Driving a campervan across the United States is part of the new norm for the great American road trip — lauded for its cheap price tag and ability to deepen our love for this wild and diverse country. But with the average RV park/campsite costing $20 to $40 per night, you could spend a small fortune getting to know the national and state parks that preserve the prettiest parts of the US.
But you don’t have to pay to sleep in your van. Not if you learn the ins and outs of stealth camping and where you can legally camp for free this summer. From BLM land to dispersed camping to sneaky city camping, here are our tips for scoring free overnight van camping on your next road trip.
How to camp for free in the wilderness
When camping in the wilderness, gushing waterfalls, grazing moose, and sandstone arches become your backyard. This is what vanlife dreams are made of and it’s not far from reality. A major benefit of choosing to boondock is the ability to fully immerse in the wilderness. The enchanting illusion of isolation remains intact if you’re not required to return to the orderly blueprint of established campgrounds.
Boondocking, dry camping, wild camping, whatever you prefer to call it, is essentially the act of camping in an unestablished campsite. Stealth camping isn’t reserved for illegal overnighting. Whether you’re immersed in the uninhabited wilderness or surrounded by the faint sounds of downtown traffic, it’s smarter and safer if you can conceal that you’re sound asleep inside. Here’s where you can camp free of cost (and hopefully free of human contact) in the wilderness.
Head to Bureau of Land Management (BLM) or US Forest Service Land
Here is some soul-crushing news: Scenic sweeping views straight from your campsite rarely come free (Utah is a rare exception). But you will stumble upon these vistas time and again, almost always on a swath of BLM land. BLM land is public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management to preserve the natural, cultural, and historical resources of the land. This covers an amazing 245 million acres of land across the US, and because it’s public land — meaning you partially own it as a citizen — you can camp on most of it.
The perk of BLM land is that it’s all over the country, especially in the west. Cell service can be spotty, so instead of relying solely on apps you can also head to a local BLM office, available in cities and towns near public lands, and get a map of dispersed campsites in the area.
While the governing bodies differ, land managed by the US Forest Service is also public-owned and, for campers, falls under the same general concept as BLM land. Dispersed campsites are located throughout national forests across the US. When searching for campsites on public lands, keep an eye out for posted signs prohibiting overnight camping. These are common in trailhead parking lots, for example. Don’t be afraid to take the road less traveled — sometimes a dirt road or a remote highway pullout can be a great option for a single night. If there isn’t a sign prohibiting overnight parking, you’re in the clear.
Some helpful tips for locating the best free van campsites on public lands
Benjamin Franklin said, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” This wide-ranging speck of wisdom is particularly applicable when it comes to van camping. Follow these tips to improve your odds of finding a great free campsite.
Find your campsite before dusk
Don’t wait until nightfall to start searching for your site. The dark makes it difficult to determine a legal spot from an illegal one, or a safe spot from an unsafe one. It’s always easier and stress-free to assess the campsite in the light of day.
Search before you lose service
Anytime you’re entering the wilderness it’s a safe assumption that you’ll be beyond the reach of cell phones. This is where a little preparation comes in handy. Check your apps, download the necessary offline maps from Google, and start the GPS to your predetermined campsite.
Take what you can get
Don’t get hung up on finding the perfect spot because it doesn’t exist. If a campsite meets your needs for the night or the weekend, give it a shot. At the risk of sounding cheesy, it’s not the views that make the weekend, it’s the memories.
Look up local regulations
Every state has very different rules on acceptable overnight campsites. In Florida, for example, you can camp on many public beaches throughout the state with your tires in the sand, but try the same thing in California and you’re sure to get the dreaded midnight knock. More remote regions in Idaho, Montana, or Wyoming have far less regulation than their East Coast counterparts.
Don’t be afraid to ask your fellow van-dwellers. Popular van-camping towns like Moab, Utah, or Jackson Hole, Wyoming, are absolutely bursting with long- and short-term vanlifers. If they’ve been here a while, you can bet they know the best BLM land and dispersed camping sites in the area. Those of us residing in vans have to stick together, which oftentimes means trading tips and sharing the best sleeping spots.
How to “camp” for free in the city
Summer vanlife plans generally involve more wide-open blue skies than skyscrapers, more mountains than metros, in the hope that your only traffic jams are bison-related. But depending on your destination you might need to overnight in a city or two. Don’t spring for the roadside motel just yet. Here’s how you can van-camp for free in cities.
Metered parking after hours
Parking meters often stop ticking sometime between 5:00 to 8:00 PM, leaving you in the clear to street-park overnight for free. Just be sure to move your van bright and early before the meters expect to be fed.
Street cleaning makes for easy street sleeping
In heavily-trafficked cities, stake out a street just after the regularly scheduled street cleaning because you’ll be guaranteed that all the spaces will be vacated, leaving you with plenty of room to maneuver even the clunkiest vehicle into a legal spot. In most cities across the US, you can legally park in one designated spot for 72 hours before you’re required to move. These rules don’t change just because you’re snoozing inside. There are exceptions to this rule. Certain counties in California, near the Big Sur region, for example, or cities like San Diego have enacted vehicle habitation laws that prohibit living or sleeping in your van.
Here’s a quick list of free (legal) van camp spots you can use in cities this summer
- Cracker Barrel
- Home Depot
- Truck Stops
- 24-hour businesses like laundromats; technically, for customers only, so take advantage of the chance to do some laundry
Odds are if you’re reading this, you’ve probably already built or purchased your campervan and are ready to pound the pavement. But for the few of you who haven’t yet grabbed a hammer, you have the opportunity to go full incognito. Here are some easy tips for ensuring you fly under the radar and that your van doesn’t wave any red flags.
Opt for a vehicle with fewer windows
The more windows, the more window covers — a dead giveaway for us van-dwellers that there are people sleeping inside.
Toss a hard hat and a clipboard on the dash
Work vans attract a lot less attention than campervans. The hard hat and clipboard trick obviously won’t fool anyone who takes the time to talk to you, but for the quick passerby, it can do the trick. This works best with white cargo-style vans. Because, let’s be honest, you’re not fooling anyone in your VW bus.
Bigger isn’t better, though you should consider high-clearance or 4×4 vans
Lengthy or wide vehicles will be limited in terms of parking (and access) in both cities and national parks. The most scenic free spots are reserved for those who can reach them.
Apps to help you score free van camping this summer
Van-dwelling technology has exploded with the activity’s popularity. These apps will help you secure free, scenic, convenient parking, as well as help you track down essential amenities while on the road like a well-deserved warm shower.
iOverlander — This free app relies on user recommendations for campsites, water-refill stations, showers, gray-water dump sites, and all the van-dwelling road trip essentials. It’s also a great resource for locating nearby BLM land.
Freeroam — A favorite for both free and paid campsites, this app is easier to use than iOverlander and offers the same benefits, while being more aesthetically pleasing for tech-savvy van road trippers.
The Dyrt — The paid version of this app is infinitely more helpful than the free version. With lots of photos and tons of users, this app is definitely worth splurging on.
Spot Angel — This app shows where the free street parking was in real-time. The only downside to the app is that it only works in major metropolises that have lots of users reporting.