I get asked many questions about vandwelling. One of the most frequently asked is "Where do you park without being bothered?" While there's no absolute set of guidelines, I'm more than happy to share about some of the places I park and what I look for.
The largest factor that determines where you park is what your van looks like. If your van looks like a cargo van, like mine, you may be able to find commercial and industrial areas to park. If your van looks like a normal passenger van or an RV like a Coachman, you may be limited to shopping and residential areas.
The trick that I have found works best is to hide in plain sight. While this may make you feel vulnerable at first, I can assure you that parking in dark, out of the way places is even more dangerous. I've had people try to break into my van when parked in these places and have never had anyone do so when parked in the open.
First, there are two general rules about parking that I've learned. If you're going to park somewhere for the night, make sure it's never the same place you parked to cook. If you go to one supermarket and open your doors to cook something on the stove or do laundry people and employees will spot you. This itself isn't too much of a problem, but if the van is closed up and hanging out later, it's obvious somebody lives there and the police will likely be called. Eat in one location, clean up, and then drive to another to sleep for the night.
The second rule is simply to never park in the same place more than one night in a row. You can circulate where you wish to park, but if the van stays in one spot too long, it draws unwanted attention and you may have someone investigate it, get a parking ticket, or get your van towed as an abandoned vehicle.
It's hard to describe, but you end up with a sixth sense about what is safe and what isn't. There's no magical checklist; it's something that you learn with time. But here are a few safe places I've learned to park for an evening in relative safety.
Wal-Marts are by far the best places to park, depending on city ordinances. Many of them are open 24 hours which is good if you need to run in and use the bathroom. They have private security patrolling the lot all night. They also market themselves as a de-facto rest stop for traveling RVers. How many times have you seen RVs and fifth-wheels in the parking lot overnight? They appreciate the business it brings in as long as you don't break out the barbeque and have a tailgate party.
If you don't want to make it obvious that you're living in the van, then don't park off to the side. Park right in the middle of all the other cars. This makes your vehicle look like it belongs to another customer or even better, an overnight employee. This works with Wal-Marts that aren't open 24 hours a day; most have several dozen people on their overnight staff and your vehicle will just blend in with the other employees. This trick also works at any 24 hour business or business that has overnight stockers.
24 hour businesses
The biggest examples of these where I live would be Walgreens or CVS. You'll always find some smaller stores that are open 24 hours a day. The trick is to make the vehicle blend in with the rest of the employees or customers who work there. Try to find a place that has no less than a dozen cars parked in its lot. You want an assortment of cars big enough to make you look inconspicuous to people who drive by and the employees inside. For this reason, avoid all night convenience stores like 7-11 and fast food restaurants except in very special circumstances.
Shopping centers with supermarkets
This is a good one if you can't find a 24 hour business to safely park at. A big box supermarket such as Albertsons, Stater Brothers, or Vons will usually be inside a larger center that encompasses a dozen or more other stores. You'll find many cars scattered around the communal parking lot, so you can park pretty much anywhere you want to blend in. Some of these places will also have wifi as well.
I've only done this a few times but it's worth mentioning here. If there's a strip mall that contains a bar, you can park by it in relative safety. The owners, security, and police will probably assume that you left your vehicle there and took a cab home and will pick it up the next day.
Near similar/fleet vehicles
This one really only applies in certain situations. If a business has about half a dozen vans parked in front of it for either cargo or hauling passengers, you may be able to park near them if your van looks similar enough. Just make sure that you set your alarm and leave before the employees start arriving to work in the morning.
I personally haven't used this one, but others I know have parked outside automotive repair shops overnight looking like just another vehicle to be worked on in the morning. Make sure you move before employees get there in the morning!
That's all for now! I'll post some more about this subject later on.