Some Urban Camping Thoughts…

Jenny spending the night with me while work camping.

Hello and welcome to the blog!  Things are going pretty well as we get into the autumn season.  It’s still a muddy mess in trout country… heck, most everywhere in Iowa.  We’ve had round after round of heavy, multi-inch rainfalls.  Crops are mature and have no need for water; most of the harvest is stuck in the muddy fields with nothing to absorb (“transpire”) the water.  Rivers are still high.  Trout streams are a muddy mess, the stocking trucks unable to replenish them.  But we count ourselves lucky compared to those affected by hurricanes.  God Bless those tough folks so affected.

The work trekking is still happening a couple nights a week.  It’s saved gas and wear and tear on the van.  I’ve lined up reliable, safe places to camp without being awakened or chased away.  So far so good – nobody has said a word.  At the same time, I’ve seen some people do stuff that makes me shudder.  I wanted to share some places where one might camp unnoticed and undisturbed… as well as some thoughts about how to remain less noticeable.

DISCLAIMER:   These are my thoughts about vehicle camping.  It may or may not be safe or legal in your area.  This material is only provided for your entertainment.  Be safe and legal.


REST AREA — I really like the nearby rest area for camping.  Along the interstates in Iowa the rest areas are open 24 x 7 and many are staffed 24 hours a day.  The employees are generally older folks and are very understanding.  There are a number of people who sleep overnight once or twice per week.  Benefits include immaculate restroom facilities, good parking lot lighting, free wi-fi, and vending machines.  The downside is a rest area can be noisy with large trucks making noise.  The maximum stay is 24 hours.

TRUCK STOPS — Near where I work there are several truck stops.  All are “overnight friendly”.  I love the Pilot (Flying J) and Kwik Star stations, as well as Casey’s convenience store.  These venues provide off-street, private parking.  You can’t beat a deal like that and anything you need is just a few steps away.  All have Wi-Fi, although Pilot makes you pay for Internet (not a problem when I use the smartphone as an Internet hotspot).

LAUNDRYMAT — A 24 hour laundromat works great for an overnight stay.  I’ve stayed at a couple and never had a problem.  Since they are on private property, the cops won’t bother you.

ADULT SHOP — You read that right!  I don’t think I’ve ever read of anyone camping here but we’ve got one not far from where I work.  It’s open 24 hours, is well-lit, and on private property.  I’ve not been to one in a very long time but it looks like a perfect spot to stealth camp overnight in a pinch.  It would be a good idea to check in with the attendant, buy a Coke, and make sure the vehicle is locked.

WAL-MART — It’s not my favorite place to camp.  Everyone knows you’re camping there and individual stores’ policies vary somewhat but I’ve never had a problem other than it can be a little noisy at times.  Overall, they are well-lit and pretty safe in most locations in Iowa.

 APARTMENT LOT — I work close to a large apartment complex rented mostly to students.  One of these times I plan to camp at the apartment complex.  It’s likely nobody will even realize the van is there for that reason.

 24 HOUR GYM — Over the years I spent quite a few nights camping at Anytime Fitness.  When things become permanent, I’ll likely rejoin the gym.  Free camping is one good reason!

FRIENDS — I’ve got a handful of friends who have offered to permit the van on their property.  A couple of said friends have even offered the couch during the cold months.  Since it’s only a couple nights a week I’ll probably take them up on it.


Parking too close… While in rest areas, don’t park right by the front door.  Employees would rather you keep the first few spots open for bathroom traffic.  I used to park at the far end and the one very nice lady work told me I can park a lot closer, just not too close.  Wal-Marts always seem to want you to park farther away – it’s usually quieter there anyway.

Don’t be a bum…  When at truck stops or Wal-Mart, I try to buy something and not be a bum.  It might just be a soda pop or a light supper.  But I like to use a rewards cards and see the same employees over and over, greeting them by name.  Even when doing parking lot camping, I look clean and presentable when entering an establishment.  A friend of mine who teaches psychology calls this “impression management”.  It’s surprising how many scruffy people you see vehicle camping.

Sunrise / Sunset…  Lately I’ve been arriving at the overnight spot after the sun goes down and generally departing early before full daylight.  I think it helps a lot with the stealth aspect… and prevents the curious from seeing inside when the van doors are open.  I’ll often crawl inside while the van is dark, only turning the lights on after the doors are shut.

How do you define large? In this town the definition is fuzzy and could be interpreted to mean a van so equipped.

No city streets.. These new signs make me uneasy.  I did some research and while the city code is pretty screwed up; they tried so hard to outlaw any type of vehicle that you can sleep in that the code seems to contradict itself.  The signs are located on a road near a Pilot station that allows parking on their private property.  I won’t park on a city street for that reason.  Even though Kwik Star recommends parking on the road in front of their station, I don’t want to be awakened by a curious officer.  If I can’t sleep IN the Kwik Star lot, it’s better to move on rather than risk it.

Steamy windows … It’s getting cold enough that by morning the windows are starting to steam up a bit.  It’s a dead giveaway.  For that reason, it’s obvious someone is camping inside.  It’s a good idea to avoid any public streets or unfriendly private locations (i.e. hotel parking lots, apartment parking lots) where overnight stays might not be welcomed.

Don’t draw attention…  I used to have to put up a TV antenna and keep a door open to show off the vandwelling.  That was nice in the early days but as a person who uses the vehicle for work camping, it’s more desirable to remain incognito and blend in.  A couple weeks ago I saw some hillbillies with a big white van with all the doors open, lights on, and a dog running around off-leash.. The kids were playing barefooted in the parking lot.  All that was missing was banjo music… and this was in an interstate rest area!

That’s about it for now.  One last thing to mention… On Wednesday night I was work trekking.  Early in the evening I took a diversion to a neighboring city and took in the movie “Gosnell” about an abortion doctor that did some horrible things and was convicted for his crimes.  The movie was very well produced and I am glad I went.  Dean Cain and the other actors and actresses did a great job.  Bring Kleenex tissues with you….   Most of the movie was about the prosecution itself;  as a fan of Perry Mason, I thought this was a terrific court drama.  It also followed the actual case in painstaking detail.

Take care and thanks for visiting!  Safe and happy camping!

Brad and Jenny
Jones County, Iowa

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About VanTrekker

I am a former vandweller in Eastern Iowa who, for several years (off and on), lived in a 2007 Chevy cargo van. I still travel around Iowa with my tortoise shell cat, Jennifer Stefanie. Our favorite place to explore is the Country Heritage Community, the four far northeastern counties of Iowa (Clayton, Winneshiek, Allamakee, and Fayette). Ride along as we fish in pristine trout streams, enjoy fine home cooked camping meals, and meet new people. It's all possible on a shoestring budget. Happy travels always! --- Brad, the "Van Trekker"

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