Vanlife: Guide to Sleeping & Overnight Parking

Vanlife Guide to Sleeping and Overnight Parking.

One of the most common questions I get asked about Vanlife is, “Where do you sleep” and “That must get expensive?”

Finding a place to sleep was definitely something I was nervous about when I first got on the road, but I’ve come to learn that the overnight parking and camping options are endless. I will admit, my first few nights sleeping in a parking lot, I was terrified I’d get a knock in the middle of the night, someone would break in, and I heard every single noise outside the van. Within about a week, I started to adjust, tune out the noise, and be comfortable with my surroundings. Now when I pull into a place where I want to stay the night, I know within the first few seconds if I feel safe and comfortable there. If I don’t feel safe or comfortable, I simply move on to another spot. You’ll probably be excited and nervous your first few nights in your van too, and that is ok. You will adapt.

So let’s answer those questions. Like I said, the options for overnight parking are endless. This post covers every possible type of place to sleep I could think of, from free camping to paid sites, how I find them, and what my favorite types of overnight parking are. Overnight parking can be as cheap or expensive as you make it. Personally, I try to stick to the free sites, but everyone has their own comfort level and preference.

Before I talk about the different types of camping, I’ll tell you how I find most of my overnight parking spots. There’s many apps & websites that do this work for you. My personal favorites are iOverlander and The Vanlife App. However there’s plenty of other options to choose from including, The Dyrt, Campendium, and All the apps vary slightly, but essentially what they do is provide a map that has different locations pinned. The app will either use your location to show you camping nearby or you can search for the area you want to look in. You can filter for different types of campsites such as free camping or an established campground. When you click on a pin you can see different features available at that campsite such as cell phone service availability, fire pit, bathrooms, potable water, and if you need 4WD to get to the spot. Some pins have pictures linked to it so you can see what the area looks like. A pinned location typically has at least one review describing their experience and if they would recommend it to other people. These apps also show you more than just places to sleep. Propane, water, and dump station are just a few examples of necessities you can look for. The great thing about these apps is they are constantly growing. If I find a new campsite, I can add a pin to the app and leave a review. If I had a positive or negative experience at an already pinned site, I can add a review to that too.

Federally Designated Land: Camping on public land away from an established campsite is called dispersed camping. It is usually legal to park overnight on public land unless there are signs stating otherwise. You can stay on public land for up to 14 consecutive days, after that, you have to move locations.

Examples of federally owned land are:

  • Bureau of Land Management (BLM) areas

  • National Forests

  • Wildlife Management Areas

  • National Grasslands

To pick a spot within the public lands, try to find a flat spot that has already been used before, to not disturb the land further. You must always camp at least 200ft away from lakes and rivers. The apps I mentioned above will usually lead you right to a spot that has been previously used. If you want to go on an adventure, head down a dirt road and find the perfect spot on your own. I refer to the apps when heading into public lands so I have an idea of what to expect the road conditions to be like and if my van will make it without being 4WD. When in doubt on picking a spot, ask a ranger. Who knows, they might recommend an awesome site that you might have otherwise missed. When choosing dispersed camping you should not expect to find bathrooms or other amenities. Be prepared to pack out all the trash you create.

In addition to dispersed camping, a lot of BLM land and National Forest’s have designated camping sites which are still free. Designated camping sites will be marked with a sign. Don't expect any amenities beyond a fire pit at one of these sites. Sometimes there may be an established campground within the park, which you can stay at for a small fee. There might be a few amenities such as bathrooms, potable water, fire rings, and picnic tables, but you should always be prepared for the bare minimum.

A benefit of camping on federal land are the unique landscapes, beautiful scenery, great stargazing, and abundant wildlife. The glamorous “I slept here” pictures you’ve seen on Instagram were probably taken on federal land. If you want to see some of my favorite free campsites, I reveal them in my blog post: My Top 10 Favorite Free Campsites in the USA.

Please note that while National Parks are federally owned, it is only legal to stay in designated campsites within National Parks. However, a lot of times, National Forest will border National Parks, and it is legal to stay within the National Forest.

Vanlife Dispersed Camping with a view of Grand Teton National Park
Dispersed Camping outside Grand Teton National Park

Walmart, Cracker Barrel, Bass Pro Shop & Cabela’s: Not all Vanlife nights are spent in Instagram worthy picturesque spots. If you’re looking for a quick stay on a long drive or need to run errands there are several businesses that generally allow overnight parking including: Walmart, Cracker Barrel, Bass Pro Shop and Cabela’s. They are very convenient to stay at because they are located close to highways and you can do your grocery shopping or stock up on outdoor gear while you're there. Some Cabela's even have potable water and dump stations available which just adds to the convenience factor.

Sleeping in a store parking lot has a negative stigma around it, but I've always felt very safe. Most of these stores have bright lights and cameras in the parking lot so most people aren't going to bug you. I park in the back of the lot to give the closer spots to customers, but still within range of the security cameras.

The apps will sometimes have these places pinned, but for this type of overnight parking use Google Maps. If I’m on a long drive and want a place to stay that’s not far off my route, I pull up Google Maps on my phone, and use the “search along route” feature to find one of these stores that doesn’t deviate far from my route.

Be aware that not all store locations allow overnight camping. For Walmart, I use this link, which allows you to filter by State and City. Each Walmart location is listed and will indicate if overnight camping is allowed. You can also call ahead and ask if overnight parking is allowed or just show up. There will be signs posted if overnight parking isn’t allowed.

Vanlife guide to overnight parking at Walmart
Beautiful sunset in a Walmart parking lot

Lowe’s & Home Depot: Unlike the business listed above, Lowe's and Home Depot don't technically allow overnight parking, but I've done it many times and have never had a problem. I do try to be stealthy when parking overnight at these locations. The thing I like most about Lowe’s and Home Depot is that the free WiFi works in the parking lot. The bathrooms are pretty clean and I usually need to buy something for the van while I'm there.

Vanlife guide to free overnight parking
Believe it or not, this was in a Lowe's parking lot.

Hotel Parking Lots: My favorite type of parking lot to sleep in is at hotels. This falls within the same lines as Lowe's and Home Depot, where it technically isn't allowed, but you can usually get away with it. Don't pick a hotel that is likely to have a security guard or parking passes. I pick a middle of the line hotel and try to go right before bedtime. Usually I hang out at a nearby store to make dinner and finish up chores. Once I’m ready for bed, I drive to the hotel, immediately put up my shades and try to be as quiet as possible. Hotels are always a quiet night and I’ve never had any problems.

Casino Parking Lots: Casino’s generally allow overnight parking and it definitely comes in handy in some locations like Tahoe, where free overnight parking options are scarce. It’s not the quietest place to sleep, but on the plus side you can go into the casino for clean bathrooms. Some casino’s even have dump stations and potable water available. Just try not to lose all your money while you’re there.

24 Hour Fitness Centers: This isn't an option I choose a lot, but from time to time it comes in handy. I don't choose it a lot because I feel like my van sticks out in an empty parking lot. I have gotten the middle of the night knock once at a fitness center, but on the flip side, I've also had many successful nights. I parked at one fitness center on the outskirts of Vegas for a whole week without any problems. I usually choose Anytime Fitness because I have a membership there so I can go into shower, use the bathroom, and refill water bottles.

Street Parking: This is another option I don't choose a lot, but it does work well in urban areas. For example, when I was exploring Savannah, the Walmarts nearby didn’t allow overnight parking and the hotels all had parking garages for paying guests. I didn't want to drive far out of town or pay to sleep somewhere, so I was left to use street parking.

When choosing this option, look up the local laws to make sure it isn’t illegal to sleep in a vehicle in that town. Pay attention to street signs to make sure they aren’t marked for residents only, street cleaning days, or have restrictions on the hours the spots may be used. Try to be stealthy. Don’t do things that will draw attention to you like blast music, pee on the sidewalk, hang out with your doors open. Usually residents don’t like RV’ers and Vanlifers parking outside their homes so try to blend in and be respectful so you don't get asked to move in the middle of the night.

Vanlife street parking in Savannah
Street parking in Savannah. Photo by @thelifewereafter.

Truck Stops and Rest Areas: Most truck stops, like Flying J’s and Loves, allow overnight parking. Rest areas vary more if they allow overnight parking or not. I know some Vanlifers choose this option frequently, but I’ve only done it a few times. It's loud with trucks coming and going all night, and it’s just not where I’m comfortable staying. Some truck stops have shower rooms which you can pay $10-15 for. I’ve heard the shower rooms are nice and clean, but I’ve personally never used one. That price for a shower seems too steep for me. To me, truck stops and rest areas are only a good option if I'm desperate for a place to sleep.

Trailheads: Some trailheads allow it, and others will have signs that say "no overnight parking." If there is no sign posted, I'm comfortable staying the night. Usually trailheads that are off the beaten path are a safer bet. If I have a big hike planned, I will stay at the trailhead the night before to save time in the morning.

Friends & Family's Driveways: This one is obviously a given. If you're near friends or family, hit them up and ask if you can park in their driveway. I've always been welcomed with open arms and it's great to see people after being alone in my van most of the time. I've even reconnected with friends I haven't seen in years because of Vanlife. Bonus: they usually let you take hot showers and do laundry.

Now that I’ve talked about the free options, paying to stay at an established campground or a membership is always an alternative.

National Park & State Park Campgrounds: Almost all of the US National & State Parks have campgrounds within them. The downside is sites usually need to be reserved months in advance. That can be tough for nomads since we usually don't plan too far out. If you don't have a reservation you can try your luck for a first come first serve site. The closer you look for a spot near checkout time, the better luck you'll have. Checkout time is usually around 11am. You can find specifics for each campground on that park's website. Campgrounds within National & State Parks typically range from $15-$30/night and there are discounts for senior citizens and veterans.

When I'm visiting one of the larger National Parks, I do try and grab a first come first serve spot, so I don't have to waste time and gas traveling in and out of the park every day. I rarely plan out enough in advance to make a reservation. If I wasn't lucky enough to snag a site, I usually still fill my water tank and dump my grey water at the campground. Sometimes they will let you pay for a shower too.

I mentioned this above, but in case you missed it, it is illegal to sleep in your vehicle overnight within a National Park, unless you are in one of the designated campsites. You can't just stay the night in a pull off. You will most likely get caught and have to pay a fine.

Conversion van at Furnace Creek Campground in Death Valley National Park
Furnace Creek Campground in Death Valley National Park

Privately Owned Campgrounds: Privately owned campgrounds are everywhere; especially near popular tourist attractions and vacation destinations. Personally, I only stay at a privately owned campground when the free options are limited or I need to use multiple amenities that campground offers. Amenities can range from showers and bathrooms, laundry, dump station, electric hook ups, potable water, propane fills, to free WiFi, a pool, and recreation room. The more amenities, the higher the cost.

I rarely stay at privately owned campgrounds because paying to sleep every night adds up quickly, but I know some Vanlifers are more comfortable staying at an established campground. Usually this is for safety reasons since other people are around and there’s no chance of getting knocked in the middle of the night. Everyone has their own preference and there is no right or wrong way to do it.

You can find campgrounds using the apps I mentioned above, google searches, or sometimes you drive right by one. Privately run campgrounds generally cost between $30-$40 a night, but I’ve also seen prices skyrocket to over a $100/night in very popular destinations like Key West. Reserving campsites in popular destinations usually needs to be done way in advance.

Paid Parking Lot: Paid parking lots are another option that will still cost you, but are generally cheaper than an established campground. In my experience, overnight parking in a paid lot cost between $10-$20/night. I rarely choose this option, but it has come in handy in places like Key West or on the Vegas strip where finding places to sleep can be more challenging.

Vanly: Vanly is the Airbnb for Vanlifers. Host will share driveway or parking spaces and some may include extra amenities like access to WiFi, a bathroom, or kitchen. The cost varies by host but tends to range between $10-35. You can search for space by location and filter for extra amenities you want. Once you pick the place you want to stay, you submit a booking request and the host will either accept or deny your request.

Camping Memberships: There are several camping memberships out there, but Harvest Host and Thousand Trails are the ones I hear about the most. I’ve never used either, but I know other RV’ers and Vanlifers that love them. You essentially pay an annual membership fee and then gain access to locations all across the US. The two I mentioned are a bit different from each other in how the work.

Harvest Host, is a collection of land owners allowing members to stay on their land. The cool part is the hosts are usually in unique locations such as wineries, breweries, farms, and museums. You must call the host prior to arriving to confirm they have space available. Since you already paid your annual membership fee, there is no cost on arrival, but it is recommended you buy something from their store, such as wine or local produce. An annual membership for Harvest Host is $79.

Thousand Trails works in a similar way, but instead of staying on private land, you are staying at a campground. It comes at a much higher price than Harvest Host, at $615/year, but you get all the amenities that a campground has. Watch for sales; at the time of writing this they were running a sale for $499/year. After paying your annual membership fee, you can make a reservation at any of the participating campgrounds and there are no fees upon arrival. This would be a good option if you are mostly planning on staying in campgrounds.

Conversion van at campground in White Mountains, New Hampshire. Two vanlifers roasting s'mores over fire.
Dolly Copp Campground in New Hampshire

Leave No Trace: No matter where you stay, remember the Leave No Trace principles. Dispose of your trash and human waste properly. This is such a huge issue right now and a lot of places have already banned overnight camping because people are not picking up after themselves and disrespecting the land. Most dispersed campsites will be pack in/pack out, meaning you have to take all your trash with you when you leave. Even better, pick up litter around the campsite to make the place even better than you found it.

Be Bear Aware: If you are in bear country make sure to follow the guidelines for proper food storage. Don't leave food or trash laying around your campsite. Food storage recommendations and requirements vary depending on location so know the rules before you go. On the West Coast, it is recommended to have your food stored in odor proof containers, such as the bear vault. On the East Coast, leaving food in your vehicle is typically ok to do.

Campfires: Only make campfires if there is already an existing fire ring. Don't make your own. Check local sources to make sure there is no fire ban in effect.

Middle of the Night Knock: Getting the middle of the night knock can be terrifying, so I try to always park in locations where I think the risk of a knock is minimal. If I do get a knock, this is how I handle the situation. First, I peak out the windows to see if I can see a cop car. If it is not a cop car, I’d be ready to call 911 and jump in the driver seat and take off (that’s never happened to me though). After verifying it’s a cop, I take the shade off the sliding door window and crank open the window. As a female that is traveling solo, I will never unlock or open the door. Once I crank open the window, the cop usually asks a few questions and tells me to move on. Depending on the mood of the cop, I will ask if he recommends a place for me to go. Never argue with the cop. If they tell you to move on, move on.

I have had three middle of the night knocks in the two years I’ve been on the road. During these three knocks, no cop has ever asked me to open my door. If that were to happen, I would ask to see his/her police badge, and then call into the station to verify that person is actually a cop before opening the door. Like I said, this situation has never happened to me, but it is good to be prepared in case it does.

Strength in Numbers: Some Vanlifers prefer to be completely alone where they sleep, but I always feel a wave of relief when I get to my sleeping spot and see another van or RV there.

Safety: If a place feels unsafe to me, I simply move on. It's not worth the risk, and if you don't feel safe, you're not going to sleep well. When staying in a parking lot, I go closer to bed time and immediately put my shades up. I try to never let anyone see I'm in the van alone, especially as a female. For more on safety, check out my post: Safety Advice for a Solo Female Vanlifer.

Vanlife meet-up in California. Girl standing on conversion van.
Vanlife meet-up in California. Photo by @meganmcable

Like I said in the beginning, you will probably be nervous your first few nights sleeping in a van, but you adapt quickly. After reading this, hopefully you know the options for overnight parking are endless and can cost as little as you want it too. Overtime you will develop your favorite types of overnight parking you go to as well.

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