When I first started living out of my Ford E350 back in 1990, I quickly learned that finding a good parking spot is crucial for anybody aiming to become a full-time van dweller.
The van life essentially moves from one parking spot to another, so learning where you can and can't park is vital to your success.
While the logistics of van life parking might seem a bit difficult at first, it's going to get a lot easier after a short period. Honestly, I wouldn't be surprised if you manage to get the hang of locating good parking spots in less than two weeks on the road, and less if you've already read through my beginner's guide to van life and my article on van life costs.
If not, listen up because there are several things you need to know about van life parking, and this blog covers it all.
Getting woken up in the middle of the night by unexpected knocking is a common source of anxiety for the van life community. Going to see who's at your door can be nerve-racking when you're not sure if there's an issue at hand.
Now imagine you're in a camper van and the person knocking on your door or window is less than four feet away from your bed. There is a small amount of consolation in the fact that this knock usually comes from police officers checking to see if the van is empty or not.
But, the dread might seep back in when they start to ask questions that you might not want to answer.
If you're getting a visit from the police in the middle of the night, then you've probably done something illegal with your van. Regardless if this was an innocent mistake or an intentional violation, you never want to need to justify yourself in front of police officers.
So before you park illegally and get yourself into trouble, take a few moments to read this article about van life parking, so you have a better idea of the rules and regulations. Otherwise, pop over to the three other categories and explore expertly-curated content on alternative lifestyles, including digital nomadism, tiny homes, and living off-grid.
The most important thing to understand is that parking on private property is a strict no-no.
The only exception to this rule is to be granted permission from the property owners FIRST. In any case, always make sure you don't park in front of driveways or inside clearly marked fence posts without first-hand authorization.
Now, there will be properties in the middle of nowhere that don't have any visible fences or markers. If you get caught camping in these situations, always be polite and highly apologetic to minimize negative interactions.
Remember that parking issues don't always pan out in your favor, as some landowners may cause problems. The good news is, in my experience, the worst-case scenario is the officers usually side with the van dwellers. And the worse thing they'll ask you to do is move your van, which is why you should play nice.
In general, you should also avoid parking near any house, regardless of your location.
I should also mention there are restrictions on van life parking in public areas, but we'll get into that in our stealth camping section.
As long as you avoid marked property lines, you shouldn't have any issues.
The truth is, navigating the world of van life parking is a hundred times easier when you leverage technological tools like applications to access up-to-date information about parking.
While there aren't any applications exclusively designed for van lifers, the app store still has plenty of options that come in handy when trying to find comfortable van life parking spots or dispersed camping.
For example, iOverlander has an interactive map that allows you to plan your trip based on the roadside icons that display notable gas stations, campgrounds, truck stops, restaurants, and other locations relevant to travel.
Another excellent tool for every van lifer is Freecampsites.net, which lists the most significant camping grounds in any US state.
I also recommend Campendium — a rating feature that provides a solid overview of the campsites.
While these are all Android apps, Allstays makes sure that iPhone or iPad users aren't left out when it comes to finding free campsites.
You also have the option to go to the Bureau Of Land Management website (BLM) and find public lands where camping is allowed. You'll find listings for BLM land (like national forests or national parks) that have full-time free camping options on the website.
I also recommend sites like Cabelas because they give you ample information on camping, fishing, and hunting around North America.
There are also about a hundred other sites dedicated to camping site hookups, so make sure to follow our van life blog for ongoing updates and extensive coverage about camping and van life parking.
AT the end of the day, as long as you have wifi access or even a hotspot, you'll never be out of viable options for legitimate camping spots.
When it comes to van life parking, you have four primary options:
Below, I'll go over each one in detail and explain the benefits of each type.
First, you need to understand there are significant differences between each parking option, and they're divided mainly by your location at the time. While you may prefer camping instead of parking lots, there are times when you don't have much choice in the matter due to the nature of travel.
You might have had a long day and aren't capable of driving to a designated camping location. You might have gotten lost in an urban area or run out of fuel and need to stop sooner than later.
Regardless of the exact reason, you'll be able to find free overnight parking pretty much everywhere, as long as you stick to the guidelines mentioned above.
Stealth camping, or boondocking, means spending the night at any location with a free parking spot.
Technically, it isn't illegal to sleep in your van by the side of the road as long as you don't make a mess and leave no trace by morning.
With that said, stealth camping is only a temporary solution, so do your best to get in and get out and keep a low profile.
This method doesn't offer any security, meaning anyone can openly approach your vehicle when it comes to safety. Stealth camping draws much attention from passersby, including police, especially if you're sporting any modified cargo or sprinter van. So, proceed accordingly.
Again, if you're not littering or disturbing nearby residents, you should be okay, granted you don't stay any longer than one night. In any case, I suggest reserving stealth camping for desperate situations only.
When I say "parking lots," I usually refer to either Walmart, Cracker Barrel, or even casino parking lots.
Most casino parking lots take up about as much space as your average golf course (only a slight exaggeration), so they aren't all that bothered by a van taking up a free parking spot. The same goes for most large Walmart locations around the country, especially those located in larger cities.
Remember that you need to follow the same rules as the previous parking option - don't make a mess and don't stay longer than one night.
It's also a good idea to ask a staff member or a security guard if it's alright for you to use the space for van life parking.
As we said, most casinos and Walmart parking lots have plenty of room to spare, but they still might not like the idea of you taking up a parking spot that a paying customer could otherwise use.
The Walmart car camping option provides the ability to restock your supplies without looking for any grocery stores in unfamiliar territory.
But, in general, this is another van life parking option that's a one-night-only arrangement.
While this section primarily covers truck stops, there are also a lot of gas stations and rest areas that offer similar facilities.
Camping out at a truck stop parking lot might seem like something that you'd do on a college road trip rather than regularly, but there are a few undeniable perks to this style of van life parking.
Unlike our previous choices, a good portion of truck stops and gas stations have nearby facilities open 24/7. These facilities include restrooms, convenience stores, and possibly even shower access.
Truck stops are also places where drivers like you can rest after a long day of travel. You'll also be able to leave whenever you want, so don't feel the need to wake up and go because there won't be any cops knocking on your door at this van life parking option.
Bear in mind that it's not uncommon for truck stops to charge an overnight fee, and certain ones only allow semi-trucks and other larger vehicles. So, if you're traveling by camper or cargo van, make sure your specific vehicle is permitted to park overnight.
The typical campervan and RV park provide access to any facility RVers might need. The only problem is you may have to pay, and they're usually booked solid.
The easiest way to solve both of these issues is to take the BLM option and go to a national park or a free-camping location in the wilderness. You'll be able to stay as long as you want and explore the beautiful sights surrounding your campsite.
You'll still need to maintain basic courtesy standards like picking up your trash and making sure that you light controlled fires, but otherwise, you'll be free to do whatever you like at these van life parking spots.
The downside of this van life parking option is that you're far away from any inhabited area and all of the conveniences that they have to offer. So, you'll want to stock up on food, get yourself some sizeable 5-gallon water bottles, and get used to improvised showers and using DIY van toilets.
Using designated campsites is the most viable van life parking solution if you're looking to stay in one place for a while.
However, van life is usually centered around life on the open road and spending very little time in one single spot. I say "usually" because every person is different, and you might want to put your feet up and rest for a few days (or even weeks) before hitting the trail again.
However, for standard van dwellers that use van life parking spots rather than long-term camping spots, all of these options are pretty useful in certain circumstances.
I also want to point out how important it is to have wifi when looking for van life parking options. When emergencies arise (and they will), you need an internet connection to locate the occasional mechanic, Airbnb, or to research overnight camping and available parking spaces in the vicinity.
If you enjoyed this article, take a few moments to explore some of our other blogs about alternative ways of living and learn about how you can live life to the fullest.
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