bandana and paper towels. I also have a hair clipper and an electric shaver (I also have a double edge razor but in the van I just use the shaver as I don’t need to bother with water)I’ve shared this only as an example. You may wish to use many more products or much fewer. I could get rid of everything in the bottom row (except maybe lotion in really dry areas) and be fine  – or maybe even healthier because of it. I know for sure that my body doesn’t actually need baby powder on it.

I’ve went on and on about soap and showers and product to help clear your mind of those methods that are common in a big fancy house bathroom. So now let’s go back to the goal of cleaning yourself. I’ll start out by sharing a variety of methods that would work in varying degrees. Some of them will satisfy some of the criteria I listed above but fail on others. And then, I’ll share what I’ve found to be the best method in detail.

Methods for Cleaning Yourself

First, here’s a reminder of the important criteria of body cleaning methods:

  • How clean you get
  • How easy or difficult it is to do
  • How long it takes
  • How much enjoyment or discomfort it may cause
  • How much water it requires
  • How much equipment you need and how much it costs
  • If there’s a chance of making a mess in your vehicle or getting water where you don’t want it
  • If you’re getting things wet, how long they take to dry
  • Whether it’s possible to use this method inside your vehicle

Now, as you look through these cleaning methods, consider how well they accomplish the criteria above. Most of these have some major limitations and drawbacks.

  • Bucket of water and washcloth
  • Bathing in rivers, lakes, hot springs, and oceans
  • Using campground showers
  • Using Truck Stop showers
  • Showering at the homes of friends and family
  • Showering at a gym
  • Using wet wipes or a similar product
  • Using some type of mobile shower system
  • Wiping yourself with a wet rag

The best way to clean yourself

First, I’ll try to get you excited about it by sharing how well it accomplishes the important criteria of cleaning yourself:

  • You can get very clean. 99% as clean as a full on shower with soap. Clean enough that your picky girlfriend will never take issue.
  • It is very easy to do.
  • It takes only 5-10 minutes
  • It is not uncomfortable.
  • It uses only about three ounces of water. That’s it!  (maybe more if you have a lot of hair to wash)
  • It uses very little equipment. A week’s worth of bathing equipment takes up about the size of a 12oz can.
  • There is basically zero chance of making a mess in your vehicle or getting water where you don’t want it
  • When you’re done, your body is already more or less dry (you don’t ever need to dry yourself with a towel), and the bathing equipment is all dry in an hour or two.
  • You can do this method anywhere and everywhere. You can do it inside your van with a hundred people outside and they will never have any idea.

A “Rag Bath”

This method is essentially cleaning yourself with a washcloth. It has been used for many many thousands of years. It’s been so popular because it works so well. I’ve used other materials for the washcloth and I’ve settled on bandana. They are very thin and that’s why they work well. Because they are thin:

  • They get saturated with very little water
  • They dry very quickly
  • They take up very little storage space

They also work well because they are cheap. You can buy them for $1. They are durable and they last a long time. Forget about things that you have to take out of a package every time you bath – like wet wipes. Most of those are going to leave you feeling strangely sticky and chemically, and probably with a weird unnatural smell. You don’t need a product in a package every time you clean yourself.

The Bandana Ragbath Process

If it gets cold at night where you are, it’s generally better to do this while it’s near the warmest part of the day. If you exercise each day, do this after you’ve finished exercising and let your body cool down.

If it is quite cold where you are or when you want to bathe, and you want to make it more comfortable, warm up the water you’ll use first. When it’s really cold out, the water in your van will also get colder, and it will feel very cold on your body. If you heat up the water, it can feel kind of nice.

  • Get a normal bath towel or something similar. Lay it on the floor inside your vehicle.
  • Get out a clean bandana
  • Get a cup or some water container and put at least 4oz of water in it.
  • Take off your clothes and sit down on the towel
vanlife hygiene
All ready to go, with a towel to sit on, a bandana, and some water

 

  • Fold the bandana, get part of it folded over so it’s about 8 layers thick. (see picture below). hold that part in your hand and have your fingers out and up so that part of the bandana is sort of cupped. Pour some water onto that part of the bandana. Give it some time to soak in, so that most of the water you poured is absorbed.
vanlife hygiene
Letting water soak into the bandana
  • Wipe yourself with the wet bandana. Start with your face.
  • Pour more water on the bandana when needed to that the part of it you’ll use is saturated with water. Get it wet enough so there is water/wetness on your body while you’re cleaning, but that you don’t get totally soaked. Your skin should dry on it’s own within a minute or so. If you need to towel off a lot of your body at the end, you’re getting yourself more wet than you need to.
  • Start with your face. Then clean the other parts of your body that are the least dirty. Finish by cleaning the dirtiest parts of your body. Also, if there are some parts you want to make sure you get especially clean, do those early on.
  • As you go, refold and reverse the bandana so you’re using cleaner parts of it on yourself.
  • Clean your butt with a wet paper towel
  • The last parts of your body to clean with the bandana would normally be your armpits and feet.
  • Now you’re done. Put the bandana somewhere to dry. Depending on if/how wet the towel you’re sitting on got, either put that somewhere to dry, or put it away.
  • Rejoice. You’re very clean and you barely used any water. Isn’t mother nature (or physics) wonderful? You’re so clean now and you didn’t need to buy or use any products, and it barely took any water. This is SO EASY! Now you can relax and feel clean, go to sleep and feel cozy, go on a date, have sex, or whatever else you like to do while clean.

Rule #1 – Keep your Butt Clean

It’s quite late in the post to tell you this, but here it is. The #1 rule of Vanlife is to keep your butt clean.

There is a very good documentary called Surfwise, about a man and his family who lived in a mid size RV for decades. There’s a man and wife, and their NINE children. All in the one RV. The man is fascinating. He was a doctor, he was the first person to expose people in Isreal to surfing and he got famous for it, and many of his children became world-class surfers –  literally – world champions. The first half of this documentary is about how the man and wife came to meet, and how they lived in the RV. One specific line I remember from the movie: “Rule #1 of living in the RV is:  Keep Your Butt Clean”.

You may be able to find the documentary on Netflix or other streaming services. Or, if you really want, on Youtube.

He was right – it is important to keep your butt clean. That is, by far, the part of your body that gets the dirtiest. You may want to clean it a couple times a day.

Last point on bathing

Bathe yourself ever single day. Don’t skip days. If you bathe every day you’ll feel nice and clean. You won’t get stinky.

Don’t stink up your van with dirty laundry

  • Store it in a breathable container. A mesh laundry bag works well.
  • Don’t put it in that bag while it’s wet. Let it dry first.
  • You may like to put it in the sun first. The sun’s rays can kill a lot of bacteria and actually get fabrics quite clean (other than removing dirt). This is very effective for clothes that are stinky. Leave them in the sun for a few hours and they will stink much less, or not at all. Some folks will do a sort of dry sun laundry. They put the clothes in the sun for a few hours, maybe turn them around so both sides get the rays, and then consider them clean.

Signs you’re doing something wrong

  • If you smell bad
  • If your van smells bad
  • If you’re getting sick regularly. (though this could be from other reasons)

Don’t just endure these. DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT.  You may not be able to stay exactly as clean while living in a vehicle as when you have a house with a shower and all that, but you can very easily stay 95% as clean. Don’t just assume you’ll be dirty. And don’t accept it (Unless you don’t mind being dirty. then, you know, whatever floats your boat, buddy.)

Conclusion

Have you tried out the bandana rag bath yet? Comment to tell me what you think of it. Or – what was it like the first few times you dug a hole and pooped outside?

Vanlife How-To: Where to Park and Sleep in Cities

Where to Park and Sleep in Cities

It’s wonderful to camp out in ‘nature’ with nice views, fresh air, places to go hike and do other fun things, and space for yourself without other people. But there will be times that you have good reasons to be in cities and towns. Maybe you’ll need some wifi and a place to get some work done, or to go shopping, do laundry, to meet people, or to spend time with friends and family. But you’re not supposed to camp in a city, right? You’re supposed to live in a house or apartment or at least a hotel. Well…. no. Camping in a city is A-OK. And in this post I’ll show you where to park and sleep in cities.

Where to Park and Sleep in Cities
From a nice little park overlooking Seattle and Mt. Rainier

 

First – Some Important things

  • Actively ensure you are safe from violence, theft, or people crashing into your vehicle
  • Don’t scare people, don’t get bothered by or in trouble with police
  • Blend in as much as is reasonably easy
  • For sleeping, arrive to the spot at bedtime, leave when you wake. DO NOT STAY there into the next day.
  • Don’t keep sleeping in the same spot
  • Use blackout window covers
  • You can sleep in all kinds of neighborhoods – near houses, apartments, businesses, industrial areas, downtown, and so on. I’ll share examples from each type of neighborhood.
Where to Park and Sleep in Cities
In Encinitas, CA

Vehicle types

  • The best vehicle for stealth camping inside a city is probably a minivan or SUV. If the outside looks normal, no one would ever guess a person is sleeping inside.
  • People generally don’t notice solar panels or roof vents, but the more there are of that kind of thing, the more likely they recognize it as a camper.
  • White cargo vans are the next best vehicle.
  • Obvious RVs – (conversion vans with the stripes on them, or RVs or trailers) stand out the most, and a good deal of people will assume you’re sleeping in there.

The higher your vehicle is on the list above, the easier it is to camp in cities and blend in. If you have an obvious recreational vehicle, it’s going to be a bit tougher. But you can still do it.

Where to Park and Sleep in Cities
Beach parking lot in Ocean Beach, San Diego, CA. Great place to spend the day (by coming in the morning when spots are open), but overnight parking not allowed – and it get’s weird there at night anyways

 

Block out your windows!

The most important modification for your vehicle to camp in cities is to have a way to block all light at the windows. The most common method for this is to use blackout curtains. Other methods are to paint the inside of the windows or to make some kind of insert. Reflectix is the worst method because it is commonly used by “homeless people” and down-on-their-luck drug addicts. You don’t want to look like one of those. At night, when you have lights on inside your vehicle, you should either have all your windows blocked, or you should be parked in a place where you don’t care if people notice. When I’m in the city I keep my curtains up nearly all the time, except that I take some down while I’m driving, or sometimes while I’m inside the van.

Where to Park and Sleep in Cities
Parking lot behind casinos, on the strip in Las Vegas. I slept here many nights and would just keep the van here without moving it.

(This is how my van looks with the curtains up and the lights on inside)

 

Overall strategy

Blend in! While you’re parked somewhere in a city, the main thing you want to avoid is having people notice your vehicle (and you) and get scared, worried, or bothered by you. The more reasonable it would seem that your vehicle is there for a normal reason, the better.
During the day, blending in is less important. But still, here are some ways to do that:

  • Generally, no one gets bothered by vehicles in parking lots. So as long as it’s parking lot that’s open to the public, you can probably spend as much time as you want there. Parking lots that are shared by multiple business are better.
  • In residential areas, people are most likely to be bothered in neighborhoods where few or no people park on the streets. Residents who have big houses are the most likely to be alarmed by your vehicle – these folks know the cars of their neighbors, and are generally the most worried about burglaries, so they notice unfamiliar people and vehicles very quickly.
  • In a neighborhood with houses closer together where a lot of people live and where many people park on the street, residents are less likely to take notice of new vehicles. This is especially true where street parking is used so much that a resident wouldn’t normally expect to be able to park right in front of their home.
  • Coming and going at the right times, so even if someone does notice you and get bothered, you’re likely gone before anything happens (and don’t worry, what happens is not that bad. I’ll cover that later)
  • A note on exactly where you park. It’s safer to park on street where fewer people drive, and it’s safer to park a little ways in front of another vehicle – that way if someone (a drunk or distracted driver maybe) is driving along and smashes into the back of a parked car, your rig is less likely to be hit.
Where to Park and Sleep in Cities
In Portland

 

Don’t hang out where you sleep!

This one is simple and is every bit as important as choosing the right place to park. Do this:

  • At some point in the day (it could be right at bedtime), get an idea of where you want to park
  • Once you’re entirely ready for bed, drive to (or find) the spot where you’ll sleep. (You don’t have to scope out the exact spot prior to this, you just needed to have ideas/areas in mind). Park there.
  • Go to sleep.
  • When you wake up in the morning, drive somewhere else. It could be just one block away.

This way, you’ll be arriving while most people are also getting ready for bed or are asleep. You’ll be gone before most people notice or would do anything about it.

 

WHERE TO PARK – HOW TO FIND GOOD SPOTS

Residential

The main keys are:

  • Park in a neighborhood where a lot of people park on the streets
  • Don’t park in really fancy neighborhoods. Those residents are the most paranoid/worried.
  • It’s best to not park directly in front of a house. Park on a street that faces the sides of homes, or at least park in the spaces inbetween houses.

 

Residential – With Houses

Here’s a bad one. It’s too fancy:

Where to Park and Sleep in Cities

This one is also bad – the houses look big and fancy, and barely anyone is parked on the street. But if you really need/want, the best spot is on the side street, highlighted by the red circle.

Where to Park and Sleep in Cities

People who live in big houses call the cops a lot. Generally, the people who will call the police the quickest are people over 40 years of age who have big expensive houses full of expensive stuff that they have concerns about being stolen. The folks least likely to call the police about a van or camper are ages 25 and under, apartment dwellers, and lower middle-class neighborhoods and “below”.

This neighborhood below looks better. A lot of people park on the street, and it’s dense enough that a resident wont be surprised or bothered by any certain vehicle being in front of their home.

Where to Park and Sleep in Cities

Arkansas ave would be a good place to check because less people park on that street. You’ll actually be able to find a parking spot – and one that you can drive forwards into and not have to parallel park. Plus, you’ll be parked on the street facing the sides of people’s homes. A lot of people get the opinion in their head that the length of the street front of their property is theirs, but they feel less so about a street that borders the side of their house. And they’re just less likely to notice you on the side. The spot highlighted below with the grey pin is also not right next to the house, which is better than being parked right next to it, especially when the street is this close to the house. (those are garages along the alley).

Here’s the street view of that spot on Arkansas Ave:

Where to Park and Sleep in Cities

 

As you can see, you’re in plain view from the house. At night, there were a few other cars also parked on this street, and since it’s area where the streets going the other direction get filled up with park cars, it will just look like you’re a normal person parking in the neighborhood like all the other cars.

Here’s another spot on the end of a block. There are trees obstructing the view of the street from inside the house. (See the grey pin)

Where to Park and Sleep in Cities

Here’s a street view picture of an obstruction between the house and street. The spot that has a car parked in it (with the arrow pointing at it) would be good as it probably can’t be seen from the house windows – the view is blocked by the fence and the tree.

Where to Park and Sleep in Cities

You don’t really need to hide. But, spots like these are much less likely to be seen by residents as “their” spot, and they are less likely to notice you, especially if you’re only there while the residents are inside and sleeping.

The picture below shows another neighborhood where a lot of people park in the street. But there’s one car directly in front of each house. In areas looking like this, the spot in front of each house is most often occupied by someone who lives there. It is, in practice, their spot. Don’t park in their spot.

Where to Park and Sleep in Cities

Residential – With Apartments

Areas with apartments are generally easier/better than houses. With apartments, people are more used to coming and going, and they won’t recognize new vehicles. It’s best to find apartments where (some of) the residents park on the street.

This is an example of an apartment that’s not a good candidate. All the parking is in the apartment property. This is private property.

Where to Park and Sleep in Cities

In practice, you can likely park in there without trouble. But it’s generally better to park near apartments like this:

Where to Park and Sleep in Cities

Note that in an area like this, there will usually be (a lot) more cars parked on the street at night. These map pictures are taken in the middle of the day while most people are at work. This street is a great candidate. If you have solar panels, the spot highlighted with the grey pin would be good – because that’s the spot most likely to get direct sun the earliest. You should, of course, be leaving very early. But if it’s a time of year where the sun comes up around 6am, you might as well be parked in a spot that’s going to get you some juice in your battery.

Here’s a street view of apartments with street parking:

Where to Park and Sleep in Cities

 

Residential Neighborhoods – Weird Streets

Some parts of the country have residential streets that are paved, but have some dirt or gravel area along some parts of the road that people park on. They can look like this:
map view:

Where to Park and Sleep in Cities

street view:

Where to Park and Sleep in Cities

I avoid these areas. I’m not certain, but I have a feeling those sides of the road are private property, particularly so in the areas where sometimes of the lots have yards going all the way up to the street and some lots have a gravel section next to the road like these.

 

Industrial Areas

I don’t park in these often, but it’s certainly possible. Here’s an example:
An industrial area:

Where to Park and Sleep in Cities

Map view of a promising spot:

Where to Park and Sleep in Cities

Street view of that spot:

Where to Park and Sleep in Cities

Again, these are streets with the strange gravel section on the sides, so I don’t know for sure whether that’s still the street or whether it’s the property containing that junkyard. So it’s best to leave early in the morning.

 

Downtown Areas

Parking rules vary widely in downtown areas. Some places have meters that you only have to pay during daytime hours. Some places have “2 hour parking, 8am-6pm” signs. You can park in places like that. Here’s an example of a street I parked on in Carmel-By-The-Sea, a super fancy little town along the California coast:

Where to Park and Sleep in Cities

If you park in a downtown area, find a street that’s less busy. I parked on 8th street in the map above. A few blocks north, the street parallel to this was much busier and had people out walking around late at night (they’d been out to eat/drink), but down here on 8th street, the businesses were long closes and it was super quiet. Some of the California coast towns are tricky, and Carmel is one of those. In Carmel, there’s 2 hour parking downtown during the day. At night, only residents (with a permit) are allowed to park on streets in the residential areas. So I would go down and park at the beach during the day, and then come park downtown to sleep at night. That was a nice time :-).

One night I parked on the busy street downtown in Carmel. I don’t think I was even going to sleep there, but while I was just hanging out, some police came. They were nice and recommended that I go park in a big strip mall / business park and ensured me that I wouldn’t be bothered there.

 

Nooks and Crannies

Here’s a spot that some people camp. It’s away from any homes or businesses:

Where to Park and Sleep in Cities

And it’s right in the middle of a giant city, in Denver, next to downtown:

Where to Park and Sleep in Cities

Some of the nooks and crannies like this are decent places to park. But some of them have major problems. They are away from houses and apartments and businesses, but they are not away from people. I drove down this street while in Denver this summer. There were a handful of people parked there living out of their cars – really ratty cars full of stuff and trash. And there were some vans and RVs – one that look like they haven’t moved in a year and have piles of trash around them. If you think you’d like to camp in a spot like this in order to be away from people, that doesn’t always work out, and you might end up to people you’d much rather not be near.

 

Wal-Marts

Many Wal-Marts allow overnight camping. I believe there is a way to check online if a certain store allows it or not.

This website has a list, but it is not official and does not appear to always be updated:  http://www.walmartlocator.com/no-park-walmarts/

If you need to plan ahead, of if you prefer to just be sure whether it’s ok, call the store and ask. That’s what is recommended in the FAQ on the Wal-Mart website:

Where to Park and Sleep in Cities

Because I don’t need to plan ahead, I don’t check that. I’ve camped in a couple Wal-Marts where it was obvious camping was allowed and I happened to be right next to it at bed-time.

If, for some reason, you prefer to just try to use Google Maps to see if camping is allowed in a Wal-Mart, sometimes you can see, like this one in Page:

Where to Park and Sleep in Cities

A closer view:

Where to Park and Sleep in Cities

Those are campers. Here’s the street view:

Where to Park and Sleep in Cities

Be warned, this is not a reliable method. The Wal-Mart at Cedar City Utah is also a VERY popular camping site – with around 20 obvious Vans and RVs there each night, so it is clearly allowed, but the Google Maps picture shows no obvious campers.

Where to Park and Sleep in Cities

There are some other businesses that allow camping. Cracker Barrel is one. In some parts of the country, there are Cracker Barrels everywhere. Again, the normal/expected practice is to call the location and ask them about it.

 

Casinos

Some casinos will either allow you to camp for free, or they won’t notice you or bother you. If you go to Las Vegas, parking at/near the strip can be complicated. There’s usually some place you can park, but that seems to change as construction projects start and and. The off-strip casinos are easy. Here’s one that I believe I slept at:

Where to Park and Sleep in Cities

At off-strip casinos (at least in Vegas) with parking lots like this, you’ll probably be fine. I’m not entirely sure what happens if you have an obvious RV/Camper though.

 

Businesses where you’re not allowed

When you’re good at blending in, if you choose to, you can often get away with parking at businesses too. I’ve done very little of this, so I don’t know all the ins and outs. I’ve parked at hotels about ten nights worth and never had trouble. Keep in mind that these are private property and they could choose to boot or two your vehicle.

I’ve not done much of this because most of the time I can easily find places to park on public streets. But if you choose to, its a possibility at many different types of businesses.

There are some where you’re less likely to stand out, such as:

  • Hotels (as long as they aren’t strict about checking the cars and acting on it.. Don’t park in a lot that’s nearly full)
  • Bars (Ones that are open late and busy late, where some customers may get drunk and then take a cab or Uber home, or find true love and go home with someone else)
  • Ones with vans. (Some businesses will have a row of white vans outside. If you have a white van, you can probably find yourself a spot)
  • Grocery stores and others where they have some overnight employees (particularly in parking lots that serve many businesses)
  • Hospitals
  • Churches
  • And so on… Basically, if there’s a parking lot, there’s a possibility. Just don’t blame me if you get in trouble.

 

Ask the Police

One option is to call or go to the police station and ask them. You can explain that you’re a full time traveler and you’d like to spend a couple days in their city to shop, eat, etc. and ask if they have any advice on where you should park and sleep overnight. I’ve had the police come talk to be four times. Three of those times, they gave me specific and useful advice on where It’d be ok to park overnight. Getting that advice from them right off-the-bat may be a good idea.

 

Fear / Nervousness

During your first few times camping on a city street or parking lot, you’ll probably have some fear, nervousness, and excitement that comes and goes a few times.

  • What if someone notices that you’re in there sleeping? — What will they do? Well, what would you do if you were walking down the street and notice someone sleeping in a vehicle. Probably nothing. And you may forget about it entirely by the next day. These days, with vandwelling becoming more and more well known and admired, if someone recognizes you, they might hope or try to make friends with you.
  • What if someone tries to rob you? That’s not any more likely to happen than if you were in a house. If someone does happen to try to break into your rig, they’re going to be spooked when they realize that someone’s inside. They’re going to run away. (This actually happened to me once when I was parked in a pretty rough neighborhood. Around 7am when I was halfway awake, someone opened the side door of my van. And I though “What!? I forgot to lock it!… Where do I have the nearest knife?… does he see me?”. He was leaning in the van and looking around, and hadn’t seemed to notice me. I just said to him “Close the door”. He did, and then he ran away.
  • It can just feel like you’re doing something wrong by ~camping in a city. But remind yourself, you only have that feeling because of society norms, and those are not even real things – they’re just made up, they’re just subjective constructs – and much of what’s normal is actually kind of stupid.
  • Once you’ve done this a few times, it will start to feel more normal and less scary. I do still get some feelings or awareness that I’m doing something very out of the ordinary, which can be a good feeling – a sort of excitement.

 

If the police come

I’ll probably make a more in-depth post about this. In short:

  • Usually the cops really don’t care about someone sleeping overnight in a vehicle. They have other more important things to worry about, and also most officers hate doing paper work and prefer for situations to just dissolve without them needing to do anything other than talk to people. If they come talk to you, it’s nearly always because someone called and asked them to, and they’re coming to make sure you’re not some home invader that’s high on bath salts with a van full of stolen stuff. If they realize you’re just a traveler that’s sleeping for the night, they’ll probably be relieved and let their guard down.
  • Be courteous to them. Do NOT act rude or defensive. You can defend yourself by choosing what you say to them, but do it in a friendly or neutral tone. For example, if they say that someone called them complaining that you’re camping there, you may choose to just say “well, I parked the van here yesterday around 10pm” (with emphasis on ‘parked the van’. Usually they won’t press the question. They usually don’t care. They’re just here because someone called the cops and all they want is for that person to not call the cops more.
  • The important thing is to help the police realize that you’re a normal person and that you’re not up to no good. The main way to do this is to speak to them clearly and concisely, to not fidget, look them in the eye, and have consistency in your answers (don’t contradict something you previously told them).
  • Often, the police are just there because someone called and complained. They’re likely to give you advice on where else to go park that you’re less likely to bother anyone.
  • Many cities have ordinances against sleeping in a vehicle or ‘camping’ in general in the city. So it’s possible for the officer to give you a ticket or maybe worse. I think this happens very rarely and, and the more put-together you and your vehicle are, the less likely it is to happen. I believe those kind of tickets are given out to problematic/long-term street campers, and maybe some here and there that are jerks rude to the officers.
Where to Park and Sleep in Cities
In San Diego

 

Conclusion

I wish you happy and easy city camping. Living on the fringes of society in this way can take some more effort (of driving around and looking for places), but is really not that hard, and I’ve found it to be easier than managing and taking care of a house. If, by living mobile you are freeing yourself from the need for a house or apartment, you are probably winning in a lot of ways – you’ll likely be living a much less inexpensive life, having an incredibly lower environmental impact, and you have some giant advantages of mobility – you can stay in town for only as long as you want, you can go where you want afterwords, and while you’re in town, if you decide you don’t like a neighborhood or a street, you can move your house in 15 minutes.