When you think of van dwelling life, you probably envision camping in a van around beautiful forests or deserts, with scenic views and peaceful surroundings. And sometimes, that’s exactly how it is!
But what about when you need the basic amenities found in a city or town? Maybe a van breakdown means a few days in the mechanic’s shop, or running low on cell data means poaching Wi-Fi from a coffee shop until your monthly plan renews. Other times, you’re simply stuck in an area with no worthy off-grid camping options, so you find a parking lot to overnight camp in.
Sometimes, “urban” van dwelling in cities is necessary. And from my experience, most van dwellers hate it. Mainly because of the city noises and smells, potentially sketchy late night wanderers, the lack of privacy and lack of nature.
Personally, I don’t mind urban van dwelling. It’s a nice mix-up from my weeks-long stints in deserts or forests and reminds me that civilization still exists outside of my van life community. I also love treating myself to a fancy coffee that I don’t have to make or clean up after!
If you live camper van life and find yourself needing to spend a night or two in the city, read on to learn about the benefits and drawbacks of urban van dwelling.
The Pros and Cons of Urban Van Dwelling
When you are van dwelling in the city, you’ll inevitably find pros and cons to it. You’ll have easy access to life’s regular amenities and when you don’t have a permanent address, that can be really convenient. On the flip side, you’ll generally have less privacy and have to relocate camp spots every few nights in order to fly under the radar.
Overnight Parking in a City or Town
PRO: From my experience, finding overnight parking in a city or town can actually be easier than out in the boonies sometimes. This is partially because I’m picky with my off-grid overnight locations; I require cellphone coverage and no camping fees. And usually, being out in the boonies means giving up one of those two factors.
What’s more, during the summer, free dispersed camping areas can be crowded and difficult to find a camp spot. When you leave a great camping spot to explore for the day, there’s a good chance it won’t be available by the time you get back. This can be especially frustrating if you end up driving many miles down dirt roads to get back to this place, only to find it taken.
Snag the camp spot of your dreams
In the city, I know I at least always have the option of staying in a hotel parking lot. Walmarts, Flying J gas stations, Cabela’s, and Cracker Barrels are other solid options. I know I can leave these places for the day and still be guaranteed a spot by the time I come back that night. If I’m in a really small town without those establishments, simply parking on the side street of a suburb or public park usually works. Hopefully I’m not creeping out the neighbors in the process…
CON: Side streets and parking lots are noisy. I’ve heard strange conversations, screeching cars, garbage trucks, trains, and other city noises while trying to get a good night’s sleep. One time, I was sleeping in a hotel parking lot where a group of young kids pulled in next to my van late at night. They all got out and one of them either kicked, or “grinded” off my camper van, because I felt my van shake. Then I heard them discuss how they’d all go in one at a time, as not to draw suspicion for the partying they were about to do in a hotel room. Once they left, you can bet I did too.
Besides the noise, you lose the ability to have any privacy outside your van. Be prepared for peeing in a jar, keeping audio levels low on your Netflix show, and keeping your interior lighting dim so as not to draw attention. You do not want people knowing you’re sleeping in there for the night. You also don’t want to spend more than 1-2 nights in the same hotel parking lot–don’t want anyone catching on!
Gas Usage and Amenities
PRO: Depending on the size of the city, you’ll probably be driving less than you would be to get out into the boonies. This is nice for obvious reasons–less gas spend so you can save money. You can still pack your day with unique adventures without driving miles into rural areas, then backtracking to a camp spot for the night. Some of my favorite (and usually free) in-the-city adventures include:
Hitting up a public beach (whether that’s a lake or ocean)
Visiting public parks
Hiking popular (and typically short) dog-walking or running trails
Going to the drive-in (not free, but cool if there’s one around!)
Touring local museums (they’re usually cheap!)
Visiting a public library
Googling what a specific town or city is known for, then checking that out
CON: Things can start to feel very repetitive after a few days of making the rounds. For example, I once stayed in a city for over a week waiting for my cell data plan to renew for the month. Every day I would grab a coffee, go to the public library to work, then head to the gym for a workout and shower. From there, I’d get dinner and watch shows in my van. This was FABULOUS for the first two or three days. Then, I started to feel like I was in the twilight zone. Without friends around or anything to mix up my day, things started to feel hollow and boring, especially going “home” to such a small space.
I have found that urban van dwelling can amplify feelings of loneliness more than if you were van camping out in nature. This is because you’re surrounded by people all day, but none that you actually know. You have many short, meaningless conversations with service people about what groceries you’re buying or wishing them a good day. There’s something about being out in nature secluded though, that makes you feel connected to earth, and not alone. That is irreplaceable.
Wifi and Internet Connection
PRO: One of the best things about urban van dwelling is that van dwellers can poach free wifi from all sorts of public places so they can save their precious hotspot mobile data. This is especially convenient for van dwellers who work remotely. You can change up your work location every day–for example, test out a new coffee shop each day so you can get to know the city and not “overstay” your welcome at one location.
CON: The only con about poaching wifi is sometimes it may require you to first buy an item from the place you are poaching from. For example, you should buy a coffee (or some kind of food/drink item) from a coffee shop if you’re going to post up there all day and use their wifi. In this way, it may not feel like “free” wifi…
Urban Van Dwelling with Pets
PRO: After talking to my van dwelling friends with pets (and living in a van with my own cat), unfortunately there aren’t a lot of pros to urban van dwelling with a pet. The select pros are that you can bring them into pet-friendly stores or breweries to escape the heat on a hot summer day, or take them to pet-friendly parks so you can let them explore outside without the worries that come with letting them off leash in the wild great outdoors (predators, running away, etc).
CONS: Your pets have less freedom to wander around, so you either need to leash them or keep them in the van. And for those traveling with dogs, you’ll have to find places where they can go to the bathroom and stretch their doggy legs.
Urban Van Dwelling in Bad Weather
PRO: Depending on the type of bad weather, it’s usually safer to be in a city than out in the boonies when it rolls through. Cities can offer better protection from the elements than your little living space can and, should you get stranded, offer better survival resources.
Getting stuck in a severe storm when you’re offgrid camping is no joke. From high winds that could literally blow you away, torrential downpours that turn your surroundings into deep, thick mud (and potentially wash out the road you came in on), you can get yourself in a serious pickle. If you don’t have the proper food, water and shelter supplies on-hand (and/or cell service), this situation can quickly become dangerous.
CON: If you’re van dwelling in a city to ride out bad weather, it can get pretty boring and repetitive. You’ll probably end up visiting the same establishments daily (ie grocery, gym, coffee shop to work in) and it starts to feel like the twilight zone (trust me, I’ve done it).
Bathrooms (and Showers)
PRO: When you’re urban van dwelling in the city, you have access to all public restrooms, retail store or restaurant bathrooms, library bathrooms, your gym’s bathrooms…that’s pretty nice. It saves you from having to use stinky and/or dirty toilet pits at campgrounds, or filling up the portable toilet in your own van. What’s more, nothing is worse than trying to dig a cat hole at a camp site in really hard soil when nature is calling and you gotta GO.
It’s also nice to know that amenities such as laundromats and gym showers are nearby. Instead of rationing out your limited hot water supply, you can enjoy as many showers as you like at your local gym (assuming you have a gym membership).
You don’t have to travel far to refill on water at Walmart, do your laundry at a laundromat, or get a shower at the gym. Obviously, for those not worried about getting dirty, these aren’t necessities. But I say this from experience–staying at a camp spot without shade and without river access is the worst in the summer! The only way to cool off and rinse off the sweat is by using your precious, limited water supply.
CON: For anyone who has a fear of pooping in public, then you may dread having to use a shared public restroom while urban van dwelling.
Nearby Food Options
PRO: Amenities are close-by–this is a given. Restaurants, coffee shops, and even entertainment options are within a short driving distance. You don’t have to get tired of eating those select few items that are slowly going bad in your cooler or fridge. What’s more, you can take in the “vibes” of a new location by strolling through its downtown or checking out local breweries and restaurants.
CON: You spend more money! The temptation to go out to eat exponentially rises when options are abound and your cooler food isn’t making the cut. It’s also more difficult to find private areas to set up your dinner-making station outside your camper van, thus encouraging a restaurant visit instead. And even if you find a nice parking lot to make dinner, somehow eating dinner with Walmart as your backdrop instead of a beautiful mountain range or river, is not quite as enjoyable. And be prepared for a LOT of stares.
The Urban Van Dwelling Lifestyle
Overall, urban van dwelling can be just as rewarding as off-the-grid van life. While many think of #vanlife as strictly being out in nature, cities and towns offer many unique experiences if you’re willing to stick around.
Urban development give us a glimpse into the culture that has evolved within these areas; the little nuances of everyday people and everyday life that the great outdoors can’t always provide. And for those who travel full time in camper vans, eventually you’ll experience urban van dwelling–will you make the most of it?