We roadtrippers like to think of ourselves as tireless warriors. However, sometimes you have to sleep. And sometimes checking in to a hotel isn’t an option. So, you’ll have to find somewhere safe to pull over for some Zs.
You see, I’ve spent the last three years living in my van, traveling through the U.S. and Canada. I’ve spent considerable time in both urban and rural areas. And, somehow, I’ve not died yet.
In fact, as this is written, I am currently living out of my van in New York City—a city notorious for tough parking. Not to toot my own horn too much, but the van and I are faring just fine. So, when it comes to finding safe overnight parking on the road, I wager I can speak with great authority.
More than just relying on my own anecdotal advice, however, for this Roadtrippers article, I’ve asked a couple other full-time vanlifers for their insight as well. Here, then, is the best of our advice for finding a safe place to park for the night.
Personally, I find that I sleep best when I’m in a quiet, natural setting. That generally means camping out whenever possible. Not all camp spots are created equally, though.
I’ve had good luck at national and state parks around the country. National and state park camping sites tend to be more spread out and feel more natural than privately operated campsites. That said, during the warmer months, they tend to fill up early—sometimes months in advance, especially on weekends. There are frequently last-minute cancellations, though. So, it’s worth stopping in, if you’re nearby, just in case there’s a vacancy.
National and state parks aside, my favorite camping—and this was seconded by everyone I interviewed for this piece—is dispersed camping on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, in national forests, or at one of the U.S.’ amazing national monuments.
BLM land in particular is almost always fair game. Not only is there a ton of it all across the continent, you can typically find a place to camp at which you won’t see another single soul the entire time.
To me, camping on BLM land is the backpacking of car camping. By that I mean it’s off the grid—you won’t find showers or power hookups here. To that end, however, camping on BLM land is always free. So, what they lack in amenities they make up for in, well, affordability and peace and quiet.
Back to business
Pretty much everybody knows that Walmart has a policy of allowing overnighters, which is great. I estimate that I’ve probably spent the night at 70 different Walmarts around the U.S. and Canada over the years.
While they aren’t glamorous, Walmart parking lots typically have good security and plenty of space to park. Remember to be courteous; don’t stay for more than a night or two and practice the principles of dry camping.
However, it’s important to note that not all Walmarts have this policy. Frequently, it’s on a city-by-city basis. For instance, virtually none of the Walmarts near Denver or Washington, D.C. allow overnighting. It’s worth calling ahead.
While Walmart may be the best-known chain friendly to overnighters, it certainly isn’t the only one. I asked my friend Lindsey (aka @girlgoneglamping), who has been full-timing it in an Airstream for the last two years, what her other go-to businesses are. During our chat, I was mortified to realize how few of her go-tos I knew about. And I’ve been vanlife-ing for three years now. Oops.
Ninety-nine percent of them are RV-friendly, have designated RV parking spots, and 24/7 surveillance. “Being a woman on the road, solo, these are my number one go-to spots,” Lindsey said.” They’re more common on the east coast and in the south. While not as ubiquitous as Walmarts, there’s no requirement to “check in” or call anyone before sleeping at a Cracker Barrel.
Lindsey reports that she’s slept at a handful of Cabela’s sporting goods stores over the years. “I’ve never called ahead or checked in with them. They all had posted areas for RV parking,” she said.
Most casinos allow free overnight parking, though some charge a small fee if a big event is happening, like a concert or comedy show. “Be extra diligent about locking your doors, though,” Lindsey pointed out, “as these places can attract some shady characters.”
Camping World RV stores often don’t have a ton of space in their parking lots. However, many of them do allow overnighting.
Flying J Truck Stops
“Flying Js are super RV-friendly,” Lindsey said. They offer free overnight parking and free RV dump stations, including potable water. You can even fill your propane tanks at most of them—for a fee, of course.
Costco & Sam’s Club
Both of these big-box stores are very RV-friendly. But, again, just like with casinos, make sure you stay aware of your personal safety.
While not businesses in the traditional sense, Lindsey has also used church parking lots. “It’s certainly advisable to call ahead and ask permission before posting up in a church parking lot,” Lindsey warned. “If you’re a veteran, a lot of VFWs will allow you to overnight in their lots, too.”
Urban boondocking: Dos and don’ts
I’ve spent a ton of time in cities and suburbs. In those areas, sometimes you can’t find any of the aforementioned options within a convenient distance. That means you’re going to have to find somewhere—anywhere—to park and get some shuteye. If you find yourself in that situation, here are a few areas to seek out—and others to avoid.
Do park in residential neighborhoods
These are usually quiet and safe. That said, you may find that your new neighbors aren’t excited to have you move in. Personally, I’ve had the best luck in working-class neighborhoods. Sketchy neighborhoods can be stressful; there was once a shooting a block away from where I was parked, and I did not sleep well that night. And fancy neighborhoods tend to be full of people with nothing better to do than call the cops on a “suspicious” Mercedes van. Working-class folks tend to have better things to do than bother someone who isn’t bothering them. These are obviously broad generalizations, but they’ve proved true in my experience.
WORKING-CLASS FOLKS TEND TO HAVE BETTER THINGS TO DO THAN BOTHER SOMEONE WHO ISN’T BOTHERING THEM.
Don’t park near schools or playgrounds
This should be a no-brainer, but a lot of people mess this up really bad. Don’t park near schools or playgrounds. You may know that you’re not up to anything sinister. Others don’t know that, though, and parents are rightfully hyper-aware of their kids’ safety.
Do keep blinds drawn
Keep your blinds drawn. Be nice and quiet. Don’t draw attention to yourself. If you’re going to have your lights on to get some work done, you may benefit from parking near a street light, which will make your lights less noticeable.
Do utilize meters and side street parking
Parking meters and alternate side parking can be your friend. If there’s street sweeping in the morning, or meters that start ticking at 9 a.m., locals will frequently avoid parking there overnight. I’ve used this trick for parking right in the heart of Williamsburg, Brooklyn and Hollywood both. Just set your alarm and make sure you’re gone before they start ticketing.
Don’t engage in hygiene after you’ve parked
I reached out to Bre and Lacey of the Ladies’ Van for their advice on this, too. “Be stealth!” Lacey told me. “Get all of your nightly duties—brush your teeth, wash your face, etc.—done first and then find a spot, pull over, and go right to bed.”
Do stay alert
“Stay alert,” Lacey said. “There are debates on whether or not to answer your door if someone knocks. I like to not answer and just pretend I’m not in there.” If you have a ticket on your window in the morning, so be it. If you don’t open your door, you (hopefully) won’t get robbed or kidnapped.
Even on a holiday weekend, you may be able to score a very sweet campsite if you’re willing to look at some of the newer, non-traditional options.
Hipcamp is a great way to find camp options you won’t find listed anywhere else, including places like vineyards, ranches, beaches, and more. It includes a list of smaller and more private campsites as well as larger and more well-known campgrounds.
There’s also Harvest Hosts, which is for self-contained RVs only. There’s a $50 fee to join—however, with what you gain access to, the fee could pay for itself in one night. HH hooks you up with a directory of businesses—including farms, ranches, vineyards, restaurants, and more—who would be willing to let you to camp on their property for the night. You’re generally expected to buy something from the business ($20 or more is suggested), but you could end up with a very unique experience on the cheap.
There’s also Couchsurfing.com, which provides a global network of people who are willing to open their doors to strangers, potentially show them around town, or maybe just offer up a driveway to park in. The site takes pains to verify the identities of surfers and surfees. People can leave reviews for each other, so sketchiness should be pretty minimal. I’ve personally had amazing experiences with Couchsurfing. From it, I have made friends that have lasted more than a decade.
There’s also WarmShowers.org, which describes itself as “a community of bicycle tourists and those that support them.” Obviously, this is geared at cyclists, but I know some vanlife folks that are also cyclists who have tapped into this network with great success.
My favorite app for this stuff is RVParky, which is available for iOS and Android. It’s the best way I’ve found to help me locate safe places to overnight. It shows you all of your options on a map, including most of the businesses listed above that provide free overnighting, as well as standard RV campgrounds. You can apply filters, including potable water, dump stations, electricity, etc. It even has user reviews, so you know what you’re getting yourself into. Best of all, it’s free.
Last but not least, the Ladies’ Van crew is coming out with an app of their own, called simply The Vanlife App, which they’re designing to be a one-stop shop for all things van travel, including campsites, facilities, and a way to connect with the local community. It likely won’t be out until Spring 2019, but you can pre-register at thevanlifeapp.com.
Ultimately, the best campsites I’ve ever found have been those that came to me via word-of-mouth. Talk to your friends who have been to the areas you’re traveling to. Talk to your waiter or bartender and see what they think. Get on forums and see what others have done before you. Your dream spot may not appear in any search results. However, a friend or a friend of a friend may be willing to share their insight. And that kind of community mindshare is one of the best parts of the road trip experience anyway.