Stealth Camping in San Diego

San Diego is my favorite city in Southern California. The city is beautiful, has perfect weather, and a ton of activities to do.

However, the only downside with San Diego is that it is expensive. Most RV parks and campgrounds cost, on average, over $60 a night.

As a result, the only real option I have is to stealth camp.

When I started stealth camping in San Diego, it was a nerve-racking experience. Not knowing where I was going to sleep made me uncomfortable and stressed out.

But after a few days, I found it to be a lot easier than I thought it would be. The cops were not beating on my door, and the locals were not screaming at me. It turned out to be very uneventful.

The hardest aspect of stealth camping has been finding a level place to park. Sleeping on an incline is never fun.

I determined, if I planned and followed a few basic common-sense rules, I would not have a problem. I have found stealth camping throughout San Diego to be a pleasant experience if you are prepared.

Visit: Guide to Stealth Camping in Southern California

Disclaimer

I will not give you exact locations most of the time but will give you an idea of where you can stealth camp. Finding a spot is up to you. If I were to give out specific locations, I would not be making many friends in the van life community.

Just be advised, stealth camping in most cities in San Diego is against the law. Your decision to stealth camp is entirely your responsibility. Please abide by all parking signs and regulations that you find in the area. And be respectful.

My 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.

How to Find Good Stealth Camping Locations

There are a variety of techniques I use to find a good stealth camping location in San Diego. I will spend a good two to three hours researching where I plan on staying.

I do not ever want to put myself in a situation where I have not planned on where I’m going to spend 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 to ask other van and RV nomads where to stay. Most 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.

Areas to Stealth Camp in San Diego

The best areas to stealth camp in Southern California are those areas 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. These areas are:

  • Residential Neighborhoods
  • Industrial Areas
  • Crowded Centers
  • Along the Coast
  • Countryside

Stealth Camping in Residential Areas

When I first started, everyone told me to avoid stealth camping in neighborhoods in San Diego. 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 do not park in front of someone’s house.

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

Apartment complexes are great areas for stealth camping since they usually have many cars parked along the road.

A few of the residential areas that I have used in the past to stealth camp in San Diego are:

  • North Park: Good area because of all the residential cars on the street. You can pull into a spot with a group of other vehicles and not be noticed.
  • Ocean Beach: The only beach city that I have found does not enforce the no sleeping policy as much as other beach cities. There are good stealth camping spots around Dog Beach.  
  • Poway: Find a good area with lots of cars on the streets by apartment complexes.
  • Barrio Logan: I only stay here after a late night in downtown San Diego but never had a problem.
  • Mission Valley: Park next to other cars by apartment complexes.
  • Clairmont: Good area east of Pacific Beach. There are a few spots where you will not be disturbed, but the city is very hilly.  

Stealth Camping in the Industrial Areas

Most long-term stealth camping is done in industrial areas. You can understand where to stay in these areas by just driving around and asking others. 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 the area.

A few ideas where to stealth camp in an industrial area:

  • Business Parking Lots: Small commercial parking lots work well if you park on the side and keep quiet. Check the sign beforehand.
  • Harbors: Most of the docks around San Diego have 24-hour parking for dockworkers and fishermen. It is a good place to stealth camp but some charge a fee.
  • Rest Areas: You can park for up to 8 hours in the freeway rest areas. There is one on the I-5 by Camp Pendleton and another one off the I-8 in Buckman Springs.  However, both are about 45min from downtown.
  • Car Dealership: Park on the street outside a dealership that represents the brand of van you own. I have parked next to a Ford dealership a few times and have never had a problem.

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 are sleeping in it, you will most likely be successful staying in these crowded areas.

A few of the crowded areas that I have used to stealth camp are:

  • Hotels: There are a few hotels located off the I-8 freeway I stealth camp at. Make sure the parking lot is crowded and park away from the main entrance.   
  • 24-Hour Gyms: Gyms are a great option for places away from the beach. Beach gyms have gotten tough on parking overnight, so find a gym inland.
  • Grocery Stores: You can get away with staying at a 24-hour grocery store parking lot for a night, but that is it.
  • Local Airports: There are a couple of local airports in San Diego that I have parked overnight. I do not stay here that often.
  • Downtown: If you have to stealth camp downtown, try to find a place around 16th to 21st street by the I-5 freeway. I do not recommend it, to many weirdos. 
  • Casinos: I have found a good place to spend a night is in a Casino parking lot. Make sure you keep a low-key.

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 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.

A few of the beach communities I have used to stealth camp in are:

  • Ocean Beach: The only beach city I have found that does not enforce the no sleeping policy as much as the others. There are good stealth camping spots around Dog Beach.
  • Mission Bay: There are a few 24-hour parking lots located within Mission Bay. Just drive around Mission Bay and you can easily find them along with other vans.
  • Oceanside Harbor: The harbor parking lot has a 24-hour parking lot that I have used but there is a fee.
  • Shelter Island: The island has a few 24-hour parking lots.
  • Torrey Pines: Has a bluff overlooking the ocean that is perfect for a few nights. This spot can get crowded.
  • Imperial Beach: Find a spot west of seacoast drive to spend the night where there is 24-hour parking.

Stealth Camping in the Countryside

The best place to stealth camp is on a nice, secluded dirt road in the countryside. Many countryside communities are only a 20–30-minute drive outside San Diego. There you can find a countryside road to stealth camp on.

I find most of these roads by using:

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.

A few of the countryside areas that I have used to stealth camp are:

  • Poway: There are a few remote sections of Poway that are ideal for stealth camping.
  • Iron Mountain: I have stayed in the Iron Mountain parking lot a few times in the back but get there past 10 pm and park furthest from the road.
  • Jamul: There are a few quiet roads in the mountains of Jamul that are perfect.

Stealth Camping Safety in San Diego

Being safe on the road is everyone’s top priority. Follow your gut, it is the best tool you have.

I have been stealth camping for over two years now and have never heard of anyone having a problem besides being asked to move.

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

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

  • Locking my doors
  • Have an air horn
  • Having pepper spray readily available
  • Placing my keys by the bed so I can quickly jump up 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, you are more likely to have a problem.

Conclusion

Stealth camping is a wonderful way to experience San Diego without the hassle of going bankrupt.  If you follow the rules mentioned and use common sense, you will most likely have an excellent time stealth camping.  I have been doing it for well over two years and never had a problem. San Diego is a wonderful place and I guarantee you will have a blast.

References and Other Adventures 

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