If you’re after some cheap San Francisco thrills – consider Guerrilla Camping. It’s risky, sure. It’s dirty indeed, but it’s free. That’s what makes sleeping in our van, our San Francisco lodging of choice.
This method of stay is also called Wildcamping or Urban Camping. They all refer to sleeping in your car or conversion camper, on the streets, incognito.
Whether you’ve done it or are thinking of doing it, guerrilla camping in the inner city is a viable and frugal way to travel. We camped in our super stealth Chevy, a partially converted “camper van.” It has a bed, curtains, some storage for our things, and four wheels. It’s a great guerrilla vehicle.
San Francisco is a top destination with everything you’d want to experience. It has great food, a great skyline, street wizards, abandoned panties, spray-can art, and chimps in little cute hats that play tricks on you for a dollar. The only things missing are affordable, inner-city camp spots.
Unfortunately, the “closest to the city” campgrounds can be very expensive. They leave you broke and stranded. Your budget has a snowballs chance in hell of surviving a San Francisco trip if you don’t find alternative way to sleep here.
So, if you have a small budget and a vehicle you can camp in, well, then you’ve found your San Francisco lodging solution. Get funky, strap some curtains on your car and visit San Francisco, guerrilla-style.
How to Guerrilla Camp:
1. During light hours: Scout out your night-time guerrilla camp spot.
Tips: Choose a level parking space. Make sure there are a few streetlights around. Scope the street for unsavory characters that would make you uncomfortable. Read all signs and pay attention to street sweeping hours. If RVs are already parked there you might be ok. Plan one night per location only.
2. Arrive at your pre-scouted spot NO EARLIER Than 10 PM!!
3. PARK and SECURE your vehicle. Don’t use lights inside. Sleep tight.
If you get a knock be courteous, smile, and leave. (have a plan b if you’re a worst case scenario person)
4. In the morning, LEAVE before 7 AM or before your neighbors wake up.
5. RELOCATE to freshen up if possible. (See whore bath).
6. Hit a cafe or coffee shop where you can PEE, of course you’ll EAT… and then start your urban TREK.
7. Rinse and repeat in a NEW SPOT.
Beware the pitfalls of lodging without a proper bathroom:
It’s 6am, you awake in your Guerrilla camp spot and realized you gotta go!
Your FREE OPTIONS are limited before 7am and after 7pm. The city parks, including Golden Gate Park, Embarcadero and the Beach area have toilets. (Locked after 7pm till 8am).
Ok, before you get excited, these options are for the desperate. They’re dirty, usually “in-use” by someone who is living there or “renting it by the hour.” Soooo, they might give you herpes but in a pinch they’ll save you from Kidney stones. If there is an “attendant” asking for money, just give them a dollar, okay?
Your BEST OPTION is to enjoy some local coffee or a good meal somewhere. Heck, you saved big on your nights sleep, why not. All sit down spots have bathrooms.
Your STAND-BY OPTION is an emergency Pee bag, sold at WalMart. Poop bags are available too.
Extended weekends when a shower becomes essential.
Your FREE OPTION is the “Whore Bath” or “Italian Spit bath” etc. Is a quick fix and when done daily, MAY extend your freshness for the duration of your trip. Google it if you need explanation.
Your BEST OPTION is your Gym. Clean, abundant, etc. If you have a membership, you’re in it to win it.
Your STAND-BY OPTION is a Truck Stop. A bit outside of the city, but if you’re in need they’ll be there. They’re clean, safe and worth the $5-$8 bucks.
Your WORST OPTION are Public Pools. They’re cold and the showerheads are on public display. At 35 years old, we stood out. Knee biters and senior citizens make getting naked or touching/washing your private parts impossible and a crime.
Guerrilla Camp Spots you might take note of:
- O’Farrel & Pierce (Lat: 37.782803 N & Lon: 122.436377 W)
- Sunset Beach on HWY Access road at Lincoln. There were other RVs parked up this street, but there are “No Habitation” signs posted. We noticed this in the morning, after we slept there. Ooops.
- Webster & McAllister, Near the School
- Hubbel Street (word from some locals)
- On Geary, Near the Park and Japantown (we seen another camper parked there)
- Front & Pacific (Business Park Mall) Until 9am
Laws. In some areas, mostly by the ocean, there are signs posted that read; “Habitation in Vehicle Prohibited 10PM – 6AM. Violators subject to Fine and or Arrest PC SECS. 97-98.” Abide by these signs. Don’t give residents or business reason to put up more.
Obey street sweeping and parking signs. Getting towed will run you much more than a hotel.
- Where have YOU successfully “Guerrilla camped?”
- If you haven’t, WOULD YOU think about doing it?
- Are HOSTELS an option when traveling with a mate of the opposite sex, a boyfriend/girlfriend, or spouse?
- Hey, urban-bound RVers (that don’t have big bucks or big rigs), do you feel us on this?
- Does this post offend you?
We are not responsible for your tickets or misfortunes. Park and camp at your own risk, like we do. However, you CAN share with us. We’ll cry in our beer together, or laugh and cheers together, in honor of good road tripping.
29 responses to “Urban Camping: San Francisco “Guerrilla-style””
Veteran of street parking/camping/living, here. Did it for approximately five years in the ’99 – ’04 range. With the hell I’ve been through since, I look back on those days with pure fondness. It ain’t a bad way to go.
Here are my tips:
*RVs ask for trouble. They’re not worth it, since they cause the user to be immediately pinned for what s/he’s doing. No stealth in that. They are a magnet for cops, since it is RVs that draw the most complaints. A covered truck (preferably, over all else) or van will give you space without drawing heat.
*Don’t park within the many “scenes” you’ll find around town. A common rookie mistake is to believe that the presence of others means it’s an “OK” spot with the PD, etc. That’s not true. It’s most likely due for a sweep, in fact. The police are complaint-based when it comes to the issue, and the presence of many campers means it’s almost certainly the target of frequent complaints. So stay away.
*Get window covering/sun-shade type material to cover while you’re out and about. Thieves will be far less likely to chance it if they believe someone may be inside. This trick served me well during my stint.
*Move frequently (rarely stay in a place more than 24 hours) and keep it up as you find a good rotation of spots that will serve your needs. You’ll find them, believe me. And, as mentioned: watch those parking signs.
*Know basic mechanical skills. City College may be a good place to learn some of that, as it was for me back in the day, while also providing a great area to park! There were a few of us hanging around CCSF Evans Campus back in 99 or so. Good guys, and we all became great mechanics.
*My advice is to ignore PD knocks. If you follow the above pointers, it’s unlikely that’ll happen, but be prepared just in case. The problem with answering a knock is that it may lead to your being ticketed. Even though those tickets are usually tossed, the record will stand. So (in my opinion) it’s best not to allow the process to begin in the first place. Just stay silent and still and they’ll move along in very short order.
*Have fun. Enjoy some peace of mind. It’ll all come down dashing again for you someday – trust me – and you’ll be left only with the memories. So make them good ones.
I love you guys and gals. Stay safe in SF.
Another great place is Marin St. Off of Evans in the industrial area of S.F. Fair warning though it’s a community of homeless tweakers but hey that’s not so bad if you happen to get high as well. For the most part everyone is respectful and mind their own business. Just make yourself known and you’ll be fine. Don’t leave your RV unattended though either. The cops will not bother you 100% guaranteed down there. Neither will any parking patrol. It’s RV central for a reason.
Has anybody thought of parking in a storage unit? While living in a box truck? Could you do this? Has anybody tried? It’s like $80 a month you would leave before they open and arrive after they close.
I have been deciding to get a Apache Pop Up Camper to live in while I work remotely for 6 months in San Fransisco.
Do you have any recommendations as to where good small RV and small car parking would be?
I am open to driving 50-100 miles outside of San Fransisco.
I’m mostly looking for dispersed camping and free camping!
It will be myself and my service dog!
Are you guys still doing this? If so, what changes have you noticed in the last year or so regarding the po po, safety and restrictions?
Just bought an RV to travel in a few months but plan on working our jobs in SF till then. Would appreciate the input!
I do a lot of car camping when traveling around California for work. And my work sends me all over the state!
So… to pocket the hotel money I save… I’ve gotten creative with “Car Camping”.
The best fall back plans are rest areas. You are allowed to rest in your vehicle for 8 hours ( though I’ve never even been looked at funny if I oversleep. They have restrooms, CHP patrols so they have security and some have vending machines. ( there is one without vending machines just over the bridge into Sausalito on the NB side of the 101) .
24 Hour Fitness. Get a membership. .. it’s pricey initially… but well worth it. Free parking any time of day(or night) for sleeping, showers and towels and even getting some exercise in…or just soaking in a hot tub! ( meeting good people a bonus ) security is pretty much built in… athletic people getting in and out of their cars at all times is a pretty good deterrent for out of shape tweakers… and offer good signs of resistance to almost everyone else.
If you are up for a drive from the bay area ( and Sacramento too ) head out towards Lake Tahoe along the 50. Turn left on Icehouse just before you get into the really mountainous part. Turn left at the top of the hill (Peagrove I think is the name) then right on Bryant Springs. Once you pass the free boat launch right after crossing the dam there are a few FREE camp sites! -El Dorado National Forest is the last national park to have “Dispersed Camping”. You should get a campfire permit ( free and good for 1 year… mostly just has the rules on it ). If the camp grounds are closed find an offshoot driving rd and pull over.
Ok… tints are great…. curtains attract attention…. but if it works for you…. hey…. it works! 🙂
Oh… and I do this in a Volvo station-wagon… without tints.
Almost every National Forest has dispersed camping, not to be confused with National Parks.
Any suggestions for stealth camping in the East Bay, Oakland area? Thanks for the great tips!
Yes…24 Hour Fitness I think would be safest for you… especially if you aren’t doing this with a “significant other”.
Parking all hours of the night… surrounded by plenty of athletic men ( and women ) should provide the best security for you.
Open 24 hours ( and with a membership ) you can pee, poop, toot and shower whenever your hearts content.
I’m currently urban camping out of necessity with my tinny tiny little girl. Talk about stress AND the need for stealth. I’ve asked a few “officials” (zero cops) if this is illegal and the word is it’s not. The unified school district has explained that this type of situation isn’t even considered a “hardship” due to the amounts of homeless families doing the same (or worse in the parks with no shelter)!! So, I say you all who take care and treat your nightly neighbourhood sleeping spot of choice with respect are good. :). Still, remaining as incognito as possible is vital. However, I’m new to this at only 3 months in so what do I know?
However, I do have a tip which I’ve not seen anywhere online regarding tips and tricks to covert and comfortable car camping. It’s called Insta Tint for your vehicle!! This stuff is pretty awesome and super cheap for what protection it provides. Here’s a link: http://www.walmart.com/ip/Auto-Expressions-Insta-Cling-Window-Tint-Extra-Dark-5/16672493
You can cut to size and take on and off with ease. The best part is no one can see in and you can see out (with the aid of street lamps)! SF has no limit on tint for the back seat windows, but it’s good to check your local tint laws regardless and buy the percentage accordingly.
Lastly, I’d add to the list of info by saying that you’d be amazed at his easy it is to “camp” in a regular sized vehicle overnight in the more expensive neighbourhoods like SeaCliff or Pacific Heights and obviously it’s quite safe there. Out by Outer Richmond and the VA Hospital police patrol so I’d say it’s pretty safe they too. The best part is the consistent ease of finding free parking, no matter the time of night. With my little girl, safety is paramount and worth the risk of parking in areas such as these. And I have to say, its a bit a mind fuck to wake up to such beauty every morning considering how dire of straights we’re in. Its been said, if you want to be successful you have to surround yourself with those who are living that kind of success. A girl can dream, and this one dreams big! Take Care out there and Be Well!!
i often ‘urban camp’ from Seattle to Florida, Minnesota to California.
best 2 tips i have:
1. Dennys and ihop restaurants are open all night, and I’ve never seen one object to you overnighting (one night).
2. Always buy something from the business whose parking lot you are enjoying, whether a restaurant or a walmart
And keep the receipt it’s a good alibi !
I am currently on a two week long roadtrip through California, and this has been my first experience with urban camping! My boyfriend and I really wanted to travel and have the freedom of not sticking to a schedule and also without the expense of hotels and whatnot so we rented a vintage VW camper bus, which has been great so far! We have successfully camped in LA, Santa Monica, and Santa Cruz- and are heading towards San Francisco so this article was hugely helpful. We had the best luck parking in quiet residential areas. My tips are: Park somewhere else and do any vehicle-sleeper coversion you have to, like pull the bed out before you get yo your site, so once you find a spot you can park and kill the engine discreetly. For choosing a spot, pick something not directly in front of someones house, maybe between two, or for us we found some sweet spots where there was a long row of bushes or a tree on the side of a house that made us not so visible. We also found spots where other campers, whether occupied or not, were parked- in hopes that maybe the house we were parked near wouldn’t mind since they were also VDub owners (its like being in a club). Of course pay attention to signs and discreetly check the others cars parked around to see of they have a permit sticker allowing them to park there. Our back up plan, if all else failed was to find a cheap overnight parking garage and park on the roof so we could enjoy the views. We also asked cool locals about whether or not those intimidating no parking signs meant it or not, on pull offs off PCH. We learned that in Big Sur, no cops or rangers are on duty after 11 so it was truly fair game and many did it. We also had backup plans like asking the owner of a nice local business if we could park in their lot, which again- driving a vintage WV makes you some serious friends and admirers so you ae likely to experience gracious gifts like that (we got free parking in some places just because we were driving such a cool van!) We were mostly up and out by 7 am when parking in residential neighborhoods. As far as bathrooms are concerned- I bought a Go Girl device before the trip which lets ladies pee like men! (Get some practice before hitting the road, trust me- its like re potty training). Also, worst case I have heard of for anyone (we have yet to experience this) is that a cop or resident asks you to move along. As said above, be polite and honest, they are just doing their job.
I’m from Canada, formerly an elementary school teacher, and am doing a road trip through the States in a mini van that I’ve converted to a camper. Have very little money! Am heading down the west coast currently, and then hope to hit california, then head east across the states and angle up to Ontario. So far have parked in a parking lot of a city park in a posh area of Seattle and in a YMCA parking lot, both very successfully. The rest of the time have stayed with people. However, no people to stay with from here (Portland) on in, so am going to have to start figuring out more places to stealth camp! My backup plan is to find church parking lots. Your website is inspiring! Good to read about other people doing similar things and loving it. I’ve come across a lot of negative opinions online about free camping and whether you can do it. Nice to connect with someone who says you can! 🙂
Have fun Arjenna! We’re glad you’re up for the experience… and your positive attitude will get you far. People are generally really nice and if you don’t wear out your welcome anywhere you’ll likely have few, if any “urban camping” bumps in the road! Enjoy and best to you on your travels!
I’ve been car camping in SF for over a year.
True its illegal, but many of the cops don’t care. I’ve been awakened by cops several times where they only checked if I had warrants and left me alone after that.
Now I can’t promise you will always have that experience…but after a year of living in car, I worry more about meter maids then cops.
Make sure you understand the parking rules of the spot you pick. There are spots where this is not always clear and you may wake up with a ticket. After so many tickets meter maids start booting and towing your car.
Some spots are more prone to break ins then others. Beware of parking by parks, bars or nightclubs. Beware of parking where you see alot of broken glass on the street. Parking in hot spots like this not only increases the chance of getting broken in (I’ve had attempted break ins with me in car) but also Police encounters.
Now I’m speaking for those who are camping in regular vehicles…my experience has been that for the most part, people don’t care what you do as long as you show discretion and respect for the neighborhood.
If you camp in your car, then don’t leave anything valuable in your car while you’re not in it…ever. When you go to bathroom, coffee shop, grocery store, shower, where ever, pack up all your valuables and take them with you. Don’t leave change or any sort of electronics out in plain site. Tweakers will smash your windows to steal the most random of things so try not to tempt them. There are also professional car thieves (I’ve met them while they were trying to break in my car).
So the biggest thing you got to worry about are Meter Maids and Car thieves…or at least thats been my experience sleeping every night in the city for …a year and a half.
Oh yeah…don’t leave your car in same spot for too long, even if it doesn’t have any parking rules…rats also break in cars and will make a real mess. Don’t ask me how I know.
Lots of great links, love checking out their stories. But all of those people have well paying careers and can afford expensive RVs. Nothing wrong with that, but I am looking for others out there van dwelling/urban camping in inexpensive vans/campers etc. I am about to buy a van and start my adventure and am looking for others having a similar experience. Thanks!
Thanks Izaak. Yes, many of the people traveling full time do have careers, however mostly have left their well paying jobs, sacrificing “the big bucks” (Ha ha) and have traded all that security for self employment and full time travel. Risky business. Still a bunch of hard working folks with great information to share.
Here’s another place to look with like minded people… http://cheaprvliving.com/ they’re a helpful group of people and this site is a portal to many vandweller blogs, van conversion information, gatherings, etc.
Best of luck to you and stick around, we still have lots of helpful info and mayhem to share.
Oh, yeah, Bob’s sites are awesome, as is yours. I hope you understand I didn’t mean anything negative by my comment, I just meant that a lot of people on your links have marketable skills, unlike me, lol. I have no doubt all of them have valuable information to share and will continue checking them out. I would like to think that we’re all part of a community. Thanks again!
Dig deeper, Izaak… your remarkable skill is in there! And yes, a this is great community we’re ALL a part of. Cheers to that.
Oh, I have a skill–writing–I just have yet to make a living off it. Working on that, though 🙂
We bought a van last summer and stealth camped all over oregon in the national forest. Forest camping is legal and you don’t have to be “stealth”. At the same time, we did not want to stick out either. We found secluded turn offs and camped in nice level areas.
Yes, Oregon is an amazing place. When you’re out in the forest, stealth is not as necessary, except maybe to bears! When you’re in the city, it’s crucial! Thanks for stopping by and saying hi, Mark. Happy camping.
Three things you missed. 1. ditch the vehicle for the night, and climb up to rooftops with minimal camping gear. 2. Universities almost never lock their P.E. locker rooms, making them a great place for free showers. 3. If you are a guy, that morning bathroom issue is easily solved with an old water bottle.
There are risk with 1&2, but most cops really aren’t going to “stick it to you” even when caught red-handed. Just treat them with the respect you want to be treated with .
I disagree with trespassing. Absolutely, positively, strenuously disagree. You will be risking your vehicle/home that way, through any number of scenarios that could result from such a smashmouth violation of the law. Don’t do it.
The best place to camp in SF is the panhandle/east end of golden gate park. there are dozens of vans/campers/rvs that camp there every night of the year. it’s hard to get a spot so you have to get one usually before 8pm.
Good tip, JW. I think there is a good little coffee shop that opens early over there as well.