You’ve decided (or are forced) to start a life as an urban camper. An adventure is awaiting you! No more noisy neighbors, annoying landlords, and house or rental payments that drain your bank account fast than you can say ‘Damn!’. Before you break out into your mad happy dance, be aware that there are some new challenges you have to deal with. Once these are taken care of, you can dance and celebrate your freedom.
Even though owning a vehicle makes life as a hobo much easier, the question where to sleep remains. This guide will provide you with some insights regarding suitable parking locations for the night.
How to find a good spot
No matter where you want to settle down for the night, you will need to employ two crucial methods in order to ensure a safe and undisturbed slumber: Scouting and Rotating.
Scouting means to observe and analyze your potential night camp for a bit. I recommend doing so during different times of the day, as it will give you a better impression of your ever changing surroundings. Things you want to look out for are: homeless camps, cops and security guards, traffic flow (pedestrians and vehicles), and suspicious vehicles. Personally, I keep my distance from homeless camps as they a) tend to be frequented by people I don´t want to be around and b) bring unnecessary attention to my vehicle. In addition, I pay close attention to other hobos and look for drug dealers who run their business out of their vehicle. Interestingly enough, drug deals usually happen in nice cars. So, don´t just eyeball the rusty ´89 Toyota Corolla rolling by, but be aware that shady things happen in all kinds of vehicles (and houses).
Unless you´ve got a nice friend who lets you park on her property, you will find that being tolerated is about as good as it gets. Depending on where you live, residing in your vehicle may be illegal and you can be bothered and ticketed by the police. Even if there are no laws against homelessness in your community, you may still not be allowed to park overnight at most places. It is important to rotate spots at least every couple of nights, because it a) helps keep suspicions away from you and your vehicle (i.e. people won´t suspect you´re a homeless person roughing it in your car), b) makes you much more anonymous, and c) it keeps people from noticing you enough to bother you.
Where to find a good spot
In general, signs explicitly stating “NO overnight parking” mean just that. Unless you are really desperate or know that this rule is not enforced, parking there is simply not worth the risk. It may seem counterintuitive, but try to park somewhat close to other vehicles. If you are the only vehicle on an otherwise empty street, you are going to stick out like a sore thumb. This may attract cops and, so I´ve heard, car thieves. I´ve never been bugged by the police or a thief, and nobody has ever tried to rough me up either. I attribute this to my constant awareness, rotating spots, and scouting. Also, a gun, taser, knife, pepper spray, etc. can also add a sense of security IF you know how to use your weapon of choice.
Here is a list of spots that have proven themselves to make for a good night´s sleep. Note that these places are not intended as permanent residences nor should you hang out there during the day (except for the first one).
National Forest: Although regulations vary, most National Forests I´ve ever been to allow camping for up to two weeks at a time. Be aware that you may have to pay a fee if you choose to stay on a designated campground. I prefer the open wilderness. Make sure to inform yourself regarding current rules and regulations (fire bans, bear attacks, vehicle restrictions, etc.). Don´t forget – be bear aware and drown your camp fires. Also, don´t litter!
Walmart: Yes, good old Walmart has become the spot for many homeless individuals lucky enough to posses a vehicle. Unfortunately, these stores can also become hot spots for drug dealers, trashy people, and drama. On the upside, parking here ensures 24/7 access to a climate controlled environment, food and other goods, as well as restrooms. Again, scouting will help you determine which Walmart is suited for your needs and which ones to avoid. Be aware that not all Walmarts allow overnight parking. Visit this website to figure out which ones don´t.
Kmart: I have yet to confirm this one, but I´ve heard that Kmart permits overnight parking. Since Kmart closes during the night, I assume that the parking lots remain relatively empty and thus make for a quiet night.
Neighborhoods: I am not a huge fan of hiding myself inside my vehicle in a I-work-for-the-government-fashion, and thus usually avoid these areas. If you have to sleep in the midst of a residential neighborhood, be aware that you have to be absolutely invisible. If you hang out in your car with the radio on, your feet on the dash, and makeshift curtains covering your windows, you will most likely be asked to leave. Try to blend in and park next to the side of the building rather than in front of someone´s window or front door. People will notice a new car in front of their window much faster than one parked by the side of the house. Things that could give you away are fogged up windows, the look of your vehicle (trash inside, an excessively dirty car, etc.), lights and movement inside (cell phone, laptop, etc.), and the vehicle moving when you move. It is crucial that you consider your surroundings carefully! What seems like a good place to park, may become a nightmare the next morning when hundreds of children come running by your vehicle because you parked next to an elementary school.
Truck Stops: If you are close to a busy highway, you may have decent truck stop close by. There you have access to restrooms, food and some goods (pricey though), and even pay showers. The downside is that trucks will be coming and going pretty much all night and some light sleepers may find this disturbing. I´ve never been easily disturbed by noise during the night, and these days I find the sound of cars coming and going rather soothing. Except for car alarms. Seriously. Every single night I have ever spent at a Walmart, there was at least one brain-dead human being who horribly failed at the simply task of unlocking and entering their own vehicle. Shame on you. Yes, you.
Churches and Local Homeless Shelters: Some churches and shelters will look the other way and let the houseless sleep on their property.The response I got when I asked a volunteer if overnight parking is permitted at the shelter, was something like: “Well, technically not. But just don´t park at the same spot every night”. I tried this once, but left because I realized that while I can defend myself against one or two people, I wouldn’t stand a chance against a whole group. And grouping together seemed to be ´the thing´ to do at that particular location.
Unique Places: Every town has its own unique structure and thus offers different options for overnight parking. Sometimes hotel parking lots make a great sleeping spot, other times not so much. Areas close to rail roads can work great if you are able to tolerate the occasional train. Remote country roads may lead to a little dirt dead-end that will work just fine. Be creative!
A Word (or two) on cleanliness
When I am circling an area trying to find a place to sleep and see spots littered with empty fast food containers, the random sock, and all kinds of unidentifiable liquids, I would like to collect these items and dump ´em right into the car (or backpack) of the person who left them there. You wonder why the homeless are being frowned upon? Anti-social behavior, unnecessary drama, and yes, leaving a disgusting mess for someone else to pick up. This is precisely what makes us hobos different. We found a niche that allows us to roam freely, while still traveling within different societies. And we know, for the most part, how to behave and show gratitude. No matter where you find a good night´s sleep, whether that be in the wilderness or in a Walmart parking lot, pick up after yourself.