Ok, so you have the van. It’s outfitted with all the coolest gadgets and you’re ready to make your fantasy Instagram dream a reality. There’s only one small problem…
“Everywhere I look it says it’s illegal to park overnight, Help!”
First of all, yes, it is illegal to park overnight in 99.9% of the spots you want to. But there are tons of spots out there that you might not even think of, that are open to campers and best of all…they’re totally free!
All you have to do is a tiny bit of research and maybe make a phone call, but that’s it.
Two summers ago the boyfriend and I went on an epic three-month road trip across the United States and only paid for accommodations a handful of times. I believe we drove 10,000 miles when all was said and done.
We have stayed in some beautiful parks, camped on the edge of a cliff, and slept in a playground in Texas, all without going to jail. We just followed the main stealth camping rules. Stay out of sight, keep your van clean, and most of all be respectful.
If we can do it, you can do it too!
So I’m going to give you a master list of places to park that are nationwide. No matter where you are, you’ll be able to find one of these spots to sleep in a pinch. Some of them are nicer than others, but each has their pros and cons as I’ll explain below.
First up on the list is good old Walmart! I know you’ve heard of this idea before because every van camper and RV owner out there uses this resource. Seriously, next time you drive by, just check the outer perimeter of the parking lot. Most times you will see them lined with RVs.
I am not usually a huge fan of Walmart in general because of how they treat their workers and their effect on the American economy, but hey, sometimes you just have to pull over and sleep for the night. In addition to sleeping, if you’re working with a budget, you’ll find some of the cheapest foods around. It might not be haute cuisine, but it’ll fill your stomach if you’re starving.
Although their website states that they are indeed open to overnight camping, it’s always best to check with each individual store manager. Better to make a quick phone call to confirm that it’s alright to camp than wake up to someone trying to tow you, which is what happened to this guy on Reddit.
2. BLM Land
The United States is home to almost 250 MILLION acres of land that is free for the public to camp on. Located mostly in western states, this land is maintained by the Federal Government and is available for you to explore.
Since we live on the west coast, we make use of this land every weekend. Sure, it’s primitive, and bathrooms are few and far between, but it more than makes up for it in beauty. Check out my post on How to Not Smell Like a Dumpster When You Live In a Van for more information on how to keep yourself fresh as a daisy when out in the woods.
As with any campsite, leave it the way you found it if not better! Since this land isn’t managed like a campground, it’s can get trashed quickly if used by inexperienced campers, or people that just don’t care.
I don’t know how many times I’ve driven to a remote site in the woods only to be greeted with beer cans and plastic bags. Be sure to treat these areas with respect, and you’ll be rewarded with free camping for years to come!
Casinos are a really fun option if you like to gamble away all that money you saved on rent by van living. Most casinos let you park in their lots for free in exchange for you spending time (and money) in their establishment.
We have a casino we often frequent on the Oregon coast that we hit up once every month or two, and we have a system for how we spend our time. Usually, we end up there in the late afternoon after a full day of exploring. We will eat at their buffet if we can get a buy one get one free deal, then drink free beers (yes, free**) while playing some video blackjack at the bar.
Sometimes on weekends there is even live music playing or some terrible karaoke which is always a fun time.
After getting a full nights sleep in the van, I will pop back into the casino one more time for the free coffee before hitting the road again in the morning.
Casinos have tons of free perks, you just have to sort of pretend you’re spending money so you don’t get busted.
While this usually works best at smaller casinos, we did spend a couple of nights on the top floor of the parking garage of the Luxor in Vegas a few summers ago. We had a beautiful view of the strip and it was surprisingly quiet. I would highly recommend!
4. Rest Stops
Ahh…the rest stop. It sounds “restful” but if you don’t choose your stop wisely, it can be anything but. Most rest stops state that you can only park there for four hours at a time max. I have gotten away with longer stops, but I usually don’t chance it.
If it’s a quiet rest stop that just has a bathroom and some tourist information, I try to just take my four hours then leave. More often than not, they are patrolled by tow truck drivers just itching to make some money off of you. It’s too bad because these stops are usually very quiet and peaceful.
Bonus points if you have a pupper that you want to get some exercise, as a lot of these stops have fenced in pet rest areas. You can play all the rounds of fetch that Fido can handle while knowing he won’t run on to the highway.
The only time I’ve chanced a longer rest stop stay is when it’s one of those bigger off highway stops complete with a gas station and several food options.
Yes, the noise will be unbearable, but if your rig is small enough, you can pretty much park among the cars and no one will notice you. Sometimes you luck out and these places have laundry and showers too, so they’re definitely worth checking out!
Read my guide to Staying Safe While Van Living for more information on how to protect yourself at rest stops.
5. Cabelas, Cracker Barrel and Bass Proshops
Like Walmart, some big outdoor stores allow overnight parking for their guests. The upside to this is that the other campers parked in these lots are MUCH nicer than most of the ones you will encounter at Walmart.
Not that I’m bashing people that park at Walmart, it’s a great resource, but come on, the People of Walmart website exists for a reason. Not all of the people parking in those lots are upstanding citizens just passing through. A lot of them live full time in those lots and have a penchant for partying. You can tell because their rigs are covered in tarps, and littered with garbage. Those are the Walmart lots you should stay away from.
If you were to go to a Cabelas on the other hand, you could stock up on any outdoor gear you may need while you’re there. It’s a win, win!
Again, always check with the manager before parking.
6. Elk’s Lodge, Moose Lodge, Masonic Lodge…
These are kind of old school options that I’ve heard of others using but have never tried myself. According to the Elk’s Lodge down the road from me, they allow overnight parking if you are a member.
“What are their membership requirements?”
You have to be over 21 and believe in God. That’s it!
Since I’m not a religious person, this doesn’t appeal to me, but if it works for you, great! They have locations all over the country and seem to take good care of their members.
Far and away the best resource out there for the urban camping crowd, Freecampsites.net is AWESOME! When we took our 10,000 mile United States road trip, this website saved our asses more times than I can count.
All you need to do is put in the location you would like to stay, and it’ll bring up spots in that area that have been vetted by other campers. If you pull it up on your phone, it’ll even search by your GPS location!
The only time it didn’t work out for me was when it pointed me to an equestrian camp in Georgia that was infested with fire ants…
But that was one time, and I made sure to leave a detailed review on that situation immediately after leaving…and ant bombing of course.
Best of all the site is TOTALLY FREE!!!
I am not affiliated with these guys in any way. What I get out of recommending them, is the satisfaction of knowing I’ve helped people out, as well as adding people to the pool to find and rate campsites. That’s it!
Also, some of the sites we’ve stayed have been beautiful! Almost a crime to keep them a secret.
Allstays is an app that you save right on your phone that’s a great resource, but there is a $9.99 fee attached to it that could scare some budget conscious people away. Personally, I have them both and read the reviews on both sites just to make sure I’m staying in the best possible location.
I know it’s difficult when it comes to understanding the legalities of van camping, but hopefully, this guide helped. When first getting out there, it can be super scary not knowing where you are going to sleep, but if you check out these leads, you will always find a parking spot to call home.
**The trick to free beer in casinos is to sit at the bar with video games on the bar top. Most casinos will give you a free beer if you put $20 into the machine. You don’t have to actually play the $20, just put it in the machine. We will usually pop a $20 in, play a hand or two, then sit there and keep drinking that free beer. If you notice the bartender giving you stink eye, just play another hand or two. At most, it’ll cost you $.25 a hand, and that’s not bad for a beer.
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