Van Life Parking and Sleeping: A Guide to the City for Vandwellers
Parking and sleeping in the city while living the van life can be difficult, but it doesn’t have to be. If you’re living the van life already or in the planning stages of making the transition and looking for ways to park and sleep in the city you’re in the right place! Whether you’re just passing through a city or staying for a while this is the van life guide to read.
The first time I picked up and got on the road I had to face the reality of learning quickly because my research hadn’t been properly executed. Lucky for you, you can learn from my mistakes and city park the right way.
First things first, research the laws regarding parking in the city you plan to stay. There are four main laws you will want to make sure you’re informed on before entering an area to stay the night. Nobody is getting a good nights rest down at the station.
Oversize Vehicle Restrictions
The first is oversize vehicle restrictions. These laws generally permit only vehicles below a certain length or height for the purposes of parking, some with duration limits. Time limits for oversized vehicles are designed specifically to allow larger vehicles like delivery trucks to park for a few minutes.
Overnight Parking Restrictions
The second is overnight parking restrictions. Some cities will enact an overnight parking ban on city streets or city parking lots between specified times at night, most time restrictions are situated to discourage habitation in a vehicle. Many legislators lack the courage to come out against vehicle habitation so they enact these laws instead as they have better optics.
Overnight parking restrictions often means law enforcement will be targeting individuals camping.
Vehicle Habitation Restrictions
The third and the most important is vehicle habitation restriction law. Many municipalities have had problems with people living in their vehicles, never moving and polluting the streets with needles, black water and other refuse. Because of this, they’ve decided to legislate away habitation in vehicles.
Don’t think you can stealth your way out of a ticket in a city that has this on the books.
Many habitation laws require vehicles that are inhabited to not park near schools, which of course, is something you should never do regardless of the current law. I don’t think that can be stated enough. If you are found camping in a city with strict vehicle habitation laws you are immediately subject to arrest or fine, even if you are just passing through.
General Parking Signage
Of course, always consult the signage in your location to be sure you are okay to park. Google street view is a pretty good way to observe signage without driving there first but on occasion the text is blurred.
Time Limit Restrictions
The fourth law deals with duration of time in which you must move. Some cities may state that a vehicle must move every so many amount of hours so keep an eye on this. The good news is this one will work in your favor most of the time as long as you are aware of time limits involved. You won’t want to be in a single spot for a long time anyways for a multitude of reasons, outlined below.
The golden rule if you’re staying in an area for a while is to rotate locations. First, if you’re staying in a single city be sure to choose your spots before you’ve transitioned into van life or before you enter when traveling.
You probably don’t want to be driving around aimlessly looking for a place. There are a number of things you will be getting used to by doing this van life thing, so having places to sleep will be one less thing on your mind.
Staying in one location long enough will make you seem less as if you’re just passing by. Soon enough businesses, homeowners and the community will realize you’ve moved in. This is not a good thing.
All it takes is one unhappy person to call you into the police as some kind of vagrant for a check up. It’s unlikely that you will be met with open arms, particularly in areas where there is a homeless problem.
Choosing a Spot
Whether you’re just passing through or staying for a while you will want to choose a place where you will be undisturbed for quality rest. You won’t be getting a good sleep if you have chosen an area where you are immediately recognized and stick out like a sore thumb.
If you don’t choose wisely you’re probably going to get a wellness knock from the local police. Keep in mind you will want a well lit spot for security purposes when possible. Also, have an eye out for level pavement.
While some content I’ve read will suggest residential housing communities such as streets with single family homes to be a good place to stop for the night, I will not. People in these communities often feel like they own the road even though it is a public entity.
Streets surrounding their houses can often be considered sacred property to them. Most feel protective of their families, property and pets. Couple this with the fact that they don’t know you or that strange van outside and you can begin to understand why it’s problematic.
Home owners are almost always keenly aware of the regularly parked vehicles around their houses. You might begin to think that it’s okay if you’re not situated towards the front of their house and while that may be the case on occasion, do not chance it if you are at all unsure. We’re looking for a quality nights rest here.
There are very few exceptions where this might be acceptable. I would suggest communicating with others in the van life to be sure it’s a viable neighborhood for sleep. If you can confirm this you will probably be alright. Additionally be sure that it’s a very busy neighborhood where many different vehicles come and go on a regular basis.
Industrial parks are often zoned just outside of the city and usually lack restrictions associated with other areas, making their off-street parking ideal if available. Often times you can park in an industrial park along the street for the night and nobody will notice or care.
Again, the laws are much more relaxed in these situations. I recommend avoiding parking directly on the property of any private company unless you’re absolutely sure you will go unnoticed. Many large companies can afford security and employ patrols, which means you’re possibly risking being towed or fined for trespassing.
Generally I recommend against apartment complexes unless you have enough knowledge about the area to be confident in your stay. Some apartment complexes can be patrolled and require guest tags for guest stays.
The best apartment complexes for van life have unrestricted roadside parking on a public street. In these locations you can usually safely pull in and go unnoticed as many guests are coming and going.
The best way to check for these spots is by using google maps to find prospects, then google street view to make sure they aren’t metered.
If truck stops and busy places don’t bother you they can occasionally be a worthwhile place to stay the night. Assuming your vehicle can fit in a regular parking space you will be able to park away from large trucks and get a relatively quiet sleep.
Generally truck stops will have signage prohibiting overnight parking if there has been a problem in the past with people staying for long periods and not moving. If you see a sign, go in and ask to stay overnight and state that you’re just passing through.
The worst outcome is that they politely decline. If you’re making it a regular rotation spot I would recommend against staying more than once if a sign is present and you are granted permission.
Big Box & Department Stores
Generally if you see many recreational vehicles and others living the van life you will be okay. You still may be chancing it as occasionally the business may request a sweep to remove everyone as others have overstayed. The best method in my experience is to go inside and simply ask for a manager.
By asking you will have ascertained with certainty if you will get a good nights rest or not. If you’re just passing through this isn’t a bad option. If you plan to make it a spot to rotate this would probably make you immediately recognizable and not be advisable.
As with other areas mentioned you will want to check signage and obey it to avoid ticketing. Occasionally big box stores like Walmart will employ the use of security guards to roam for people camping.
If you see a security guard you might be better off just asking one and making yourself known if you happen to be passing through. Occasionally large home improvement stores like Home Depot can be a good option.
I’ve found allstays to be a useful resource for checking the status of walmart parking rules and regulations. Keep an eye on the date of the comments left and double check when you arrive.
These can make a great overnight location to rotate with, in particular if your gym has many spots around the city you are visiting or staying in. In my previous article where I covered finding showers on the road while living the van life, I go over the best options for gym memberships.
There’s a good chance you want to work out and take a shower before going to bed which makes 24 hour gym locations prime.
Be sure to check for signage restrictions. In the case that your gym is in a plaza, restrictions may be placed by the owner of that plaza rather than the gym itself. Having an active gym membership adds so many spots that you could rotate with that I am going to recommend getting one before you get out on the road.
A few cities may have public land available not far from their center, meaning you can research their existence and possibly stay up to two weeks on this land. The most common type of public land in the US is Forest Service (National Forest) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
Consult maps in your area and research if permits are needed before attempting to camp on public land.
Rest areas can be useful to put into rotation if they’re situated close to the city you’re visiting or staying in. First, they must allow overnight parking. Depending on where you are from, it may shock you that some states have restricted rest area overnighting.
If you stop by a rest area once a week in your rotation it’s likely you will not be noticed. Consider that rest areas are often used for interstate travel and sleeping by the common public. This means, like truck stops, rest areas have no social stigma around sleeping which is a huge plus.
Carpooling lots are designed for two motorists to meet at a single location and drive together in one vehicle to their destination. Most people use these to reduce gas on their way to work or catch a bus from the carpool lot. Depending on the area these may be a good way to catch some sleep.
Most vehicles are going to be sitting here overnight anyways, so your vehicle won’t stick out simply by being present. Be sure to check signage and city regulations regarding carpool lots, some may require tags though that is fairly rare.
Depending on the city infrastructure, you may find opportunities at other transportation hubs.
Hotels & Motels
Personally I don’t bother with these locations as the previous options have made my choices plentiful for the purposes of rotation. If you are absolutely sure you will not have a problem staying in a hotel or motel parking lot you may want to.
However, in my experience these places are usually patrolled and have security cameras in place. Some may require vehicle tags to be present and have staff on site to check vehicles. If you aren’t on the list, this means you might wake up to the sound of a diesel engine from a tow truck.
The closer to a larger city a hotel or motel is, the more likely they are to have security in place.
You can save a lot of time and gas money by doing a little research before you head off to a spot. My favorite technology to use when hunting down a spot is by far Google Maps.
You can use Google Maps and pin locations to a list of favorites as a way to remember them. Using Street View on Google Maps will let you check out street parking signs and the general area without driving there.
Proper Etiquette and Gear
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Most of the time you will want to arrive after dark and be ready to sleep. I advise curtains and tint for privacy. Having everything ready for bed before you arrive at this spot is best in most circumstances.
However, you might not have to do this at gyms, big box stores or truck stops so use common sense. Be sure to avoid making a lot of sound and alerting everyone to your presence. Try to wake up shortly before sunrise and leave to your destination to explore the city, work or spend the day.
I’ve found that the best gear is a comfortable place to sleep, something to put over your eyes like an eye mask and possibly ear plugs if you’re at a loud location like a truck stop. Be careful wearing ear plugs in some locations as you may want to be alert if you get a knock where you don’t have permission.
A good practice is to leave no trace and always leave the spot as you found it.
Most safety precautions taken by you should be a measure of your threat level and the area. A good way to get an idea of the level of crime is to consult a crime map for your local city. These can usually be found on Google by searching for “crime map” along with the city name.
One larger database map can be found at crime reports for the United States and Canada but reporting is opt-in only, meaning it may be incomplete for specific areas.
It’s good practice to back into locations in the case that someone might block you in. Be sure to keep your cockpit (front seats) clear of valuables or other debris. Thieves usually case a vehicle through the windows and do a quick smash and grab. By clearing visible valuables and clutter you will lower your chances for an unsafe encounter.
Products such as 3M Security Window Film can increase the difficulty of shattering a window, giving you additional time to let the thief know the vehicle is occupied. The ideal theft target is an unoccupied vehicle. You will want to use a remote to re-auto lock your doors, honk your horn or enable your alarm if the option is available.
The most jarring thing about living the van life and attempting to sleep in a busy place like a city is getting used to the amount of random ambient noise from your surroundings. Don’t get discouraged as you can and will eventually get used to it. Most people learn to sleep right through it after a few nights of hyper awareness.
I hope this has adequately informed you on parking in the city while living the van life. Living in the city can be tough if you’re just getting started but you will most certainly get the hang of parking pretty quickly with a little practice. You might hit a few road bumps but don’t let that get in the way.
If your goal is freedom and adventure, it’s attainable with a little research. Happy travels!