With so many people opting to live the #vanlife I was surprised to hear so many parking horror stories from fellow travelers on the road. Urban boondocking (sleeping in your vehicle for free) is outlawed in some cities, like San Luis Obispo, Ca. In other cities like Eugene, Or van life feels like the way of life. Either way with my list of essential urban boondocking tips you’ll be able to get a good night’s sleep wherever you find yourself for the evening.
Before you park -
A mistake we made early on was getting to our parking space for the night and realizing we had to pee. We also had to make the bed, change into some night time clothes, and settle in. Without fail someone would have to pee, and as soon as you open the doors consider your cover blown. The goal of boondocking is to be as unseen as possible. No out the door pee breaks before bed. No litter falling out when you open your doors in the morning (I’ll discuss the morning after later in this blog post), and after 2 weeks of sticking our butts out the door to pee just before bed, we finally got a routine that works for everyone, even our 3-year old son.
It’s always preferable to roll into the town you’ll be staying in during daylight hours. This way you’ll have a chance to check out the neighborhoods before you sleep in them. You’re less likely to be singled out and you won’t have any surprises in the morning. Find a store, cafe, park or other late night establishment near where you’ll be parking for the night. This will be the last place you visit just before you bed down. Establishments with private stall/sink combos (like all-gender/family bathrooms) are best because you can wash your face, handle lady business, and otherwise have a private moment in the restroom before the night is over. A luxury on the road.
We usually bed down sometime between 10pm and 11pm depending on the day’s events. Van life is incredible, but most days are filled with adVANture so 11pm is a late night for van lifers of all ages. Do any necessary lights on bed prep stuff in the parking lot of where your bathroom is so that way you can roll into your sleeping spot, turn off the headlights, and get to bed stealthy like.
Residential Neighborhoods -
We have spent the majority of our boondocking nights in residential neighborhoods. We try to look for “average American family” looking neighborhoods. Not the wealthiest because you might encounter snobs and cop callers. We also try to avoid the sketchier neighborhoods because we care about our safety. Middle of the road neighborhoods tend to have just enough traffic to keep the bad guys away, but still quiet enough to get some sleep.
Be sure the area you pick has flat streets. Sleeping at an incline or with your van tilting towards the curb absolutely sucks! I’ve only made that mistake once. Be picky. If the first spot you find has too much overhead street lighting, gives you a bad vibe, tilts, or otherwise don’t feel right, trust your gut and find a new spot. Parking by fences, hedges, and shrubs will provide an extra layer of privacy and will help you avoid staring in someone’s window at night.
Shopping Centers -
Before we left for our adVANture we did a lot of Google research :) Every post we read listed the basic places to park (i.e. Home Depot, Walmart, etc..) but they didn’t necessarily tell you what to look for. We initially thought we would just park in shopping centers every night and life would be all cupcakes and rainbows. Throughout our trip we have probably slept in a shopping center about 6 or 7 times. Because the information is so readily available shopping centers have been seeing a lot more traffic, and thus have been re-adjusting their policies regarding urban boondocking. Shopping centers do have their advantages. They are super flat. A security personnel is usually present. Bathrooms are onsite. And, they are usually situated in areas with other amenities you might need.
Be sure to look for other van lifers if you decide to go this route. You’ll get really good at recognizing other people existing out of their vehicles. If you are the only one in the lot, abort. This is not a good place to be. Most likely you’ll be awakened at some point in the night, and asked to move. This only happened to us once. We knew it was not the place to be and we parked there anyways. Driving to a new place at 1am, half awake is not fun, but we knew the risks of our choice.
If you do see other van lifers in the lot check to see that they are staying the night. If you see them start pulling off around closing time, I would recommend you do the same. If everyone is staying put try to find a spot off to the side of the lot. Away from the overhead lights and away from the parking spots that early morning shoppers might use the next day.
Car lots -
If you have a stealthy vehicle, car lots are a great place to bed down for the evening. There are already a ton of cars, trucks, and van for sale on the lots. Even better, sometimes car lots have fleet vehicles parked on a side street near the lot. If your van is white, or black you will most likely blend right in with their other vehicles. Be sure not to stay too long the next morning. Car lots tend to get going pretty early, and if you’re anything like me you don’t want to be bothered.
The next morning -
We find that we naturally wake up each morning between 6:30am and 7am, without an alarm, since we’ve been on the road. There was one day that we slept in past 8am, but that was like a unicorn day. It hasn’t happened before or since. I recommend you not opening your doors where you just slept. To the people on the block you were just a visiting vehicle for a neighbor or something, Once you open your doors you become a traveller who parked on their block and didn’t pay tax.
You’ll probably have to pee within 20 minutes of waking up so give yourself enough time to settle into your brain, and then drive to the place you visited last night to go potty. I try to always buy a little something from the places I visit. Especially if I don’t have to ask for a key/code, and the facilities are clean. Patronage as appreciation.
Be sure to put your van back together after you potty and before you head out to start your day. It’s nice to have some anonymity away from your vehicle. The face of a van lifer is so different unless you’re ultra conspicuous, or inviting people into your van, you’ll be able to blend in with the conventional lifers when you want. It’s like being a day-walker LOL.
Lastly some general Do’s and Don’t for Urban Boondocking
1) Do keep everything inside your vehicle. This includes chairs, awnings, trash, smoking, and drama.
2) Don’t be sloppy. It gives us all a bad name.
3) Do trust your instinct. If it doesn’t feel right, it isn’t!
4) Don’t turn on unnecessary lights or loud music, and don’t open your doors. Try to use your sleeping spot as a sleeping spot
5) Do a few practice runs in your own city before you venture out into the world. Figure out your basic routine while you still have a support net. Just know that your routine will change as you get more experience on the road.
6) Don’t return to the same spot more than once. You can sleep on the same block 2 or 3 times but even that I wouldn’t overdo.
7) Do it! Stop thinking about van life. Research, Prepare, and Do it! You are going to LOVE it. Bonus...I'll be your neighbor :)