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Vanlife is incredible. You get to travel all the time, see amazing spots, and do WHATEVER you want WHENEVER you want (within the law). It’s an adventure I’m so lucky to be in. With all the upsides to road-tripping across the United States, van life does have its moments. Once we moved into our van, one of the most prevalent challenges we face on a daily basis is where to park. Finding free camping spots can be difficult and can often be the main problem of the day. In this post, I lay out how to research and find the top Vanlife free overnight parking and camping spots!
What is free camping?
Free camping can go by many names and have many meanings. Here are the ones that will be covered in this free vanlife overnight parking and camping guide.
- Dispersed– Camping in a national forest outside of a designated camping site. Typically won’t have services such as water, restrooms, fire pit etc.
- Stealthing/City Overnight Parking– Camping in areas such as a city where you don’t want people to know you are inside your vehicle.
- Backcountry Camping- This typically means tent only camping and you have to backpack in. If you are wanting to remain in your vehicle then this is NOT for you.
Rules for Free Camping:
Pack in and Pack out. DO NOT leave trash behind. This means your camp spot should look the same or even better than before you got there. If there is trash then do the land a favor and clean it up whether you put it there or not.
- Do not camp within 100 feet of any water source.
- Only park in an existing spot.
- Only make a campfire if there is an existing ring and there are not any current fire bans.
The Best Places for Vanlife Overnight Parking and Camping Spots for Free
Free camping on BLM Land
BLM land as a van lifer is your best friend. If you don’t know, then BLM land is the Bureau of Land Management and in several states, BLM land has two different kinds of camping: Dispersed Camping and Developed Camping. Dispersed Camping is completely free to camp on and Developed Camping is often super affordable camping spots that offer amenities such as toilets, fire rings, potable water, and hookups. You can typically stay in one dispersed camping spot for up to 14 days within a 28 day period. For more rules visit: the blm site.
States that have BLM Land:
- New Mexico
When you are looking for dispersed camping make sure you are staying on the roads (usually not the main road but rather a secondary dirt road) and parking on spots that you can tell has already been driven on and made into a spot. Often there will be a fire ring or you will see a flat spot that is worn down. When looking for spots always keep the land in mind and do not drive on places that look wild. We want to keep our lands beautiful and do not want to disturb the wildlife or local flowers. ABSOLUTELY do not park within 200 yards of freshwater sources overnight.
National Forest Land
Many National Forests have free camping sites that are available for use. These locations are typically down forest roads and you are encouraged to look for spaces that have already been used. You might see a fire ring or a pullout that looks worn.
These are some of Shawn and my favorite spots to camp as you get to be in the wild without being near a bunch of other people.
National parks are known for having their own paid campsites. In my opinion it can be worth it to pay for a spot while you are visiting a larger park like Yellowstone as it takes a few hours just to get inside of the park. However, often National Parks have free campsites available, even for vehicles. Your best bet is to call the ranger station and asked them about free camping if available!
Overnight Parking in Cities
So I wouldn’t exactly call this camping but rather when you are in a city and sleeping in your vehicle it is stealthing. There are some important things to remember when you need to sleep in your car overnight:
Some cities have banned sleeping in your car overnight. If you are caught you can be fined or jailed. I’m not trying to scare you but rather inform you. We have only gotten one knock on our door and they were super nice and simply asked us to move to the Wal-Mart down the street.
Arrive late and leave early. It’s proper etiquette in a city to try to make yourself as scarce as possible. You are visiting an area and it isn’t a real campsite. Don’t prop your camping chairs out start cooking outside. Typically if we know we are staying in a city we will cook somewhere like a park or with a view and then head to our spot for the night. We try not to make a spectacle out of ourselves and respect the area.
Rest Stops and Truck Stops
Rest stops when possible are a great option to catch some sleep for the night when you are in between destinations. As always be careful and mindful of your surroundings and stay safe!
Free Parking at Wal-Mart
Wal-marts are known for being a popular place to stop for the night. Most Wal-Marts allow overnight parking as they expect travelers will want to come in to stock up on food and supplies. They can be rather noisy and aren’t the best place to stay but they will do if there is no other option. Plus you can’t beat a free bathroom! I will typically check on Ioverlander to make sure that the Wal-Mart allows overnight parking. Here’s a cumulative list of Wal-Marts that don’t allow overnight parking. If you aren’t sure you can always call and ask customer service.
Bass Pro Shops and Cabella’s
Now that Bass Pro owns Cabella’s they typically allow overnight parking for RV’s and vanners. It’s another great spot to crash for a night and is typically quieter than Wal-Mart. Call ahead or check one of the apps below to see if each individual place allows overnight parking.
Many Casinos allow overnight parking for visitors. Most of the time you need to go in and register to stay on their property. They aren’t usually too loud and I’ve always felt pretty safe as there are so many RV’s and van lifers there camping too!
How to Find Dispersed Camping
The first thing you need to do when finding dispersed camping is figuring out where BLM land is available. Often there will be signs indicating that it is BLM land but other times there is no indicator. When we are going to be in one of the above states we will do some research beforehand and find areas that have dispersed camping. Here are a few steps we take to find free dispersed camping on BLM land.
Van Life Apps
Some great apps that are listed below often have BLM spots listed that are put in by users. Apps include Campendium, IOverlaner, and Vanlife App.
Go to the Ranger station
There are BLM offices in most bigger areas. They are super friendly and can help you find epic free spots in their area if it is available. They have 12 State offices that you can visit when you are in the area.
Best Apps & Websites to Find Free Camping
Our number one way to find free camping is through apps on our phone. They are crowdsourced and updated by users which keeps all the content fresh and up to date. The apps all have various features including where to find fresh water, dump stations, gas stations, etc, however, the best feature is by far the free camping finder.
IOverlander is one of our most-used apps for free camping. IOverlander is great as it works when you don’t have cell phone signal and is great for cities and in the wilderness. A top feature is that users are allowed to add pictures which gives you a real idea of the kind of area you are driving into and whether the views are as beautiful as the reviews are claiming.
Campendium focuses more on actual campsites. You can filter the campsite by paid or free allowing you to have multiple options. Although not great for cities Campendium focuses on the wilderness and we have found some incredible FREE camping spots with toilets in a scenic area. My favorite part of the app is that they have a spot for cell service broken down by carrier. Since we work on the road one of the worst things about looking for spots is finding a beautiful location that has zero bars of cell service.
Van Life App
The Vanlife App is another great option for finding free camping, hookups, dump stations and even finding other travelers on the road! It’s a newer app that just launched in 2019 by Van lifers who wanted to connect the community. The free version allows you access to everything but finding other travelers nearby.
RV All Stays Pro
All Stays is a popular website amoung RVer’s and Vanlifers that is great for finding free and paid camping spots, RV Parks, Laundry services, dump stations and so much more. My favorite feature is that you can filter the maps to show you different land types including BLM, Fish and Wildlife, US Forest, and more!
Note: RV All Stays has a phone app and website. The app is on your phone and the website is a seperate purchase and has extra features and has thousands more places and added features.
One of the first resources Shawn and I ever used, freecampsites.net often finds free camping where the other apps fail. The downside is that it isn’t an app and is hard to use on your phone.
A recommendation from Vanessa and Adam, popular Vanlife Youtubers and custom van builders recommend the app Harvest Hosts. The App helps you find Vineyards, Breweries, Distilleries, Orchards, or farms that allow free parking to self-contained (You don’t need a bathroom) Van or RVs. Most of the time the spots are free with the assumption that you will be a patron of their business.
I personally love going to a good brewery or winery and it’s a bonus that you don’t have to worry about driving afterward (Because don’t drink and drive people)!
The downside is that the app does cost but for $79 a year, you will save a ton on camping fees (sometimes up to $50).
Other Ways to Find Free Camping Spots
- Head to the local ranger station. The ranger station is a fantastic resource for free camping, finding great hikes and learning any closures or pertinent rules for the area. The rangers are always super nice and very helpful. Simply use your maps to find the closest ranger station and hop in to say hi!
- Call the BLM Office/Public Land Office. If you aren’t near the local public land office you can call and ask if they are able to give you advice over the phone.
- Ask a local. You’d be surprised by the amazing spots we have found by simply asking a local in the area. Usually this is a barista at a coffee shop we are a patron of or even a grocery store. Invest in the area and they will surprise you with their hospitality.
Free Camping Websites
- Ultimate Campgrounds Map
- BLM Website
- Harvest Hosts
- Vanlife App
- Divine on The Road Free Camping Map
Are you on the road? Do you find that it is difficult to find free camping or do you opt for paid camping spots? I’d love to hear your favorite ways to find free camping or learn how you travel! Let us know in the comments below 👇🏼