Why pay to just to sleep on the way to your next adventure?
After even a short time traveling I’m sure you’ve thought, “Why should I pay so much money just to close my eyes for a few hours?” The dollar amounts average travelers spend per night are staggering. One night in a hotel at $100 could pay for enough food and gas to cross from Colorado to California. Think about that for a minute!
Fortunately, there are resources that allow a budget traveler to get some much needed rest. These options can be hard to find, especially for those who are new to the idea of living on the road. Here are some of the strategies we have developed over seven years of travel to sleep for free! These are good options for car travelers, van dwellers, and RVers alike. Bicycle tourists and those on foot have even more options, but for this article we are going to stick to options for those traveling with a vehicle.
Rest Areas – Favorite places ever! Though this could be a controversial opinion. Rest areas have been known to be dangerous (personally spent over 300 nights at them and never had an incident). They definitely can be loud, with freeway noise and the hum of running semi truck engines. Even so, the convenience of being right by the interstate or highway and ready to go the next morning is the main appeal of rest areas.
Be sure to check all local laws and signs regarding stay length as you enter any rest area. Most states allow you to park freely, some like California and Washington say 8 hours is the stay limit. If the rest area is near a city, parking restrictions are more likely to apply. Officials in many cities are attempting to combat issues with local transients. But restricting people from having a place to sleep and not be harassed…? That’s a whole other issue, not be digressed into here.
So, steer clear of rest areas within an hour of large cities on a whole. For example, finding a rest area that will allow you to stay longer than one hour within a general two hour radius of Seattle is quite difficult. And if you do find areas near large cities, these are the kind of environments that can lend to crime. There are of course exceptions to the city rule, like the bustling and mostly safe Oceanside rest area in Southern California, situated between Los Angeles and San Diego. Finding a place to park here can be almost impossible late at night, so arrive early when planning to park in crowded areas.
In Oceanside you will wake up to ocean views only a 30 second stroll from your car. However, sleeping near San Diego, San Francisco and other wealthy cities in rest areas is a bizarre experience. These expensive cities have run their citizens out of their homes with high housing costs, yet people remain in the area living in their cars while working in the city. Traveling in this way gives one an insight into a subset of people who are invisible to many. These people are on a whole not dangerous, but simply trying their best to navigate a difficult situation.
Find rest areas simply with Google Maps by typing “rest area.” If you want to look ahead on your route, scroll to that area and click “search this area.” Most are listed these days and even have reviews and pictures. You can also go to the state transportation website and find a few gems not listed on Google Maps yet. One we found this way has a beautiful view of the Columbia River from the Washington side and is called of all things Dismal Nitch.
Most Beautiful Rest Areas we have stayed at–
No Name – Glenwood Canyon Colorado
I-90 Enterprise Rest Area – Minnesota
I-70 Utah – several locations with great night viewing of stars on the stretch between Salina and Green River
Truck Stops – The semi drivers are your main companions on the interstates. They are often traveling great distances and need a place to stopover for the night, so most truck stops are also welcoming of car/van travelers. The only exceptions being those that are located in town near a major city, similarly to rest areas. Even then it may be ok to sleep there, but it is more likely that local populations of vehicle dwellers will be using the area as well. There are 5 chains in the U.S. that have hundreds of locations. — Flying J, Pilot, Love’s, Petro, TA. A quick google search of “truck stop” or any of these five chains names will yield you a quick spot to stay the night.
Quick Note – Both rest area and tuck stop parking lots will have bright lights for safety. a key to good night’s sleep is block all your windows with refelctix. This is absolutely essential if you want to sleep well in these settings regularly.
Cabela’s – Outdoor retailer that caters to the RVing crowd. In many areas they offer overnight parking. If unsure if it is ok, call or go in to the individual location. We had one of our most restful nights situated between a van and an RV at the Cabela’s in Rapid City, South Dakota.
Bass Pro Shops – Another outdoor retailer that offers policies similar to Cabela’s. Again, make sure the individual location allows overnight parking. Many of these may say it is ok but only for one or few nights.
Cracker Barrel – Amazing option! These restaurants welcome RVers to spend the night. Never had a problem in the car either (spent dozens of nights) and this has been one of the best options that is still a bit under the radar. Great east coast option, where many of the other options on this list do not exist.
BLM Land – This is the BEST choice for a solid night’s sleep for free. No lights, no traffic noise (usually), and no disturbance from other vehicles running, passing, etc. Abundant in the west and in areas with mountains and highly wild areas, this government owned land offers free primitive camping in many obscure and beautiful corners of the country. To find this land we use the website freecamping.net. Other options are the apps iOverlander and Campendium. Some BLM land is still word of mouth, so ask around when in a new area. You can go into a local ranger station for the National Forest or the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and they will be happy to help you.
Four of the most convenient places we have ever stayed on BLM land are:
Alabama Hills near Lone Pine, Calif.
Moab, Utah – Willow Springs Rd.
Barstow, CA – Stoddard Valley OHV
Apache Junction, AZ – Horse Trails Boondock
We like these 4 specifically because they are more like an open plot instead of individual campsites. People just find a spot where it feels like a polite distance from their neighbor. There is no worry that all the individuals slots will be full, as is the case with the some BLM campgrounds. Read the review on freecampsites.net to see if you can get a feel for how many vehicles a campsite can accommodate. It’s awful to drive hours in the night only to have to turn around because the sites are full. Also, check the details of the road in to the site. Many of these roads are high clearance 4×4.
BLM campsites usually have a 14-day stay limit.
Walmart – This used to be a stand by, as Walmart welcomed RVers and other travelers to spend the night in their lots. Unfortunately their policies have changed. Another opportunity for travelers compromised by this “battle” against homelessness. Both travelers and those truly in need benefited from the respite these lots provided, but now are hounded by security and police and threatened with vagrancy tickets and being towed away.
To check if a Walmart still allows overnight parking, use the Allstays website. Also you can just call and speak with a manager. The more rural the better as far as chances of finding a Walmart that still allows overnight parking. Another good feeler is if you drive by the lot and it is filled with RVs–generally ok. Still, be prepared for “the knock” if you sleep at Walmart. Only gotten it twice in 7 years and both times it was at Walmart. They will usually just tell you to move on and the interaction will not be threatening.
Stealth Parking – Just park in a neighborhood. Don’t do this if you are in an area that has strict laws against vehicle dwelling, such as certain areas of California. And always read signs!!
With practice, we have found the best places to park are on semi-residential streets with many apartment complexes, along a fence or wall, but never directly in front of a single family house. In these denser areas, a lot of different vehicles are in and out of different parking spaces each night. On the other hand, in a suburban neighborhood with mainly houses, people tend to know what cars belong on their street and you may rouse unwanted attention.
Certain cities have zoned streets for vehicle dwelling, such as Los Angeles, and you can find maps online. Or just drive around and try to find a street with a few vans and RVs on it.
Many others have suggested industrial areas as options for stealth parking. Though we have only tried this once (and left after 10 minutes) these areas can seem seedier and more likely to have crime at night. Use caution when selecting a stealth spot, especially if you are traveling in wealthier looking vehicle. Never show your valuables or light up the inside of your vehicle when using this approach.
Couchsurfing – Website that lists hosts willing to provide free accommodations in exchange for meeting and sharing stories about life. Have a strong profile that really describes who you are. Include some interesting things about you and why they’d really want to meet you. Set up plans with a host well in advance to successfully use this website. We’ve tried message just the day before and people generally will not be able to host you if you don’t give them forewarning.
Casinos – Some casinos will allow overnight parking. Not many in Las Vegas though, not anymore. Out of the way casinos–we have found some in Phoenix, Oregon, and in Florida–may allow you to park there for a night or two. Be sure to check in with security or management. It isn’t a good idea to just go and park there without checking, as you are on private property. Some casinos are only lenient with RVs, but others will welcome anyone passing through that might drop some money on gambling.
BONUS OPTION #11!
Boondockers Welcome – Not completely free. You have to pay a yearly fee of $30 to join as a guest on boondockerswelcome.com. Once you do this, you will find a map of hosts who are willing to allow RVs to park on their property for a night or two. Van and car dwellers could potentially use this platform as well, but it is catered to RVs. Many of the property owners will even allow the RVs to plug in.
CLICK ON OUR LINK ABOVE OR THE IMAGE BELOW TO JOIN!
So there you have it–10 places to park for free on the road! Where are places you have stayed to get through a night? We would love to hear about your little gems in the comments below!
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