Exciting, isn’t it!? Well…on second thought…
While where one sleeps overnight may not be the most interesting vanlife topic, where you sleep plays an essential role in your comprehensive vanlife experience. Whether you’re driving a small, nimble vehicle or even a larger rig, there is a diverse range of locations where you can legally spend the night.
In this post, we’ll discuss some of our favorite places where we sleep when traveling in our camper. We’ll talk about both paid locations and also several popular ways to sleep overnight for free. In addition, we’ll offer some of our favorite apps that we use to help us locate great camping and free overnight options.
Staying At Paid Campgrounds
The reason we travel in our camper is to get out into nature and experience the raw beauty that surrounds us. Luckily, there is a wide range of serviced camping opportunities, based on where you want to go and comfort level, to best experience America’s vast natural landscapes.
National Park & Forest Campgrounds
Bar none, camping within the country’s plethora of national parks & forests provides a fantastic opportunity to envelop yourself in nature while still being close to some of the basic necessities of life.
Who doesn’t like clean toilets and running water?
Downsides: Services at these grounds, however, can still be limited. There likely won’t be any shower facilities or electrical power. And we wouldn’t count on any cell reception or available WIFI hotspots.
Costs per night to camp in a US national park or forest can range anywhere from $20-$35 depending on the park and season.
To see camping availability within national park & forest boundaries and to make a reservation, we use the Recreation.gov smartphone app. Simply select your national park (or forest), pick your dates, choose your campground, and pay online. It’s all done in the app.
Top Tip: Don’t forget to pick up your ‘America The Beautiful’ park pass. For $80 you get unlimited access to any of America’s national parks and forests for 12 months. This includes parks fees, hiking fees, and the pass sometimes even gives you discounted camping prices.
Private Campgrounds & RV Parks
As good as camping can be in national parks & forests, campsites there might feel limiting to many RV travelers. As we mentioned above, many of these campgrounds don’t offer electricity on-site, have limited cell data, and almost always don’t provide shower facilities.
So it can be difficult for some to camp long-term there.
For those looking for more ‘full service’ camping options, private campgrounds and RV parks easily fill the void.
- Clean bathroom facilities? Check.
- Hot showers? Check.
- Electric sockets provided on-site? Check.
- Solid WIFI and cell reception? Yes, usually.
- Swimming pool? Sometimes!
If we’re being honest, the quality of RV park facilities can vary greatly. The age-old adage of ‘you get what you pay for’ applies here.
To help us find some of the best RV parks in the country, we use the following three apps & services.
Good Sam App: We use this app to help us find quality RV parks. We then call ahead to make reservations.
- Bonus: For $29/year, you can purchase a ‘Good Sam’ membership, which gives you a 10% discount at all RV parks affiliated with the program.
KOA App: Fantastic app if you like staying with a single brand of campgrounds all across the country. Best of all, you accumulate points when staying at KOA campgrounds that can be used for cash off future stays.
Passport America: For only $44 annually, you can get 50% off nightly rates at over 1,400 campgrounds all across the country. An amazing deal if you plan to travel long-term.
Free Overnight Parking
The truth is, vanlife isn’t always as glamorous as it looks on social media. Sometimes we stay overnight in less-than-ideal places simply because we’re transiting from one location to another and we’re trying to save money while in the process.
Below, we look at several of the most popular places where campervan travelers park overnight for free.
Walmart Parking Lots
Sleeping overnight at Walmart parking lots (especially those that are open 24/7) is one of the most convenient places to ‘camp’ for free. Walmart stores are ubiquitous all across the country and provide a safe parking solution, often with parking security frequently roaming the lot.
Camper vans and RVs are usually relegated to the back edges of the parking lot, away from the vehicles of regular shoppers.
However, not every Walmart allows overnight parking and the decision is usually up to the managers working at each individual store. However, it’s a safe bet that Walmarts located on large, interstate highways, away from urban areas, will allow you to park overnight on their lot.
But just to be sure, we usually either ask the Walmart manager for permission or use the iOverlander app to read the reviews.
If you find yourself along a major transportation highway, chances are you’ll come across either a Flying J or Pilot service station. These two brands originally only served the transportation truck industry but recently began servicing private vehicles.
Long haul trucks spend the night at these service stations and campers/RVs are often allowed to park there overnight as well.
In addition, many of the Flying J and Pilot locations offer shower facilities inside their 24/7 convenience stores for a small fee.
To search for all available locations, we use the Flying J app. As a bonus, this app also gets you fuel discounts when you create an account with them.
Stealth camping is another popular option among those in the vanlife community. It commonly involves discreetly parking in neighborhoods, road sides, and other public areas. Oftentimes, stealth camping involves having a camper van that doesn’t overtly look like a camper to the general public and tends to look more like a standard commercial work van on the outside.
Of the three options for free overnight parking, we don’t really recommend stealth camping. One of the biggest reasons why is because with the rise in popularity of ‘vanlife’, many cities and other popular areas are inundated with campers parked along neighborhood streets.
Not only that, but the police are aware of what camper vans look like and if you’re parked where you shouldn’t be, you’ll be sure to get a stern knock on your door in the middle of the night. You’re also liable to receive a potential fine.
Lastly, we know from experience that it’s really hard to truly relax at night knowing that people and cars are passing by your vehicle at all hours of the night.
In fact, after our first several months on the road, we have virtually never stealth parked anywhere and only stay where we’re specifically allowed. To learn more about what stealth camping is and other reasons why we don’t recommend it, check out our post: Why Stealth Camping Is A Terrible Idea.
We Hope You Enjoyed Reading!
Whether it’s the good, the bad, or the mundane, we love sharing our vanlife experiences. We hope, after reading our post, that you learned a few great tips on the many different places you can sleep while traveling in your RV.
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