As van life has increased in popularity, so has the interest in building stealth camper vans that are incognito to the outside world. But does converting a stealth van make any sense? Constructing a mobile home that nobody recognizes as a camper might initially sound intriguing, but it’s ultimately impractical and ineffective. In fact, we believe that building a stealth van is a terrible idea.
SPOILER ALERT: The only person you are fooling with a stealth camper is yourself!
To understand why, this post will discuss what a “stealth van” is and what the goals of having a stealth camper are. Then, we’ll delve into why stealth vans are awful for van life, why they’re ineffective, and why you don’t need a stealth van to achieve the goals of having this type of camper.
Let’s get to it.
What Is A Stealth Camper Van?
A stealth camper van is a vehicle that is designed to look like a normal work/cargo van. Bland, non-descript, and nothing special. The goal of a stealth van is to blend in with normal vehicles and to not draw unnecessary attention to itself. You don’t want outside people to know that your vehicle is a camper van that is equipped with a fully functioning living space inside.
What Does A Stealth Camper Van Look Like?
Since the goal of a stealth camper is to deflect attention, the easiest way to do this is to try and pass itself off as a standard work van. This means:
Vehicle choice matters. Choose a cargo van that is already commonly used as work vehicles. This includes the Ram Promaster, Ford Transit, and the Mercedes Sprinter. Old, legacy vans, like the Chevy Astro and Ford Econoline are also excellent choices.
Go with a white exterior color. Decorating and customizing your van will ruin your vehicle’s stealth. No decals and no unique colors. Just white. Most company vehicles don’t paint their vans, so you shouldn’t either.
No exterior installations. If it’s not found on a work van, you shouldn’t install it on your camper. This includes solar panels, ventilation fans, bike racks, awnings, and AC units. All of these installations are easily seen from the roadside.
What Is The Purpose Of A Stealth Van?
So the goal of a stealth camper van is to blend in with normal, everyday work vehicles. But what’s the advantage of this? The two primary benefits of a stealth van is to “stealth camp” (aka sleeping for free) in urban areas where you might not otherwise be able to spend the night and to keep your inside belongings safe from potential thieves.
Stealth camping includes sleeping on a neighborhood side street, behind a hotel, next to a gas station, or in any other vacant space you can find. But in many urban areas, sleeping in a vehicle is either illegal or frowned upon. And if you’re trying to spend the night in your van in a place that you shouldn’t be in, the police can show up and force you to move or, worse, write you a ticket.
The goal of stealth camping is to draw as little attention as possible to the fact that you are sleeping inside your van. And having a stealth camper helps you go unnoticed, especially to the police. Or at least that’s the idea…
Discourage Thieves From Breaking In
Thieves know that there’s likely to be expensive equipment inside a camper van, like laptops, drones, and cameras. So, the second benefit of a stealth van is to deter would-be thieves from breaking into your vehicle while you’re out and stealing your belongings.
4 Reasons Why Stealth Vans Are A Terrible Idea
The benefits of building a stealth camper are clear. The idea appeals to us as well because we like the idea of going unnoticed by the general public, free camping in urban areas, and doing whatever we can to keep our inside stuff safe. But even with these perceived benefits, we still think it’s a terrible idea to build a stealth van. We don’t believe it’s worth it. Here are four reasons why.
1. No Exterior Installations Sacrifices Too Much Comfort
Standard work vans don’t have many of the exterior installations that most camper vans have, like vent fans, solar panels, windows, awnings, and roof/bike racks. So, in reality, stealth campers shouldn’t haven’t any of these installations either.
But without these things, van life becomes more difficult and less appealing. Without a vent fan and windows, there’s no way to circulate fresh, cool air into the van resulting in an interior space that’s dusty with thick, pungent air. We’ve been invited to sit inside several stealth vans, and it felt like being in a dark, stuffy, isolated prison. It wasn’t enjoyable.
Without solar panels, you are eliminating the most ideal way to recharge your leisure batteries and power your electrical equipment, like your lights, laptop, and phone. While you can (and should) take advantage of alternator charging while you drive, this method often doesn’t put back enough power into your batteries unless you’re driving for long enough times each day.
For us, although the goal of our van life is to be outside and experience nature, we also want to enjoy being inside our van. We want to breathe fresh air in our van, we want to have sunlight enter our van, and we want to run all our electrics without worrying about running out of power.
2. Police & Thieves Aren’t Fooled
The real goal of a stealth camper isn’t to fool the general public. Regular people don’t care and don’t pose a threat to you. Specifically, you are trying to trick police (so you can free camp) and thieves (to protect your belongings).
But let’s cut the BS and be realistic here. Police and potential thieves know EXACTLY what a camper van looks like, no matter how hard you try to create a stealth camper. Both have experience, sharp eyes, and are always on the lookout for campers.
One of our biggest pet peeves is watching YouTube van life influencers filming their “stealth camper van” when their vehicle doesn’t remotely look stealth to a trained eye. To someone who knows what to look for, all it takes is a second to infer whether a cargo van is for work or for living in.
Here is a perfect example video. The channel calls this a stealth van, but we beg to differ. The van has exterior installations (vent fan and solar panels), rear windows covered by Reflectix, and out-of-state license plates. It’s obviously a camper. We don’t want to be mean, just honest and realistic.
3. Stealth Vans Look Creepy To Regular Folks
To regular people, blank white vans look creepy. They don’t know what’s inside or what the vehicle is used for. For all they know, the van really could used as a kidnap vehicle, for drug-related activities, or anything other nefarious reasons.
If a non-descript white van parked outside your house along the sidewalk at night, what would you think? More importantly, what would you DO?
I know what I’d do. I’d call the police to investigate.
Even if you’re in an area where it’s legal to sleep in a vehicle overnight, the police will kick you out if they get called in by a concerned local. It’s actually happened to us, multiple times.
4. Stealth Camping Is Stressful
Throughout our travels, we’ve slept in plenty of areas where it was probably not condoned. And in our experience, free camping in an area where it isn’t generally accepted is stressful. We tried hard to keep quiet and to keep the lights down but at the same time, we were always peeking out the front of our van hoping not to see lights from a police car or to incur “the knock”.
In our opinion, stealth camping in urban areas was by far the LEAST enjoyable part of van life.
You Don’t Need a Stealth Van To Free Camp In Urban Areas
When looking for free sleeping spots, our #1 tip is to pick a place that’s either legal or generally accepted. If you keep to this advice, then it doesn’t matter whether your camper van is stealth. Here is a list of popular free camping locations.
Authorized parking lots
Certain stores often allow overnight parking for campers. These stores include Walmart, Cabellas, Cracker Barrel, Home Depot, and Sam’s Club. Not all of these stores allow overnight parking, so it’s best to ask the manager of the store to confirm.
Truck stops & rest areas
When you’re on the road, major gas stations targeting the trucking business allow overnight parking. These include companies like Pilot and Flying J. Many rest areas along the highway also allow for overnight parking. You may have to drive a bit out of an urban center to reach these places, but it’s a safer option with better camping infrastructure available.
BLM land and National Forests
If you are traveling in the western US, there are plenty of free overnight camp spots in nature. Search online for locations of BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land and national forests. Almost always, there will be spots dedicated to campers that are legal, safe, and free.
Use Camping-Related Websites and Apps
We always use the iOverlander app and FreeCampSites.Net to help suggest where we can legally park overnight for free. You can read past user reviews on both of our recommendations to gauge how safe and legal a wild camp spot is.
Learn more: How To Camp For Free During Van Life
Alternatives To A Stealth Camper Van
Just because we don’t believe in building a pure stealth van doesn’t mean we want to draw unnecessary attention to ourselves. We actually do prefer to travel quietly without turning heads. Below are three things we did to maintain a low profile.
Keep The Van White
We kept the outside color of our van the same white as when our vehicle rolled off the factory floor. No decals, no stickers, and no customizations. This helps, to some degree, to keep our van looking like a regular commercial van.
Small RV Windows
Instead of going for full-sized RV windows in the back of our camper van, we opted for a smaller, “half-slider” window. This ending up being a great choice because the window still promotes air circulation and allows natural light to enter, but it’s small enough to be discreet and maximizes our internal privacy.
Ditch The Roof Rack
We chose not to install a roof rack on our van’s roof to help keep the top more streamlined and less of a head turner.
The downside to this means we ended up screwing our solar panels right onto our van’s roof, which means risking water leaks in the future. But check out our mounting solar panels post to learn how we created a strong, water-tight seal.
Stealth Van FAQ
White cargo vans tend to be the best vehicles for stealth camping. These vans, like the Ram Promaster, Ford Transit, and Mercedes Sprinter, are common work vehicles, and so a camper with the same model could go unnoticed when camping in urban areas. A successful stealth van must have a basic exterior to not attract attention.
A stealth camper is a vehicle that does not attract attention to itself and allows the user to camp without paying in areas that would generally be off-limits to sleeping overnight. Stealth campers generally resemble normal, everyday vehicles like work vans.
Whether or not stealth camping is illegal depends on local jurisdiction. In a growing number of communities, especially in California, sleeping inside a vehicle is prohibited. As a result, it is important to check local ordinances and signs before parking overnight.
Building a comfortable and genuinely livable van is the best way to live and travel in a camper van over the long term. This is your home, and you’ll spend many hours inside your camper van. So, you should build a van that you enjoy being in! Doing so will help keep you physically and mentally healthy so that you’ll have the energy and enthusiasm to get out there and explore this world.
Otherwise, you risk living a van life that is full of stress and inconveniences, which ultimately ruins the experience.
To learn more about how to build a camper van that’s functional, beautiful, and feels like a real home, check out our van conversion guide.
If you have any stealth van questions, please let us know in the comments section below.
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