vanlife in the city

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Personal Reflections on Vanlife In The City

By Kerman Delaiso

I’ve been living solo fulltime in my car/Dodge Promaster van for nearly two years now. Most of my time is spent in major cities: mainly, DFW (Dallas, for those who don’t know) and NOLA (my hometown: beautiful New Orleans).

In this piece I will touch on stealth camping in these cities, as well as do’s and don’ts when it comes to parking and camping in cities in general.

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Vanlife gives us freedom to GO. Sometimes we may get grounded to city living as well, though. Picking a city can be like flipping a coin. When I first started out, during the beginning of the pandemic, the police were called on me twice. Both times, the calls ended in me staying where I was parked and the officers apologizing for the unnecessary call. The places I was parked at in those instances were city parks and walking trail ponds.

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How To Find Water, WiFi, & Trash Disposal

  • Starbucks, Public Libraries, and gyms (if you have a membership) are good sources of free, fast wifi.
  • You can fill your water jugs and bottles at gas stations (for free), or supermarkets.
  • Always clean up wherever you are, pick up all of your trash and find a dumpster. You can usually find some behind supermarkets, fast food joints, and shopping plazas.
  • If you have smaller trash bags you can usually fit them in normal trash bins at places like Walmart, too – just be respectful and don’t overfill any bins.

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Tips For Stealth Camping In Cities

  • If you see other vans, RV’s or other rigs parked in a certain area, follow suit and park closeby to the other rigs, if space is available. Having a bike will work wonders for you, especially when you want to park in a spot and not have to move. This will also save you gas! (Make sure your bike is locked onto your rig very securely, though, so no one will be able to steal it).
  • Make sure anything else on the outside or top of your rig (i.e. solar panel or gear box) is securely locked and attached to your rig, so nobody would be able to take them.
  • Make sure all of your valuables inside are stowed away (and ideally locked; a small safe can be a good investment).
  • Once inside the van:
    • Dim lights on all of your devices, and turn off any lights or lanterns.
    • Use earbuds or headphones to reduce noise.
    • Blackout your windows. I used black curtains until my windows’ sunscreen arrived.
      • Reflectix are a good option that many vanlifers use as well: you can buy a big roll at Lowes or Home Depot and cut some to fit your windows. You can also spray paint them black or another dark color on one side so you’re extra stealthy at night (rather than having its shiny silver color visible and obvious from the outside).

Tips For Staying Safe In Cities

  • Solo vanlifers (and especially solo female, femme, non-binary and trans vanlifers): pay attention to your surroundings. Stay aware of your environment and people around you.
  • After leaving Walmart or other supermarkets, don’t load your van, car or schoolie with your back turned.
  • Talk loudly to sound like you’re holding a conversation. Even pretending to be on a phone call (or actually being on a phone call) is great.
  • Greet everyone who passes you by – this shows that you notice them.
  • Carry pepper spray!!!!
Below are some city specific tips on Dallas and New Orleans. DFW is a big, bustling metroplex city, while NOLA is a small city with a big punch.

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Dallas , Texas (DFW)

Finding Safe Places To Park:
  • I’ve had a membership at Planet Fitness, which has locations all over the country with really nice, clean showers, and is a relatively cheap gym membership. I’ve found parking at the gym overnight to be my first choice when van-camping in cities, since the gym is open twenty-four hours (during 2020, however, the gym and its showers were closed).
  • Walmart, Cracker Barrel and BassPro Shop are also good choices around DFW. Legitimacy can depend on the locations though; if you see one van or camper, that’s usually a good sign that you can join the family. Check out the iOverlander app as well to see if the location you’re eyeing up has already been reviewed.
  • I parked at the mall once and quickly found out that this wasn’t a good idea. Security knocked on my window.
  • Hotel and resident parking can be a last resort option (always keep in mind: if you arrive later after dark, your chances of staying through the night without problems are greater). People are very active in these areas during the daytime, so make sure not to stick out.
  • On weekends, find buildings that are closed, such as warehouse areas.

New Orleans, Louisiana (NoLa)

  • Parking near downtown at a parking lot or street meter could cost you a lot of money.
  • I see many who utilize RV parks. These still may be pricey, however.
  • Neighborhood street parking has to be done very stealthily. (If you have any friends or family whose houses or apartments you can park in front of or near, that would be ideal.)
  • Getting around the city is easy. You can walk, ride a bike, or take public transportation.
  • Make sure that all of your valuables are stored away (and ideally locked away), and that all of your doors are locked.
    • (In both of these cities, NOLA and DFW, break-ins are unfortunately common.
  • NOLA doesn’t have many Walmarts to park at.
    • The Walmart in East New Orleans may allow overnight parking, however – just be careful and try to check apps like iOverlander first.
  • There aren’t any Bass ProShops or Cracker Barrels in NOLA that I know of.
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Enjoy the cities & stay safe, fam.

Check out the Essential Apps section of the BIPOC Guide for more detailed info on apps like Campendium to help you find reviewed, safe places to stay overnight in and around these and other cities!

Find Kerman on Instagram @thajourneyofkdelaiso, and support his photography business @oddusee_photographer and www.odduseephotography.art. All photos courtesy of Kerman Delaiso/Oddusee Photography.

Vanlife In The City: How To Stealth Camp & More

By Luu Phan & Alex Ortiz


Get to know who we are and how we got started with city Vandwelling in the Bay Area, and some of our top tips for stealth camping & other city-specific hacks.

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Luu and I have been full-time van living in our VW Eurovan for close to a year now. Together, we share space, break bread and make it happen in a 70 sq ft living space that, when fully out in the open, also allows us to throw up our ‘pop top’ for a full body stretch.

We are both direct service providers in the community, working as an Elementary School Teacher and Social Worker, which has made vanlifing in the City that much more important for us (and yes, you can do Vanlife while working a 9-5).

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Right around the start of the pandemic in early 2020, we began thinking long and hard about how we didn’t want to feel stuck living the life we were living in our apartment. Borrowing from our love for camping and the outdoors, we decided to pursue vanlife as an alternative lifestyle that would allow us to pursue our dreams.

Fast forward almost 18 months after the idea initially crossed our mind, here we are nearing our one year Vanniversary! We are based out of the East Bay, CA, and since then we have called various places ‘home’ during our van life journey, including Berkeley, Alameda, Oakland, and Richmond. 

How's It Been So Far?

Our journey into Vanlifing in the City has been one of the most rewarding life choices we ever made. It allowed us to escape the monotonous daily grind we were a part of, catapulted us onto a path towards financial freedom where we could begin to envision the goals and dreams we thought we could never achieve, and it dramatically pushed us out of our comfort zone and expanded our awareness in ways we could have never imagined. Everything hasn’t been perfect, however. If you are finding yourself on the cusp of pursuing city van living and are feeling anxious or afraid about the transition, trust, you are in the right place. 

 

For us, the first few months required a lot of growing out of our comfort zone. Stealth camping meant becoming aware of and challenging our preconceived notion of ‘safety’ and getting comfortable with the uncomfortable. We’ve learned to trust ourselves, be flexible and to let go of what we cannot control. It also meant learning how to “stealth” camp effectively, while not allowing the attempt to put on this ‘invisible’ cloak in the city to mean that we had to hide all parts of ourselves. It’s about balancing the reality of surviving in the city but also sustaining ourselves by finding space to let go, be free, and have fun.

 
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Our Advice For New Urban Vanlifers

Here is some of the best overall advice we received and also some of what we have incorporated in our journey since diving into Vanlife:

  1. Take it one day at a time. At a time when we were feeling uneasy about how to transition into full-time urban van living, embracing ‘one day at a time’ became much much easier because we were able to let go of thinking too far into the future and the ‘What if’ that we really weren’t able to control.
  2. Everyone’s Vanlife experience is different. Living ‘On The Grid’ isn’t as glamorous as the IG stories make it seem. Don’t fall into what Vanlife ‘has to’ look like. Instead, focus on the uniqueness of your own story and experience as a city van dweller. For us, working full-time in the city meant learning how to live in a van within a city. Over time, we’ve focused on telling our story instead of what we think everyone may want to see.
  3. Know and use your Resources. With city vanlifing, it’s important to plan for the unexpected and map out your resources as best you can; what’s your backup plan when unexpected things happen? Where else could you stay if you’re forced to leave your go-to place? Who can you trust and reach out to for support/respite? Are you prepared for a flat tire, dead battery, or an unexpected malfunction? For us, we identified nearby family we could depend on, alternative places we could stay for respite, and made sure we were equipped with gear and/or emergency services (ie. roadside assistance) in case we needed it.
  4. TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF. As freeing as Vanlife in the city can be, it can also be emotionally, mentally, and physically taxing. Living in a tiny space (especially one in which it’s difficult to completely flex your own body, like ours) can add a ton of strain on your body. Add that to the hyper awareness that you develop as a stealth vanlifer… it can be draining. Make time and space for body movement; hit the gym, go on walks, take your rig out for the weekend to a space where you can operate more freely. Identify your healing space, talk to your therapist, and connect with your Diversify Vanlife community! Also, Vanlife doesn’t mean ONLY vanlife. Remember to take a break if you can and need to.
  5. Get comfortable with the uncomfortable. City Vanlifing isn’t easy, but it gets much easier and comfortable the more you accept that you’re living an alternative lifestyle and the more you’re willing to let go. Lower your expectations. Things will break down, things may not work, your setup won’t be perfect, you’re going to have some rough days, BUT EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT!

City Vanlifing: Finding Your Temporary Home

Stealth camping, especially longer-term stealth camping, is a bit of an art. While you might find a ton of info and recommendations on campgrounds or go-to off-grid locations, stealth camp areas often remain a secret and for good reason. 

The more people know about a certain place, the less safe and secure it can be. More people tends to lead to overcrowding of an area, more unwanted attention, less familiarity of your van/RV neighbors, and new city enforcement. This increases the chances of you not feeling safe or being forced to leave without warning. 

Hence, the need to remain stealth as much as possible.  So, while there’s no one right way to stealth camp, there’s definitely things to be mindful of when looking for a place to park long-term. Here are some things that we lookout for:

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  • Park in public areas with regular foot traffic. This usually means more visibility but not necessarily more unwanted attention.
  • Scope it out. Do your research. Is it a high crime area? Is the area known to have car break-ins? Unfortunately, while we understand that there are social determinants to these issues, we need to feel comfortable with where we sleep. Check out the area in the morning, afternoon, and night. Make sure it’s a place you would feel comfortable sleeping at night.
  • Look for places with other RVs/Vans. Contrary to what most people might think, parking in an isolated place without any other vehicle near you actually makes you a target. Look for places where other city dwellers might be staying. This usually means that they’ve managed to find a place where they’ve been allowed to stay long enough without any issues.
  • Know thy neighbor. If you feel comfortable, meet and become familiar with your van neighbors. There’s nothing better than knowing someone that has your back and who you can depend on if you need to. We have felt safest in areas where we feel we are part of a community of people like us.
  • Look for well lit areas. This might be self-explanatory, but stealth doesn’t mean being in complete darkness. Street lighting, public use areas, and regular movement of vehicles is something that helps you stay safe.
  • Safety over scenery. With stealth camping in the city, we choose safety over the areas with the best view any day.
  • Have a plan for escape. You never want this to happen, but you always need to be prepared for the worst. When you set up at night, make sure nothing is obstructing your access to the driver’s seat or steering wheel. We also make sure that no matter where we park, our van is always facing in a direction where we are not blocked from driving forward immediately if we need to.
  • Test your limits carefully. When living in such a densely populated urban area, it can be incredibly difficult to find places where you can legally park and live in your van long-term. Almost all of the time, we have parked in areas where it is technically illegal to park. We’re absolutely not recommending that you do this! That being said, it’s important to familiarize yourself with local ordinances – always check street signs – and potential fees that you may incur in the areas you choose to park. Personally, we usually look out for areas where it may not be admissible to park, but where it’s not strictly enforced. The worst we’ve encountered is a traffic ticket once in our one year of vanlife. After that, we knew it was time to go.
  • Clean up the mess, even if it’s not yours. All it takes is one person to call the police on you or your neighbors for you to lose your spot. Make sure you regularly clean up around your area, even if it’s not your trash. In fact, always leave it better than you found it. One person’s mistake in these situations can also end up impacting you.

Additional Tips for Stealth Camping & More

  1. Cover up. Once we’ve found where we’re going to park for the night, we cover up all the windows and visible areas with reflectix material. You can usually find this at your local Home Depot or Lowes (or Amazon). These work well both to block out any light but also to shield you from heat on a hot day. For your front windshield, sun shades can also work.
  2. Nights out, lights out. Don’t bring attention to yourself. Once it gets dark, try to keep your lights to a minimum. It’s very easy for someone to notice a light that is on inside of a car when it’s dark. Same goes for noise. Once you get a feel for a place, maybe you don’t have to be so strict about this. But it’s best to start this way.
  3. Trust your instincts. This is too important not to mention again. You know yourself best. If you don’t feel safe, dip! If a place doesn’t feel comfortable, don’t stay! Even though a big part of city van life is about challenging your comfort zone, don’t force it if you really ain’t feeling it!
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  • Getting connected and staying connected. Our Weboost cell phone booster has been one of our greatest investments. That and our use of our cell phone hotspot. Of course, you don’t run into the same reception issues as if you’re off the grid, but if you depend on cell signal, we can almost guarantee you’ll have signal anywhere in the city with these two combined (ie. Luu managed teaching virtually in the van throughout the entire school year during the pandemic with these two!) There are many other alternatives for cell signal: parking outside of your local library, Starbucks/Peets coffee shop, and sometimes your local chain grocery store.
  • iOverlander. iOverlander is a great resource to find new or temporary places to park your rig overnight (however, we have found this more helpful in more remote areas). We’ve used iOverlander when we’ve traveled outside of our home cities to find recommended places to legally and safely park overnight. Sometimes you can find reviews and/or pictures of the area which gives you a better sense of where you’ll be staying.
  • Gyms and Showers. During the pandemic, this was tough, but now that things are opening back up, Gyms can be your best places to meet various needs. Fitness gyms are perfect to decompress, stretch your body, and get a good workout. Can’t say enough about how important this is especially when living in a tiny rig. Next up: Showers. Most known gyms will have showers for you to use that come with the cost of your membership. Choose a gym that gives you variety and multiple locations. You’ve got several gyms to choose from in the Bay. 24 hour fitness, Planet Fitness, Anytime fitness, and our all time favorite–Touchstone Climbing. If you’re into climbing, or even if you’re not (they offer yoga, a fitness/weights area, and several other things), they have several locations in the Bay and we have found climbing to be super fun. Showers are clean, include free towel use, and offer complimentary shampoo/conditioner/body wash. Oh, and, you’re bound to find a fellow vanlifer somewhere in these gyms.
  • You are not in this alone. Know you have a community out here! Sometimes it’s other vanlifers you meet along the way, sometimes it’s your family or friends, and sometimes it’s your Diversify Vanlife community! Being able to see other people who looked like us doing shit we wanted to do gave us that much more inspiration. Don’t hesitate to reach out to us or anyone in the Diversify Vanlife community!!

See you on the road!

 

-A + L
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Find Alex and Luu on Instagram  @la_combi_life. Photos courtesy of Alex Ortiz and Luu Phan.

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