How To Find Free Van Camping In the United States
Whether it's wild camping or stealth camping, nearly seven months into our journey, we’ve managed to only pay for a place to stay on two occasions.
The first time it was $5 in Baja to stay on an amazing beach and later, a hotel for our anniversary getaway in Buena Vista, Colorado. Some of the most common questions we’re asked are “Where do you usually sleep?” and “Do you pay for camping?” followed by “Really? How do you find free spots?” Believe it or not, it’s pretty easy to do - no magic or secrets required. The good news is that there are plenty of public lands here in the States to camp your heart out for free.
Camping on Public Land
We spend most of our nights on public lands - our highly preferred accommodations. Public lands include National Forests and Bureau of Land Management Land (BLM), which are especially abundant in the western United States. Most public lands allow dispersed camping, aka sleeping wherever you want, for free. Dispersed camping can mean anything from a spot on the side of the road to the middle of a random meadow. Most of the dispersed camping that we do can be accessed via unpaved (sometimes rough) roads, though there are plenty of hike-in options as well. Here’s our process:
- Check Google Maps or your favorite maps app for nearby National Forests. We've found that not all map apps show the same data, so it's best to check between at least two to make sure you didn't miss anything. Then check for BLM land on publiclands.org or one of the maps on www.blm.gov.
- FreeCampSites.net + iOverLander - When we’re in unfamiliar territory without a National Forest nearby, we use FreeCampSites.net and iOverLander to pin point public lands which are not marked on Apple/Google Maps. We don’t always stay in the spots listed there but it’s nice to get a bird’s eye view of what’s around.
- Motor Vehicle Use Map + Offline Maps- Before we venture out of cell service, we download an offline map in Google Maps and try to grab a Motor Vehicle Use Map from a Ranger Station in a National Forest. Paper maps have proven to be much more useful than digital ones. Be warned: the Ranger Stations don’t always have them but the U.S. Forest Service website often has PDF downloads of these maps available. Motor Vehicle Use Maps are generally more detailed and accurate than Google Maps.
- The Fun Part- we combine knowledge from these various sources, pick a spot, wish ourselves luck and zoom off to explore!
In the event we have to stay around a town or city, we have to resort to urban/stealth camping. This includes anything from street parking to a Walmart parking lot or someone's driveway. We’ve had our best luck on quiet, residential streets with plenty of street parking where we can blend in a bit more. The drill is to roll in completely ready to go to bed. This means that the lights stay off and our mouths stay shut. We do this in order to be as considerate as possible to the people around us. One more thing: avoid sleeping directly in front of someone's property & find an in-between spot if you can. We'd hate to block someone from their usual parking spot.
- Walmart Parking Lots- While they aren't the most desirable or glamorous camping spots, Walmart parking lots are usually well-lit and a safe bet to stop off for the night. However, contrary to popular belief, not all Walmarts allow overnight parking, so don't say we didn't warn you.
- Ask the Locals- Here's where it helps to not be shy and talk to people. Find a local, whether it's your bartender, cashier, or random person on the street and ask them where some good spots to park for the night would be. It's not uncommon to score a quiet spot to sleep by just asking.
- VW Westy Driveway Group- Being part of the Vanagon community pays off in a lot of ways and this is just one of them. The VW Driveway Camping group on Facebook is a place where you can find other van owners close by willing to let you park for the night and maybe even get a hot shower. We haven't used this very much since the beginning of our trip but it has come in handy a few times and it's always nice to hang with other van folks.
That does it for our tips. How do you find free camping? Comment below!