When we started our year-long adventure living on the road, we knew we had a nut to crack: free overnight parking. We had renovated a van, now we had to figure out how & where to park it every night!
We knew that if we broke the budget every night with a hotel or campsite, we would be penniless within 2 months. Thankfully, we learned SO much about free overnight parking, and now we want to share that information with YOU!
Without further ado, let’s figure out where YOU will be parking YOUR van or RV on YOUR adventure on the road!
Public Land / National Forests
First off, what do we mean by Public Land / National Forests? Well, essentially, there is a huge amount of land that is managed by the United States Government. Beautiful areas of the country that are so beautiful they must be preserved.
This could be Wildlife Management Areas, Land Management Areas or Forest Service Land, but the most common is National Forests. Really it is any land managed by the United States Department of Agriculture, specifically the Forest Service.
Since the land is managed by the government, nearly all of it is accessible for free. One more time: F-R-E-E! This means hiking, kayaking, biking, exploring, and yes, camping!
Before we go further, one thing to make clear: this is not ‘camping’ as some define it. There are no water hookups, electrical, showers, the whole kit-and-caboodle for free. Those campsites are available in most National Forests, but not always for free.
We are talking about good ol’ fashioned camping, what the Forest Service calls ‘Dispersed Camping’. Dispersed camping is typically meant for tent camping, but let’s think about this for a sec.
What do people camping in tents usually have? Cars! Cars that they have to park, so that they can hike into the forest to camp.
Therefore, if you are able to camp in your car/van/truck/RV, and are okay not having water/electrical hookups, then you can park overnight for FREE in any of these public National Forests!
Now, there are a few limitations to this that we’ve found. Some areas in National Forests are closed at certain times of the day, for instance after dusk. In addition, some may be marked with ‘no overnight camping’ signs. If those signs are up, you cannot park there.
However, we have not found a National Forest where we couldn’t find a camping parking spot. Our strategy is to explore hiking trailheads and scenic overlooks. These places typically have parking lots. We find a flat spot and get comfortable for the night!
More to Know
Camping in a National Forest means you need to have a level of respect, both for the land and for animals that call the land home. A few highlights from the Forest Service:
- Be Bear Aware – Store all attractants inside an approved bear-resistant container. Keep your food inside a hard-topped vehicle.
- Minimize Waste – Pack it in, pack it out.
- Camp Considerately – Dispersed camping is not allowed in the vicinity of developed recreation areas or less than 100 feet from streams and other water sources.
- Know the Rules – Look up the dispersed camping rules in any National Forest before camping in one.
Real story: When we started our Van Life adventure at the start of 2019, we were brainstorming business ideas. Zach brought up that there should be a network of places with large parking lots that offered free overnight parking.
The places could be out in the country, in the city too. Surrounded by buildings or beautiful wilderness. You could pay an upfront subscription and get unlimited uses for free.
Aaaaaaaaand that is EXACTLY what Harvest Hosts is! We started using it as soon as possible and we ABSOLUTELY LOVE it. We have parked in a Blueberry Farm, a Goat Farm, and a beautiful Louisiana Brewery, and that is only the beginning!
Are you thinking ‘yeah okay they probably have a handful of locations…’ Nope! I JUST logged onto the app and took a screenshot of the map. Here is a map with a pin in every location:
In addition, the list of available hosts grows every single day. What makes it even better? Staying at farms, wineries, and breweries will give you access to things you wouldn’t have had access to otherwise!
Hanging out with baby goats. Getting fresh blueberry jam. Parking beneath a stunning sunset. Escaping the city lights and seeing a sky full of sparkling stars.
Our van life adventure would NOT be the same without Harvest Hosts. We’ve had so many experiences we never would have had otherwise, and we cannot wait until we stay at our next one.
More to Know
We are bending the rules of this post by including Harvest Hosts. It does cost $79…for a YEARLY subscription. We have used it 10 times so far, in ONE month. Over an entire year, we will use it over 100 times. That means it will amount to under $1 per stay for us.
Even better, if you click the below image you will get 15% off your subscription.
If spending this money isn’t in the cards for you, we totally understand. We are TOTALLY in the budgeting game. You will still ABSOLUTELY be able to find places around the US to camp for free, they just may not be as beautiful. Let’s move on to the next one.
Businesses Open to Campers
Many businesses are open to letting you park overnight without spending a dime! This is just a smart business decision in our mind. Why?
Where are you going to shop, eat, and spend your time on the road? Most likely near where you are able to camp!
Most people know about this one. Wal Mart is a great place to stop if there are no National Forests or Harvest Host locations near you.
Here is what the company says officially:
While we do not offer electrical service or accommodations typically necessary for RV customers, Walmart values RV travelers and considers them among our best customers. Consequently, we do permit RV parking on our store lots as we are able. Permission to park is extended by individual store managers, based on availability of parking space and local laws. Please contact management in each store to ensure accommodations before parking your RV.
We have stayed in Wal Mart parking lots about 10-20% of our nights living the van life. We have never had one issue or been questioned about our stay.
Even better? We typically are in need of a few groceries or some van supplies, so we can knock out a few birds with one stone whenever we sleep at a Wal Mart!
More to Know
Cracker Barrel is a little less known than Wal Mart, but usually just as good! Cracker Barrels are located all across the United States, and allow you to camp overnight for free!
There is an unwritten rule with this one, and that is that you will either eat dinner at Cracker Barrel the night you stay there, or eat breakfast there the following morning.
We see this as a positive, as we absolutely LOVE Cracker Barrel’s breakfast. Their syrup is TO DIE FOR! As a result, we might choose Cracker Barrel over Wal Mart based on location or hungry bellies.
Planet Fitness might be the least well known option, and this one definitely comes with a catch. You should be a Planet Fitness member to take advantage.
Now, there probably won’t be anyone checking passes in the parking lot, but still, best to not cheat the system and have bad karma on your side.
For those who don’t know, Planet Fitness is a nationwide gym that offers workout equipment, showers, Wifi, massages, and so much more.
Van Life hack: Use Planet Fitness as your workout location, shower location, overnight parking, and even a place to get some Wifi when you’re in need! Also, with the Black Card, you get a free guest every time, so as a couple we only need 1 pass. Planet Fitness has MORE than paid for itself for us.
If you are going to be on the road for an extended period of time, you really might want to look into the Planet Fitness Black Card. All of the benefits outweigh the costs, and that’s coming from some of the cheapest van lifers around.
Casinos are going to be a little bit hit-or-miss, but definitely worth checking out in a pinch!
We stumbled upon a casino in South Florida that had a separate area of the parking lot where RVs could park for free for pretty much any length of time. Needless to say, we stayed for a few nights!
We’ve also passed casinos that do not allow RV parking, or at the very least frown on it. Whether you’ll have luck with a specific casino will depend on the management of that casino.
It makes sense in our mind for casinos to allow parking. More RVs means more potential gamblers!
To ensure you’ll have a place to stay, best to call ahead to any casinos you plan on staying at. And if you are rolling the dice, might want to also come up with a backup plan just in case!
The final option is the one we use the least often: finding a roadside place to park for the night. We HAVE had to use this one in a few places where we were literally out of other options, and have had some success doing it.
We’ve also had some failures. On two occasions, we were asked to leave our parking spot. Those times, we had to put our tail between our legs and drive out, looking for another place to park (which both times we were able to find).
Our suggestion on roadside parking: find somewhere to do it off the beaten path, and in legal place to park. We typically follow road-signs that outline parking rules, and if there are no signs we do a Google search for local parking rules.
One benefit that we have, which we encourage if you are going to find roadside parking, is to have a low profile vehicle. Our van is minivan size, so we don’t draw an eye wherever we’re parked.
Anything minivan or Sprinter sized (and below) and we think you should be okay. If you are hauling a 40 foot 5th wheel, you probably won’t want to be parking that baby on a random roadside.
There You Have It
We have had an incredible time traveling through the USA parking at all these locations. National Forests, Harvest Hosts, van-friendly businesses, even random roadsides, every one adds to the allure of living on the road for us!
If you have your own tips, we would LOVE to hear them! Please reach out!
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