The trend comes from the USA, as the name suggests: Stealth stands for stealth technology. Accordingly, stealth vans or stealth campers are mobile homes disguised as delivery vehicles that do not attract attention and with which you can stay overnight almost anywhere. So even where mobile homes are actually forbidden.
Does that make sense and is it permissible? And how common is stealth camping? We spoke to Christopher Many about this. The 52-year-old is a legend in the camper community. From 1988 to 1996 he lived "exclusively in a mobile home and for nothing in the Bavarian bush". Many left Germany in 1997 and has been traveling the world as a writer ever since (including “Hinter dem Horizont links”, “Hinter dem Horizont rechts”). He is currently traveling in Finland with his partner in a Mercedes 308D Postkögel.
WORLD: Where did you sleep last night?
Christopher Many: We are camping at the moment on a lake in Lapland, with an outside temperature of minus 25 degrees, of course, all the water is frozen. We rarely visit paid parking spaces, we couldn't afford that in the long run.
This is not necessary in Finland either, where the centuries-old tradition of the right of public access is upheld, a regulation that allows the weary hiker to spend a night or two on any public and undeveloped land if he does not damage or destroy the environment and he an appropriate distance from residential buildings. In all of Scandinavia, with the exception of Denmark, this right is even enshrined in law.
WORLD: And if you are traveling outside of Scandinavia?
Many: If someone actually knocks on the camper, would we refer to the exception rule, according to which tired drivers can take a break of a maximum of ten hours. This is in the road traffic regulations of almost all European countries, so that you and other road users are not endangered due to fatigue.
But to be honest, I've never had to invoke this regulation in Europe. Ultimately, you are always moving in a legal gray area, you have to rely on experience and ask yourself: "When do you still park and when do you camp?" or "When do you stop resting and stay overnight?"
WORLD: Can you see from the outside when there are two of you in your car?
Many: No, provided that we don't show typical camping behavior, it is not obvious from the outside that we are staying in the car. We only set up the grill, table, chairs and awning when we are far away from civilisation.
WORLD: Did you deliberately disguise your car as a stealth camper?
Many: Not really. When purchasing, the purchase price played the main role. Kevin, as we call our Postbus, only cost 5,000 euros. And that's a good thing, I always think it's a shame when travelers with a luxury motorhome for 100,000 euros bitterly complain that they have to stop their trip because they ran out of money. If they had bought a used camper for a twentieth of the cost, they could continue to drive for decades.
WORLD: Doesn't the shape of the Postbus and the yellow color still give you a certain inconspicuousness?
Many: On the contrary, friends claim that we can even be seen from the International Space Station ISS. But seriously, confusing Kevin with a real Postbus is only possible from a distance, and hiding is only possible in a corn field, in the middle of a sunflower meadow or directly in front of a DHL packing station. We put heaps of stuffed minions and stuffed dogs in the window as well as some stickers on the outside, a real Postbus should look different.
WORLD: So nothing with stealth campers ...
Many: You are right. Instead of camouflage, I attach more importance to finding suitable places to stay overnight and not attracting attention through "moral behavior". After so many years, I can say with certainty that sleeping wild is easy anywhere, provided you behave correctly.
WORLD: Nevertheless, to stay with the stealth camper - what specifically characterizes such a car?
Many: A real stealth mobile home should be as inconspicuous as a normal car from the outside, i.e. low and short, but this is of course at the expense of comfort. Aspiring stealth campers should therefore consider in advance whether their car should be a maximum of two meters high so that it fits in parking garages. Or whether you value headroom in the interior, which means that a vehicle must be at least 2.10 meters high - and therefore no longer fits in parking garages.
Second question: Is a maximum vehicle length of six meters sufficient, which saves significantly on toll and ferry costs, or should the camper be a more comfortable seven meters long? You should also not attach a roof rack or rear rack, otherwise the camouflage will be exposed. Solar modules, if any, must be cleverly placed so that they are not immediately recognizable. Electrical connections, water supply and waste water tanks should be placed inconspicuously. And very important: no windows at all or only a few and then darken them completely so that nobody can see inside the vehicle.
WORLD: So a rolling tin can...
Many: ...rather like a cave with corners, but that's not a bad thing per se. You can set up the vehicle comfortably, with pictures on the walls, candles on the table and curtains on the windows.
WORLD: Do you recognize inhabited stealth camper vehicles parked in the city?
Many: On the vehicle? Not necessarily. But vehicle occupants can stand out, especially in the city. If you want to remain undetected, you should follow a few rules.
WORLD: You mean no noise, no light, no smoke?
Many: Something like that. It is also advisable to never sleep in the same place twice and to leave as early as possible in the morning before the city comes to life. A good tip is to park the camper over roads for the night and not under them, as people tend to look down rather than up.
And if possible, you should always choose a place to sleep to the west of a street; anyone who has read Karl May knows that in the glow of the setting sun one is almost invisible to casual eyewitnesses. In general, the best time to stop is at dusk, just before it gets dark. At some point you develop a sixth sense for good, shady places behind trees and bushes.
WORLD: It all sounds quite complicated anyway.
Many: Yes, it does take some effort to park in inner cities. That actually only makes sense if campers are traveling like classic city travelers, i.e. want to do sightseeing in combination with visits to restaurants and the theater.
WORLD: Stealth camping is a trend from the USA; It is often homeless people who are forced to convert a delivery vehicle without a side window into a home.
Many: Stop! Impoverished people in the United States, balancing through life without a safety net and forced to live in vehicles, as in the feature film "Nomadland", really cannot be compared to the overland, long-distance travel and digital nomad community in Europe. These are two different pairs of shoes.
WORLD: What appeals to you so much about camper life that you immediately signed out of Germany?
Many: My lifestyle is definitely not for everyone, but my partner Laura and I are happy. We have a life plan that enables us to determine our own path with limited material resources. Stress? We do not know. My income as an author is enough to buy gas, food, and maybe a little more. Kevin is a full-fledged house on four wheels, it has windows and eight square meters of living space, I don't feel cramped, even though I'm 1.94 meters tall.
WORLD: Where is your favorite place?
Many: In general, I like countries with a low population density and lots of nature, such as Argentina, Chile, Mongolia, Tajikistan, Namibia, Sudan and Bolivia. I never had to "hide" there. Especially since you can't travel "under the radar" abroad anyway, because the German number plate "gives you away". But even if you had "native" plates, i.e. license plates that match the country you are traveling to, the vehicle would stand out. Because locals always know who is driving which car and non-local vans are spotted immediately.
WORLD: In which countries do you think it is advisable to hide in the evening in the sense of stealth camping?
Many: In Ethiopia, for example. As soon as you stop somewhere, crowds of people gather around the car, who then often stay staring through the window until morning. Finding a quiet place to spend the night is often a difficult task. On some days it takes six moves before you finally find peace.
WORLD: Which brings us to the topic of dangers when camping.
Many: Oh, traveling doesn't involve that many risks, as long as you travel around the world sensibly. Dangers, apart from those in some hotspots, are grossly exaggerated by many media. Across the world, the primary concern of populations is feeding families and living in peace, not hunting down overlanders and stealth campers. So have courage!
WORLD: Which websites do you recommend to prospective campers?
Many: I'm overwhelmed. I have a laptop to write e-mails and books, but I don't have a cell phone or GPS. I prefer paper maps, they work without electricity and internet.
My partner Laura, who has a smartphone, recommends Park4Night. Anyone who does not have the time or desire to look for suitable places to stay can use the app to access places found by others. But Park4Night is very popular and that's why you're not always alone on the proposed pitches.
Better to get information from foreign-language websites and travel blogs. In my experience, German mobile home guides are sometimes negatively occupied. It is quickly asserted that "it's not possible, you can't, you shouldn't, it's impossible". Travelers from England, Spain, Scandinavia and Australia are often more casual and relaxed, the German black and white way of thinking about wild camping is foreign to them.
Information about Christopher Many, his books and travels can be found at christopher-many.com, and the Facebook page for his books offers direct contact with the author: facebook.com/Hinter.dem.Horizont.links.
The interview was first published in January 2022.
The corona pandemic caused a real caravan boom. But as a result, the camping holiday is now a luxury pleasure, because the vehicles cost more and more. You can now marvel at the new products at the Düsseldorf Caravan Salon.
Source: WELT/ Gerrit Seebald