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.