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In the vanlife community, it feels that most people tend to avoid the East Coast and flock only to the Mid-West, South – West and the West Coast. The West Coast is incredible and it is mostly van-friendly but it doesn’t make the East Coast a space you should avoid as a vanlifer. In fact, Shawn and I have now spent two winters in Florida and have loved it so much that we will probably be back next winter. Florida is more than it’s beaches and has more opportunities for dispersed camping than most people would have you believe. Vanlife in Florida is a beautiful experience and if you want to explore a part of the US other than the West Coast then I recommend giving it a try during the winter! To help you get your feet wet I have put together a Vanlife in Florida guide to help you find free camping, dog-friendly beaches, and so much more!
How to find free camping in Florida
Finding free camping in Florida doesn’t have to be difficult. The myth is that there is no free camping in Florida and that it is not vanlife friendly. Personally we have found this to be completely untrue. Free camping in Florida is just a little bit different than it is on the West Coast. Free camping is broken down into three main types:
There are a few National Forests in Florida that have dispersed camping sites available. The ones I have found are all in Northern Florida. You may stay for up to 14 days in the National forest but must abide but all Park Rules.
There are also paid camping sites with more amenities: to reserve a camping site in Northwest Florida visit nwfwater.com.
The two National Forests that allow dispersed camping in Northern Florida:
1. Osceola National Forest (Scroll to the bottom of the page to see all dispersed camping spots. Most appear to be first come first serve.
Rules for Dispersed Camping in Florida (straight from USDA)
- Leave no Trace
- Be Bear Aware
- Minimize Waste
- Camp Considerately
- Control Your Campfire (if allowed)
- Know the rules
- Pay close attention to the website as during Gun Season you are only allowed in designated camping sites.
For more information and full rules, please visit the USDA website.
Wildlife Management Area Sites
Something a little different about free camping in Florida is that a large amount of free camping is hosted by their Wildlife Management Area. The spots are still free however you have to sign up online for a permit and typically you reserve a spot. From my experience, you are just reserving a general location and don’t have to worry about an exact spot. The website will specify but some areas can have a fire ring, picnic table, restroom facilities, and even showers.
The downside is that many of the areas allow hunting which means you have to leave quite often for hunting days which are specified on their website.
Water Management Areas:
Misc. Camping Sites
These are the basic free boondocking sites that you would find anywhere. Wal-Mart’s, Cracker Barrel, and of course Stealth camping. The problem you will run into in Florida is many of the Wal-Marts do not allow overnight parking and many cities have made it illegal to sleep in your vehicle making stealth camping or boondocking more difficult. For more information check out my overnight parking guide which teaches you how to find free camping anywhere!
Top 3 free camping sites in Florida
1. Osceola National Forest
The Osceola National Forest has several areas for dispersed camping and my top recommendation is going to the Ranger’s station and getting recommendations from them. They are going to know the area best and can recommend a spot that will be great for your specific needs. The areas below are rated on Campendium but are possibly going to be filled with hunters so be aware of the time of year and know it might be noisy in the early mornings.
- East Tower Hunt Camp: This area is a good example of a nice place to stay for a night or two. It seems fairly flat and is easy to access. There are some trees but honestly, it’s pretty basic.
- Big Camp Hunt Camp: This campsite is a little harder to get to and reviews warn that if you have a big rig you might have difficulty. Another simple campsite that is great for a night or two.
2. Southwest Water Management District
In the Southwest Water Management District, there are several great camping sites available for free. You do need to apply online and reserve your spot but other than that it is pretty easy to get a spot. A few camping sites with good reviews on Campendium:
- Lake Panasoffkee – I personally visited this site and it’s quite nice. It has two main areas, the group camping, and the equestrian dispersed area. If available pick the equestrian dispersed area as there are tons of Spanish moss trees around and it is quite pretty. There are several trails surrounding the campsites for horses, biking, and walking. It is a rather crowded camping area though and might not be great if you wanted to be alone. There is trash available and a nice enclosed bathroom available although these might not be available year-round.
- Potts Preserve – Dee River Campground: The Potts Preserve area seems to be a pretty area filled with Spanish moss with a river nearby for kayaking. There are two campgrounds one that is primitive and one that is dispersed. Both have a combination lock that you need to have and you will receive the code when you make your reservation. The road is quite bumpy and long to get in so prepare for that and try to arrive before dark.
- Green Swamp Wilderness Preserve: A little further south at the Withlacoochee State Forest is a few good campsites with high reviews. The Green Swamp Wilderness Preserve is a nice campground surrounded by Spanish Moss and plenty of trails, ponds, and wildlife.
3. Dupuis Management Area
Dupuis Management Area has been highly recommended by several vanlifers. It is near Palm Beach and Jupiter Beach, two of my favorite areas and has showers, a recreational trail, and best of all, it is free. Make sure you apply for a permit before heading that way or you will not be able to camp there! The non-equestrian sites are the only ones available for people who do not have a horse, make sure to book accordingly.
*A Florida Camping Warning*
Whether you are camping, hiking, or exploring please remember that Florida has alligators everywhere. Whether in a city park, pond, swamp, or any kind of water, there’s a possibility of there being an alligator. I’m not saying this to scare you but rather to give you a warning. This is a dog-friendly website and I want to make you aware that you should keep your dogs on leash and be mindful of whether you let them in the water. Personally I didn’t let my dogs in any of the water in Florida. It simply was not worth the risk.
Top Places to shower
Showering is one of the top issues after finding free camping that you might face with vanlife in Florida. Here are a few places that you will find across the state that make it easy to find showers in Florida!
There are around 100 Planet Fitness locations across the state of Florida. This means most places in the state are bound to have a location or one near it! This is one of the many reasons why we recommend Planet Fitness for vanlifers.
Florida is full of beaches! Which means that there are plenty of beach showers. The downside is that most outdoor beach showers are just outdoor showers. Meaning you aren’t going to be stripping down and using shampoo or soap. It’s a great opportunity to rinse off and feel a little better about yourself.
Free camping spots
The great thing about all the free camping spots in Florida is that there are quite a few that have free bathrooms and showers. When you are looking into free sites do your research and see what amenities come with the free site.
Our Favorite Sights in Florida
I probably should label this “Our favorite beaches in Florida” but for now these have been our favorite places while we stayed in Florida. I will note that we typically stay in Florida during the winter which can mean fewer crowds and lower temps.
St. Augustine was the first place in vanlife that we were finally able to relax. The beach is beautiful and allows dogs (on-leash). We were able to hang out all day and there is a parking lot close where we were able to hang out on the beach and quickly head to the van to cook lunch or work if need be. The town of St. Augustine is also very cool and known for its history. They have breweries, incredible restaurants, and tons of window shopping.
Jupiter Beach is a must-visit for dog owners in my opinion. Dogs are allowed off-leash and there is free street parking right beside the beach. The beach is absolutely stunning and offers beautiful waves and bright blue ocean scenes. It isn’t a huge town or a great place necessarily to go check out the night light life but the ocean well makes up for it. Bring your pooch, a picnic lunch and watch the kite surfers enjoy the waves!
Fort De Soto
Fort De Soto is a very cool Park in Pinellas County on the West side of Florida. It offers 1100 acres of interconnected islands. From Beaches, trails, camping, kayaking, and more Fort De Soto is well worth the $5 entry fee per vehicle.
The Florida Keys
We LOVED the Florida Keys. Everyone is on vacation and so everyone is happy, relaxed, and in no rush. You can hang out at the beach, walk down Duvall St., get some Key Lime Pie, enjoy some incredible sunrises and explore all the small Keys surround Key West.
The Best Vegan Restaurants in Florida
I’ve found that a large number of vanlifers eat a plant-based diet while traveling. A part of this is largely due to the fact that having raw meat in the van is a bit of a pain and it’s hard to keep bacteria from spreading. This being said, we practice a plant-based diet and therefore our recommendations are plant-based. Most of the below recommendations are plant-based only restaurants.
Present Moment Café
A top vegan pick in the St. Augustine area is Present Moment Café known for not only being a vegan restaurant but also for their raw and gluten-free options. It is located a few miles off St. Augustine Beach but gives you a chance to see the other side of St. Augustine. A little pricer than some of the below options but Present Moment Café makes it worth it by choosing to use fresh and organic ingredients. The menu is full of a variety of options from sushi, salad (check out the un-tuna salad), three different types of vegan burger meat, sandwiches and even some delectable dessert options. If you decide to swing by the east side of Florida then this is a must-visit!
Nature’s Food Patch
So full disclosure Nature’s Food Patch is technically a grocery store located in Clearwater Beach. However, they offer incredible freshly made hot sandwiches, smoothies and have a selection of vegan salad bar options. Every time we visit we make sure and grab some chipotle pasta, tabbouleh, and crackers from the deli. It’s a great spot for vegan/plant-based and health-conscious shoppers.
The Golden Dinosaur
The Golden Dinosaur opened up in Gulfport, FL in 2018 the same year we began vanlife. It is a vegan-only restaurant offering hot and cold sandwiches, mac n cheese, salads, and the best waffle fries you will ever eat. We love the buffalo tempeh sandwich which tastes pretty similar a TTLA (Tempeh Tomato Lettuce Avocado) sandwich but has the added flavor of buffalo and their homemade ranch dressing. Make sure and grab extra ranch for your waffle fries! Every time we visit we buy a small container of the ranch to take home because we love it so much!
When it is nice outside make sure and bring the pups as they have a large patio that is dog-friendly!
Love Life Cafe
A small regret I have is not visiting the Love Life Cafe when we were in Miami in 2018. It is a fully vegan restaurant and has even won an award for the best vegan burger in America! They offer breakfast including JUST Egg entrees, soup and salads that won’t bore you, burgers (remember that award), pizza and even some bowls! Next time you are in the area, please check it out and let me know how badly I messed up by not visiting!
The Best Dog-Friendly Beaches in Florida
St. Augustine Beach
St. Augustine Beach allows pups on-leash. During the winter months, we found the beach to be quite calm and a great place to run with the dogs. The beach is beautiful and we truly love the town of St. Augustine.
Fort De Soto
Fort De Soto Park, which I mentioned earlier not only has miles and miles of trails but it has an incredible beach that is dog-friendly and allows pups off-leash! All of our dogs have gotten to enjoy Fort De Soto beach and run wildly on the shore enjoying the waves and Florida sun. If you have a well-behaved pup and are in the area, I highly recommend it!
Jupiter Beach is by far my favorite place in Florida. The beach is absolutely stunning AND dogs are allowed off-leash in a designated area (2.5 miles!!). The area is full of locals and you can tell by their laid back attitude. We spent two weeks in the area and Jax absolutely loved running up and down the beach. The caveat is they recommend you come during off-peak hours as there are many people who frequent the beach and we want to keep it dog-friendly. So make sure you have a well-behaved dog and try to go early or closer to sunset.
Head a little further south into Miami and you will find a few dog-friendly beaches. Our favorite one was Haulover Beach. There is a small section where dogs are allowed (on-leash). It is the only dog beach in the area that doesn’t charge you an entrance fee other than the $2 parking fee.
From beautiful beaches to long forest roads with Spanish moss all around you Florida is a must-visit state for vanlifers. We highly recommend Vanlife in Florida and hope this guide will inspire you to visit!