Stealth Camping: Urban Camouflage

When #hyattfam5 first set out on our adventure, I never thought we’d decide to “stealth camp” but that’s just what we did for a decent part of our Central California stay. We were hesitant to do so but we made up our minds to change up our adventuring style (more on that in the near future) and this seemed to be the best way to do it. Stealth Camping can be defined in many ways, depending on how you want to do it. Basically, it means to sleep/ camp in an unconventional area where you are not detected. There are innumerable resources dedicated to the many ways one might undertake this activity complete with forums and articles that are only a Google search away. For the purposes of this article, I will refer to stealth camping as living out of a vehicle in an urban setting for an extended period of time – one week or more. Before we go any further, I want to say that we did spend two nights a week at a hotel/ motel to help CJ catch up on some Zzzs and give everyone a break from sleeping the car. After about six weeks of successfully stealth camping, here are some tips I can give you.
Ditch all non-essential items
When we started out in November 2017, we packed as much as we possibly could and it showed. ‘Hoe-Nu’s back end was very low because we didn’t know for sure what we couldn’t live without. So if you thought moving out of your house into a vehicle was hard, try this on for size.

If you’re only planning to stealth camp for a short period of time and will be returning to the wild, I think it would be best to store your non-essential items where you can access them after your urban escapade is through. The time, money and effort needed to procure new gear may not be worth it unless that is what you were planning to do.

In our travels, we traded most of our belongings to friends or donated them outright to Goodwill stores across the western US and we’ve ended up with about 1/5 of what we started out with. Not advisable if you’re planning to go off-grid again with the same set up in the near future. Because we’re planning a significant change to our travel style, we’ve made the decision to stealth camp in order to see it to fruition. To accomplish this, we made a drastic change to our loadout.

Remove anything that may single you out as a camper. This means no items or containers of any kind on top of or behind your vehicle.

Gone are the firecraft tools, the camp utility items and the trunk they were stored in. Gone are the sleeping bags, winter clothes and the trunks they were stored in. Gone are most of the cookware and the crates that they were stored in. We are now only keeping the most essential implements, personal items, and electronics. So ‘Hoe-Nu looks as stock as the day we got her. We each have a backpack for clothing and hygienic items, a small personal carry bag (electronics and such) and not much else. Austere (insert evil chuckle here), I know. We did keep a few things that serve as morale boosters, though. Two ukuleles, a guitar, a sword I whittled when we were camping out in Oregon (it has a name that I am loath to disclose) and some other items that we don’t wish to part with just yet or ever. Moral boosters, within reason – see: size and weight constraints – are great to have around and are indeed essential to our general well-being.
Choose your sleeping spot wisely
I say sleeping spot because I’ve read up on the state of homelessness in Central California before we stopped there for CJ’s work assignment. Santa Barbara and some of the surrounding cities have provided safe sleeping lots for the displaced population to spend their nights, though it is very limited. I wasn’t sure how we’d make out and I was more than a little apprehensive about the thought of sleeping in the wilds of urbania. While we never experienced anything negative during our stealth camping adventure, I was always a little paranoid we’d be discovered and be in some kind of trouble. We lucked out in that CJ was scheduled for the overnight, 11pm to 7am shift, so we camped in a spot she may normally have parked. It was a quiet enough road between medical facilities where not many people drove unless they meant to, with other cars parked near enough for no one to pay any attention to an SUV being parked there overnight. There were two stop signs at the end of the 100-foot street so we parked in the middle on the side closest to CJ’s work.

Parking in the middle of the street, as opposed to either end, didn’t afford any of the passing cars a good look into our sleeping quarters.

This was good because, upon close inspection, you’d notice that the front windows were covered. We have window covers wrapped in a black contact paper making them match the tint on all the back windows. The darkness of the street and the glass treatments on all but the front three windows didn’t allow for a look into ‘Hoe-Nu unless you came up close with a light.

Even though we had good digs, I was constantly on the lookout for other spots in case our go-to was compromised.

I took a cue from the articles I read regarding the safe sleeping lots in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles and made the move to arrive late and leave early. Being that I knew what time most of the shifts would change in the area, I was comfortable with arriving after 10pm and leaving around 6:30am in order to keep our activities incognito. Then I would return to pick up CJ. The best way to do this, as I’ve heard and read from others in the stealth camping community is to draw as little attention to your vehicle as possible. Don’t cook, pack or do anything that requires lights as that will surely get you noticed.
Getting ready to turn down for the night

When you get to your spot, settle down for the night and get some rest. Any lights will give away that there are people in your vehicle so no electronics unless absolutely necessary. Arrive, sleep and then beat feet before traffic becomes too heavy.

At the appointed time, get your vehicle to a state where you can drive safely – e.g. remove window coverings and run your defrosters – and go to a predetermined area where you can reset. I usually go to a Walmart parking lot or something similar to put my window coverings away for the day.
Establish a routine
This is not a necessary step, be as spontaneous as you like – isn’t that why we chose this in the first place? Routine usually keeps me from forgetting to do things and I don’t believe there is any shame to that. Here’s a rough look at my day-to-day: 6am – Wake up, pull down window coverings and place into the passenger seat. Go to the gas station for coffee and head to Walmart to put window coverings away for the day, journal, make notes for the blog and try to wake up. 8am – Pick CJ up from work and get breakfast. Head to the park and wake up the girls. Personal rituals time – brush teeth, potty, re-hydrate, etc. CJ takes a nap. 11am – Grab a table and some WiFi at the library to write and do school stuff (CJ naps) 7pm – Head  over to the YMCA for showers and to kill time/ decompress 10pm – Get CJ to work and hunker down for the night Errands, exploration, and meals took place at various times in between but that is just about how every day went.
Don’t look like you’re camping
I guess the main point of these next sections is to make sure you don’t look obvious. The funny thing is that these next few sections also contradict the whole look and feel of camping. We’ve had to make a complete 180° from our usual MO. Right away, let’s talk about appearance. What we want is to not give anyone a negative reason to take a second look at us. My advice when doing the stealth thing is to dress as you normally would when going about your day to day, to go unnoticed.

While I’m not advising you to throw out what you have and buy all new stuff, I will admonish you to choose your wardrobe appropriately according to location and time of year. Articles of clothing that are stained or in disrepair may garner negative attention.

Also highly important is hygiene. Stealth campers are at a bit of a disadvantage here. If you’re living out of your vehicle, there won’t be proper facilities to keep yourself at presentation status. So we needed to improvise. A membership to the YMCA, local community center, or gym can help out immensely. At the very least, you can have a shower when you need one and a place to change your clothes – public indecency anyone? We started off our stay with a seven-day pass to the YMCA that turned into a one-month membership. From what I’ve read, many gyms will give you a few days worth of trial, which is perfect if you’re not going to be in town for very long.

While it may be fine to be on the right side of ripe when out in the wilderness, being in close quarters with the inhabitants of the town or city you’re in will require some decent hygienic practices. You may not need to be as clean as you were or are at home but don’t let the smell of being human get away from you.

Your demeanor and habits can give away your status as a stealth camper as well. While we frequented certain areas – a large city park and the library, we tried to draw as little attention to ourselves as we could. The park was our first major stop of the day. That is where we’d perform our morning… errr… rituals. First thing in the morning was best because there weren’t too many people around as the park has open and closing hours.

Do your business with speed and respect. Leave no trace that you’ve been there and clean up after yourself. Follow the signs for proper use of the public facilities so as not to be ejected from the area. No washing dishes, clothes or bathing in the restrooms. In short be a good steward of the space you are utilizing, no matter where they are located.

Find activities to keep yourself busy and maintain your sanity
We travel for a reason, right? Though the reasons aren’t always the same, we have them. Hike every trail, thrash every street and skate park or just find out what makes a city tick. Keep yourself busy and in doing so, keep yourself sane. Libraries, sand dunes, beaches, museums or nothing at all. Do what you do when you travel and keep your profile appropriate. Because we were traveling with CJ for work, our activities were centered around the girls. Spending time at the library and park kept the girls busy giving CJ the time to sleep a bit, lending purpose and intent for us occupying the space.
HFA girls exploring a river bed

If you’re spending more than a few days in an area, finding recreational activities will give you reasons to park and enjoy an area multiple times throughout your stay without causing any suspicion. Because Adventurers adventure, Thrill-seekers search for their next adrenaline rush and the Intellectuals fill their days with scholarly pursuits. There are reasons for us to be where we are.

Keep your vehicle clean
Ah, the adventure-mobile. It’s a thing of beauty, depending on where it’s parked. In an urban setting, the less it looks like you live in it the easier it will be to mask that fact that you do. I believe in looking the part and the adventure-mobile is no exception. How well you blend in can mean the difference between a decent night’s rest and knock on your window at 3am. We’ll use ‘Hoe-Nu as an example for this part. Because she is a decently high-profile vehicle and happens to be the worst color to keep clean. Every week, I spent three dollars to give her a thorough rinse, just to keep her from looking dusty. This isn’t something I kept up with when we were out camping, mostly because I love the look of a dirty SUV. I don’t believe that SUVs or trucks are for luxury, to be honest. I think they need to be dirty, announcing to onlookers the adventures and pursuits they’ve seen. A muddied up truck would be cool parked in your driveway because your neighbors will know you’ve been out to Big Sur over the weekend (nice!). Try parking that overnight near a medical plaza and people are likely to think something else; worse if you have a myriad of stickers and decals (‘Hoe-Nu has four). The same vehicle clean and clear of clutter says you’re an enthusiast with a flair for the dramatic; dirty and piled with gear might indicate you’re sleeping in it. My advice here: while your ride needn’t be spotless, it should pass a quick cleanliness test. Make it look like you care enough about your vehicle to keep it presentable – especially the windows. Because you’ll be stealthing it, you’ll have your whole life in our vehicle with you. Not exactly the easiest thing to conceal when out in the open. The idea is to go to lengths to make your adventure-mobile looking as normal as possible. What I did was contain as many loose items as I could in bags and crates, making an effort to keep them all tucked away under the window line. I even covered some of the brighter colored items – beach towels and frequently used clothing articles –  with a black cloth, upping the concealment factor.

One thing that peeves the heck out me is when I see vehicles filled with trash bags. I don’t want to go into it but I think it screams a certain something. By necessity or by choice, it is an unfortunate look and one I believe should be avoided at all costs if you intend to stealth camp with any degree of success. Even the black ones are shiny and can attract unwanted attention.

I endeavored to maintain some sense of order in the front seats, the windows up front are pretty open to the public eye. We got rid of the baskets and tucked away any items they held. If you’ve got tinted windows, this is made easier but the front seats are a vulnerable place for your stuff anyway. The hardest part when trying to keep a packed car clean is to remain as organized as possible. Trying to locate an item in the controlled chaos that is ‘Hoe-Nu’s interior is maddening. So is taking the time to put everything back while attempting to keep the public from getting a good look inside the SUV. With the back doors open, anyone can see that all our eggs are in one basket. Plus, a little time spent organizing can save your sanity.
Keep a low profile
Again, do your best to keep the fact that you’re camping on the down-low. Window coverings should be as discrete as possible, i.e. no visible Mylar and avoid cutesy curtain-esque wraps. In the same vein, you’ll want to make sure to properly ventilate your vehicle. While foggy windows in the morning may not give you away, depending on the time of year and the region this may be normal but too much condensation in the vehicle can become a problem. Venting your vehicle will help keep it from feeling grubby or possibly growing fungus or mold. Cracking windows and adjusting your window coverings can work if you don’t have a way to vent out the top. ++ If you have a sunroof. Make sure that you dispose of all trash in proper receptacles, avoiding garbage around your vehicle. Also, have a plan for going potty when you’re parked. You’ll want to keep spilling lemonade inappropriately to a minimum. We stopped drinking around 7pm and made a bathroom stop around 9:30pm to avoid having to compromise our position. Sometimes though… Don’t give law enforcement a reason to pull you over. I have great respect for the Police and the work that they do but during the course of their jobs, they may have reason to scrutinize our activities. As far as I know, stealth camping is not illegal but there are many unscrupulous types who engage in similar doings, albeit with nefarious intentions. So keep your registrations, tags, licenses and the like up to date. The men and women who protect and serve the community need all the help they can get. We need to do what we can to shift their focus away from us and not impede them in their duties.
Us not-stealthing outside Joshua Tree National Park

The whole idea of stealth and camouflage is to avoid negative attention. Everyone who looks will see you but the point is to not give anyone a reason to look at you or your vehicle twice. Unless you and your ride are super sexy. Of course, you can’t help that one bit, can you? Exercise caution, someone might break their neck… you looker you!

In the end, stealth camping isn’t as bad as most people think but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Please contact us if you have any questions or concerns, we would love to be of help. Be safe out there, friends. Go live your adventure!

One thought on “Stealth Camping: Urban Camouflage

  1. Pingback: Change is Inevitable – Lessons Learned On the Road #6 – Hyatt Family Adventures

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