How to Live Off-Grid in Cities

A plain white cargo van is so common that it blends in everywhere (unless it has a yellow kayak on top) making it the best choice if stealth living in a city is critically important. Photo by Charlene Swankie.

For the first six years I was a vandweller, I lived in a city of 300,000. I had children to provide for, so I continued to work at the same job I was working at when I first moved into the van. At that time there were no websites or forums to teach me how to overcome the obstacles of urban vandwelling, so I learned everything the hard way (that’s the reason I created cheaprvliving.com and this site.) In my experience, the majority of vandwellers are living in a city, and just like me, they need tips and tricks on how to live there. Let’s look at some of the problems you will face and explore different solutions.

Stealth Parking:
The first problem you will face is where to park and sleep at night. In many cities, there are laws against sleeping in a vehicle within the city limits and if you are found doing so, at the very least you will be hassled and asked to move on and it’s possible you can be cited and fined. Other towns are tolerant of vandwellers and ignore them. A few enlightened towns actually provide an area for people to live in their cars and vans. So the first thing you need to do is to discover the attitude of your city toward vandwellers. The best way to do that is to walk into your local police department and ask them. Politely tell the officer at the desk you will be in town for a few days and ask him if it is legal to sleep in your van, or if he can suggest a place for you to park. Listen carefully because he will then tell you both the letter of the law and (more importantly) subtly tell you his attitude toward vandwellers. Chances are his attitude is the prevailing attitude. Next, go to the local Wal-Mart and see if there are signs posted in the parking lot saying “No Overnight Parking,” then go in and ask the manager if you can spend the night in the parking lot. If his answer is no, it’s illegal, then the laws are being enforced and you are going to have to either pick a new city to live in, or be very stealthy. Stealth is living in such a way that you blend in and don’t draw attention to yourself. That way no one will notice that you are living in your van. If they don’t notice you, they won’t hassle you. The single most important element in stealth is your choice of vehicle. So let’s look at your all-important choice of vehicle for stealth parking.

Other than the air conditioner in the back window, this conversion van is fairly unnoticeable and blends in at the parking lot of a Home Depot. If stealth is critically important, keep the van as plain as possible.

Other than the air conditioner in the back window, this conversion van is fairly unnoticeable and blends in at the parking lot of a Home Depot. If stealth is critically important, keep the van as plain as possible.

What is the Stealthiest Vehicle?
If you are vandwelling in a city that frowns on vandwellers, then you need to be very careful about your choice of vehicle. Late at night, no one notices a minivan in a Wal-Mart parking lot but everyone notices a tractor-trailer or a motorhome. When you see the mini-van, you think of soccer moms, and they don’t sleep in their vans. But when you see the RV, you assume there is someone sleeping in there. Before we rate different vehicles, let’s look at the three areas of the city you can park in:

  • Residential Areas: suburbs, neighborhoods, apartments, churches. The best place to park in residential areas is in high-density areas where there are lots of people and cars so that no one knows all their neighbors and the cars they drive. Large apartment complexes are perfect because there so many people and cars, no one knows all their neighbors and the cars they drive. Chances are you can park there and no one will notice. The disadvantage is that sometimes they can be noisy with people coming and going at all hours of the night and they can be higher crime areas.
  • Commercial Areas: big-box stores (Wa-Mart, K-Mart, Home Depot, etc.) grocery stores, malls, mini-malls, hospitals, motels, restaurants. Walmart is probably the most popular stealth parking spot but there are many other options. In the six years I was an urban vandweller, I slept in a commercial area 99% of the time and I think they are your best choice.
  • Industrial Areas: docks, factories, industries. These are not generally a good choice because they tend to be dark and secluded, but they have one huge advantage: you can run a generator without being noticed. If you have a box or step-van with a generator built into a cage underneath the vehicle (vented so carbon monoxide can’t get inside) you can probably find a place to sleep where you can run the generator without drawing attention to yourself.

Different vehicles blend in at different areas. For example a minivan looks normal in a residential or commercial area, but is out of place in an industrial area. A box van or step van blends in at commercial or industrial area, but sticks out like a sore thumb in a residential area. Next, let’s evaluate different vehicles for their stealth ability.

Stealth Ability From Best to Worst:

  • White Cargo Van: The only vehicle that blends in at every area is a plain white cargo van, so to my mind, it is the best choice if stealth is your highest priority. They have lots of room and okay gas mileage, but they are low-top so you will have to stoop all the time.
  • Mini-Van: They are so popular you see them everywhere, and nobody thinks anyone could possibly live in a mini-van, so you can probably park anywhere without being discovered. They get good gas mileage, but they are low-top and small so they aren’t very comfortable to live in.
  • Box or Step-Van: These blend in very well at commercial or industrial areas. Having a delivery van in the parking lot of malls or mini-malls is so normal no one will notice them. They have the huge advantage of being tall enough to stand up in and a lot of living space. But they get terrible gas mileage (unless you find a diesel) and stick out like a sore thumb in residential areas.
  • Standard Van: They blend in well in residential and commercial areas, but not in industrial areas. They have enough room and get okay gas mileage but they are low-top so you to stoop all the time.
  • Conversion Van: These are commonly available with a high-top and they blend in almost as well as a standard van so they are by far the best combination of stealth and comfort. I consider them the best choice for most people.
This is a fairly typical conversion van with a high-top and large (and very dark) windows. I think it is a great compromise of stealth and comfort, and is therefore the best choice for most people. However, if stealth is your top priority, a white cargo van or a mini-van is your best choice.

This is a fairly typical conversion van with a high-top and large (and very dark) windows. I think it is a great compromise of stealth and comfort, and is therefore the best choice for most people. However, if stealth is your top priority, a white cargo van or a mini-van is your best choice.

  • Class B Cargo Van: These are vans that have been converted to an RV. They come in a wide variety of configurations. Some have a high-top with toilet, shower, kitchen, air conditioner and a generator. Those have very low stealth ability since they look like an RV. You can also buy them with a pop-top and limited amenities. These have some stealth ability but not as much as a normal van. If comfort is a high priority these are a good choice as long as you can live with their reduced stealth ability.
Here we see a fairly typical Class B camper van. It has a high-top, air conditioner, and awning. It's very comfortable, but obviously someone might be living in it, so it has very low stealth.

Here we see a fairly typical Class B camper van. It has a high-top, air conditioner, and awning. It’s very comfortable, but obviously someone might be living in it, so it has very low stealth.

  • RV: There is no hiding the fact these are rolling homes, so they have no stealth ability. It is still possible to park in some cities, but if stealth is a priority, don’t even consider a RV.
This Class C RV stands out in a Wal-Mart parking lot. When you see it parked overnight, your first thought is someone might be sleeping in it. To the left of the RV is a red van. Other than the color, it blends in well and you wouldn't even notice it.

This Class C RV stands out in a Wal-Mart parking lot. When you see it parked overnight, your first thought is someone might be sleeping in it. To the left of the RV is a red van. Other than the color, it blends in well and you wouldn’t even notice it.

General Rules for Stealth Parking
It’s important to understand that most Law Enforcement Officers (LEOs) are well aware that people live in their vans, so a van parked overnight will automatically raise their suspicions. It’s the little details that determine whether he will knock on your door or decide to ignore you and just move on. Here are general rules to reduce the risk of being hassled:

  • Have the newest vehicle possible, and whatever it’s age, keep it as plain, clean and neat as possible. If your van screams “A bum lives in here!” the LEO will probably stop and knock on your door. Avoid weird colors, bumper-stickers, or anything else that will draw attention to you.
  • You want to spend the minimum amount of time at your overnight location, so arrive to your sleeping spot at the last minute, go straight to bed, and leave first thing in the morning. For example, you spend your evening hanging out in the parking lot of a McDonald’s or Barnes and Noble and then at bedtime you drive to a Wal-Mart and go right to bed. The next morning when you wake up, you should get dressed and drive away immediately, then you stop somewhere else to use the restroom and get ready for the day. The longer you are at your overnight spot, the more likely you are to be hassled.
  • When you park at night, you are going to need some light to get yourself into bed, but you must be very careful that no light can be seen coming out of the van. This is one reason why cargo vans have the best stealth; they have fewer windows to cover. You will need to hang a heavy, light-proof curtain between the living area and the driver’s area, so no one can see you with the lights on or off.
  • At cooler temperatures the front window is very likely to fog up overnight, which is a dead give-away that someone is sleeping inside. The only way to prevent this is to put a vapor barrier (a heavy piece of plastic or Reflectix) between the living area and driver’s area. This is another advantage of a cargo van since many of them can be found with a divider wall already installed, making putting in a light-tight vapor barrier much easier.
  • Noise coming from the van can bring a late-night knock on your door, so keep quiet. That means no music or TV unless you are using earphones. Also be aware that some appliances make noise like the fan on an inverter or 12 volt compressor refrigerators. The fan on my inverter is so noisy I can hear it outside the van. So turn everything on that makes noise and go outside and listen for a while to see if you can hear it. Finally, be aware that loud snoring can be heard outside the van, so find out if you are snore loudly and if you do, you either need to find a way to stop, or you may even need to move to a town where they tolerate vandwellers.
  • Don’t stay at the same place constantly. The more times you are in the same parking lot, the more likely you are to draw attention to yourself, so develop as many different sleeping places as you can find.

Where Will I Park?

Wal-Mart:
As most experienced RVers know, Wal-Mart (and Sam’s Clubs) love RVers and welcome them to stay in their parking lots. Unfortunately, some cities have made it illegal to do so and strictly enforce it against Wal-Mart. However, the enforcement is usually selective so they are very strict at Wal-Mart, but they will not enforce it at other big-box stores like K-Mart, Target, Home Depot, etc. Because many Wal-Marts are open 24 hours, I prefer them so I carry a Rand McNally atlas I bought at Wal-Mart that also has a listing of where all their stores are and their phone number. I usually call ahead to find out the status of that Wal-Mart.

24 Hour Grocery Stores:
I think these are your best choice for overnight parking because there are usually a lot of cars parked in the lot and people coming and going all the time. Find the place the employees park at night and park among them, and you will look just like another employee working overnight.

Hospitals:
This is generally a great stealth spot. If approached by security tell them you are from out-of-town waiting to see Aunt Sue in the morning. Who would turn you away? As an added benefit, most hospital cafeterias offer decent food at reasonable prices. There are almost certain to be healthy options.

Motel, Hotel Parking Lots:
Medium sized is best, too small and you stick out, too big and they may have security, which will double-check license plates against the guest registry. Park like you are a guest staying there. Too far away seems odd, but too close and there will be more noise and activity.

Car Repair Garages:
Arrive late in the evening and park as if you were dropping the vehicle off to be serviced. Many shops have an over-night drop-off slot to leave your keys, so it’s common for a strange vehicle to be waiting to be serviced. If a LEO comes by, which is unlikely, tell them you are traveling, had a problem, and are waiting for the garage to open in the morning to get repairs. Leave early in the morning before the employees get there, otherwise they might start wondering why you are there.

Closed Large Retail Stores, Malls and Mini-malls:

If the parking lot has plenty of employee vehicles, just park with them and no one will notice. But what if there aren’t any other vehicles? One idea is to put a “For Sale” sign on the dashboard before you go to bed. Use a local phone number if possible. Leave early before you will be noticed, otherwise they may have you towed.

Apartment Complexes:
One result of packing lots of people into a small space is there will be lots of cars parked out front and no one knows who they belong to or who is having visitors/guests. The result is very safe parking, but they can be noisy with people coming and going at all times of the night.

Churches:
If you are a member of the denomination, or ask first, this can work. It is fairly common to see RV’s parked in church parking lots anymore. However, a car or van parked in front of a church in the middle of the night can draw attention. I avoid this one.

Casinos:
These are usually very accepting of RV’s and vandwellers alike, plus they are open very late giving you access to a bathrooms. In a few cases they may prohibit overnight parking, if so you need to be very stealthy.

Night Clubs:
It’s common for patrons to drink too much and take a cab home, leaving their vehicle in the parking lot overnight. No one will think twice about you being there, but there is a risk of rowdiness and noise at closing time. Plus, if you are noticed by a LEO, he will suspect you of being drunk which can create big problems.

Police Station:
Why not? Go in and tell the officer you are passing through and need to catch a fewhours’ sleep. Could you sleep in their parking lot? If he says yes, you are set. If he says no, ask him for ideas where you can park. He probably will help you out, and if not, at least you have found out about the local overnight sleeping laws of that town.

New/Used Car or RV lot:
I question this one. Most car lots block their entrance at night so it’s possible you could get trapped inside their parking lot. As you leave in the morning, you may look like you are stealing the vehicle and the employees could call the police. All in all, I avoid this one, your mileage may vary.

Dirt Road:
Find a dirt road and follow it to a spot that gets you out of the path of passing headlights at night. There are two camps on this one. One says it is the best and safest place another says it is the most dangerous and should be avoided at all costs but that’s up to you to decide for yourself.

Truck Stops:
These almost always welcome RVs and vandwellers and often will have a designated area for us. Sometimes there are extra services like showers and WiFi connections and you have a bathroom available all night. I always feel safe at truck stops because they are brightly lit (which can be a problem in itself) and generally they are very noisy all night.

Rest Areas:
These vary by state. Sometimes you are welcome to stay and sleep, sometimes it is against the state law. You are going to have to do the research for individual locations. There have been murders at rest areas, and so some people won’t stay there. However, the vast majority of the time they are safe and reasonable places to stay. Decide for yourself.

General Tips for Stealth Parking:
Because these topics are covered in more detail on other pages on this site, these are just short answers.

  • How Will I Shower? This is an easy one; you join a gym and get unlimited showers and a work-out as a bonus. It will cost you $30-$40 a month, but that is a drop in the bucket compared to how much you are saving by not paying rent or a mortgage. If at all possible find a gym that is 24 hours and it may become one of your overnight parking spots.
  • How Do I Get Electricity? It’s actually much easier than you might think. I suggest a three pronged approach: 1) Buy two deep cycle batteries and connect them to the alternator so they are charged as you drive. 2) Install as many watts of solar panels on the roof and connect the to the battery (you can connect both the solar panels and the alternator at the same time). 3) Buy a generator and use it to charge the batteries and run appliances like a microwave. Start by connecting deep cycle batteries to the alternator, and add the others as you have the money.
  • Where Will I Go to the Bathroom? Every city has numerous public restrooms you can use. It seems like there is a convenience store on every corner you can use so the vast majority of the time that is where you will go. But you may have to answer the call of nature in the middle of the night so you need to be prepared to go in the van. For urine you need some kind of a pee-pot to go in. For men nothing beats a yellow quart water bottle like a Nalgene. You pee in it, seal the lid tight and in the morning stop at a convince store and flush it down the toilet. Since its yellow you can’t tell it is urine, and carrying water bottles has become common. For women you will need some kind of funnel like a “Go Girl” to get the urine into the quart bottle. For poop, generally you will use a public restroom, but in an emergency the easiest thing is to get a 5 gallon bucket, line it with two garbage bags, poop in it, then dispose of it in the morning. Or you can get a porta-potti like the Thetford.
  • How Will I Get Mail, an Address, and the Internet? For mail I suggest you get a post office box from the UPS Store or some other mailbox location instead of the US Postal Service. The reason is that they will receive packages from UPS, Fed EX or other delivery services and the USPS will not. For a physical address I just kept using the address of the place I was at before I moved into a van and I never had a problem with that. Finding WiFi hotspots for Internet is very easy in most cities, and most of us can also get it on our cell phones or data cards.

How Will I Cook? For over nine years I have cooked a meal in my vehicle nearly every night. I have always used a Coleman propane stove to cook and an ice chest to keep food cold. It really is very simple. I cook inside the vehicle, but some people are uncomfortable with that, if so you can go to a park and cook on a picnic table