Van Dwelling Logistics: Overnight Parking and Security
You pull into a nice quiet and dark parking lot. There are only a few cars around and one semi truck. The business looks closed and it seems like a fine place to hunker down for the night. You climb into the back, get your comfy clothes on and whip out the sleeping bag. Memories of the day and excitement for tomorrow’s adventures float through your head as you drift off to sleep. Just as Mr. Sandman begins to guide you through tonight’s dream journey, a Maglite taps the glass. You jerk up and your heart skips a beat. Adrenaline. Short breaths. You attempt to gather your thoughts as you wipe the fog from the glass. On the other side is a man in uniform and he wants to talk to you much more than you want to talk to him.
No self-respecting van dweller wants to find themselves in this type of situation, but unfortunately, it’s an unavoidable fact of van life... OR IS IT? If you’re thinking about living and/or traveling in your vehicle (or if you just want to know what it’s like for us), this post is for you...
At the time of writing this post, we’ve been living in our van for just over 8 months. When we first began this journey, we consulted many websites and have since spoken with other van dwelling experts. We’ve used some pretty solid strategies that have kept us out of run-ins with police (other than one who just didn’t have anything better to do) and have kept us out of imminent danger (a voiced concern of some of our readers and YouTube followers). Here are a few of the things we’ve learned so far:
Vehicle Selection is Important
Your vehicle of choice ought to be something not too flashy that can blend in just about anywhere. Our 2001 Dodge Ram Van has worked quite well for that. It’s a big, plain, white, boxy van. No fancy wheels, special markings, no stickers (granted, we would have loved some Vagabloggers logos on the side, but it would have ruined this effect). It’s easiest if you can blend in both commercial and residential situations. If you're not in to the size and gas consumption of a van, consider your own personal needs. Many people can just as easily pull this off in a car.
The term often used in the van dwelling community is “Stealth Parking”. The whole idea here is simple: don't get noticed. Here are a few of the best places we’ve found for discreet overnight parking:
- Large businesses that are open 24 hours - Tons of options here. Super markets, big box stores, etc. You’ll want to be easily mistaken for a delivery vehicle or perhaps an employee who’s parked overnight to stock shelves. Please see WalMart section below for additional details.
- Quiet neighborhoods - In safe suburban areas, this is usually pretty easy to pull off. It’s best to pull in just before bedtime and leave first thing in the morning. It’s also best if you don’t park directly in front of anyone’s house. You want it to look like Grandpa came to visit the neighbors, not like a couple of dirty hippies are living in a van out front. Just use your head. Don’t do anything that might make you wonder if someone were parked near your house.
- Apartment complexes - You can usually park on the curb just outside of an apartment complex. It's very common for overnight guests to park just outside the complex as inside parking spots are usually assigned or require passes.
- Hospitals - Overnight parking is quite common at hospitals and they are usually safe and patrolled. Just be ready with a story as to why you’re sleeping in your vehicle if you’re bugged by security.
- Auto repair shops - Be sure to check when the repair shop opens and leave at least 30 min. before then. Again, if bugged, be ready with a story... “Traveling and had car troubles, etc.”
- Hotels - We personally don’t prefer this one simply because it's difficult to know which hotels keep track of vehicles and license plate numbers, but we have known many others who’ve had little to no trouble. Use discretion.
Learn the “Legitimate Spots”
There are several places where sleeping in one’s vehicle is perfectly normal, legal and acceptable. These are always nice to come across, but only if you know which places they are. Fortunately, we’ve figured a few of those out too:
Public Lands - Lands maintained and controlled by the BLM (Bureau of Land Management), DNR (Department of Natural Resources) and National Forest. Most of these have places you can legitimately park or camp for up to 14 days. The majority have both paid and free camping areas. Check with the local office to get the info. You'll also find that many employees within the local offices like to avoid telling you about the free spots, but if you’re nice, polite and smile it can go a very long way.
Rest Stops - First things first... not every state allows people to sleep in their vehicles at rest stops (yes, it sounds stupid, but it’s absolutely true) and they will ticket you. Just do your research to see if the state allows this before you stop. We’ve yet to find a perfectly reliable website for this info, so if you know of one, please let us know in the comments.
Truck Stops - Many truck stops have specific stalls or locations for overnight parking, so just check with the attendant to make sure you’re where you’re supposed to be. Parking spots are usually well-lit and feel relatively safe. Additional bonuses at truck stops tend to be things like: clean, well-maintained, usually inexpensive (or free with fill-up) showers, laundry facilities, and WiFi (sometimes free, sometimes paid).
Walmart - It seems that most people know that Walmart allows overnight RV parking. However, not every Walmart does. Some are restricted by the laws within their cities. So how do you know which Walmarts allow overnight parking? Call ahead. Our usual question is quite simple: "Do you allow overnight parking for travelers?" if they say yes, just respond with "Great! Thank you so much! Is there a particular area in the parking lot that I should park in?" They usually do have an actual designated spot and parking there will help you to avoid any other potential problems.
Free Camping Websites - There are lots of other very legit places to park if you just do a little research online. One of our favorite websites is Freecampsites.net. It usually includes reviews and details about the site and loads of other good info. There are definitely many more, if you have a favorite of your own, include it in the comments and we'll add it to the list here.
It should go without saying that your van should have a comfortable sleeping surface, but we're going to say it anyway. Your days of van dwelling will be short-lived to say the least if you're not getting a decent and comfortable sleep each night. For some this means stripping the seats and installing a mattress or building a custom bed. For minimalists like us, it means picking out a van with cushy bench seats that are long enough to fit on. Our middle seat is flipped around backwards to create a "living room" feel of sorts. We're certainly not going to judge here... just do what makes you most comfortable.
Keep in mind that that many of the easiest and safest spots to park also tend to be very well-lit. Nothing can prevent a good night's sleeping like a blinding street light hitting you square in the face all night. There are several simple solutions. This is ours: we purchased 99% Blackout Tint
from Amazon and just used double-sided sticky tape to put it up. Some edges are reinforced with black electrical tape as well. You can certainly try to install it the proper way yourself (not easy without experience) or pay someone to. We just didn't because we're cheap and our method worked quite well. We also put up a spring loaded curtain rod and a light-blocking curtain just behind the front seats. This handles the rest of the light and gives us complete privacy. We've met many others who prefer hanging curtains all around over the blackout tint (preferably the kind you can see out, but no one else can see in). We like the tint because it's much more difficult to tell that the van is being lived in. Curtains in every window tend to be a dead giveaway.
As mentioned above, we've had several requests to share our tips about safety. If you've read to this point, you'll have noticed many safety tips given already, but there are a few other things worth mentioning. Before addressing safety, let me say this: I don't believe anyone can be a perfect expert regarding safety. Sometimes bad things just happen. The best we van dwellers can do is simply use our heads. During our 8 months of living in a van, we have never had a single security issue. We've been in some scary places for sure. Luck? Maybe. Common sense? Hopefully. To keep ourselves out of trouble, here are the rules we use:
Rule #1: Don't get noticed. Yes, we've already mentioned this, but it's worth mentioning again because it's such a key component. Let's leave it at that.
Rule #2: Lights out. Once you find the perfect spot to park, pull in, shut out the lights, go to sleep. That's it. The ambient blue glow from your laptop is bound to attract unwanted attention from nosy neighbors and would-be robbers. The same applies to reading lights, lanterns, whatever. The only exception to this would be situations in which said light would be normal (truck stops with WiFi, etc.)
Rule #3: Trust your feelings. Equally as important as #1. As animals on this planet, we have an uncanny sense of self-preservation if we just trust our own intuitions. Plain and simple, it doesn't matter how safe or secure or legal a place appears. If you pull in and it just doesn't feel right, move. With a little effort, you can always find another spot.
Hopefully all of that helps. If you have further questions, or anything to add, please let us know in the comments. We hope our website can help bring the van dwelling community together in a way that makes this unique lifestyle easier for all those who choose it. The only way we can do that is through helping each other with a little participation 😉