Overnight Parking While Car/Van Living (Re-posted from 5/03)
A stealth car and a good parking space are the essential ingredients to pleasant car living.
So where should you park at night? My first instinct was that a remote and/or concealed area would be best. During the Nissan Sentra experiment, I started by parking in an abandoned lot- concealed by trees. This worked for a few days and then the police found me. The Athens police have always been quite nice.... it was very obvious that I was living in my car (this was in my "pre-stealth" days) but they didnt hassle me. They did tell me that I couldnt park on the lot. I was brash and asked where I could park without them bothering me. They suggested any public parking space in the downtown area... especially if it didnt have a meter. I thanked them and found just such an area-- only 100 feet from the lot I had been in.
The best parking spaces are, in fact, in populated areas... where your car will be one of many. Ideally, this should be in a multi-use area... a place with several different types of establishments. For example, my favorite area (where I have NEVER been bothered) is near a nightclub, an apartment building, a convention center, and office buildings. As a result, cars come and go at all hours. I could conceivably be at any one of these places, so no one pays attention.
Other multi-use areas might include: a 24 hour grocery, apartments, a 24-hour gym, a motel, a late night restaurant, a bar, etc...
But these aren't always easy to find,... especially in the suburbs.
In the burbs, I usually park in large apartment complexes. I choose a spot that is caddy-corner to busy entrances or balconies. I arrive and leave at off-peak times. Also, I rotate between 5-6 complexes... going to a different one each night. I did this for the last year in Georgia and have never been discovered. Busy motels, truck stops, state parks, campgrounds, and the like are decent for one-night, occaisonal stops... but not great for extended periods of time.
Of course, the ideal place is the driveway of a sympathetic friend. I had this option last summer and it was perfect.
A note about very bad places to park (other than empty lots): 1. Never park near a police station, as they are very observant of their immediate surroundings. 2. Never park in housing developments or upscale apartment buildings... again, these people tend to be paranoid and hyper-vigilant. 3. Never park where there are alot of children (in a school zone or daycare area, for example), as you may be mistaken for a stalker. 4. Don't park near banks or other high security areas, as again, these people are hyper-paranoid. 5. In general, don't tell friends or others about the locations you park in.
The Importance of Stealth When Car Living:
Average suburbanites (and the police who serve them) are a pretty nervous and fearful bunch. They are easily scared by anything which is strange or different. Car/Van living certainly falls into this category-- be it voluntary or involuntary. Therefore, it is very important to create a "stealth" vehicle for car living.
The first step in this process is to choose a model that does not stand out. I love VW vans as much as anyone... but to a cop they scream "hippy" (and therefore, harassment). I chose a Toyota Van for my most recent hobovehicle (dubbed "The Mystery Machine"), but even it is a little too uncommon. I recommend a "soccer-Mom" mini-van, a plain work van, or any run of the mill sedan or compact. You should remove all bumper stickers and other distinguishing marks. You want it to be as non-descript as possible.
Once you have a vehicle, pull out all rear seats.... this will create your living space. You can modify, insulate, and decorate this area as you wish. Some folks create elaborate and luxurious spaces, filled with: bunk beds, stoves, tables, appliances, lamps, coolers, cabinets, shelves, tapestries, and other decorations. Other folks are minimalists, content with a cot and a few plastic storage containers. I do highly suggest an elevated bed at the very least... as the floor of a car is quite hot in summer and quite cold in winter. A cot, or custom made bed, will do the trick and will make your nights MUCH more comfortable. Otherwise, do as you like, as this area will be completely hidden from view. [One important note- be sure to store illegal or suspicious items in opaque containers... in case the police take a peek inside. This includes drugs, drug paraphenalia, "subversive" books, weapons, etc...].
The next step is to block out all rear windows with dark black tinting (or use black spraypaint on the insides of the windows). You can seal some insulation board to the windows after tinting them... to block out all remaining light and to prevent drafts and heat transfer. If you choose to tint the front windows as well, be sure to investigate the laws in your state. Several states have strict regulations about the degree of tinting that can be used on front driver & front passenger side windows. Remember, the idea is to avoid attention... not draw police to you.
The last stealth step is to create a partition to hide the rear area from the driving area. I use a shower curtain rod that runs just behind the front seats. I hang a dark blue sheet from it (doubled) and can slide it open or closed quite easily. At night when I sleep, I slide the curtain closed. From outside, especially when its dark, you can't tell there's a curtain... it just looks like the rear area is in shadow.
In summer, I'll usually put a sunshade on the front windshield, to provide an extra bit of concealment.
With these modifications, I can park in populated areas and no one suspects that I'm living in the van. In this sense, the suburban lack of imagination works to your advantage. It would never occur to most people that someone would choose to live in their car,.. therefore, with a bit of modification, its quite easy to blend in....( even with a quasi-hippy van like mine).