Updated: Apr 3
If you are considering living full-time on the road, you have to consider where you are going to park at night. The most important question, where to park when living on the road? Luckily for me, before I began living full-time on the road, I had spent a few months traveling around North America in both a car and an SUV. This gave me some basic knowledge of parking regulations and parking resources. In this post, I will share some of the resources I use to camp for free, along with some other options you might want to consider.
There are many different options for overnight parking around the country. These parking spots can be helpful for anyone, whether you are going on a weekend getaway or planning to live full-time on the road. I live full-time on the road and am completely off the grid, so I seek out free campsites and seldom pay for camping or parking. However, off grid camping is not always an option for everyone, so I will also list some traditional camping options used by many people I know.
Urban camping is a great option when you’re traveling long distances and you need a pit-stop or need to be close to a metropolitan area. I know that urban camping doesn’t sound like the most fun and it might not have those stereotypical scenic views, but sometimes it is all you can find or it might be the only option close to where you want to be. There are many different styles of urban camping, such as retail stores, rest areas, and stealth street camping. Camping in these locations tends to only be for one or two nights, so it’s usually not a good long-term solution; however, if you’re looking for an internet connection, a place to shop, or to be close to friends in a city, urban camping may be a good option.
Retail Stores are a great option if you’re driving and need to find a place to go shopping or be close to town. Retail stores are good because they tend to be in larger metropolitan areas and close to public amenities. Some top choices I have found for people on the road are Wal-Mart, Cabela’s, and Cracker Barrel. Each of these has advantages and disadvantages, but it’s always good to have options.
Wal-Mart has been a go-to location for many years and is one of the most popular spots for people on the road. It can be a great option for shopping and sleeping when traveling far distances because you can usually find them right off a highway. These parking lots are usually well lit and, since most Wal-Marts are open 24 hours, they tend to be fairly safe. However, since Wal-Marts are open 24 hours a day, they also tend to be noisy and can have high traffic.
Another good option is Cabela’s. Cabela’s sometimes has dedicated overnight parking areas for RV’s; however, they sometimes have these parking spots reserved for customers. Some locations may also require you to display a receipt or membership card on the dashboard. In my experience, I have not had any issues staying in a Cabela’s parking lot overnight. (I am not a Cabela’s Member) You should inquire with the management of the store to get more information. These parking lots tend to also be nightly patrolled by security so they are fairly safe places to park.
Most recently, I discovered that some Cracker Barrels allow overnight parking. Behind many of these stores, there are a few RV parking spaces that can be used for over night parking. It can be a perfect location because you can sleep and get a meal. Not every store has parking spots available, but you can always call ahead and ask. The downside to these parking locations is that they are behind the store, so it will be noisy with daily food deliveries and garbage trucks.
An important thing to remember when choosing to park in retail parking lots is that these locations are businesses first; they are not campgrounds and not every location has the same rules or local laws. When choosing a retail location to sleep at night, keep in mind that they are allowing you to park in their lot. Consider supporting their business and saying thank you. It’s also important to realize that not every store is the same. Just because a Wal-Mart in Montana allowed you to park, it does not mean one in California will. You should check with the store manager to find out if overnight parking is safe and permitted. Some stores are forced to prohibit overnight parking because of local residential land ordinances. It can be a good idea to check with the local town ordinance office to see if overnight parking is allowed in the area you are seeking to park. Lastly, remember to be respectful to the business and clean up after yourself. Don’t dump your tanks in their parking lots or leave garbage on the curb. We don’t want these businesses to start turning people away because of a few bad experiences.
Truck Stops and Rest Areas
Another good option when it comes to urban camping is truck stops and rest areas. I have slept many nights in rest areas and truck stops all over the US. They are not typically my first choice, but they can be a solid option if you’re headed down the highway. The great thing about these rest areas is their ease of access and frequency around the country. The downside is the noise and crowds. If you have ever stopped at a rest area, you know how many people and trucks come through at all hours of the day. Imagine trying to sleep there; it is not the quietest place to camp. Either way, it can be a great option for a night.
If you choose to spend a night in a rest area, you will most likely be sleeping next to trucks. This means you will experience them driving in and out at all hours of the night, shutting down and starting their diesel engines, or running the on-board generators all night. I suggest a pair of earplugs.
The rules and regulations for rest areas and truck stops vary by state so, before setting out on a trip or stopping for the night, you might want to look up state laws. Some states, such as Washington, allow 24-hour stay limits in their rest areas, whereas states like Georgia have 4-hour limits. You can search state regulations on this site.
If you live in a big green school bus like me, stealth camping may not be the best option for you. I don’t ever stealth camp, but at times it might be your only choice. In my opinion, this is the least reliable and least safe option.
Stealth camping is typically considered camping on city streets or side roads. You will usually be in plain sight of people and daily traffic. I have a few friends who live in vans who camp this way in cities every now and then. However, they live in inconspicuous vans, which are usually mistaken for commercial vehicles. Living in a vehicle or car that blends in with its surroundings makes it easier to hide away in plain sight. Remember that, when stealth camping, you tend to be in residential or obvious areas, so if you chose to spend a night street parking, be respectful to the community.
**I would like to reiterate that all the urban camping options are on state or private land you did not necessarily pay to stay on. This means that those of us who chose to park in these locations are subject to the laws of the area and, if there is an issue, you may be asked to leave. To ensure these options continue to be available, remember to represent the road community well and always think before you park. Be respectful to all property owners and forms of law enforcement. I have written these options down as a resource. I cannot be held responsible for locations in which you choose to park. Please inquire with the proper authorities about the safety and legality of every place you park.
I spend most of my time camping out in the backcountry, away from cities and civilization. There are three main categories to rural camping: primitive, semi-primitive and full hook-up. Each of these options has advantages and disadvantages, such as cost, congestion, availability, and accessibility. No matter what you choose, if you’re looking for nature and a way to get out into the wilderness, this is where you want to look.
Boondocking is the bread and butter of options for anyone who wants free campsites in some of the most beautiful and secluded locations. The term boondocking simplify refers to the concept of camping for free on public, national, WMA or BLM land around the world. These camping spots are considered primitive, meaning that almost 75% of the time, they will not have any amenities or services. This includes water, toilets, fire rings, and camp hosts. If you choose to camp at these locations you are At Your Own Risk, you must drive in everything you need, and all spots are on a first come first serve basis. Also, these campsites are sometimes located in remote locations that are not easily accessible.
I have been boondocking for over 2 years now and have explored some beautiful locations around North America. You might be asking: How do you find these free campsites? It is actually quite easy to find free sites. Two main resources I use are Free Campsites and iOverlander. These two free online resources are open forum sites, which have collected thousands of our fellow travelers’ favorite locations for you to use. These locations are mostly on public, Bureau of land Management, or National Forest land. The golden rule here is that you can stay at a site for 14 days without issue, as long as you are certain distances from water sources and out of sight of roadways.
The hardest part about boondocking is that not every site is easily accessible. Sometimes, the site is only accessible by 4x4 vehicles or it cannot fit larger vehicles. I have also found some locations that are more established with a dry bathroom and fire pits. You will have to do your own research to see if a particular location will work for you. I can speak for myself and let you know that I have not had a hard time finding good spots for my school bus, though I do run into some restrictions.
When Traditional Camping in paid sites, you will find semi-primitive and full hook-up options. A semi-primitive camping spot refers to a spot in a campground that might provide some basic amenities, such as water access, a table and a fire pit. A full hook-up campground will typically have water, electric, and possibly WiFi accessibility. These sites are generally paid, ranging in cost, and are either first come first serve or require a reservation.
Traditional camping options are found all around the world, ranging from private to state and federal campgrounds. If you are not able to live completely off the grid or you are not looking to camp out in the backcountry, traditional camping is a great option.
Other Camping Options
If you are looking for more ideas and ways to find camping or places to park, try some of these additional options. Finding parking is about being resourceful.
- call your friends and family
- ask others in the road community
- find land you can rent for a period of time
- trade work for free parking
When living on the road, I like to think everyone knows someone and sometimes all you need is one connection to find the perfect spot.
Finding places to park and camp while living or traveling on the road is not as difficult as some might think. With a little research and planning you can visit and travel to some amazing places. A lot of the locations you might find yourself camping have been taken care of, serviced, and protected for many years. Please remember to care of the land and leave every spot better than it was when you found it. Camp on, friends!
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