One of the most frequently asked questions about vanlife is “where do you park?”. This post is going to give some insight on where to park for free, tips on overnight parking, and apps that help assist with the whole process.
- BLM Land: For those that don’t know about BLM land it stands for Bureau of Land Management and it is essentially land that is used by the public for free recreational use. BLM land is particularly bountiful in the Western U.S. so this is a great option if you are located out West or traveling in this area. This is always our go to because you can usually find BLM land near national parks and popular areas where you have plenty space to yourself and don’t have to pay a fee at a campsite. We stayed on BLM land while visiting Sedona, Zion National Park, Joshua Tree National Park, ect.
- National Forests: National forests are another beautiful place where you can find free parking and is what we look for if there is no BLM land in the area. National forests can be found all throughout the country and dispersed camping is allowed here usually for up to 14 days at a time.
- Truck stops: We have consistently used truck stops during our time of vanlife especially on nights when we work the next day. Reasons we stay truck stops include: they allow free overnight parking, they are usually in populated areas so they are perfect when you need to be in the city for work, they are well lit and most have security walking around, there are often other vans or RVs parked beside you.
- Walmart: This is another great option for free overnight parking if you need to be in a city or are passing through an area where there is not BLM land or a national forest. If possible, it is best to park at a Walmart that is open 24 hours just because it is less obvious that you are camping and be sure to check for signs that say no overnight parking. From our experience, there are typically other camper vans and RVs in the parking lot to park near and we have always felt safe.
- Campgrounds/ RV parks: These are great if you want to pay for a place to stay. If you are the type of person that enjoys having a “home base” but still want to enjoy being in your rig this would be the choice for you. Many campgrounds and RV parks offer monthly rates if you plan to stay long term.
- Other businesses (Cracker Barrels, Cabellas, ect): When we began our vanlife journey and made our cross country drive we had planned to stay at Cracker Barrels because we had read in other blogs that they welcomed overnight parking along with other businesses like Cabellas, Bass Pro Shops, Sams Club, ect. We have found that most of these businesses do not allow overnight parking anymore due to city ordinances and the fact that they are held responsible for what may happen in their parking lot outside of business hours. If you decide to check out any of the businesses listed above it is recommended that you call ahead and ask if they allow parking to avoid a knock on your door in the middle of the night or a ticket.
Apps and Websites:
- Free campsites: If you couldn’t tell we are big fans of freebies, so freecampsites.net is one of our favorite ways to find nearby campsites. You have the option to type in a city or state or you can search spots based on your location. The website will then generate a map of free campsites in that area. You can also read reviews from people who have stayed in these spots previously which is a huge bonus. It gives you insight to whether it was a quiet area, if you can reach it without 4WD, and if it was crowded. https://freecampsites.net
- iOverlander: This is the most amazing discovery for anyone doing van life or traveling! iOverlander is a free app that offers so much info. When searching a location, not only does it show you where to find campsites (free and those with a fee), but it also gives locations of dump stations, showers, mechanics, and water refill stations. The reviews are very detailed and will let you know if a site has any amenities, has previously been closed down, offers cell service, ect. Another great thing about this app is that it can be used offline so it is great for times when you are in the middle of nowhere and have no cell service.
Tips for Overnight Parking:
- Blackout Curtains: Blackout curtains are a gamechanger, especially if you will be staying in parking lots or street parking from time to time. There is nothing worse than trying to sleep and having headlights shining onto your face or having a street light beaming in through the window. These are also great to prevent people from seeing into your van at night. We have blackout curtains on a rod separating the front of the van from the back and then for our two back windows use magnets to hang up a single curtain at night. https://amzn.to/2SZ6VfK
- Don’t be a Habitual Parker: This mostly applies for staying at busineses. One of the main reasons that businesses and companies have stopped allowing overnight parking is because people take advantage and “move in”. While we stay at the same three truck stops on the nights before we work, we rotate between the three so we don’t look suspicious. We also pull in right before we go to sleep (around 7 or 8 pm) and leave early (around 6 am). As nurses, we only work three days a week so we typically don’t stay at the same place more than once or twice a week.
- Safety: One of the biggest pieces of advice we could offer is if something doesn’t feel right about a place do not stay there. If there is any type of “gut feeling” then it probably is not a good idea. With that being said, there are other measures that can be taken to ensure safety: Before you settle in for the night make sure there are no visible valuables in the front of the van, lock all doors and keep the key beside you while you sleep, stay in a well lit area (security cameras are a bonus).
If you are considering vanlife and are feeling nervous about the parking situation that is completely understandable. We hope this post brought you some insight and gave you some options to consider. As van dwellers with full time jobs, our original plan was to stay at an RV park so that we would have a place to keep our other vehicle and a place to sleep on the days we are in the city for work. When we arrived at our destination we quickly realized how many options we had for free parking and decided to boondock full time and pay a small fee to put our other vehicle in a storage unit. It has been so freeing to have the option to choose where we wake up and to not feel like we have to spend time in once place just because we pay to park there.