How to Camp for FREE Anywhere in your Van
Paid campgrounds and RV parks can quickly blow a vanlifer’s budget so finding free spots to camp is essential for stretching those hard earned dollars. There is, however, an art to camping in even the most obvious places. In my four years of vanlife I have never paid for a campsite and I have only ever been moved on once, so here is my how to guide for legal and the not so legal free camping and my thoughts on the knock in the middle of the night.
Free Camping - The Legal Stuff: In the USA public lands allow free camping, so taking advantage of that low hanging fruit is always the easiest option. National Forests, BLM land, and grasslands are all free, so do your research and plan ahead. In Canada crown land is legal to camp on for free, although sometimes a little tricky to find, so again do your research and follow the links provided below. Walmart and Casinos will sometimes allow camping in their parking lots. Personally I am not a fan of these and have only ever spent one night in them purely because I think you can camp for free in much more beautiful spots, but if you’re in the middle of a city with not too many options they might be your best bet. Ensure you check with the staff that it is allowed before rolling out the tables and chairs for the pre-dinner drinks.
Europe is a bit of a mixed bag with many countries not only allowing free camping and overnight parking but actually encouraging it, however, some have heavy fines if you’re caught camping outside of the designated camping areas. Check out the resources at the end of this article to find the best spots and ensure you’re steering clear of the heavy fined areas.
Australia and New Zealand have plenty of free camping areas and lots of resources to find them but I find the Wikicamps app to be the best.
Rest stops and truck stops are a great place to stop if you’re on a long drive and don’t want to spend the time venturing too far to find a quiet spot away from the highway. This will work best if you do not setup a full campsite and make it look as though you just pulled over. Yes they’re noisy but they do generally have ok facilities. Some have signs saying no overnight parking or camping but I have never heard of anyone getting moved on from one and you can always play the “I’ll fall asleep and die if I continue driving without any sleep” card, its dramatic but I can’t see it not working.
Free Camping - The Not So Legal Stuff: Whilst I am not condoning breaking the law, if you choose to go down this route do so at your own risk and always, always, always be respectful of the land and the people close by. I think it should go without saying but I will state it anyways as a lot of spots that were once free to camp are now closed down because of issues with litter and zero respect. So please don’t be those people who ruin it for everyone else, leave no trace, be respectful, don’t stay too long, and give back somehow (even if it is just picking up a few pieces of garbage)!
Ok so now that little rant is done, here are my hot tips for how I camp for free in areas that may not be as openly accepting of campervans.
- Don’t park right in front of a no camping or overnight parking sign. It seems obvious, but there are plenty of spots that wont be too far away from the sign that will be better options, plus you will be more likely to talk your way out of a situation if you’re not within eyesight of any signs.
- In a city I will look for a public park that has houses on one side of the street and the park on the other. Parking on the park side, but close to a house makes it seem plausible that you might be in the house, but you are also not parking right on someone’s front lawn. Look for medium size parks, too small and the community seems to be more aware of new vehicles coming and going, while bigger parks tend to be patrolled more by police.
- Only sleep in the spot you plan on parking overnight. Cooking dinner and hanging out somewhere other than where you sleep will help not draw any attention to you for the night and add to the potential storyline that you are not living in your van. Brush your teeth and do whatever it is you have to do before bed in the other spot and drive to the sleeping spot just before calling it a night.
- Get in late and get out early. Attracting as little amount of attention is key so spending the least time possible in the one spot overnight helps reduce the amount of people who see you and also the suspicion that you’re sleeping inside your van. This point is the most important when you clearly know you’re not supposed to be there!
- Never stay in the same place consecutive nights and rotate your overnight parking spots. If you’re sticking around in a certain place for an extended amount of time find several spots you can park overnight and rotate between them. This helps with people not noticing that you’re now living across from their house and ensuring as little attention is drawn to you as possible. People are much more accepting if it is only for a night and they see you’re gone in the morning, whereas staying in the one spot for multiple days might be a little too much for them and are more likely to call the police.
- Cover up your windows. If you have drawn curtains with an ambient glow of light coming from inside the van it is pretty obvious you are inside. Get something that is solid and doesn’t look like a curtain to cover up your windows. I use the silver sunshades that you can pick up at any auto place and cut them to size to slide straight in the window. They not only help with blocking all of the light coming in or out but also add some insulation as an added bonus.
The dreaded knock on the van at 2am:
If you’ve done all you can to make it look as though you’re not sleeping in your vehicle and you still get the startling knock on the door in the middle of the night, should you answer it? People are a little divided over this because you can always be dead silent and pretend you’re not in the van and just hope they go away, or try and talk your way out of the situation. Whilst I have only had the knock once I opened the door to a policeman that was really nice and considerate and let us stay the rest of the night in the illegal spot with no repercussions. I have friends that did not answer the knock and woke up to a fine on the windshield, however another couple I know have never answered it and have had nothing happen in years. In the end I would say go with your gut and if your van is stealthy enough and not parked right in front of a no parking sign there is a fair chance you will be able to get out of it no matter which option you choose.
Free & Paid Camping Resources:
iOverlander (Free) – Great for North America and Europe with free and paid sites. I personally use this 95% of the time in North America.
Wikicamps ($7.99 Aus, Canada $2.99, New Zealand $2.99, UK $1.49, USA $2.99) – The best resource for Australia & New Zealand with free and paid sites. It does include USA, Canada and the UK too.
Ultimate Campgrounds ($7.99) – More paid sites than free but can be good for information. Also available online.
Campendium.com – Extensive resource for North America that allows you to filter your searches.
Freecampsites.net – A great resource for North America with plenty of information, however, a little harder to use on mobile than desktop.
Nationalmap.gov – Downloadable maps of the USA in PDF form with little information. They are good for identifying federal lands and Indian reservations. No information about actual campsites or dispersed camping.
Publiclands.org - Whilst this website only serves the Western states of USA it is a great resource that lists paid and free campsites. It also lists the hardcopy maps of each area you can buy if viewing digitally isn’t your thing.
Canadian Crown Land - All sites are outdated and painfully hard to use, however, they do have maps in PDF documents with valuable information - if you can find the area you need!
The Wright Guide to Free and Low-cost Campgrounds: Includes Campgrounds $20 and Under in the United States (Don Wright's Guide to Free Campgrounds) - $22.95 Paperback with free and low cost campsites with the USA
Camps Australia Wide 9 with Camps Snaps - $79.88 Spiral bound book. Comprehensive guide for campsites all over Australia including free verified sites, and includes images of the listed sites.