The barking of sea lions and slight crashing of the waves makes it sound like I am parked in the middle of the ocean. Though I’m not actually that close to the water, my anxiety is cranked to 11 and amplifying the sounds. Every footfall is somebody about to knock and every voice is that of a police officer. Slowly but surely though, as my heart slows, my mind eases I am able to fall into a light and fitful sleep for the night. This was my first night in a city sleeping in my van.

This not only explains my first night in Frieda, but how it was for most of the beginning days of my van life. Always cautious and concerned. Now? Well, two years have inner city van dwelling has got me to the point that I can pretty much sleep on the side of the highway if I felt like it. Long gone are the anxious sleepless nights I started with, and long gone are the days that I worried about where I might park.

White sprinter van parked in the city
Will Nicewongers van (Luna) hanging out in Ocean Beach

In the beginning, thinking about where to sleep is taxing and stressful. We all went through it in some stage or another. If you glance at r/vandwellers you’re sure to see something along the lines of “where do you sleep in the city?” or “Have you ever been knocked on?” pop up in your feed. But over time you’ll find that as long as you aren’t straight up camping in front of somebodies house, nobody really gives a shit about you.

Where Exactly Does a City Van Dweller Sleep?

Everyone has their own preferred places to konk out. Most are light commercial areas and a lot like downtown but me, personally, I am a fan of the suburbs. It’s important to note that this is strictly for sleeping and NOT hanging out. If you drive into a neighborhood at 9pm, stay inside the van, sleep, and drive out in the morning. Nobody cares. You just can’t sleep in front of the same house over and over again. Gotta mix it up.

Other than the peacefulness, one of my favorite aspects of sleeping in the suburbs is the coverage. Since neighborhoods typically have reasonable phone service I can watch a Netflix movie or some episodes of The Office before bed. Typically I just read, but I like to have the option of snuggling in with a movie if I feel like it.

A girl laying in a bed in a sprinter van with a cute dog
Lauren and Achilles in bed waiting for me to come snug and watch a movie

Tried and True City Sleep: Light Commercial Areas

Though I love the suburbs, due to convenience, I tend to stay in light commercial areas more than anywhere else. Commercial areas are the bread and butter of van dwellers. Not only will your van likely go unnoticed among all the other vehicles, but you’ll have easy access to coffee shops, gyms, or anywhere else that helps with the morning essentials. You can more about that in How I Poop and Shower if you have more questions.

Even with the surplus of vans and people, I would still not recommend staying in the same place for too long. Staying in a single location will always draw unwanted attention from small businesses, locals, or even police. So pick a couple of good spots and rotate them. I typically rotate around my favorite coffee shops or surf breaks and try to stay away from bars. Bars can be kind of annoying when they let out and people will often time lean on the van or try and sit on the back. It happens more than you think.

the city of ocean beach in all of its majesty

Sleeping in Industrial Sections

I try to sleep in heavy commercial or industrial areas as little as possible. Though they are filled with vans and RV’s, they are typically from the other type of van dwellers. This is where you usually find the vans that aren’t from functioning members of society and they tend to be kind of territorial of their little areas. On the bright side though, if you choose to park somewhere like this, you don’t have to move your van too often. Hell, your van probably doesn’t even have to work. Just push it forward 3 feet every month or so. Also, it goes without saying but beware of crime.

Why Not Sleep in the Heart of the City?

Speaking of crime. In my 2+ years of van dwelling, the only time I have had an issue has been in a downtown area. So, due to that reason, I avoid downtown like the plague.

I was parked in downtown San Pedro, Los Angeles, not far from a friends house. I was about an hour max into the night’s sleep when somebody punched the side of my van. Not knocked. Punched. Of course, Achilles and I both woke up. He started barking and I just sat there naked and confused. The assailant continued to rain blows on my van and even try the handles. He was repeatedly yelling “get the fuck out of the van” and other obscenities. I have no idea whats going on.

After I shake my head, let the adrenalin wake me up, and realize that I’m fed up with somebody assaulting my home. I yell out “Alright I’m coming out, and I’ve got a gun too!” Apparently, that was a enough to scare ‘em off. I threw some pants on, fired up the motor, and got out of there. That’s the last time I slept in a high crime area. I’d rather deal with bouche soccer moms thinking my van is an eyesore than random tweakers out for blood.

My Biggest Takeaways

two people sitting in a sprinter van that has been converted to a home
Me and Lauren parked in a light commercial area, just being ourselves

I think the main takeaway from the article is this: If you’re new to the vanlife or just thinking about it, sleeping gets easier and easier with time. The more you accustom yourself to the lifestyle, the more relaxed you’ll feel. And as you get more relaxed, you realize that you can park in a lot more places than you originally thought. Before you know it you’ll be sleeping on a 30-degree hill next to a noisy overpass with ease!

Second takeaway. If you are sleeping in a sketchy place, wear clothes. If you have to wake up in the middle of the night to defend yourself its a lot more awkward when you’re naked. I know this is a weird takeaway. However, if I sleep in a sketchy-ish place now, I feel a lot better with some clothes on!

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