Take a look at this picture. What do you think would happen if an obvious van like this parked overnight in this high-rent neighborhood just outside Los Angeles? If you believe what you see on the internet, you probably think someone would call and complain about it, and the police would descend on it in a heartbeat. At best, they’d politely ask the owner to leave the nice neighborhood. At worst, things could get really bad when the police get involved.
Well guess what? This van parked in this exact spot for the two weeks or so it wasn’t in the shop last month. I had no problems whatsoever. The only interactions I had with the neighbors were friendly hellos, and the guy next door admiring my bike and my Black Widow carrier. He’s an RVer himself and genuinely appreciated it.
A common belief in the van life community is that you have to be stealthy if you’re going to park overnight and not get disturbed. I don’t believe that’s true. I’m currently watching a Vancity Vanlife livestream on that subject, and I’m reminded just how many misconceptions are out there about stealth and van life. Let me tell you how I see it.
There’s No Such Thing As Stealth
I mean, look at my van. If the motorcycle carrier sticking out the back isn’t a dead giveaway that this isn’t an ordinary wheelchair van, the roof vent and awning on the side are. I might as well put enormous Smokey Da Van stickers up and down the sides of the van, because it won’t be any less stealthy than it is right now.
The truth is that the moment you put anything distinctive on the outside of your van, you’re not stealthy anymore. We all want a roof vent and solar panels, but the moment you put those on, it’s obvious that it’s a camper van, and that somebody’s probably living and sleeping in there. You can throw a safety vest over the seat back and and a traffic cone on the front bumper if you want, but you’re not fooling anyone. You just look like a van lifer trying to fool someone — and failing.
I used to think stealth was a thing. I was very proud of the time Trisha and I got away with parking within sight and sound of Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. It was in my first van, a Dodge conversion van that was a whole lot more stealthy than what I have now. At least, I thought we’d gotten away with something we shouldn’t have.
The truth, though, is simply that nobody cared. There were no signs saying we couldn’t. We parked in front of an unoccupied house. Nobody noticed we were there, even though we mooched Xfinity WiFi off the house we parked next to. Even if somebody did notice a dim red glow peeking out from around the curtains and shades, nobody had a problem with it. We didn’t bother anyone, and nobody bothered us. It was that simple.
Of course, you can’t just park anytime, anywhere. You have to be smart about it. I wrote an entire guide to finding overnight parking to tell you how to do it. Stealth doesn’t enter into it. The first piece of advice in that article, and I think the most important, is to keep it legal. Park where you’re allowed to park, and it doesn’t matter whether people know you live in your van or not. What matters is whether you’re breaking the law. The cops don’t care if it’s a camper van, a Prius, or a McLaren F1. If it’s parked illegally, it’s getting a ticket or towed.
I realize this sounds a lot like “If you’re not breaking the law, you have nothing to worry about.” I know it’s not that simple. Women have to be extra cautious about traveling alone. Some Americans commenting on the livestream pointed out that being a person of color parked overnight in a van has a higher chance of running into trouble than, say, a middle-aged white guy like me. It shouldn’t be true, but it probably is in some places. I can’t speak to that because it’s outside my experience, but I acknowledge that the situation likely exists. It’s wrong, but it’s true. My only point is that if you don’t park legally, you’re asking for trouble, not avoiding it.
Don’t Sweat It
So what if your van looks like a camper van? The only kind of attention it’s ever attracted for me is positive attention. People are genuinely interested in van life, and often want to check an example of it parked right in front of them. So go ahead and add your roof vent, your solar panels, and anything else that will make your van life more comfortable and enjoyable for you. Don’t worry about what other people think. They probably won’t even notice, and if they do, they’ll probably like it.