Letter Re: Perspectives on Roughing It and Covert Car Camping

My dad kicked me out when I was 19 so I lived in my car for a year on the streets and got pretty good at it.

I’m now married in my mid-40s and have ran several successful businesses and doing well for myself. But, I’m still a cheapie at heart. I absolutely hate paying for motels. When I travel I spend lots of money on food and entertainment, but I hate paying nightly for a bed to sleep on. About 10 years ago I bought nondescript 1994 mini-van Plymouth Voyager and converted it into what I call the Stealth Camper. This small “domestic” looking vehicle comfortably sleeps my wife and I. I built a plywood bed on a welded frame about 16 inches off the floor taking up the entire back giving huge storage space underneath. There are lower access panels and removable sections for daytime use of space. My wife likes extra comfy so with 6″ foam rubber mattress it’s actually more comfy than our home bed. All back windows have solid black fabric, velcro attached so from outside looks like dark tinted (but they are actually opaque). Velrco allows for easy peaking out in any direction. Behind front seats is black opaque fabric so even with lights on in the back, no light can be seen outside of vehicle. I built in a toilet (mainly for her), but I found I prefer to pee in a wide mouth gallon Gatorade bottle. I also installed inside snap lock latches for the back door, back sliding door, and both front doors. If somebody tries to break in while we are sleeping I will have plenty of time to take action. The only thing the Stealth Camper doesn’t have is a built in shower. I’ve come up with a design for a simple roll up sitting enclosure for a gravity solar heated shower which I’ll build later on.

Keep your stealth vehicle clean and well kept. Keep yourself well kept, shaven, clean. Short hair is easier to keep clean than long hair. During warm weather every 2 days buy a shower at a gym or truck stop, or go swimming. I’m told there now are national gym memberships so that is probably your best bet if you travel around a lot. Cold weather you can stretch out a shower every 3 to 5 days. Also camping solar showers work great away from town. Or, to use a solar shower in town; park your vehicle in self serve car wash and give yourself a shower while wearing a bathing suite. I’ve had few strange looks over the years but no hassles. In between showers give yourself a morning clean up with a wet warm rag courtesy bathroom sink at McDonald’s or gas station.

For the first couple of years we would leave the side windows hinged open for ventilation while we slept. This worked fine. But because of security issues we now keep them locked shut, as I’d cut ventilation ducts into the van floor. The front windows have exterior rain guards attached so we usually leave them cracked 1/2 inch for cross-ventilation since the rain guards visually hide the open windows. From the outside, the van looks all sealed up and vacant. I also have installed a low RPM (quiet) 12VDC fan from a junk computer to provide extra ventilation on the floor vent with on a low/high switch when needed. Open windows are a dead give away of vehicle occupancy!

Our favorite time for Stealth Camper traveling is in the cool seasons. Especially if its raining; minimal outside human activity and I’ve never been roused during a rainy night. I sleep deeply when it’s cool and when it rains!

We’ve been roused a few times and learned a few tricks…

#1. Never sleep with an empty gas tank.
#2. Always have a planned escape route. When parking in a parking space, try to back in so you can leave straight out forward. If you need to leave in a hurry while only half woken up; you need everything in your favor. Know the streets around where you are parked. You don’t want to escape down a dead end street.
#3. Have your ignition key available in case you need to jump into the drivers seat for a quick get away.
#4. Sleep wearing skin tight opaque black shirt and black sweat pants or shorts. This way at night time you look nearly invisible from the outside even when you are sitting up front.
#5. Have a roll of quality lint-free paper towels up-front so you can wipe the condensation off the inside front window in the morning.
#6. Have your drivers license / ID / registration, car insurance, etc. ready in case you are roused by authorities.
#7. Do not have illegal items in your possession (or at least find able) in case you are roused by authorities.
#8. When possible pull into your parking space just after dusk. Try to leave in the morning before dawn.
#9. Try to obtain a vehicle (like mini-van) where you can go between sleeping area and drivers seat without leaving vehicle.
#10. Keep the exterior of your vehicle in same condition as average vehicles around you. Blend in. Don’t look out of place. I can drive down any street and easily pick out all the vehicles that are occupied. If I miss your vehicle then you’ve succeeded.

We have California license plates. When I’m not in California I try to park where other “out of state” transient domestic vehicles park; and that’s motels / hotel parking lots. Or at least near motel and hotels. I’ve stayed plenty of times at rest areas without problems but I’ve heard others tell of many problems.

Warm nights are the worst security times, especially on Friday and Saturday nights. Lots of human / kids / young adult and loud activity all night long. People mulling around coming and going. Motel, apartment and young persons areas are terrible. On these worst nights my favorite places to park:
Old folk housing parking lots. Nice and quite.
Hospital back lot parking lots away from activity.
Some motel/hotels have a “quieter” (weekly / monthly rate) side with lower activity. Park as far away from the building as possible! Do not park anywhere near the entrance / exit or buildings. but do park where other cars are parked.
Anywhere truckers park for the night is safer, but this will be noisy. Stay up wind to avoid diesel fumes

Cold especially rainy nights non Friday and Saturday nights are my favorite with minimal human / noise activities. These are my favorite and I’ll often park in these areas in no particular order:
Guest areas of apartment complexes. Don’t park in residential or numbered areas!
Hotel/motel parking lots. Don’t park in room numbered spaces!
Casino parking lots.
Hospital parking lots
Quiet residential areas between two houses [straddling the property line]. Never park in front of somebody’s house.
Always park where other cars park for the full night.
I don’t like to park where there’s lots of activity; where cars are constantly coming and going.
I like to try to find a secondary street, never a primary commute artery. It’s amazing how many people get up and go to work at 4 a.m. in the morning!

I have but never liked parking in:
Store parking lots.
Industrial areas.
Away from other vehicles.

I always prefer to park in near the far end of a mass of other vehicles.

When parking on a street for the night always try to park with a car behind you (preferably larger vehicle than you). Never park at an end of a block or at an intersection. This way you’ll be less likely to be hit from behind by a drunken wayward vehicle. Also your vehicle will visually not stand out. Don’t park on the end of a parking lot for the same reasons.

Don’t park anywhere near “all night businesses”, bars, liquor stores, etc. Or, anywhere kids hang out, skateboard, kid parks. For quiet night, stay away from main roads and freeways.

My stories of strange situations…

When I was 19 living in my car (before I bought the Stealth Camper) one night I was parked end of a dead end road. Police knocked on my window waking me. Apparently nosy neighbors reported me. I told police my Dad kicked me out. He told me to park behind Montgomery Wards and I was never bothered again. I parked there for about 6 months. After that I got permission to park in a friends driveway for the next six months.

With Stealth Camper, one night I was parked on a country road shoulder (I was only vehicle there). Police pulled up behind and shined light for 10 minutes or so then left. I assume they ran my plates. I don’t think they knew vehicle was occupied. I try not to park on deserted roads; it just makes you an out of place target. Always park where other vehicles park for the night.

One hot night in Santa Rosa, California I parked in front of a residential house with all the vent windows open (dead giveaway of occupancy). I was hot, uncovered, and nearly naked. Somebody was mulling around the vehicle with a high powered flashlight trying to peak in the windows and window vents. I guess he he got a view. He yelled “get the f**k away from my house or I’ll call the police”. I said sorry and left quickly (half naked). I always wore my black sleeping outfit after that.

One night in Reno I was parked across the street of a large parking lot near a residential neighborhood. About midnight I heard racing car engine, tire squealing then crash. Then crash again. And another crash. More crashes… I looked out the window at the parking lot now nearly empty this time of night; a car was driving around just crashing into other cars apparently just for the fun of it. As I left the area I happened to notice I had parked that night in front of a police station which I guess it was empty since I saw no activity there!

One night on a side pull out shoulder off freeway in New Mexico I was very tired and needed just a short nap. Highway patrol ran me and vehicle plates then told me there was picnic area a mile up the road. I moved on up there and stayed the rest of the night no hassles.

I camped out in parking lot of Luxor casino Las Vegas. Accidentally slept in. I had all the vent windows open. Security knocked on window and told me to move on.

One night in Texas out in the middle of nowhere I pulled into a 24 hour truck stop and pulled head into parking space in back of the gas station. My wife in a panic woke me up telling me that someone was prying on the windows trying to break in. I jumped into the drivers seat trying to find my keys. Problem is I had to back out of the space and I couldn’t see out the mirrors and I was half asleep and didn’t have a full view of the situation. The “drunk Mexican” was yelling at me saying he needed help, he needed help. “Please help me” in slurred English. I was concentrating on getting the van moving when my wife all of a sudden was yelling “he’s got a gun, he’s got a gun”. Somehow I got the van backed out with out hitting anything and started leaving. The Mexican jumped into a white pick-up truck and started following us. I stopped at the gas pump and saw him in my mirror stop behind me and he got out and was coming up to the van. I floored it and got onto the freeway and never saw him again. Next problem was gas gauge was showing empty and it was 50 miles to the next gas. This taught me three things: Never park with an empty gas tank. Never pull face into a parking space. Always have an escape/defense plan. I made it 50 miles on fumes. I had to wait until morning for that gas station to open and I was a sitting duck the rest of that night but luckily no further problems.

I love urban stealth camping. Over the years, I have saved big bucks and I like the flexibility of not being limited to a motel room. – California Don