A unique quality of van life is that you don’t always know where you’re going to spend the night. It’s not like you have a fixed address you return to at the end of the day. In some places, like the American southwest, there are vast expanses of public land where you can camp out for free. Other places may be more populated, but people generally don’t care if you park on the side of the road for the night. Still other places, like the Northeast, get particularly picky about overnight parking, and actively make it difficult to find a place to stay. Nevertheless, we persisted, including several months in New England. Here’s how I do it.
Tips and Tricks
We’ll start with a few general ways of doing things that will help you stay out of trouble and avoid complaints.
Keep It Legal
Whatever you do, do NOT park overnight someplace where it’s blatantly illegal. If the town park closes at sunset (as many do), parking there overnight invites that dreaded knock on the door and the order to move. For much of the year when snow could be in the air, most New England towns ban overnight street parking completely. You might think it’s smart to park overnight at Home Depot the night before you plan to go buy some building supplies, but if there are signs in the lot prohibiting overnight parking, don’t do it. Some towns or cities may even have laws on the books regarding overnight parking, but no signs informing visitors of them. Ignorance of the law is no excuse, they’ll tell you.
Fortunately, you can often go online and search for any overnight parking laws a particular town or city might have. It might be legal on some streets but illegal on others, for example. Make an effort to know the law and comply with it. If you try but fail to comply, that’s a good honest story to tell the officer. It demonstrates your intention to comply, which makes you look better. They’re typically much more willing to forgive an honest mistake than a willful violation.
As a general rule, you want to keep police encounters to a minimum. While some officers may have no problem with you living in a van, others may use your parking violation as an excuse to question you further, give you a hard time, or even search your van if they believe they have probable cause to do so. “You have drugs in there, don’t you?” This actually happened to an RVer I talked to in St. Louis, who got searched for no reason other than driving his RV through a high drug traffic area. You don’t want to give them any excuse to tear your home apart. At best, this is a major inconvenience. At worst, you could find yourself in deep legal trouble if they find something they don’t like, such as weapons that may not be legal where you are, or actual drugs rather than made-up ones. (What you carry is your business, not mine, so I won’t get into that. All I’ll say is, don’t give them a reason to find it.)
Clean Up After Yourself
This should go without saying, but it’s enough of a problem that, unfortunately, I still need to say it. Whether you’re in the middle of nowhere or camping at “Chateau Walmart,” don’t make a mess, and especially don’t leave a mess behind. It’s disrespectful, bad for the environment, and it upsets land owners, who may then refuse to allow us to stay there in the future. Many places that formerly welcomed us no longer do because people made a mess of the place. That’s one reason many Walmarts no longer allow overnight parking. Even the Bureau of Land Management has had to start restricting how many people can stay in a certain area to manage the environmental impact on the land. This is why major events like the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous are becoming harder and harder to hold.
Stay on the Move
Unless you’re somewhere that explicitly allows you to stay for multiple days, don’t. Pick a spot, spend a night, then move on. This is how you avoid nosy neighbors complaining about some hobo living in their van intruding into their upscale neighborhood. If people complain, the police are required to investigate. It’s their job. Even if they agree you’ve broken no laws, they might still ask you to leave based on the complaint.
That doesn’t mean you can only park there once ever, though. If you stay in a particular area, find several different spots to spend a night, and alternate between them. Try not to stay in the same spot more than once a week. If you mix it up randomly and don’t have a strict schedule, it’s less likely anyone will notice and complain. For all they know, you might be just visiting a friend’s house from time to time.
“Home is where you park it,” they say. Being able to park your home and live in it for free is one of the major attractions of van life, particularly for people who can’t afford to pay rent. Here are some ways to achieve that.
The Side of the Road
Simply pull over, and you’re good for the night. This works well out in the middle of nowhere, because nobody’s around to care. It’s also useful in urban areas. Overnight street parking is often allowed because there’s simply nowhere else to park. Check for any signs that tell you about parking limitations, not just the obvious “no overnight parking” signs, but also times it may not be allowed for street sweeping. If you’re outside those times and there are no signs telling you that you can’t, then go for it, especially if you see other cars parked on the street nearby. Just keep to yourself, don’t be obvious about the fact that you’re living in there, and move along first thing the next morning.
A Little Help From Your Friends
One of the best ways to guarantee safe, legal overnight parking is with a friend. It’s private property, and as long as you have their permission to park there, you’re in the clear. I spent two months in the summer of 2021 driveway hopping from one friend’s house to another. It was a great opportunity to visit with friends I haven’t seen in a while, as well as friends I wasn’t going to see again for a long time as I departed New England indefinitely. This whole adventure began in friends’ driveways, before the van was ready to be lived in. They gave us the opportunity to finish building it. Most of my major modifications since then have also been tackled at a friend’s place. Los Angeles, California, is known for a sky high cost of living, yet I spent a few weeks visiting a friend of mine there and getting repairs done to my van.
While I’ve typically parked in friends’ driveways at their houses, don’t rule out their businesses if that’s an option. I have a friend who runs an auto repair shop, and he invited me to park in his lot for a few days. I didn’t need any work on my van at the time, but that wasn’t the point.
Since I hadn’t traveled much before getting into the van, most of my friends are around New England. Thanks to the internet, however, I have friends all over the place. I’ve started meeting some of them in real life for the first time as I travel and pass through town. I have several standing invitations from people all over the country to visit and stay with them if/when I get to their areas. Of course, you do need to be more careful meeting strangers for the first time. The good news is that if things don’t go well, you can simply drive away and never come back.
If you tend to avoid the interstate, like I do, these may be less useful. But, highway rest areas can still be an excellent place to spend a night. These can be as simple as a parking lot near Franconia Notch, New Hampshire, or the massive Georgia Welcome Center right off I-95, both of which I’ve spent enjoyable nights at.
Of course, you have to read the signs and see if overnight parking is allowed or not. Another rest area in Georgia where we’d planned to stay had great reviews online, but shiny new “No Overnight Parking” signs when we got there. We moved on. But as long as there are no signs prohibiting overnight parking, you should be okay.
Be sure to park somewhere out of the way, not right next to any buildings or bathrooms. Not only is it polite to leave these spaces for people who are just going in and out, it’ll be quieter away from the routine traffic of ordinary travelers. That Georgia rest area off I-95 has an excellent setup, with trucker parking in back and car parking in front. But the car parking also loops around the back of the building. I parked back there for the night, far from the loud trucks as well as ordinary travelers passing through on the front side.
Walmart and Other Box Stores
It’s been long established that Walmart often allows RVers and other travelers to spend the night in the outer reaches of their parking lots. That’s still true, but these days it’s more hit or miss than ever. Some stores have banned overnight parking after people took advantage of this policy, and set up camp for days or even weeks at a time. So keep to yourself, don’t set up an extensive camping area in the parking area, and clean up after yourself. In other cases, town ordinances banning overnight parking take precedence over the store’s policy. So do your research and make sure the Walmart where you intend to stay actually allows overnight parking.
Walmart may have started this trend, but they’re not the only ones. Camping World is another place that often allows travelers to spend the night. It makes great sense, especially because RVers may want to shop there as well. Cabela’s and Bass Pro Shops are almost universally good places to park. Some even have RV dump tanks and dedicated RV parking areas.
The reason these stores allow you to spend the night in their lots is simple. You’re more likely to shop there if they do. While I do prefer to support small local business, I can’t deny the convenience of pulling into a Walmart Superstore, shopping for groceries as well as any other items I need, then settling in for the night. It’s something I do regularly in my travels. Walmart was a frequent overnight stop during my Route 66 trip.
Another place known for being super friendly to travelers is Cracker Barrel restaurants. Nearly all of them allow overnight parking, and most have dedicated oversize parking spaces for buses and RVs. In Flagstaff, Arizona, this was the only place to legally stay in town. Once again, they do this on the assumption that you’ll have a meal inside. For me, this isn’t a hardship at all. The food is good and reasonably priced. Unlike many restaurants, the portions are a reasonable size. I can order a regular meal and not have leftovers, which is good when you’re traveling and don’t have room for them.
Another community of people who live on the road is truck drivers. They literally keep this country going by delivering freight everywhere. They have a vast infrastructure set up to support them, and to a certain extent we can leverage that, too. Pilot, Flying J, Love’s… These are all chains that cater specifically to the needs of truckers. But they also have facilities that ordinary drivers can use, too, such as gas and diesel pumps, convenience stores, restaurants, and so on. They often have showers, and sometimes have laundry. Check out the trucker gadget section and you may see some items you don’t know how you ever lived without, like fans or mini-fridges. In hot weather I swear my by 12-volt tornado fan I picked up in the trucker section of a Love’s while waiting for my shower.
Truckers are only allowed to drive so many hours before being required by law to take a long rest break. Truck stops give them a place to spend their break and get some rest. They’ll often let travelers like us do that, too. Then we can utilize the facilities they offer truckers to make our own lives a little bit easier.
One place you might not have considered staying overnight is a casino. Like the other businesses described here, they want you to come spend your money with them, whether on gambling, food, or drinks. They also realize the value of inviting RVers and other travelers to spend a night in their parking lot. You might not want to try it in places known for gambling, like Las Vegas or Atlantic City. They may also prohibit overnight parking, so check to be sure. In places not known for gambling, though, such as one I stayed at in Oxford, Maine, it’s no problem at all, so keep your eyes open for those. Native reservations are a good place to find casinos. As sovereign nations, state laws prohibiting gambling don’t apply to them, and casinos are a great source of revenue for the tribe.
Some may say this isn’t “real” van life. Anyone can drive to a campground, set up a tent, and call it home for the night. It’s true that campgrounds have far more amenities than a random parking lot. Sometimes it’s worth spending some money for that extra convenience.
However, not all campgrounds cost money, which is why I’m including them in this section of free sites. If you know where to look, there are quite a few free ones out there, such as Hidden Hollow Campground in Fernwood State Forest, Ohio, where I’ve stayed a couple of times. This one in San Jon, New Mexico, is right between Interstate 40 and Route 66. Facilities at free campgrounds are limited, if they have any at all, but they’re still a good place to park for a night, or three, or fourteen, whatever their time limit is.
If you want something more rustic than a campground, National Forests and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land offer dispersed camping options. Basically, you can set up camp anywhere you like, as long as you comply with the rules. These rules can vary from place to place. The White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire has dispersed camping, but it has to be a quarter mile away from most roads in the area. This doesn’t help people like us who “camp” in our vehicles. I did, however, spend a night on the side of a road in this National Forest that was a clearly marked exception to this rule. Again, read the signs, understand the rules, and you may find that it’s easier to keep it legal than you expect.
Out west, BLM land is everywhere, and countless nomads camp out on it, especially during the winter months in the southwest. There are numerous free campsites available here. You can camp in the same place for 14 days out of every 28. Basically, you can set up a temporary camp for up to two weeks, but then you have to move. Yes, you can move to another BLM site — it just has to be at least 25 miles away. These minimal restrictions exist to prevent anyone from turning what’s supposed to be public land into a permanent home.
Pay to Play
Sometimes you may want some amenities, facilities, and creature comforts that you’re not going to find on BLM land or in a Walmart parking lot. You may be able and willing to pay for such amenities at times. Here are some places that will be happy to take your money in return for providing these conveniences.
When it comes to campgrounds, you get what you pay for. While free campgrounds usually offer few, if any facilities, a camp site you pay for will provide many. These can arrange from a simple picnic table, fire ring, and pit toilet, to real bathrooms and showers. Some places may even have on-site laundry, WiFi, or a pool. After our mad dash van build, we fled the frozen north to the Virginia Beach KOA to take a week off from the post-fire madness. It cost about $180 for five nights, but it included all of these luxuries, which I had no problem paying for so that, just for once, we didn’t have to worry or even think about where to find them, for a change. It was also a good transition away from staying in friend’s driveways and into beginning our actual van life after tying up loose ends in our former home of New Hampshire.
If you don’t want to move every 14 days on BLM land, they also offer long-term visitor areas (LTVA). Unlike dispersed camping you need to pay to stay, but the prices are quite reasonable. It works quite similarly to a campground, except there still aren’t many facilities available. It’s still the lap of luxury compared to absolutely no facilities in dispersed camping.
These can be hit or miss. Some RV parks are particularly snobby over who, and what, they will allow to stay. Some have age limits on the vehicles they’ll allow in, as well as require a pleasant appearance. Some won’t recognize our vans as RVs and laugh us right out of there.
Others, however, will welcome us with open arms. I’m a member of the Escapees RV Club. Among numerous other things, they operate a number of RV parks around the country, and affiliate with many more. One of them, Sumter Oaks RV Park in Florida, is the domicile address they provide people who wish to officially reside in Florida, which is what we did. We decided the most convenient place to stay while arranging this was this specific RV park. Even though we’re never legally required to visit to establish residency, it was convenient. They welcomed us with open arms, despite having a rusty old van from New England rather than a shiny quarter million dollar motorhome. This, too was about $180 per week. It was no trouble at all to extend our stay for a second week when we discovered that license and registration appointments were by appointment only, and booked out until the following week. They took great care of us, and I’d stay there again.
For an annual fee (normally $99, but I joined for half price over the holidays), you can join Harvest Hosts, and gain access to a whole bunch of places you never considered spending a night before. These include wineries, breweries, farms, and museums. I joined mainly because as I travel, I enjoy sampling beer local to the area, so I’d be seeking these places out anyway. This way, I also get to spend the night there, which is especially useful if I’m drinking! They do expect you to actually patronize the places you stay, and not just use them for free overnight parking. That’s only fair. And unless the host explicitly invites you to stay longer, you’re limited to a one-night stay.
It’s not just about the booze, either. In addition to breweries, I’ve stayed places like the Tallahassee Auto Museum, and literally parked on their lawn overnight. I’ve spent the night in the middle of an apple orchard in central Massachusetts. I’ve even stayed at a primate rescue and met hundreds of monkeys face-to-face.
Besides the annual fee, your vehicle must have certain equipment to qualify for Harvest Hosts. You must be self-contained, with a toilet, water tank, and inside cooking facilities. You’ll also need to capture your grey water somehow. You could get by with the cheapo 5-gallon bucket, water jugs for both fresh and grey water, and a one-burner butane stove, if you don’t want to get extravagant. Plus, I’ve never had anyone actually inspect my van to make sure I had all this. Just be respectful, and don’t dump anything at all on their property.
Very similar to Harvest Hosts is Boondockers Welcome. In this case, it’s private individuals, rather than businesses, who allow you to park on their property. There’s an annual membership fee, but parking is free. (Some hosts also provide hook-ups for a small fee.) Vehicles must be self-contained, like Harvest Hosts, except Boondockers Welcome also explicitly requires a sink. This locked me out with my original build. Qualifying for Boondockers Welcome was my primary reason for adding a sink, which I do find myself using more now that I have it.
Because you’re parking at private homes, I’ve found that the hosts tend to screen you a bit more carefully than Harvest Hosts do. It’s only fair. I’ve had some requested stays denied because they weren’t going to be there, and forgot to block off dates as unavailable. I had another denied because when I asked about a steep slope they mentioned in their listing, they confirmed that I’d probably scrape my motorcycle carrier and wouldn’t fit. Getting denied is not the end of the world, by any means. Plus, hosts and guests rate each other after the stay. The more you stay and are a respectful guest, the better reputation you earn. Bad guests will soon find themselves locked out of the network.
Many Boondockers Welcome hosts are part-time travelers themselves. Becoming a host gets them a massive discount on their annual membership fee. Whenever someone stays with them, they get additional credits toward stays of their own. If a host does it right, they can essentially be a member for free by letting others stay with them. If you’re a part-timer with space to park a fellow traveler, it can be well worth it for you to join up and offer this.
Harvest Hosts has bought Boondockers Welcome. In October 2021, they merged both networks into Harvest Hosts. Members of either network can find and book places to stay. Members of both networks, like me, now have the convenience of searching both at the same time. Further changes are no doubt on the way, hopefully including a discount for members of both.
How To Find These Places
As the saying goes, “There’s an app for that.” Several, actually. These are the ones I’ve used and how they’ve worked for me.
This is a slick app that lets you find both free parking as well as campgrounds. Either enter the area where you want to stay, or click the giant “Search Near Me” button, and it’ll pull up a map with suitable places on it. It’s fast and easy to use.
Take its info with a truckload of salt, especially Walmart listings. RV Parky lists every Walmart as allowing overnight parking. This is absolutely NOT true! You have to check each store’s ratings and comments to see if they actually allow it or not. A one-star rating is a good sign that it’s not allowed, while four to five stars confirms that it’s a good one. The more recent the comments you can find, the better. A store that may have gotten a five-star rating and comment about a wonderful night spent there in 2017 may have changed their policy since then and no longer allow it.
That said, the speed and ease of looking up places, as compared to some of these other apps, still makes it one of the first places I look for an overnight stop.
The information in here is typically much more reliable than RV Parky. Unfortunately, the user interface is a lot more clunky, making it more difficult to use. Your only search options are to browse a map, or list places close to where you are right now. Neither is useful if you’re looking to spend the night 200 miles away.
iOverlander lists a larger variety of places than RV Parky. I’ve spent some wonderful nights at boat ramps and dispersed camping locations that don’t appear on RV Parky. It also lists places where you can get water or propane. This app is equally useful to RVers, van lifers, and overlanders.
This isn’t an app, but a website, and it’s equally as useful as these first two. It lists both free and paid places to park or camp for a night or more. The comments provide useful information such as road conditions to some of the more remote sites, or how many campsites are available at a given location. It’s basic, but useful, and also contains some information that RV Parky and iOverlander don’t.
I already described the service, so I won’t repeat that here. They have their own app to find and book places to stay. As of October 2021, it now works for both the Harvest Hosts AND Boondockers Welcome networks. It’s fast, easy to use, and effective.
This is an app that lets you find privately owned paid campsites, not free ones. Some are quite cheap, while others are not. Available facilities are across the board, from none to all of them. This is also suitable to ordinary campers traveling with a tent. My very first solo van trip was to a Hipcamp site in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. I typically prefer staying places for free, but it’s a good app, good service, and has none of the equipment requirements that Harvest Hosts or Boondockers Welcome do.
I haven’t used this one much yet, mainly because it’s most useful in areas with a great deal of public land to camp on, like the southwest. It shows a wide variety of types of parking, including everything I’ve discussed here. I’ll be checking this one out more and seeing how it works for me.
While it can be tough to find in certain areas, there’s no shortage of places to park overnight out there. Many of them are free. In my entire Smokey Coast to Coast journey, I paid for overnight parking precisely once, at Red Rock Park in New Mexico. I chose to because it was only $13 per night ($25 with hookups, which let me refill my water jugs and batteries), and because it was such a beautiful place.
Finding a place to park overnight is one of the most commonly asked questions in the van life community. I’ve found that most people make it more complicated than it really needs to be. Don’t overthink it. Just figure out where you want to spend a night (or ten), do some research through the apps or other websites, and go. It’s that easy.