Ah yes, the glamorous #vanlife. Let’s say you’ve got the van, you’ve got the life…but where can you park? Now, we know that many of these beautiful images you see depicting vanlife online are not realistic. You cannot park your van for free overnight in a national park, or in a state park. However, there are lots of places you can potentially park your vehicle while on a trip or living out of it if you’re willing to do a little research. Here are the best options we have found.
National Forest or BLM Land:
This is by far (in our opinion) your best option for free camping, especially if you are self contained or willing to forego campsite amenities. This is also known as dispersed camping. You can camp for free in most national forests or Bureau of Land Management areas for up to 14 days before having to move your vehicle. Check the national forest website that you plan on visiting beforehand to see if they have any dispersed camping rules or restrictions. Remember that it is very important to abide by Leave No Trace principles while out and about in the wilderness. We recommend trying to pick an area that has signs it was used as a campsite before, to limit your impact. Be sure you are prepared to camp away from civilization when you choose dispersed camping, as there will likely not be cell service, toilets, a clean water source, or well maintained/paved roads.
(NOTE: Many national forests and public lands are currently closed due to the Covid-19 crisis. Make sure to do your research to make sure you can visit these sites while following their guidelines and closures)
Free camping apps and websites
There are tons of apps and websites out there that are devoted to finding free places to camp, such as freecampsites.net, The Vanlife App, boondocking.org, campendium.com, the AllStays Camp & RV app, and iOverlander. These can be great resources because sometimes it’s easier after a long day of driving to just look in the general area of where you have found yourself and get the exact coordinates to a free campsite. You can see reviews of the sites as well, and know what to expect when you get there! Nothing is worse than driving around in the dark trying to find a safe and legal place to park overnight, picking somewhere in a hurry and having a bad night’s sleep because you aren’t sure if you should be there or not.
Finding a quiet neighborhood cul de sac is always a nice option for overnight parking while travelling or living in cities, just try not to bother the residents or linger, as you could face complaints or get “the knock”. Be sure to check local laws regarding the length of time allowed for street parking, as well. Street parking in most cities is legal up to 24 hours.
Many big box stores such as Walmart allow overnight parking, which is nice because then you are right next to a bathroom (very nice if you don’t already have one in your van) and supplies. This can potentially be a difficult way to spend the night, however, unless you know the area you are staying in well. Parking lots are also obviously louder and brighter than national forests and quiet neighborhoods, so it’s a good idea to have some earplugs and an eyemask on hand if you are a light sleeper. If you are unfamiliar with the area, call ahead to verify you will be able to stay there. It used to be that all Walmarts allowed car camping, but now it is up to individual stores to make this decision. It can be very frustrating when you set your GPS to the nearest Walmart, and then when you arrive see a “no overnight parking” sign.
Truck stops and rest stops:
Some truck stops can also be a great place to sleep. Flying J’s is a reportedly vanlife friendly truck stop, and they have showers and laundromats you can use there (and then you can grab a Cinnabon after your shower – true luxury). Some downsides to truck stops is that these amenities may be pricy, and it is definitely not a peaceful place to spend the night as far as noise. Again, truck stops will vary depending on the specific one you go to, and some may not allow you to sleep there. Rest stops are similar, you can park there to sleep but there might be a time limit. Checking the free campsite apps to see if there are any reviews of any truck stops or rest stops in the vicinity you will be staying is always a smart idea.
Most casinos are very vanlife friendly, and will allow you to park overnight in the hopes that you will come in and maybe spread some cash around. As with all of the previous options, it’s a good idea to double check with the establishment you plan on parking at to be sure.
If you are self contained, Boondockers Welcome is an awesome resource for finding property to camp at! It is essentially the Couchsurfers of land, and free except for an annual $50 subscription.
Paid camping, Airbnb & hotels:
Sometimes it’s not always possible to find free places to park in a pinch, and when all else fails or you just need a break from your van, paying for camping, getting an Airbnb, hostel or hotel can be a nice change of pace. Airbnbs or hostels can be a fun and budget-friendly addition to a trip, if you are interested in meeting new people. Get $40 off your first trip on Airbnb!