Van Life Parking [Everything You Need To Know]

by Vera Lawrence | LAST UPDATED May 27, 2021

A goup of people cheering in front of a van
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Finding a good parking spot is a skill that you’ll need to improve quickly if you’re aiming to become a van dweller.

The van life is essentially moving from one parking spot to another, so learning where you can and can’t park is going to be crucial before you get out on the road.

While it might seem a bit difficult at first, it’s going to get a lot easier after a short period. We honestly wouldn’t be surprised if you manage to get the hang of locating good parking spots in less than two weeks on the road.

You’re going to need to pay attention to a few things, and that’s exactly what we aim to focus on in our van life parking article.

Everyone’s Biggest Fear

Getting woken up in the middle of the night by a knock at the door is something that many people dread. Going to check to see who’s at your door can be nerve-racking when you’re not sure who it could be at this late hour.

Now imagine that you’re in a camper van and the person that’s knocking on your door or window is less than 4 feet away from your bed. There is a small amount of consolation in the fact that this knock is going to usually come from police officers that are checking to see if your van is empty or not.

But, the dread might seep back in when they start to ask questions that you might not have any answers to.

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 on your part, you never want to need to justify yourself in front of police officers.

That’s exactly why there are a few restrictions on where you can and can’t park for the night.

A Few Guidelines

A van parked in the forest

Parking on private property is a strict no-no.

The exception to this rule is if you’re granted permission to do so from the property owners themselves. Most of the time, all it takes for you to be in the clear is to make sure that you don’t park in front of any driveways or inside any clearly laid out fence posts.

Now, there will be properties that will be in the middle of nowhere and won’t have any visible fences or markers that you can see. In these situations, both the police and the property owners themselves are usually going to be understanding of the fact that you made a simple mistake and won’t raise much of a fuss.

There obviously are exceptions to this, and some property owners might try to cause problems, but in these situations, the police are likely going to take your side and simply ask you to move your van.

In general, you should avoid parking near or in front of any houses, regardless of whether you’re located in a city or the middle of nowhere.

There are also restrictions on which public areas you could use as well, but we’ll get into that in our stealth camping section.

In general, as long as you avoid clearly marked-out property lines, you should really have no issues.

Your Phone Is Your Best Friend

FIxing the van life parking issue is a hundred times simpler if you simply use a van life app to manage all of that information for you.

There are no apps that specifically mention that they’re specifically designed for van lifers, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t have many options on the app store.

For example, iOverlander has an interactive map that allows you to plan your trip based on the icons that display all of the notable gas stations, truck stops, restaurants, and any other significant locations that might prove useful to you.

Another great tool for every van lifer is https://freecampsites.net/, which also lists all of the most significant camping grounds in any state in the US.

Campendium has a rating feature that allows you to get a better picture of the campsites that you want to visit before even planning your trip.

While these were 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 BLM (Bureau of Land Management) website and find public lands where you can camp. More specifically, you’ll be directed toward any BLM land, like national forests or national parks, that have full-time free camping options.

Naturally, there are also sites like Cabelas that give you ample information on camping, fishing, and hunting spots.

There are also about a hundred other sites that you could go to for your camping site hookups, but we can’t feasibly cover all of those extensively.

What we’re trying to say is that as long as you have wifi access or even a hotspot that you can use, you’ll never be out of viable camping spots.

Different Types of Parking Spots

When it comes to van life parking, you basically have five, options:

  • Stealth Camping
  • Parking Lots
  • Truck Stops
  • Designated Camping Spots

We’ll go over each one, but it’s worth pointing out that all of them are going to be pretty useful.

There are significant differences between each parking option, and they’re mostly divided by your location at the time. What we mean to say is that while you may prefer to simply use camp spots instead of parking lots, there are still going to be times when you won’t have much of a choice in the matter.

You might have had a long day and don’t consider yourself capable of driving all the way to a  designated camping location. You might have gotten lost in an urban area or have run out of fuel before being able to reach your primary destination.

Regardless of the exact reason, you’ll be able to find free overnight parking pretty much everywhere; as long as you stick to the rules, that is.

Stealth Camping

A van parked next to a tree

Stealth camping, or boondocking, simply means spending the night at any location where you’re able to find a free parking spot.

As long as you make sure that there aren’t any signs that mark the area as a restricted zone or a location where parking is prohibited, you should be fine for one night.

There is nothing actually illegal about sleeping in your van by the side of the road as long as you don’t make a mess and you leave no trace that you were there by the time morning comes.

This is obviously only a temporary solution and you’re unlikely to have any facilities close to you for you to be able to do anything more than sleep for one night and be off in the morning. There is also very little in the way of security and pretty much anyone can just walk up to your van as they see fit. You’re also much more likely to draw the attention of any police cars that might be passing by if you’re in a modified cargo or sprinter van.

Again, if you’re not littering or disturbing anyone that lives near that location, you should be okay.

However, there are far too many disadvantages to this camping option for us to be able to recommend it as anything other than a short-term solution.

Parking Lots

A white van on the move

When we say “parking lots”, we’re usually referring to either Walmart or 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 the ones that are located in larger cities.

Keep in mind that you need to follow the same rules as the previous parking option - don’t make a mess and be on your way by noon at the latest.

It’s also a good idea to ask a member of staff or a security guard if it’s alright for you to spend the night there.

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 could otherwise be used by a paying customer.

One advantage that the Walmart car camping option provides is the ability to restock your supplies without having to look for any grocery stores in a town you’re unfamiliar with.

But, in general, this is another van life parking option that’s a one-night-only sort of deal.

Truck Stops

Multiple vans parked on a parking truck stop

While this section primarily covers truck stops, there are also a lot of gas stations that offer the same level of available facilities as well.

Camping out on a truck stop parking lot might seem like something that you’d do on a college road trip rather than the idealistic sort of van lifestyle that you see on social media, but there are a few undeniable perks to it.

Unlike our previous choices, both truck stops and gas stations have facilities nearby which are open 24/7. These facilities include bathrooms, a small shop where you can usually grab at least a sandwich and a coffee, and sometimes even a shower.

Access to these facilities and products will probably be more expensive than your average grocery store or one-night motel, but it’s better than nothing.

Truck stops are also places where travelers like you can rest and sleep before hitting the road the next day. You’ll also be able to leave without being rushed by the thought of getting a knock on your door by security or police.

The only real issues are the fact that a lot of truck stops might charge an overnight fee, and certain ones might even be exclusive to trucks and won’t allow in any camper or cargo vans.

Designated Camping Spots

A van parked in a forest

Your typical campervan and RV parks are going to provide you access to all of the facilities that any “RVers” might ever need.

However, a lot of these locations are going to charge you for the duration of your stay, while a lot of the free RV parks are going to be booked solid during certain periods of the year.

The easiest way to solve both of these issues is to simply go for the BLM option that we mentioned earlier 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, you’ll be surrounded by beautiful sights that you can enjoy and explore,, and you’ll be free to sprawl out and set up camp however you like.

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.

The downside of this option is that you’ll usually be far removed from any inhabited area and all of the conveniences that they have to offer.

This means that you’re going to have to stock up on food, get yourself some large 5-gallon water bottles, and get used to improvised showers and using your DIY van toilet.

Conclusion

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 being on the go and spending very little time in one single spot.

We 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 the standard van lifer that uses parking spots as rest areas rather than long-term camping spots, all of these options can be pretty useful in certain circumstances.

Vera Lawrence
Vera is a part-time van lifer after spending nearly four years in her 1990 Ford E350 (named Fred). She currently lives in Utah and takes extended weekend trips into the desert with her two dogs. She is an ice cream fanatic and avid runner.

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