Guide to Stealth Camping in Southern California

Let’s be honest; the most anxiety-filled problem about being a van or RV nomad is figuring out where you’re going to sleep at night.

Most people traveling in their van or RV will not have to stealth camp because they will be staying in campgrounds, boondocking, or RV resorts. The short-time nomad will not have to worry as much about finding a place to stay.

But there are times when those options are not available due to cost, crowds, or other constraints, and stealth camping becomes the last option. That is when we must start mastering the art of stealth camping.

The full-time nomad rarely stays at an established campground or RV park because it’s cost-prohibitive. A few days of staying at an RV resort can drain anyone’s budget. That means stealth camping is the only real option for full-time nomads.

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Definition: The act of secretly sleeping in your van or RV in public places.

Stealth camping in Southern California can be a nerve-racking experience. Not knowing where you are going to sleep makes most of us uneasy and uncomfortable. In most situations, stealth camping is the number one reason most people choose not to experience van and RV life.

Being nervous about stealth camping is an understandable reaction. If you watch the news and hear crazy stories, stealth camping seems like a scary and anxiety-ridden thing to do.

But like most things in life, the reality is much different. If you plan accordingly and follow a few basic common-sense rules, you should not have a problem. I have found stealth camping throughout Southern California to be a pleasant experience if you are prepared.

It’s fun to know that you are visiting a fantastic destination and not having to fork over a lot of your hard-earned money.

I rarely hear stories about terrible stealth camping experiences. If you do your homework, plan appropriately, and follow a few basic rules, you should not have a problem.

So, do you want to learn how to stealth camp in Southern California? Then continue to read and learned from my two years of stealth camping experience.

Disclaimer

I cannot guarantee that your stealth camping experience will be as easy and uneventful as mine. But most likely, if you follow the rules, plan appropriately, and take precautions, you should not have a problem. So please do not let the fear and anxiety of stealth camping in Southern California keep you away from the wonderful adventures you can have.

Stealth Camping Rules

Like everything in life, there are always rules. But these rules are meant to keep you safe, secure, and having a good stealth camping experience. Below is a list of just common-sense rules that I have developed for myself throughout the years.

My Stealth Camping Rules:

  • Never park in front of someone’s house
  • Always recon places before you stay
  • Arrive after 10:00 PM and leave before 6:00 AM
  • Check the street signs
  • Don’t leave your van
  • Don’t turn on any lights
  • Don’t stay at one place more than two nights in a row
  • Have a clean van
  • If you get the knock, move on.

The Dreaded Knock on the Van

It seems that everyone’s biggest fear is the dreaded knock on the van at night. Let me tell you from first-hand experience this will happen, not a big deal. Politely move on.

The reality of getting a knock on the door is low. In the two years that I’ve been stealth camping, it’s happened three times, and each time I can contribute it to not following the simple rules I just mentioned.

Cops and Stealth Camping

Here is the reality; the cops know you are sleeping in your van. They also do not care. The only time they care is when they are told to care by someone calling. If you mind your business and stay out of trouble, and following the simple rules above, the cops will leave you alone.

And even if you do get the knock on the door, I advise you to answer, be polite, and move on. I have never heard of anyone getting a ticket for stealth camping.

Some people would give you completely different advice. Some say to be quiet, don’t say anything, and hopefully, the cops will go away. But from my personal experience, the cops never go away. It’s a pain in the butt to get a knock on the door, but it is part of being a van and RV nomad.

How to Find Good Stealth Camping Locations

There are a variety of techniques I use to find a good stealth camping location. I will spend a good two to three hours researching where I plan on staying. I don’t ever want to put myself in a situation where I haven’t planned where I’m going to stay that night.

Stealth camping research is not that hard. There are many tools and resources out there that you can utilize to help you narrow down a good stealth camping location.

The best tool is just asking other van and RV nomads where to stay. The majority of van nomads understand how difficult it can be and stressful to find a good stealth camping location, so they are more than willing to tell you or give you ideas. Just do not take their spot if they tell you where they camp.

Below is a list of the resources I use to find a good stealth camping location.

Prepare Your Van for Stealth Camping

The first step in mastering stealth camping is preparing your van. If you have a simple plain white cargo van that looks like a work van, you will probably have a much easier time stealth camping than a van that looks like it just came out of the junkyard and has stuff coming all out of it.

The nicer your van, the less likely you are going to get a knock on the door. So makes sure you do not have bikes, surfboards, and kayaks hanging on your van.

Also, make sure your van is clean. Take it to a spray and wash and wash it down so it does not look like it has dirt and mud all over it. It’s just like any neighborhood; dirty cars will stand out a lot quicker than the clean and nice ones.

Blackout Curtains / Side Covers

I black out all my side windows except my front windshield. You do not want to put a silver sunshade on your front windshield. This is a dead giveaway that you are sleeping in your van. I have a blackout curtain that goes behind the driver seat that I pull close.

You can also add a few decoys to your front seat. These decoys can include a construction helmet and yellow vest. Some swear by this technique, but I have never used it.

Remember, your job is to make sure your van looks inconspicuous as possible. You do not want people thinking that someone is sleeping in there.

A Van Preparation List:

  • Store bikes, surfboard, and kayaks inside the van
  • Wash your van
  • Use black window covers
  • Use blackout curtains
  • Don’t use silver sunshades
  • Have decoy items

Places to Avoid Stealth Camping

The best way to determine bad places is to use common sense. Stay away from rough neighborhoods where the crime rate is high.

Avoid stealth camping in dark, secluded areas that do not have many other people or cars in the area (except in the countryside). An area with no other vans or cars will make you stand out. The goal is to blend in.

List of Places to Avoid

  • Directly in front of someone’s house.
  • Dark Parking lots
  • Parking lots with no cars
  • Bad Neighborhoods
  • Areas with homeless
  • Places with signs that say “No Overnight Camping.”
  • By Train Tracks

Top 5 Areas to Stealth Camp

The best places to stealth camp in Southern California are those places where you are safe, secure, and the odds of getting a knock on the door are low. There are five areas where you can stealth camp in Southern California. These areas are:

  1. Residential Neighborhoods

  2. Industrial Areas

  3. Crowded Areas

  4. Along the Coast

  5. Countryside

Stealth Camping in Residential Areas

When I first started, everyone told me to avoid stealth camping in neighborhoods. They said that I would easily be spotted, and the neighbors would call the cops on me every time. However, I have found this not to be the case. 

I have found if I follow my simple rules, I rarely have a problem parking in neighborhoods. I just do not to park in front of someone’s house.

To prepare, I usually spend a few hours on Google Maps scoping out neighborhoods.  Then during the day, I drive around those neighborhoods to find a perfect spot. Doing this due diligence has allowed me never to get a knock on the door while stealth camping in a neighborhood.

Most people in neighborhoods are fast asleep by 10:00 PM and wake up at 6:00 AM, So if you are in and out by these times, you rarely will have a problem.

Perfect Stealth Neighborhood Location

The above picture represents what I look for in a stealth camping location in a neighborhood. It is not directly in front of someone’s house and it is between two side walls. 

You can also try to camp around apartment complexes. These normally have cars parked along the road where you can also park.

Remember always to be respectful, do not leave your van, and keep your lights off. Remember, you are just there to sleep.

Advice for Stealth Camping in Neighborhoods

  • Scope out the area beforehand
  • Arrive late and leave early
  • Look for middle-class neighborhoods
  • Don’t park in front of someone house

Stealth Camping in the Industrial Areas

The majority of long-term stealth camping is done in industrial areas. You can get a good understanding of where to stay in these areas by just driving around. You should see places that have vans and RVs already there.

I try my best to avoid these areas because somebody has already taken the best spot. The only time I will stay in an industrial area is when I get a good piece of advice from someone who knows that area.

However, one of the places I do like to stay in a crunch is next to a Ford dealership. I park my van on a side street next to the dealership, so most people think I’m there for repairs.

Advice for Stealth Camping in Industrial Areas

  • Scope out the area beforehand
  • Arrive late and leave early
  • Look for places with other van and RV nomads
  • Park next to a car dealership (Ford in my case)
  • Check for security guards
  • Avoid parking lots with no cars

Stealth Camping in Crowded Areas (Hotels, Airports, Downtown…)

When you first start stealth camping, these are probably areas you are going to try first.  If your van does not scream that you’re sleeping in it, you will most likely be successful staying in these crowded areas.

When I first started, I would stay in hotel parking lots and be very discreet. You want to find a hotel that has a lot of vehicles in its parking lot.  I have found that the smaller the hotel parking lot, the more likely an employee will be checking cars against their manifest.

 A few places in crowded areas are:

  • Hotel Parking Lots
  • 24-Hour Gyms
  • Walmarts
  • Grocery Stores
  • Bars and Breweries
  • Airport Parking Lots
  • In back of mini-malls

Like everywhere else, the more discreet you are with sleeping in your van, the less likely you will not get the knock on the door.

Advice for Stealth Camping in Crowed Areas

  • Scope out the area beforehand
  • Arrive late and leave early
  • Look for other van and RV nomads
  • Look for signs saying No Overnight Camping

Stealth Camping along the Coast

If there is any place you will get a knock on the door, it will be in the coastal communities. Many coastal communities have laws against sleeping in vehicles, especially vans and RV’s.

Beach Communities are less tolerate of Stealth Camping

Beach communities are very used to people trying to stealth camp in their communities, and they know what to look for. My best advice is to drive 20 minutes into a different neighborhood that is not as conscious to stealth campers.

However, I find that a lot of beach communities do have overnight parking. These are typically located around harbors where fishermen are fishing at night. A few examples are Long Beach, Oceanside, Redondo Beach, and San Diego. They all have overnight long-term parking, but there is a fee.

Advice for Stealth Camping along the coast

  • Scope out the area beforehand
  • Arrive late and leave early
  • Stay out of coastal neighborhoods
  • Look for overnight parking in Marinas

Stealth Camping in the Countryside

The best place to stealth camp is on a nice, secluded turnout from a dirt road in the countryside. Many countryside communities are only a 20–30-minute drive outside the city. There you can find some nice countryside turn out and fire roads to stealth camp by.

Just make sure you are not visible from any highway because most cops are more apt to stop and investigate in the countryside than in the city.

The tools I use to find most of these areas are:

Stealth Camping Safety

Being safe on the road is everyone’s top priority. I will never fault anyone for making a decision based on safety.  Follow your gut; it’s the best tool you have.

In the two years, I have been stealth camping in southern California, I have never heard of anyone having a problem besides being asked to move.

The biggest safety concern is probably thieves. They’re not looking to have a confrontation with someone sleeping in their van. My best advice is to make as much noise as possible if you hear someone snooping around your van. Then get out of there as quickly as possible.

A few of the things I do to make myself feel more secure are:

  • Locking my doors,
  • Have an air horn
  • Having pepper spray readily available
  • Placing my keys by my bed, so I quickly jumping into the front seat and drive away.

Many safety issues can be eliminated by choosing a nice safe place to stealth camp. If you decide to stealth camp in a rough neighborhood downtown, you are more likely to run across bad characters.

Conclusion

Stealth camping is a wonderful way to experience any area of Southern California without having to pay a ridiculous amount of money for a campground or an RV spot. If you follow the rules mentioned and use common sense, you will most likely have an excellent time stealth camping throughout Southern California. I have been doing it for well over two years and never had a problem. Just make sure you follow the rules and plan. If you do these two simple things, you will not have a problem and have a wonderful time. I will see you out there.

References and Other Adventures: 

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