We’re not much for KOA-type paid campgrounds when we travel. Our camper van has everything we need: a sink, stove, refrigerator, bed, even a toilet. So why pay $50 / night to park the car and go to sleep?
And honestly, the money is the least of it. Campgrounds are so sterile and bland, we’d much rather wake up somewhere interesting and jump right into life. Sure, I know, they have some amenities, maybe a pool for the kids and showers for the adults, and if that’s your jam, then that’s fine, no judgement, it’s just not ours.
When we travel by van, we tend to camp…well, wherever we can: by a beach, in the woods, on a city street, in a neighborhood, you name it, we’ve done it. And over time, we’ve discovered and refined a few techniques for finding eligible spots, which I shall share with you herewith!
Whether you call it boondocking, dry camping, wild camping or off-grid camping, here are some ideas for enjoying a good night’s sleep outside of a formal campground.
There are a number of websites out there that crowdsource free camping locations. We made good use of freecampsites.net, and it offers a range of spot types, from pull-offs in the woods to casino parking lots. (They don’t list Walmart parking lots, because they’re too ubiquitous: all Walmart parking lots are fair game, and they didn’t want their listings to become cluttered with every Walmart in the country. We haven’t stayed in a Walmart yet, and I hope to keep that way.)
You can enter your area by name or find it on the interactive map, and campsites are color-coded (green = free, red = pay, blue = requires permit, yellow = research, and I have no idea what that means.) Each campsite will have a precise lat/long location, a description on how to find it as well as one more reviews by people who have stayed there. Read the reviews and pay attention to what time of year they were left and, if mentioned, the type of vehicle the reviewer had. Warnings about deep snow don’t mean much in the summer, but flooded roads can be a problem in the spring.
Caveat: the website is very poorly designed. No shade intended for its creator! It’s just that whoever it was clearly has stronger technical skills than graphic design chops. It all takes a little getting used, to but once you’ve figured out what’s clickable and what isn’t it’s a fount of information.
What we found especially helpful was to pair this website with Google Maps satellite view. When we found a likely spot, we’d copy the GPS coordinates out of FreeCampsites and paste it into Google Maps, then switch to satellite view and zoom in. Often you can see exactly where the camping spot is, and get a better sense for how well it will work for you. It can also help you identify the spot when you driving down a country road at dusk!
We found this combination invaluable when rumbling down rocky dirt roads in Utah this past summer and even coming up Big Sur. Nothing like going to sleep to the sound of sea lions barking.
Google Maps Satellite View
As long as we’re talking about Google Maps, it’s worth mentioning how useful this is by itself. A few years back, we rented a camper van out of Lagos on the southern coast of Portugal and boondocked for a week. Each day, we’d open up Google Maps on our phone or laptop, switch to satellite view and just slowly drag-scan the coast for spots with lots of campers or RV’s (easy to spot in a satellite picture). Our first night we found the spot below, for example, seen from satellite view and from the ground, respectively. The RVs in the satellite view were a tip that we’d be welcome.
Obviously, you need a camper van or an RV to pull this off, you’re not going to do it in a tent, but cities and residential neighborhoods are perfectly fine for overnight stays most of the time. It helps that we have a Roadtrek camper van, which is just “regular van” size. It’s not huge and conspicuous like an RV, there’s no pop-top like a Vanagon. When it’s time for us to go to sleep, we just pull the curtains and snuggle in. From the outside, there’s no reason to think there’s anybody sleeping inside, it just looks like a van parked on the street.
Your mileage may vary, but we’ve camped in all sorts of places people wouldn’t think of as “camping spots”: outside our favorite coffee shop in PT Townsend, Washington, on the streets of San Francisco, on the back streets of Mendocino, beachside rest stops, you name it. It’s such fun to tumble out of the van in the morning and you’re in the middle of the things.
Plus, since Michelle and Zevin tend to go to bed earlier than I do, being right in the middle of things means I can catch some live music, get a drink or just wander the city streets after they’ve gone to bed. I have fond memories of listening tofunk, bluegrass and swing at The Cellar Door in Port Townsend, walking the half block “home” to our van, drifting off to the sound of the waves, rolling out of bed and into Better Living Through Coffee in the morning, and then enjoying a van-cooked breakfast on the beach picnic tables next to the van. I wouldn’t trade that the fanciest boutique hotel in New York.
You can check the local laws, but unless you’re in a highly touristed area, you can generally assume that nobody is going to notice. In most cities we’ve been, overnight street parking is legal, so unless they know somehow that you’re sleeping inside and care, you’re fine. Find a quiet neighborhood, be discrete and move on in the morning.
If that scares you, try putting yourself in the mindset of the local police in your own home town. Do you think they’re driving around your neighborhood looking for vans that might have people asleep in them? Why would it be any different anywhere else? And worst case, you get a knock and maybe a ticket.
But honestly, the worst thing that’s ever happened to us is that we parked next to a bar’s bottle recycling bin, and pickup was at 6 am. That’s no way to wake up.
National Forests and BLM Land
Here’s a tip: it is legal to camp almost anywhere in a United States National Forest for free without a permit. You can check the National Forest website for their details (they call it dispersed camping), but their rules are basically:
- Not within 100′ of water
- Not within 1 mile of a “real” campground
- Don’t block a road
Also worth noting that “National Grasslands” are the same thing as “National Forests”, just with grass instead of trees. We discovered this when we traveled to eastern Oregon for the 2017 solar eclipse.
Bureau of Land Management (BLM) are the same deal: unless it’s posted “No Camping”, have at it (14 day maximum). When we travelled across Utah, we used the BLM website to find some maps of land where we’d be, and found this choice spot right just about 20 minutes east of Zion National Park.
We’ve found some pretty epic camping spots this way. Please let us know if you have any tips to add!