Looking for a place to park your van and sleep for the night can be quite a challenge to some vandwellers since there are different rules and regulations on overnight parking. Some areas are legal to park in, and some are not. Other areas have vague rules while others plain right forbid you from parking overnight. If you are one of those vandwellers that have encountered this problem, I am here to help you make your van life experience smoother than before.
When it comes to vanlife overnight camping, you have to know the do’s and don’ts to avoid any run-ins with the law. It is also important to know where you can park safely and whether or night you would have to pay for the parking spot. Make vanlife overnight parking as smooth as possible with this in the back of your mind.
In this article, I will talk about the different camping sites that allow overnight parking for your van even during these hard times. Here, you will learn which ones are free and which ones charge parking fees, so you would know when and where you would need to have some cash in your pockets!
First Things First: The Do’s and Don’ts Of Overnight Parking
It’s one thing to know where to park, but it’s another to know how to look for one. Some areas, even if they’re legal, are not precisely safe spots for you to stay for a night. Also, if you are planning to stay at a campground somewhere, there are tips you can follow to inform yourself of the campground’s location, rules, and fees.
You may think that it only takes one’s common sense to make it out alive in just one night, but you’d be surprised to know that even the most ordinary rules can be forgotten and ignored!
The Do’s When It Comes to Overnight Parking
It is important that you know the dos when it comes to overnight parking so that you won’t have to worry about the dreaded knock, which means police knocking on your doors. Make sure to always keep the following in mind when you are looking for your overnight parking spot.
Always Make Sure It’s A Legal Area To Park Overnight
Knowing whether or not an area is legal to park overnight can be a technical process. Of course, it would depend on the parking rules and regulations of a city. Some cities actually forbid overnight parking, so if you’re uncertain about the overnight parking rules in the city you are currently in, contact the local DMV or you can ask traffic police in the area.
Even if you think you have found the perfect spot to park your van in, if it’s not legal to stay overnight, then you are better off sleepless for the night!
Blend In: Make This a Habit When It Comes to Overnight Parking
Living a stealthy van life allows you to live with ease and privacy. To live this way is to always try to blend in as much as you can wherever you may be. This is most helpful when you are parking in 24-hour grocery stores like Walmart since some places don’t allow overnight parking, what people usually do is that they stealth park – they park very late at night and leave early in the morning.
This way, you won’t be drawing any attention to yourself. A great tip from stealthy vanlifers is not to make your van’s design too striking. A standard white cargo will look like something that isn’t set up to sleep in.
Keep Your Doors And Windows Locked: Safety First!
Never forget to secure your doors and windows. Not only does this avoid being broken into, but it also keeps people from bothering you in the first place. Another thing that helps this is to keep your blinds drawn. Keep quiet, and make it look like nobody’s inside!
Stay Alert: Be Aware of Your Surroundings
If you have found a place to sleep and park your van for the night, it is crucial to stay alert. Be vigilant of your surroundings because some areas may appear to be safe but can get dangerous during certain times of the night. Although not all vanlifers believe in this arguable advice, some recommend not to answer your door if someone knocks.
An important thing to remember when you aren’t parking in a campground is to always be ready to leave. Don’t get too comfortable drooling in the back of your van!
Use Apps Or Websites That Can Guide You Through The City
Thanks to the internet, you can now look for places to park overnight with just the use of your smartphone. Using apps or websites is probably the most comfortable and most convenient way to look for a place to stay for a night or two. Some of these even guide you through traffic and help you find the fastest way to get to your destined park or campground!
They also tell you all the information you need, like parking fees and their amenities. Websites, like Boondockers Welcome, are particularly helpful when you’re looking for free camping. If you want to avoid all the cautious practices of finding a place to stay, using these apps and websites will definitely help your situation.
Here are some of the best apps and websites that will help you look for free and paid campgrounds wherever you are!
If you want to know more about vanlife apps, here is an article that I have written for you.
The Don’ts in Overnight Parking: Always Keep This In Mind
Keeping the don’ts of overnight parking will ensure that you steer away from trouble. When you have the following things at the back of your mind, then you don’t have to worry about getting into any trouble when you are parked overnight and resting for the next fun-filled adventure on your list.
Don’t Park In Unfamiliar Neighborhoods
If you are not familiar with the neighborhood, then it is needless to say that the neighborhood is also not familiar to you. Yes, the vanlife is an adventure, but not knowing exactly where you are can cause you some serious trouble.
You’ll never know if you are parked in a bad neighborhood with high risks of crime; they don’t exactly display those kinds of facts in a welcome banner!
Don’t Park Near Schools Or Playgrounds: Think of the Students
Besides the fact that it is entirely unsafe for vehicles to be near schools or playgrounds because kids are always running everywhere, being in a van stirs up some stereotypes.
Even if your intentions are just purely for parking, others won’t know that! Some parents are extremely protective of their children, and if they see a van near the area, they might call the police on you. Avoid being in this situation, and stay away from schools or playgrounds!
Don’t Park In Busy Cities With Busy Streets
There are a lot of cities that are not RV and van-friendly (we’re looking at you, LA, and New York!). Of course, this is because they are big cities with really busy streets. With all these people constantly walking and crossing roads, and cars following and honking one after the other – a busy city is somewhere you absolutely do not want to find yourself in.
If you are looking for a place to sleep in an otherwise busy city, you can always go to 24-hour grocery stores and casino parking lots!
Don’t Stay For More Than One Night: Always Move from Place to Place
Even though this tip is a no-brainer, some vandwellers still fail in following it. Remember, just because it’s free doesn’t mean you should stay there forever! This is particularly applicable when you’re parking in casino parking lots, 24-hour grocery stores, airports, etc. It is advised that you rotate location spots to avoid being noticed.
This tip can also be applied to free overnight camping sites. Some campgrounds are not strict in implementing the limits of staying for free, but as a vandweller, you should know that looking for places to stay can be quite challenging. To give others a chance, do not overstay your welcome and move on to another location.
Free Overnight Camping Sites
There are plenty of overnight camping sites that you can choose from that is safe for you to spend the night and rest. The following will talk about the different spots that are safe for you to stay overnight.
Private Property: Plenty of Welcoming Homes
Sometimes, looking for a camping site or overnight parking in major cities can be very hard and almost impossible. Luckily, there are a lot of friendly and welcoming homes that offer their driveways and parking lots for vandwellers and other motorhome owners.
Similar to Airbnb, a lot of people open their driveways for boondocking to van lifers and travelers. A website, like boondockerswelcome.com, is where you can find people across the country who are opening their gates for van lifers and RVers to come and park for free.
Public Lands Campground: Significant Number of Locations
A significant number of locations across America are for public access for the enjoyment and comfort of those vandwellers and RVers who wish to stay for a night or two. Although some public lands charge fees, some offer free spaces like national forests or parks.
Most campgrounds that are free, however, have little to no amenities at all. A lot of these do not provide even a picnic table or a trash can. Most of them also maintain the policy of first-come-first-serve while some only offer free parking to the first specific numbers of campers.
Here are some of the campgrounds I found that offer free parking:
Glass Creek Campground: Located in California
A great location to explore nearby rivers in California, Glass Creek Campground accommodates motorhomes up to 45 ft. This campground, albeit dry, has over 50 campsites available and has amenities such as barbecue grills, fire pits, fire rings, firewood, campsite tables, and picnic tables. They do not provide water or electric hookups.
Its outdoor recreation includes hiking, biking, fishing, and wildlife viewing. Since you can spot a lot of bears in the area, it is advised that you store food properly and don’t feed the animals!
Windust Park: Eastern Washington
Located in Eastern Washington, Windust Park offers free camping and overnight parking. With its 24 available campsites, only 10 are RV and van-friendly. It is also a first-come-first-serve campground from mid-May to early September. Despite the lack of amenities, freshwater is available at the campground.
In addition, the remoteness of the location can give you a lot of privacy. It is also a great chance for fishing opportunities and boat launching!
Diablo Canyon Recreation Area: BLM Site
Diablo Canyon is one of the many BLM sites that offer free camping and parking. Its facilities include a fire ring and defined parking areas to provide every vehicle with the appropriate space needed.
Since it’s in such a remote area, there is not much to offer. There are no water or electric hookups, toilets, showers, restrooms, or trash receptacles. It is a great place, however, for hiking and photography. It was actually used twice as a movie location!
Ray & Donna West Free RV Park: Muleshoe, Texas
Operated by and located in the City of Muleshoe, Texas, Ray & Donna West Free RV Park welcomes RVers, vanlifers, and other motorhome owners. It provides eight improved parking spots which are only available on a first-come-first-serve basis. Overnight parking is free of charge for the first three days. If you wish to extend your stay, you will be required to get a permit on the third day and pay a fee of $25 for each additional day.
Its amenities include water and electric hookups (50 amp), and dumpsters for each parking space, all for the convenience of every camper. There is also a sewage dump station available on-site and a free WiFi connection.
Congaree National Park: South Carolina
Congaree National Park in Hopkins, South Carolina offers free backcountry camping. Although this means that you are away from facilities and amenities, this national park gives you a unique camping adventure with activities like canoeing, board walking, and sightseeing.
Despite being backcountry camping, Congaree National Park still provides restrooms and outdoor seating. It is also wheelchair-accessible and pet-friendly.
Casino Parking Lots: Free Overnight Parking
Most casinos in the US offer camping locations for bus and van dwellers but with a few differences. If you want to make sure whether a casino is offering their parking lot open and free for campers, try calling their management to make sure. Usually, casinos are straightforward with their policies and are very warm to campers.
Casinos often require a considerable amount of use of the casino’s services to allow vans and buses to stay overnight. Still, a lot of their staff are glad to advise that people sleep in their vehicles with little to no checks about their casino activities.
Airports: Lots Unofficially Reserved for RVers
Though it might sound strange, airports often permit RVs for overnight parking and sometimes even have alternative options for van owners. Some airports have vacant lots that are unofficially reserved for campers and RVs, and they sometimes allow overnight staying in vehicles.
Airports usually charge a small price for overnight campers. However, some can direct you to an open lot for campers who are looking for resting sites that are free of charge. These locations can sometimes be a hotspot for airplane noise and lights, but having a pair of earplugs and a sleeping mask can go a long way toward making the most out of these cheap options.
24-hour Grocery Stores: Parking Spaces for Free
Most grocery store locations allow camping in their parking lot for free, making it one of the top choices for van campers. While not all Walmarts offer this convenience, some Walmarts do! Just ask their store manager if it’s okay to spend the night in their parking lot.
Similar stores such as 7/11, Home Depot, and Cabella’s are also pretty much the same. You just have to make sure to ask so there won’t be any problems with the management and security. What makes this option great is that aside from being safe, you’ll be literally next door to a store that offers you shopping convenience when you need it!
Rest Stops: Most Convenient and Secure Overnight Parking Spot
Albeit busy and noisy, rest stops or truck stops are among the most convenient and secure camping locations for vandwellers. These well-lit parking spaces along gasoline stations near highways are an excellent choice for a quick rest or an overnight sleep.
However, one of the major disadvantages of this choice is that you’re most likely to be around huge rig drivers who might be also taking their rest. Usually, these fellow long-haul delivery drivers leave their engines idle to ensure that their truck batteries can keep their air conditioning on while they sleep.
On the brighter side, sleeping on rest stops can still be an option as long as you have your earplugs with you. Aside from that, truck stops are mostly secure, considering that you’re not going to be alone since you are surrounded by other people that are used to living life on the road.
Truckstops: Ideal Space for Vanlife Overnight Parking
Truckstops are one of the ideal places to park your vehicle overnight. They also welcome RVers and vandwellers! Although truckstops are technically considered to offer free parking, their amenities can only be used and enjoyed by those who pay a small fee for each. They provide Wifi, shower facilities, game rooms, chapel, restaurants, laundry services, and many more.
WiFi could cost around $3 for 24 hours, while shower facilities range from $7to $12 with no time limit and free towels and shower products. Prices always vary depending on the location.
Paid Overnight Camping Sites
Now that you know some free overnight parking spaces, there are also some overnight camping spaces where you would need to pay a particular fee. These locations would include BLM, National Parks, campgrounds, and so much more.
Public Lands Campground: The Number One Go-to Location for Vanlifers
Public lands campgrounds include BLM and national forests or parks. Prices vary in some areas because it depends on how many of the facilities you wish to use and on how private you want your campsite to be. These are just some of the public lands campgrounds I found in the US that charge fees.
BLM: Fee of $5 to $25
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) offers 99% of its thousands of acres for recreational purposes. Its campgrounds include many amenities like shower rooms, restrooms, water & electrical hookups, campfire rings, garbage cans, and many more.
Not all camping sites in BLM though have all these amenities. Some provide only a picnic table and a fire ring, which is why some campgrounds are free. However, you should expect that most campgrounds in BLM require a fee. According to their official website, these fees are used to maintain the facilities.
Since these lands are most popular for camping (some sites are even first come, first serve), it’s only reasonable for them to charge minimal fees. You shouldn’t have to worry because you’ll know it will be worth it when you wake up and see that you’re surrounded by beautiful scenery.
Glacier National Park: Fee of $10 to $23
Located in the northwest corner of Montana, this national park offers services that meet almost your every need. Despite having almost no cell phone service, some of the lodges provide WiFi for the guests. Glacier National Park is known for its beautiful turquoise lakes and streams.
With $35 as an entrance fee, this 7-day park permit accommodates all persons traveling in a single, private, non-commercial vehicle. The campgrounds, however, only cost $10 to $23 per night.
(Note: RVs, trucks, and trailer combinations are not recommended at these campgrounds: Bowman Lake, Cut Bank, Kintla Lake, Logging Creek, Quartz Creek, and Sprague Creek.)
Yosemite National Park: Fee of $12 to $26
With millions of visitors every year, Yosemite National Park is famous for its mountainous scenery that includes high cliffs, deep valleys, tall waterfalls, ancient giant sequoias, large wilderness, and its many campgrounds that offer sufficient amenities and accommodations.
For only $20, a parking permit is valid for seven days for non-commercial buses or vans with more than 15 passengers. Non-commercial vans with less than 15 passengers will require a $35 fee, also valid for seven days.
Campgrounds that only cost $12 per night are mostly on a first-come-first-serve basis while campgrounds with higher fees ($18 to $26) are open for reservations.
Bryce Canyon National Park: Fee of $30
Bryce Canyon National Park has two campgrounds: the Sunset campground and the North campground, the latter being on a first-come-first-serve basis. Both of these campgrounds welcome tent campers, RVers, and van-owners. Although they don’t really offer a lot of amenities, they do have a dump station and potable water available.
The cost per night for both campgrounds is $30, limited to ten people with no more than six adults (ages 16 and up).
Olympic National Park: Fee of $15 to $24
Located in the state of Washington on the Olympic Peninsula, the national park has multiple campgrounds that are on a first-come-first-serve basis, with different activities and views. Although some campgrounds are not exactly RV and van-friendly, there are two campgrounds that provide water and electrical hookups: Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort and the Log Cabin Resort.
The entrance fee for a private, non-commercial vehicle with 15 passengers or less is $30, valid for seven consecutive days. Their campgrounds, on the other hand, vary in price. For a night, some campgrounds only cost $20 and the highest price is only $24.
State Or City Park Campgrounds ($10 to $50)
These campgrounds are pretty common, and since they are usually right next to each other, only a few offer good privacy. However, they are still considered the safest choice and perhaps even a favorite by some campers. This is because they are more affordable than private campgrounds and they have a lot of amenities available – water and electric hookups, showers, restrooms, laundry facilities, and dumpsters.
A lot of state or city park campgrounds actually have several activities for the enjoyment of campers. Fishing, hiking, biking, and boating are just some of the fun activities they offer. For as little as $10, you can find a state or city park that will welcome your van overnight. However, it is only reasonable to expect campgrounds that charge small fees will not provide you with the complete facilities you want.
Some state or city campgrounds can be expensive as well. Be that as it may, you will be able to enjoy the services they provide and the beautiful sceneries these campgrounds can give you.
Independent Campgrounds ($20 to $40+)
Another great place to park your van overnight is independent campgrounds. Much like other paid park campgrounds, they provide lots of very useful amenities. Being an independent campground means it is privately owned. And that’s what makes them more expensive compared to other park campgrounds.
Prices vary in different locations because some can give good privacy and most of them don’t. Most parking sites in independent campgrounds are closely jammed next to each other so don’t expect to have a huge space for yourself. However, you can still find really good spots because there are lots of independent campgrounds in the US.
Amenities typically include showers, laundry, restrooms, WiFi, electricity, trash receptacles, and general stores.
KOA Campgrounds ($30 to $60)
KOA campgrounds are basically hotels for your RVs, vans, and trailers. This is where campers usually go when they need to relax. It’s not exactly the last resort; it’s just a place that has all the amenities you would need, even those you wouldn’t usually find in other campgrounds!
KOAs are called the hotels of camping for a lot of reasons. First, they are not cheap. Price starts at $30, and that’s more than what you’d pay in a public land campground that has basic amenities like water and electric hookups. Second, they can be found in cities. What makes these campgrounds convenient is that they are right off the highway. Third, they are kid-friendly and pet-friendly. Unlike some campgrounds, you will never have to worry about the disturbance your kids or pets might cause.
Lastly, their amenities might just be what you need for your van, for your family, and for yourself. What’s unique about KOA campgrounds is that they don’t only offer the usual – water and electric hookups, showers, restrooms, laundry, and whatnot – some KOAs actually provide hot tubs, and swimming pools, bars, and other hotel-like amenities! They also offer dog parks, fishing ponds, camp grills, and general stores. These amenities are exactly why some campers like to stay in KOA campgrounds.
One must expect, however, that even hotels have their cons. KOA campgrounds can also be noisy, especially because they are full most of the time. With neighbors coming in and out, vehicles passing by the highway, and kids and dogs running all over the place, most RVers, vanlifers, and other campers opt only to stay a few nights.
Living in a van is not as hard as it looks if you just know where to park and go. So fret not because there will always be places that will welcome your home whether they’re free or paid. When you do find a place to stay, remember that, while the highway is an inviting space to take on an adventure, the balance between security and carefree fun should be every van dweller’s priority. If you have pets and want to visit National Parks, here is an article that I have written for you.