Regardless of what type of vehicle you use and where you’re located, living in a van is all about total freedom. Living life on your terms and going wherever you feel like with no restrictions is what trailers offer you. Your stealth camper van is your home, and you have to make it look like one. You’re probably going to spend lots of years in it, and it’s only prudent to make yourself feel at home.
Well, our guide is going to tell you everything you need to know about van life. We’ll help you choose your van, plan your interior design, and help install features such as electricity and plumbing. We’re all about detailed information and step by step guides. By the time you finish with this article, your knowledge about van life will have shifted from that of a 7th grader to a university student. In no time, you’ll be hitting the road quickly.
Table of Contents
Choosing your vehicle
There is an array of options out there when it comes to camper vans, and the right one for you depends on your preference and needs. This is the first and most important step into living in your van. Factors to consider when choosing your vehicles are the storage spaces and cost-effectiveness.
To help you further decide on what vehicle to go for, we’ve outlined some common types of vehicles available with some of their cons and pros. This is to help you get the idea of what you’re looking for.
These are ‘creepy white vans’ and are your best option when it comes to stealth camping. This is because noticing them is difficult. They are generally everywhere, and finding one isn’t hard. Vehicles in this category are inclusive of Ford Econoline, Chevy Express, Dodge Ram Van and old Chevy Van.
Cargo vans are excellent to live in. Their designs have barely changed for decades. The advantage of this is that mechanics know how to work around them. Their parts are common and affordable. The vans offer blank canvases with the opportunity for you to customize it in your own way. Overall they are good; not fancy, but reliable.
Cargo vans are known not to offer much headroom. Even short people will have problems standing inside one. Also, finding one with a lower mileage can be daunting. So be ready to own one with higher mileage. But still, they are a great option for stealth camping.
High Top Conversion vans
The High Top Conversion vans are full-sized passenger vans that have been converted to stealth camper vans. They come with lots of amenities and cool features including high tops for extra headroom, thus their name. Most of them come with comfortable captain chairs, leather seats, mood lighting, and a rear bench seat that folds into a bed. The high top also comes with lots of storage options that other vans don’t offer.
One downsize that come with High Top Conversion Vans is that if you intend to customize their interior, you’ll have to completely gut the whole vehicle, which can be a lot of work. Also, their weird shapes and fiberglass constructions restrict the installation of solar panels. Regardless of these cons, High Top Conversion vans offer versatility, affordability, and enough space for its users.
Sprinter vans have been in the market for a while now. They are popular for their interior height, long wheelbase, and boxier shape. Their shape makes them ideal for creating a spacious and functional living. Vehicles in this category include Mercedes and Dodger sprinters, Ford Transits and Dodge Pro-masters.
Unlike the minivans and cargo vans, these vans come with a lot of head rooms even for tall people. Their interior space is large enough to plan any type of layout. With their diesel engines, they offer more fuel efficiency and engine life. With all these, expect to spend a little more on the sprinter vans as they retail at higher prices than other campers.
If you’re tight on budget and don’t need lots of space, minivans are the best choices for you. Minivans are smaller than gull sized vans. However, you can squeeze the little space that you’re provided with and build yourself a nice and functional camper van. An advantage of minivans over other trailers is that they’re cheaper and have better gas mileage than other vans.
Designing your stealth camper van layout
Now we come to the most exciting part; designing your layout. The type of layout you design for your camper van will have a huge impact on your comfort, moving abilities, and level of storage. But before that, there are some things that you need to consider:
Determine your goals
Before planning on the layout to go with, you must first know what you intend to use your vehicle for. Some people might want to work while camping. With this, you might consider including a comfortable desk in your plans. If you’re planning on boondocking more, then you’ll require more space for water, a toilet, and a washroom.
Get time to look around at other buildings, Youtube, or Instagram for what you might like. Youtube and Instagram are good sources of inspiration. With whatever you decide to go with, remember that there is no wrong way of building your van. Also, you don’t need to spend loads of cash to live comfortably in your van.
Have a test run
Everything won’t turn out perfectly at first. You can, however, get a good start on your van life by taking your van out for a test run. Sleep on it for a few nights as you intend during your camping period and differentiate your fantasies from reality. During this time, you can sit down, contemplate, and think of the possibilities that you can do with your van. Ask yourself some of these questions:
- How many people will you be traveling with and how many beds do you need?
- Will you be working during this period, and thus will you need a desk or table?
- Will you create room for a toilet in the van?
- Will you hook up a sink?
- Are you planning to include a shower?
- How much water storage will you carry along?
- Will you be cooking inside or outside the van, or both?
- Will you require propane storage and ventilation?
- How much storage will there be for your clothing and personal belongings?
After getting answers to these, the next step is to make a list of large items that you plan on carrying along during your trip. These are inclusive of the following:
- Fridge or freezer
- Stove or oven
- Toilet, sink, and shower
- Propane tanks
- Water storages
- Table or desk
Make sure that you don’t forget to account for garbage and dirty laundry. These two are often forgotten. A bag full of dirty clothes will end up occupying large space. We also recommend that you carry along some sort of seats where you can rest your back comfortably. You can also bring along portable chairs that can be set outside.
Measuring your van
Once you’ve done all these, the next step transpires. This is to take rough measurements of your van. It will be more accurate and recommendable that you take the measurements yourself rather than searching online for the dimensions. For example, a sprinter van has different dimensions for varying lengths, heights, and wheelbases. Also, something else to put in mind is that your measurements are rough estimates and not exact figures. Vehicles aren’t perfect rectangles and might have some curvy corners.
Design your layout
The next step is to design your layout. Take a piece of graph paper then draw out your vehicle’s floor. You don’t have to be exact but be as close as possible. Mark the places where windows and doors are in the van.
Placing the objects
It’s now time to place the objects. Your mattress and bed will occupy the largest spaces, so it’s important to get them right. Other important items are gas tanks and plumbing placements. It’s advisable that you place gas tanks near doors or vents for safety purposes. Here are other tips to consider:
- Electrical components such as batteries and inverters shouldn’t be located next to fuel tanks.
- The inverter should be within your reach so that you can turn it easily when not in use. This will help you save a lot of energy.
- The refrigerator should have at least one or two inches of space around the vent to improve on the efficiency.
- You should have at least one water jug inside your van
- The vent fan should be located away from the window so that you can get maximum airflow.
- To save space, try to combine as many objects as possible. For example, a bed can double up as a couch or a desk. The trash bin can be placed under the seat, and the toilet can also double as a seat.
One important thing many people forget when designing their layout is weight distribution. Try to spread the weight as evenly as possible through the van. This will not only give you the best mileage but also will keep your tires from wearing out. The weight distribution is also important for choosing the materials to go with. Remember, your vehicle has a gross weight that you don’t want to exceed. Otherwise, you’ll be incurring a lot of repair costs.
3D modeling isn’t necessary, but it gives you the perspective of how your vehicle will look from other angles. One of the most popular 3D tools available is SketchUp. There is some learning entailed in the free program, but it’s quite easy.
Testing your layout
After everything is set and when you feel like you’re satisfied with your layout, the next step is to test it out. Grab some rolls of painter tapes and mark out the large objects on the floor of your van. With this, you’ll know how much or little space you’ll have to move around. If your design isn’t as you expected, don’t be afraid to scrapping everything out and starting a scratch. Perfection is important, and it might take more than one trial to achieve it.
Examples of common layouts
The design or layout that you decide to go with is personal and according to your needs and preferences. You’ll find out that all layouts may not fully satisfy your wants, but will at least meet the better part of it. We, however, have some few tricks and tips when it comes to the layout to settle for. Read through and decide which one best suits you.
Fixed Rear Bed Platform Layout
The Fixed Rear Bed Platform Layout is one of the most popular and widely used layouts, especially the Westy version of it. The Westy version has a bed that can be converted into a couch for the daytime purposes and also storage on one side. There are other different variations of this design which feature a bed frame which can be pulled out to full length. This is, however, dependent on the size of your vehicle.
This layout is simple and effective. One of its advantages and strengths is that it provides lots of storage space underneath the bed. There is a lot of space to store your working equipment, solar panels, tools, books, and even extra water. There is a drawback with this layout altogether. This ‘ton’ of space isn’t useful during the daytime and will leave your van being over cramped. If you possess large items that require storage, we recommend the fixed rear platform design.
Lengthwise Bed Layout
Just as its name implies, this layout features a lengthwise bed that is converted into a couch during the daytime and transforms into a bed during the night. The bed and storage are on one side of the van with the middle part being open right from the back to the front.
What makes us love this layout most is its easy and neat organization. This makes accessing your things to be easy. With lots of space left on one side, you can opt to install shelves and cabinets or even still a table. The underneath of your bed also provides additional storage space, and you can put your items over there. The ‘hallway’ at the middle of this van, however, can make the layout on the other side feel over cramped and congested. This is its only downside.
Convertible Dinette Layout
This layout is unique in its own way. The back of the van, in this layout, is the dining area during daytime and converts into the bed area during bedtime. You can opt to set the dinette on a raised platform then let space below be for storage purposes. This layout brings to the table lots of space as well as a neat organization. Its space isn’t, however, as much as the fixed rear bed platform layout.
This layout leaves no room for ‘dead space.’ The bed is convertible, which means that the entire space left is usable during the daytime. The downside with this layout is that the process of going to ‘night mode’ can be very tiresome not to say time-consuming. Also, its space isn’t as huge as the fixed rear bed platform layout. This can inconvenience you if you have large items such as bicycle for storage.
The kitchen behind the Cab Layout
You’ll notice that most Do-It-Yourself campervans separate the driver’s part with the rest of the van with a kitchen. This is the case with the Kitchen behind the Cab Layout. Its kitchen unit is located behind the cab section. What these layout offers are stealth and privacy. To maximize privacy, you can completely cover the cab and also increase the space at the back of the van.
Another great advantage with this layout is that it can go with any type of bed; be it convertible, fixed or dinette, all are ok with it. Place water connections and propane by the door to ease the process of refilling.
One limitation with this layout is that you can’t move from the back of the van to the cab, without exiting the van. This drawback cancels it a favorite for many. Most people love the ease and comfort of jumping back and forth in the van. To compensate for this, however, the van gives you lots of space and you can be creative with what to do with it.
Placing your kitchen
The layouts mentioned above aren’t fixed, and you can flip them back and forth, right and left. One question remains: Which is the best position to place the kitchen? Should it go behind the cab, or at the door? Well, each position comes with its advantages, and it depends on where your heart lies.
The advantage of placing your kitchen by the door is that refilling process for water and propane is easy. Putting your kitchen by the cab, on the other side, provides the van with an open and nice feeling. The kitchen is located by the driver’s seat comes with its level of privacy. This is as compared to placing it at the back. However, you will struggle to refill your propane and water.
If both of these don’t work for you, some vans come with kitchens which can be pulled out of the van using drawers. This enables you to cook outside freely and escape the smoke that can fill up the place when you’re inside the van.
Another essential factor to consider, you’ll all agree with me, is whether to have a bathroom or not. Before making up your mind, here are some drawbacks with bathrooms being inside your RV:
- Bathrooms occupy lots of space which you might not have.
- Bathrooms come with an unpleasant smell that will hinder your daily living.
- Bathrooms require you to deal with dumping your waste in one way or another.
What we would recommend to you is that you use public restrooms rather than having one in your RV or Camper. This idea might be intimidating, but it will save you lots of stress. Moreover, this is one of the fun and part of stealth camping. There are lots of public restrooms available, and wherever you go, you’ll be sure to come across one if not two or three.
If you’re pressed and need to go right now, you could always have a Nalgene water bottle in the van for this. The bottle is spill-proof and can hold maximum volume. Place it aside from the rest not to confuse it for drinking.
If you desire and want to have a bathroom with you, the option is always available. A full-blown RV toilet is very expensive to install and will require a blackwater tank. The process is also complex. To save you the hassle, there are some portable toilet options available. They are as outlined below:
These are also known as luggable loos. This is where you turn a bucket into your toilet. Align your bucket with a trash bag, and once you’re done with the business, you tie up the bag and dispose of it safely.
These are more expensive, but they are environmentally friendly. What happens is that you drop your ‘doodie’ then heap it with sawdust and the toilet will compost it naturally.
This toilet is small and comes with its own flash tank and also another separate tank for holding the waste. Chemicals are used to control the odor. They are relatively cheap, but they require you to dump your own waste.
Tips and tricks for stealth camping
Our guide won’t be complete without giving you a few tips and tricks for stealth camping. Stealth camping requires some subtle art, and not everyone can manage. Van life isn’t made for everyone, just the chosen few. So, if you plan on living in your van, stealth camping, for a very long time, you might want to consider our tips for a safe and successful adventure.
Keep your van clean
Most people don’t mind seeing a camping van parked on the streets. This is unless your van is rusted with lots of junk on the roof and dirty windows and door. This will definitely get them bothered. Keep both the interior and outside of your van washed and clean. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy.
Just put everything in order and don’t let trash out of hand. The first impression that your vehicle gives will help immensely with the public. If in case you get a knock from the residents or police, you’ll look like a normal and stable resident.
Leave early and arrive late
This is the second important rule of stealth camping; leave early and arrive late. It should be time for bed when you go to the park. Always ensure that you cover your windows and keep the lights out. This isn’t the time to cook your dinner or sit down and enjoy some Netflix movie. Rarely should you open the door or pull objects inside the van.
You can always have your dinner outside, somewhere else before returning to your van. This will help in minimizing the movements and also allow you to air out your van afterwards. Cover the windows of your van with curtains as soon as you arrive. You don’t want to have any reflections as it is shiny and attracts attention.
Make plans to go to the bathroom n your vehicle if need be. If this isn’t possible and you don’t think you can make it through the night, consider parking near a 24-hour gas station or store. With this, you can always run to the washroom and come back safely. Finally, don’t dump any trash outside your van. Keep everything in your vehicle, and you can look for some trash bin in the morning where you can dispose of them off safely.
Change your parking slots frequently
Change your parking slots frequently. Avoid parking in the same location two nights in a row. If you plan to stealth camp in the same city for a long time, map out seven to ten different locations, and rotate through them. If you’re ‘busted’ in one, cancel that location and don’t return there.
Another skill that you should and will get with time is finding a good parking location. For starters, you should seek out 24-hour business centers like Walmart and casinos. These places encourage night parking, as you will likely buy items from their stores. Call before arrival and confirm whether they allow for overnight parking. Not all, but many do. Also, remember not to set up camp in the parking lots, or you will be out of there in no time.
Walmart makes one of the best parking opportunities as they allow overnight parking in all their stores. They are normally opened 24/7, and so you’ll have access to their bathrooms and shopping items at your disposal. We, however, advise that you check in with the store manager before spending the night within the parking lot. In some areas, it is illegal to park there overnight, and so avoid any late run-ins with the security guards.
Stealth camping safety
Leaving early, arriving late and changing locations frequently will see you live your stealth camping life safely. But on top of that, there are other safety regulations that you to follow to be more on the safer side.
Be aware of your surroundings
Stealth camping entails you trusting your instincts. If a place doesn’t seem right, don’t park there. You should realize that you are in a vehicle and moving a few streets down isn’t difficult. If the parking slots available don’t seem safe, you can always count on and turn to legal stores. Here, you are assured of your safety.
Always park in areas with clear exits. Keep your doors locked and keys nearby; ready to take off if something unusual occurs. Stay inside your vehicle and don’t try to confront people loitering around too much. Also, park in well-lit areas such as under streetlamps. You can use window blockers so that it doesn’t get too bright inside your van.
Most break-ins on stealth camper vans are thieves trying to loot some free stuff. Well, securing your van to avoid such situations is pretty much easy. You can attack bolts on your doors that can only be opened from the inside. You could also opt to go for defense classes and equip yourself with some skills to protect yourself. However, in such classes, they will emphasize that the best way to protect yourself against harm is by trying to avoid them as much as possible.
Although carrying firearms is a great way of ensuring your safety, it’s not the smoothest way to go about it. Also, different states have different laws concerning the legalities of firearms. If you’re considering using pepper spray, remember that it’s 10% less potent as compared to other defense mechanisms. Also, there is a higher chance of the spray splashing back to you, which isn’t the best scenario when you’re planning to drive.
Knocks at night
When you stealth cam, there is a high possibility that you’ll get the dreaded night knock from the authorities. When this happens, there is no need to panic. Stay calm, open the door courteously, and respectfully. Don’t try to hide out in your van as the situation might turn out to be ugly. Most of the times, the police are normally checking on you because they got a call someone reporting a suspicious neighbor.
The police have a duty to enforce the law and have every right to knock at your door. They don’t want to kick you out but just to check on you. Be honest with them and let them know that you’re stealth camping and taking full advantage of your van. Nothing could go wrong when you do this. You will seldom get a ticket unless you’re illegally parked. You can ask them for better parking places. In case they ask you to move, don’t argue but do as they command.