There are many options for paid places to stay (hotels, campgrounds, hostels, harvest host, Airbnb…etc) but what if you’re on a budget and want to camp for free?? The good news is there are alot of options for free camping! However, even with plenty of places to camp, after 1.5 years on the road we still find the task of finding a new free campsite every night is the most stressful/annoying part of van life. We always find a spot, but sometimes it can take some searching! Hopefully, the information we share here can help anyone new to (or interested in) life on the road find camping with less stress/anxiety!
Please Respect These Places
After 2020, camping areas are getting alot more crowded and trashed. This surge in people and garbage is causing spots to get restricted or shut down, so wherever you go, please LEAVE NO TRACE, have campfires only in designated fire rings (and never during a fire ban), leave your campsite better than you left it, and read up on how to responsibly poop outdoors.
We all deserve to explore these open spaces for years to come. Let’s respect the land and keep it open for future generations.
In this post we share our 5 resources or places to check for free camping spots and before we dive into those here are a few tips to help lessen the stress of finding a camping spot:
- Get there before dark if possible (unless its an area or spot you know)
- Always have a backup plan (whether the spot is full or if you were to get kicked out of the spot in the night)
- Give the area a vibe check - and always trust your gut. Its OK if your tolerance is not the same as someone else’s.
1. The Apps
There are a few apps that we find ourselves using constantly while on the road. After living on the road for over a year here are the ones we’ve found to be the most helpful.
This is a free app, and its our go-to app for finding places to stay. It’s very popular so there are lots of crowd sources locations and reviews to read. The downside of popularity is that sometimes you get the a spot and it’s already taken. Our advice is if you see a spot while driving the route to the actually iOverlander spot, take that spot (or remember where it is) because its likely someone is already in the actual iOverlander spot.
iOverlander is also a great resource for finding places with safe drinking water to fill your tank while on the road.
This is a newer platform that’s been gaining traction in the nomad community. It also relies on crowd sourcing info on places to stay. There are less reviews for spots on this app since its newer. When there are reviews though they are usually have a bit more detail.
If you are craving some interaction with other nomads, Sekr has a feature to locate and connect with other nomads in your area and schedule group meet ups.
Below is a list of other apps you could use (and I’m sure there are many more). We do not use them very often or at all but they are an option if you want to cross check with other apps:
2. BLM and National Forests
We spend the majority of our time, when we aren’t in a city, on BLM or Forest Land. A large majority of BLM and National Forest Land is open to free camping for a maximum of 14 days at a time. In more popular locations the maximum stay limit may be less than 7 days. It is important to check the rules for any area you’re planning to stay at. The rules are often posted on a wooden bulletin board at the start of the road or you can look up information for a general forest area online ahead of time.
Here is a polite reminder that when you stay on public lands do your best to leave no trace! This means staying in already established campsites (usually there’s a fire ring), burying or packing out human waste, respecting fire bans, and don’t leave any trash behind.
3. Family and Friends
This option does not come up often for us, but when it does, it is GOLD. Staying with Friends or Family is always a great option because you can usually do some laundry, take a real shower, and enjoy some of those convieniences that you can’t have in a van. Having the van also totally changes the dynamic of staying at someone elses’ house, because you basically bring your own guest suite (the van) with you. So even if they don’t have a big house or spare bedroom you can still stay with them! You’ll have your own bed to sleep in, food to eat (and a kitchen to cook it in), and if needed a space to yourself for a quick break from socializing.
If your host approves, this is also a great spot to do any home improvement projects or van tune-ups!
4. Business Parks
These are a decent option if you need a place to crash for a night in the city. Most of the time the businesses in the area will be closed for the night so they won’t be much traffic at night. On the roads around business parks, there are usually large trucks or trailers parked so a big white van won’t look too out of place. Obviously, this really isn’t a place where you can set up camp and sprawl out, but it typically works for a night.
5. Highway Rest Areas/Roadside Pull-Offs
We save rest areas and roadside pull-offs as a last resort because we never sleep good. There is alot of noise from the traffic on the road/highway and the noise of trucks idleing or airing down their brakes. Make sure to have ear plugs in your van for nights in these types of spots - because you OK to stay there but you just need to tune out the noise.
During a long drive though, these types or spots are a good no-fuss option. If you get lucky, there might be free water or free coffee!
When you arrive at your campsite for the night, check in with yourself and make sure you feel safe. If anything feels or looks off, just move to a different spot. It’s okay if your threshold for a good spot is different from someone else’s. Its your safety and well-being so take it seriously. While we’ve been living in the van, we’ve only had 2 instances where we’ve felt unsafe and moved.
Before you go to bed, make sure you’ve locked your doors, your driver seat is empty and your keys are somewhere easily accessible in case you do need to leave in a hurry or get a knock.
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