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Back on the Coast

Back on the Coast

Friday, April 18, 2008

The Zen of Urban Stealth Parking, Part Two

Since I wrote the first post of stealth parking on Jan, 17th, many people have made inquiries for more information, both to me and on the Vandwellers' forum. This is a major issue for vandwellers because the ability to park when and where you need to in the city is important. You don't want to be constantly rousted by the cops; these days with the anti-urban camping laws it could mean your van being impounded. In two years of urban street camping, I haven't had to deal with the police once, but I go to great extremes to be stealthy. Funny thing though, is that every ones experience will vary depending on region and city, so it's a matter of exploration and experimentation on your part.

Here are some more thoughts on this topic.

Location, location, location. One of the main concerns for stealth parking is picking locations where your van looks like it belongs there. This is one of the main tenets of camouflage, being in plain site, but hidden or invisible. If your vehicle is surrounded by similar vans, it will just blend into the local environ. If your vehicle is the only one of it's type in the area, it will stick out like a sore thumb, just begging for attention. As well, some places have no vehicles parked there at night, so your lonely van in a large open area, may attract attention because it is the only vehicle parked there at all. Cops and security services are very vigilant these days, so you need to think like them to avoid detection.

Industrial areas - It would make sense to use these areas for large box or cube vans, or for the basic white cargo van. Why? Cuz' they look like they belong there. It just looks like a work vehicle, parked overnight for the next days' business. Also, these vans have higher personal security; less or no windows, and maybe a lockable metal barrier behind the driving compartment. Industrial areas attract certain types of people at night; thieves, prostitutes, drug dealers, etc. - so it's wise to be both vigilant and secure. But, there are very few other people around, which makes it convenient for night parking.

Shopping mall lots and strip malls - In these areas, Walmart store lots are the easiest. A lot of Walmarts allow overnight parking for the RV crowd and stealth vans fit right in. But, I only use Walmarts when I need a quick solution. Why? I believe the police aren't too happy about Walmart parking lots; to them, the lots become an unregulated urban campground in their jurisdiction. So it wouldn't surprise me if they check them out and pay attention to who is staying there. If I was just travelling down the road, not being a local, of course I would use them. But, I generally live in one city for months or years at a time. So for me, parking at a Walmart on a regular basis would be like advertising to the police, that I am homeless in a vehicle. Not very stealthy.

A lot of large shopping malls have no overnight parking restrictions, which eliminates them. But for malls or standalone stores which have 24hr. business hours, bingo! As long as you remain discreet and stealthy, why not. I find that the tiny strip malls are sometimes a perfect blend of privacy, no parking restrictions and a occasional choice for my soccer-mom type van. It all just depends, you got to go with your gut feelings. For the box or cube van and the white cargo van, these vehicles can be parked close to a business or store like it is there for the next days work.

Nightclub parking lots - The premise that vehicles are left overnight because of drinking patrons is good to take advantage of. But. There are some disadvantages to using these lots. Timing is critical because of surveillance by doormen or the police. Impaired drivers may hit your vehicle and make a lot noise leaving the area at closing time. Choose your parking spot wisely. Police quite often check out lots to see who is in the bar and doorman may be looking out for drunken patron behaviour (fights, rowdiness, etc.) You need to slip in and lay very low at the right moment, which is different for every place. Expect to be woken up by loud patrons until closing time.

Downtown urban streets - I have mixed feelings about these areas. Although most parking meters don't charge overnight, you need to pay close attention to security (lots of street people, cops, security forces). You maybe the only vehicle in the area, and I don't like that. I like to be somewhat hidden from view, blending in with the crowd of parked vehicles. But, once in a while, I use specific downtown pay parking lots. I especially like using them during extreme snow or wind storms; peoples' attention is distracted by the extreme weather. Quite often, there is only a pay machine for collecting fees at night, security is minimal with bike patrols, so I can slip in and out with no human contact. The only problems arise from street people who use them for shelter from bad weather, but that is no worse than industrial areas. You really have to pick and choose the specific lot and use it sparingly.

Urban and surrounding suburbia - For me, this is my preferred area for night parking. My favourite neighborhoods are those that have a lot of houses which are split into separate apartments. That way, there are lots of people on the block, which come and go at all times with residents that mind their own business. There are lots of cars parked on the street, so blending in with the crowd with my stealthed-out soccer-mom van is no problem. Because the buildings are houses, lines of sight from the windows get interrupted/obscured by trees and shrubs, so many parking spots are discreet for slipping in and out of. Different types of vans fit right in some neighborhoods or don't at all. Drive around and when you see your type of van parked often, you have found where you belong.

If you drive a white cargo (work) type van, pick a suburb where lots of these types of vehicles are parked on the street, an working man's suburb with tradespeople. If you drive a family type van, like an Astro, Aerostar, Econoline, Savanna, etc. - coloured not white, cargo or passenger (window) type, consider a neighborhood like I described above, middle-class with lots of single people. Don't pick a upper class neighborhood, rich people don't park on the street, so your vehicle will stick out like a sore thumb. Also, some neighborhoods will have lots of nosy parker residents, so try to avoid these areas as well. In other words, choose your parking areas carefully, so you blend in and don't attract unwanted attention.

I mentioned camouflage before in describing what we do when stealth parking. I coloured my reflectix window coverings to almost match my van colour behind the tinted glass windows. Everything is slick and nondescript with my van; homemade or junky details will attract attention; avoid distinguishing bumper sticker or details; think stealth. I just use my night parking spots for sleep and in my previous post, I talked about my methods for behavior at these spots. I remain very quiet and discreet when parked for the night and I leave first thing in the morning.

Something else I'd like to mention that I feel is important will be controversial with some vandwellers. I apologize ahead of time, but I think it is worth mentioning to new vanners. I believe pets left behind in vans attract unwanted attention. Now, I like pets. I've had dogs and cats before. I will have them again. But, if someone is suspicious of your van, and they see a pet left there for hours at a time, I think it doesn't take much for them to figure out you live there. Also, do gooders may feel you could be mistreating your pet, especially in the summer. I understand if you have a pet already you are going to keep him/her, but if you don't already have one, think twice before getting one when living in a van. I would avoid it if you need to be stealthy.

Something I also thought wouldn't be stealthy for urban night parking is campervans, like VW Westfalias and other obviously camperised vehicles. I still believe RV's are just too obvious and usually too large to park easily on city streets. But one emailer told me how he lives on the streets of San Francisco, CA in his Westfalia. He mentioned it's a bit of a cat and mouse game with the local cops, but for the most part he is very successful. I just thought that a campervan would be too obvious and attract unwanted attention, but he does it.

I hope some of these thoughts may help you in successful stealth parking. Good sleeping.


Jo said...

Great entry! Thanks so much for posting it. Great ideas and pointers. I'm still humming and hawing about what kind of van to get, and the picture of your Aerostar got me kind of excited, because I saw one for sale exactly like it yesterday for about $1K! It's a total stealth soccer mom van!! LOL

urban vandweller said...

One thing though! It is very compact inside, and many people would find it too small. But, I like being minimalist, so it works for me.

Anonymous said...

Yes, great insights. I have done quite a bit of stealth camping in a GMC Safari. These are great vehicles for the stealth camping lifestyle. They are a bit larger than your standard soccer-mom van, yet still compact enough to get reasonable mileage (about 20 on the hwy) and unobtrusively tuck away in most environments. I have urban camped everywhere from downtown nyc to remote hotel parking lots. Do be careful in more urban settings though. While in NYC two guys tried breaking in to my vehicle around 5am one morning. Fortunately, when I set off my van alarm they just took off.

Don said...

Another thing you might want to consider about pets in the vehicle is this...there are many people, sometimes right and sometimes just being incredibly obnoxious and nosey, who will call 9-1-1 if they spot a pet in a vehicle. Many times in Maryland, the only state I can speak for, a police officer can open that vehicle with an opening tool, get security for that property to do it or utilize a Locksmith or Tow Truck Driver to do it and failing all of that, they can use a baton to break the window out to rescue the dog. Just saw it two weeks ago as a matter of fact.