Campgrounds are fine, campgrounds are great. But why pay for an experience when all I really need is someplace to park the van and / or to pitch the tent for a few hours?
Add to this that campgrounds tend to be noisy in the evening when I’m trying to sleep, and far too quiet in the early morning when I’ve got the little kids up for a beat-the-afternoon-thundershowers hike.
So over the years we’ve found quite a few places to camp or park overnight for free, quite legally. There are 9 general places and ways to camp – or at least park your RV / camper van / compact car for the night.
…practice Leave No Trace principles. No driving off the road, respect others, and leave the place cleaner than you found it. It’s also a good idea to keep a low profile (like, leave behind the lawn chairs and Astroturf).
Camp in a place with “no camping” signs, litter, deface, or intrude on the rights of others.
1. Free Campgrounds
Few and far between, if you can find a free campground, it’s great!
2. National Forests / National Grasslands / Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Land
Find a dirt road, travel down it 0.5 miles, and you can legally camp along the side of the road on national forest land, in national grasslands, and on property owned by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Often a fire ring marks 0.5 miles from the paved road.
3. National Parks / State Parks
Some (remarkably few) state parks and national parks allow “free range” camping, meaning you should get off on a dirt road somewhere (namely, Death Valley National Park, Mojave Preserve, Padre Island National Seashore, and Anza-Borrego Desert State Park – there may be others). Always respect specific park rules.
4a. Walmart Stores
Walmart has a nation-wide policy of allowing RVs (camper vans, etc.) to stay overnight in their parking lots. Most simply request that you don’t stay more than a night or two and that you park in the back or side of the parking lot (not in prime parking places). However, some towns have passed ordinances forbidding RV’s to stay overnight at Walmart, thereby forcing Walmart to put up signs forbidding overnight camping. Always heed the signs (FYI, most Walmarts in New England have signs).
4b. Other Stores
According to a New York Times Article, Kmart and Costco also allow free overnight parking. Still, be wary of signs.
5. Rest Areas
Currently, 14 states allow RV’s / camper vans / etc. to sleep in rest areas along major interstates, etc.: Arkansas, Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, Utah, Texas, and Washington. Most other states allow camping in the rest area if no signs prohibit overnight parking / overnight camping, though some give a mixed message: “No Overnight Parking; Please Stay Until You are Rested”. Service plazas in the Midwest rarely have signs (per my experience), and one rest area in Kansas had a free camping loop – we woke up to tents across the way! Always heed signs.
6. Truck Stops / Truck Parking Areas
It’s rare that a truck stop or truck parking area along a highway will forbid RV’s and camper vans. Flying J specifically welcomes campers. They’re not my favorite due to the noise / security issues, but sometimes it’s all we can find…
7. RV Centers
Some RV centers allow overnight parking. I’ve heard Camping World is ok, though I’ve never personally done it.
A few restaurants allow overnight parking, likely to boost breakfast or dinner customers. I have heard that Cracker Barrel allows it in general (not officially, but they likely won’t kick you out), but don’t take my word on this one 🙂
9. Casinos / Wineries / Farms
Here’s one I’ve never tested, but I’ve heard tell that some casinos and wineries / farms allow overnight parking. A few casinos I’ve seen advertised overnight parking as a bonus!
Realize, many of these places are going to be noisy (like, the unvarying 2am street sweeper at Walmart). They may also be quite bright – there’s a reason we made curtains for the van.
It’s also best to take security measures. Don’t sleep someplace you’re not comfortable. Don’t open your door to anyone, for any reason. Try not to camp alone. Always lock the doors before you go to sleep (especially if you’re in a public place). Let someone know the general area you’re going to be in, better, specifically where you’ll be (I may not know what dirt road I’ll be camping on, but I can tell you that I’ll be in the northwestern part of Mt. Rainier National Park for the next two days!) And always take your cell phone with you!