Travel Advice

10 FREE places to sleep on the road when traveling and living the “Vanlife”

March 20, 2019

When you “live” on the road or are out there several weeks a year, paying for accommodations, even at an inexpensive campground or Airbnb, can drastically affect your trip budget. After enough time out here, you begin to think, “why should I pay just to close my eyes for a few hours?” The dollar amounts average travelers spend per night when they are just on a vacation are staggering. One night in a hotel could pay for enough food and gas to cross half the country.

Fortunately there are resources that allow a budget traveler to get some much needed rest, but they can be hard to find. Here are some of the strategies we have developed over our years of travel. These are good options for car travelers, van dwellers, and RVers alike.

Rest Areas – Our favorite places! Rest areas may have a bad reputation in some circles, but they are one of the most convenient assets for a traveler. 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, as the officials 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.

Stay away from rest areas within an hour of large cities, just as a rule of thumb. Don’t even think about finding a rest area that will allow you to stay longer than one hour within a general two hour radius of Seattle. There are of course exceptions, like the bustling Oceanside rest area in Southern California, situated between Los Angeles and San Diego.

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.

Best 3 Rest Areas we’ve 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

Glenwood Canyon, Colorado – No Name Rest Area

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. Most truck stops are also welcoming of car/van travelers, the only exceptions being those that are located in town near a major city. Even then it may be ok to sleep there, but it is more likely that local transient populations 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

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.

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. 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).

Four of the most convenient places we have ever stayed on BLM land are:

Alabama Hills

Moab – Willow Springs Rd.

Barstow – Stoddard Valley OHV

Apache Junction, AZ – Horse Trails Boondock

Alabama Hills off Hwy 395 in Eastern-Central California
Apache Junction BLM land campsite – near Superstition Mountains, Arizona
Barstow – Stoddard Valley OHV area — only two minutes off I-15 on easily passable road

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 two hours in the night only to have to turn around because the sites are all 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.

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 Palo Alto, CA. We have found the best places to park are on streets with many apartment complexes, along a fence or wall, not directly in front of a house. In these denser areas, a lot of different vehicles are in and out of different parking spaces each night. 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.

Couchsurfing – Website that lists hosts willing to provide free accommodations in exchange for meeting and sharing stories about life. Having a strong profile that really describes who you are, some interesting things about you, and why they’d really want to meet you, as well as setting up plans with a host well in advance are the keys to successfully using this website. We’ve tried to set up plans just a day or two before and people will generally not be able to host you if you don’t give them enough 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 be willing to drop some money on gambling.


Casino in Florence, OR – next to a Skoolie!

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 and many of the property owners will even allow the RVs to plug in.

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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