When people think of van-life, most conjure up images of decked out Sprinters and Promasters with glossy paint jobs in beautiful, wide-open natural spaces. Not that those don’t exist. Plenty find a way to balance work in super aesthetic, exciting locales full-time, and that’s awesome!
Very often, though, many van-lifers need to stay within the boundary of – or very near to– a major city to keep the lifestyle alive. (That’s me currently.) Or, maybe you’re on a cross-country road trip and simply want to explore a bit city for a few days. Well, be forewarned: van-life in a big city is not always glamorous. That doesn’t mean it can’t be good, though!
The Reality of City Camping
Big cities come with their share of stresses or annoyances. Like lots of vehicles, and lots of people, and lots of people enforcing what vehicles can park where. The more touristic of a city, the more you’ll need to contend with. This is normal.
When you find your go-to spots and streamline the process of existing in a box-on-wheels in an at-times-chaotic environment, however: it starts to feel pretty darn good. Even when sleeping in parking lots, showering in gyms, and charging up every electronic you can in local eateries. It proves that you can truly feel that freedom anywhere with the right forethought and attitude.
Van-living successfully in a metropolis, though, means figuring out certain things first to make it is as smooth-going as possible. Read on for what I’ve learned after years on the road.
Tips for Big City Living
1. Your Shower Situation
The reality is, that the majority of vans don’t have an indoor shower setup. Showers take up lots of space; space that can be far better utilized as storage or as a work nook. So, finding a consistent place to shower when you’re living or traveling through a city is pretty key.
Gyms and athletic centers are invaluable when it comes to reliable, affordable spaces to both get some exercise in and shower afterward. Whether it’s big-name gym or a local establishment, if you plan on sticking around a city for a few months, it’s a worthwhile investment. Many gyms are open 24-hours, too. This means they can double as your shower location and stealth camp location!
Just passing through a city? Look for places that offer weeklong trails or day passes for those “trying out” a new gym. If you’re on a long-winded trip across the states, though, look into memberships for gyms that have locations nationwide. That way, you can utilize showers no matter where the road takes you.
2. Stealth Camping
Let it be known, that not all cities are friendly toward van-lifers. Especially with the influx of people living on the road in recent years, gone are the days when vans were viewed mostly as work or delivery vehicles. Although nowhere as obvious as an RV, vans will still attract attention in parking-sensitive areas.
How to find safe, acceptable areas to park in a big city, then? Do your research, think outside the box, and test them out! There are plenty of apps and websites these days which will aid in finding or avoiding certain spots. Since not all are up-to-date, I recommend keeping your eyes open to find those hidden, van-friendly gems .
You’ll also want to ensure your van is, well, stealthy. If you’re decked out in stickers, roof full of storage bins, and don’t have window covers or curtains separating your cabin and living space, people will know someone’s living in there. So don’t park in areas that forbid overnight parking, because you’ll stand out.
Here are some of my favorite places to stealth camp safely in a big city:
- Legal street parking on quiet streets, especially by a public park
- 24-hour gyms and other overnight businesses, like laundromats
- Hotel parking lots. Just try and arrive late and leave early!
- Mall parking lots- especially if there’s a bar or restaurant in the lot
- Moochdocking with friends and family!
- Driveway surfing through P2P rentals like Hipcamp.com.
3. Bathrooms & Dumping Waste
Every van has a different bathroom setup. Some don’t have one at all. Some go with a cassette-style toilet. A small percentage might even have a fully built-out bathroom connected to a black tank. How one handles their human waste varies greatly from one van to the next.
4. Vans with No Toilets
If you’ve chosen simplicity with the no-bathroom model, you probably have it easiest in terms of clean up. Public bathrooms in cities are fairly easy to find in the United States- gas stations, larger stores, etc- and you’ll likely never be too far from one. So if you’re sticking around an urban space for a bit, familiarize yourself with the cleanest, most accessible restrooms. And their hours of operation! You’ll be pooping in them often.
Keen on hydration and pee frequently throughout the night? Fret not. There’s no need to leave the comfort of your van as long as you become friends with wide-mouthed Nalgene bottles or those larger, airtight food containers. Just make sure you dump your liquids in a respectful spot, away from people’s property, waterways, and not on paved areas.
Having an emergency kit for those urgent surprise poops is also a good idea. Mine typically includes a few leak proof “poop bags” –like those used for hiking or portable toilets- and a small bag of cat litter to absorb liquid and guise the smell.
5.Vans with Toilets
If you’ve gone the route of a cassette toilet, bucket toilet, or a toilet that hooks up to a tank, you’ll need to figure out where to dispose of your waste.
- Portable toilets – like simple bucket toilets- that utilize bag systems are pretty easy. You can dump your waste in regular trash as long as it’s tied up properly.
- For those with cassette toilets or composting toilets, find a dump station or a public bathroom where dumping larger amounts of waste is acceptable. Usually, this means one at an RV park or campground. You can also dump your waste inside double-lined plastic bags and place it inside a larger trash receptacle. In a city, this process becomes much harder to do inconspicuously, though, especially if you need to rinse your toilet. I’d recommend heading to a proper campground with RV amenities. Stay there for a night or pay a small dumping fee to use their facilities.
- And if you’re one of those rare vans with black tank toilets, the only reasonable option in a city is to locate an official dump station, and empty your tank properly. Sometimes that means paying a fee at an RV park or a campground, or researching free sites in the greater area. Many fuel stations, federal campgrounds, bigger outdoor stores like Cabelas or BassProShops, or rest areas offer a dump station at no extra cost. Just do your research!
Before I lived in a van, my home-on-wheels was a Jeep Cherokee with a built-out back. My kitchen was a Coleman that pulled out of the trunk. Cooking was always outside; in parking lots, in rest areas, on residential streets everywhere from Rhode Island to Los Angeles.
What did I learn? That you’re always going to draw a little attention. And a little is okay, as long as you’re cooking courteously. Sure, people may still be curious. But chances are they won’t be bothered. So get comfortable with feeling a bit uncomfortable sometimes, and you’ll be fine.
Cooking inside your van is no different. Most likely you’ll still need a cracked door and open vents for proper ventilation. If you cook strategically- i.e, not in a private residential area flooded with “No Parking” signs – chances are no one will bat an eye, though. Just be cognizant of where you’re parking for your meals, be respectful of your surroundings (please oh please dump food waste in trash bins!), and find quieter spots where you’ll draw less attention.
7. Find Work Spaces
For those working remotely while living in their van, finding a work space that’s both inviting and reliable makes all the difference. Sure, there are usually countless cafes and public libraries in any metropolis. Finding your core, go-to spots will make city life feel more like home.
I suggest looking for workspaces that:
- Have electrical outlets, and a solid Wi-Fi connection
- Offer free parking (meters in touristic cities can add up quickly!)
- Have bathrooms that are easily accessible, so you can do your business without packing up
- Are accepting toward those working longer hours (some city cafes have limits for those with computers!)