There are free van camping options all across the United States if you know how to find them. The two main areas for finding free van camping spots are on public lands and in parking lots that generally allow for easy overnight parking.
I lived in my van full-time for eight months and spoke with many van lifers about how to find great free van camping spots. This guide compiles the best resources for finding places to park that won’t break the bank.
I’ll cover the following categories:
- Common Terms
- Where You Can Park
- Public Lands
- Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Land
- US Forest Service (USFS) Land
- State Forest Land
- Army Corps of Engineers Land
- National Parks
- Other Public Lands
- Parking Lots
- Harvest Hosts & Boondockers Welcome
- Stealth Parking
- How To Find Where To Park
- Paper Maps
- Word of Mouth
Keep reading to find the best free van camping spots.
There are several terms for free camping that are interchangeable. The terms dry camping, boondocking, pirate camping, and dispersed camping all generally mean the same thing. It means you won’t have access to potable water, electrical hookups, bathrooms, showers, picnic tables, laundry service, or trash cans.
On rare occasions, a dry camping site will have a fire ring. Other than that you’ll need to pack everything else you need in and out of your site with you.
Where You Can Park
The federal government holds about 28% of US land and much of this is available for free parking. Because this land is in a trust, as a US citizen you partially own this land. Generally, you’re allowed to park on this land for up to 14 days in any single location. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the US Forest Service (USFS) manages most of this land.
Keep your eye out for signage as you enter public lands. These signs have information such as how long you can stay, if there are any off-limits areas for parking, fire regulations, etc.
If you’re on public land and there are no signs stating that there’s no overnight parking or that it’s “day use only”, you should be able to park there.
Be aware that your insurance will generally only cover you on state and county-maintained roads. This means your coverage is questionable off-road on public land.
Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Land
The Bureau of Land Management operates 250 million acres of land across the US, mostly in the western half of the country. You’re generally allowed to stay for 14 days out of any 28-day period. You must park 100 feet from any roads along with 200 feet from any water source. After 14 days you must move a minimum of 25 miles away to restart the 14-day timer.
It’s a good idea to call or visit the BLM office that manages the land you’re considering parking on and talk to a ranger about the local guidelines. Regulations differ from state to state. Some areas are quite popular and have shorter durations of stay, require permits, etc.
The BLM organization doesn’t offer a great way to view all their available land so the best way to determine where you can park is:
- call or visit a ranger station
- check out their regional maps
- visit freecampsites.net or the BLM.gov website
- use an app such as iOverlander, US Public Lands, or one of the others listed below in the Apps section
- Get a local BLM guide (offered by some states such as Idaho)
US Forest Service (USFS) Land
The US Forest Service manages over 175 national forests and grasslands. Many of these allow free camping. Like BLM land there are usually restrictions on parking for a limited number of days and limits on how close you can park to roads or water.
You can check out the USFS website and search by the name of the forest or the state to find guidelines about camping restrictions. If no guidelines exist there will be a number you can call to get this information.
Here is a good process for determining USFS land near you to park on:
- Open google maps and look for a light-green shaded area near you
- Zoom out and find the name of the national forest
- Go to the USFS website and search for the name of that forest and you’ll get information about where to park and the local regulations
State Forest Land
The ability to camp for free at state forests varies from state to state, but it’s an option in some states (such as Pennsylvania). Like other public lands, it’s good to check the local regulations to see if you need a permit, what the limitations are, etc.
Army Corps of Engineers Land
The Army Corps of Engineers manages some areas of land throughout the US that allow camping. Some of these sites are actually well-established and have bathrooms, showers, etc.
Others are simple primitive dry camping sites with little-to-no amenities. You can check out their locations on the Army Corps of Engineers website.
Some National Parks offer free camping within the park. Many offer free camping outside the park. If you expect that you’ll be visiting a lot of the national parks, it’s a great idea to get a National Park Pass. This $80 one-time fee will give you free access to all the National Parks for that year.
Other Public Lands
Besides the areas listed above, you can sometimes find free parking at:
- County parks
- City parks
- State Parks
- National Recreation Areas
- Wildlife Management Areas (WMA)
The availability of free parking in these areas will vary. Check-in on the local regulations via Google, local public offices, or posted signage.
While it may not be very scenic, there are a lot of places across the US where it’s legal to park in a parking lot overnight. Unlike public lands, you’re generally restricted to parking in a parking lot for a single night. The convenience and availability of parking lots while traveling make these options attractive in special circumstances. Not to mention that they’ll often have access to a bathroom, food, etc.
The following locations often offer free overnight parking:
- Walmart – Many Walmarts offer overnight parking, are open 24 hours, and have bathrooms and access to food and water.
- Truck Stops – When making a long cross-country trek I’d often park at a Love’s truck stop and never once had any issue with it. Love’s has a great app where you can punch in your destination and it will route you to all the Love’s locations along the way. If a Love’s wasn’t available I’d try to find a Flying J or Pilot truck stop.
- Rest Areas – It differs state-to-state but many states offer the ability to park overnight at rest areas. Check with the local regulations by Googling “Can I park overnight at a rest stop in [insert state here]?”
- Visitor Centers – Many visitor centers close at night and also have public bathrooms. Check with the local visitor center for their specific guidelines.
- Cracker Barrel
- Camping World – Sometimes these have electrical hookups, free water, dump stations, etc.
- Home Depot
- Sam’s Club
- Casinos – Many casinos are open 24 hours so this is often a great place to park. Use casinocamper.com to find available options
- Hotels such as Holiday Inn or Marriot Inn. I’ve seen this recommended by many van lifers but never did it because I know a lot of hotels keep track of the license plates of their guests. Still, an option though as I suspect the worst that would happen is that they’d ask you to move somewhere else.
- 24-Hour Fitness, Planet Fitness, Anytime Fitness, or any other fitness center that is open 24 hours
- 24-Hour Restaurants such as McDonald’s, IHOP, Denny’s
- 24-Hour Grocery stores such as Winco or Safeway
- Park-n-ride lots
The general guideline is to ask the manager if it’s okay to park overnight. I rarely did this as I assumed the worst that would happen is that they would ask me to park somewhere else. This happened maybe once out of every 50-100 times I parked in a parking lot overnight.
Harvest Hosts & Boondockers Welcome
These options aren’t technically free as they both have a small annual fee. But after paying this fee it opens up a lot more options of where to park for free.
A Harvest Hosts membership costs $99 per year and offers free overnight parking at many attractions, wineries, farms, golf courses, and breweries. It’s generally good form to buy something from the business you’re parking at so this isn’t technically free. But it opens up a lot of options when traveling in areas where there isn’t a lot of available public land such as the eastern half of the US.
Boondockers Welcome costs $79 per year and offers free parking on private property in backyards, fields, and driveways. These are often RV owners who are allowing other travelers to stay on their property.
Stealth parking is a sort of gray area of van life where you park overnight in an area that doesn’t explicitly allow sleeping in your vehicle. These areas are usually residential streets or some parking lots. The general rule of thumb here is to never park in the same place two nights in a row. Here are some good guidelines for stealth parking:
- Be respectful and try not to draw attention to yourself
- Arrive late and leave early
- If possible, don’t leave your vehicle. Even beyond this, I generally prepared my van for sleep before arriving and would immediately go to bed with an alarm set for early in the morning
- Be stealth – don’t make noise, use window covers, and/or don’t turn any lights on within the vehicle
The only times I used stealth parking was near the coast in California. Most beaches in California have liberal guidelines for parking during the day. When the beach closed I’d drive inland a short distance, go to sleep and then wake up and return to the beach in the morning.
This is a play on words where one boondocks by mooching off of a friend or family member by parking in their driveway (with permission of course).
How To Find Where To Park
There are many apps that van lifers use to find places to park. With a bit of time, you’ll find the ones you like the most and the strategies that most fit your preferred method of traveling. I created a folder on my iPhone that I’d bring up and go through the apps I liked the most when searching for a place to park.
Here are the apps that I’ve used or that have come up most in conversations with other van lifers:
- iOverlander – This is a crowd-sourced app so it’s usually pretty up-to-date about spots that are open and the amenities available. I love using apps with user reviews because I can read about somebody else’s experience. I’d also be able to see when they made the submission so I know how up-to-date it is. iOverlander doesn’t technically work offline but you can still get a lot of the needed information. Besides places to park, you can also get information such as cell coverage quality, where the local water refill stations are, dump stations, auto mechanics, etc.
- Sekr – This was my most used app while traveling full-time. Like iOverlander it is crowd-sourced by other nomads who have given reviews and photos of places they’ve parked overnight. I used Sekr to find most of my locations when stealth parking in California. Besides parking information, you can opt-in to see other travelers around you so there’s a social component to the app. There’s also a “community calendar” of events in the local area. Sekr recently launched its premium version which offers offline access to BLM and USFS map overlays and cellular coverage maps.
- All Stays – This is a paid app but has a fairly comprehensive library of paid locations to park overnight. All Stays does show some dispersed camping availability. But iOverlander and Sekr will usually provide better options.
- Freecampsites.net – This is a website, not an app, but it has the largest database of free places to camp available. The user interface isn’t very good but it has a ton of information. Keep in mind my previous recommendation to find places that have recent good reviews as some locations can be out-of-date.
- Campendium – I used Campendium from time to time when the options above didn’t prove fruitful.
- The DYRT Pro – While another paid app, the DYRT pro provides offline access to public lands such as BLM, USFS, and National parks. Like other apps, it will also show amenities such as showers, dump stations, bathrooms, etc.
- Recreation.gov – An app that provides public camping options. Besides places to park, this app provides information about activities such as whitewater rafting and hiking. One drawback to this app is that there are no user-submitted reviews.
- RV Camping – Another app for finding options for public BLM, USFS, and other state-specific free camping spots.
- Freeroam – This app provides availability for both paid and free camping sites and has a great user interface.
- Spot Angels – This is a niche app as it shows free street parking in large cities. Good to have if you’re planning to do some stealth parking.
- US Public Lands
- RV Parky
Paper maps are a great backup in case your cellular service cuts out and/or your phone dies and you don’t have the ability to charge it. Benchmark Road Atlases have paper maps for each state. These are good investments if you spend a lot of time in particular areas. They show all the public land along with the local activities.
Ranger stations and visitor centers also often have free paper maps for the areas that they manage. Additionally, most of the stations have large wall maps that include lots of information about the local area. I’d use my phone to take pictures of these maps so I could have this information with me as I traveled in the local area.
BLM, USFS, Ranger stations, and visitor centers are incredible resources for both maps as well as getting insider information about the local area. Rangers can often tell you the best places to park for your specific needs. They can tell you the best place for quiet, for the best views, how difficult it is to get to the location, where the trailheads are, etc.
Word of Mouth
Besides asking rangers, a great way to find places to park is to talk to other van lifers. The absolute best places I parked during my adventures were from recommendations made by the van life community members I met on my travels. The van life community is generally open and helpful.
If you’re new to van life, consider doing a little paid camping before relying solely on free camping options. While there is plenty of free camping available, it can sometimes take a bit more work to find. It might be easier to ease into learning how to use your van’s electrical and water systems in a paid campground than out alone on BLM land.
Planning ahead can make your travels much easier. It’s much easier to map out two or three potential places to park for that night on wifi at a coffee shop than when you’re no longer in cell coverage.
Plan to arrive at your campsite when there’s plenty of daylight left. It’s much easier to figure out the best position for your van and if it feels like a good place to park when it’s light out.
Things you’ll want to consider if you’re boondocking on public land:
- Amenities: Know in advance if you’ll have any amenities such as electrical hookups, bathrooms, access to potable water, a fire ring, etc. so you can plan ahead.
- Road conditions: This is especially true if your van doesn’t have 4-wheel drive.
- Weather forecast: The roads going in might be fine but if the forecast says there will be a lot of rain, consider the condition of those roads when you’re trying to leave.
- Fire regulations: Will you be able to make a fire? Are there fire restrictions in place?
- Dump stations: Is there a place nearby to dump your gray or black water tank?
- Cell service: Many of the apps I listed above will give you an idea of what the cell service will be like so you can plan ahead.
Things you’ll want to pack if you’re going to be boondocking:
- Plenty of water, especially if there are no potable water options.
- Safety items such as a tire patch kit, first aid kit, and portable car battery jump kit.
- Garbage bags as you’ll need to pack out everything you pack in.
- A portable shower if your van doesn’t have one built in.
Parking in the backcountry for longer periods of time might bring up some questions about personal safety. Planning ahead can go a long way to making you feel safe.
Be sure to download offline maps for the areas you’ll be traveling. Tell a friend or family member about your plans. When considering where you’ll park, consider an exit plan. This means backing into your space so you’ll be able to pull ahead in the event of an emergency. Always know where your keys are and keep the driver’s seat generally clear and open.
Some people prefer to have a self-defense tool such as pepper spray. But be sure to know what your local regulations are as pepper spray isn’t legal in every state. One workaround is to carry bear spray as this is legal in many states where human pepper spray is not. Generally, the rule of thumb is to trust your gut. If the situation doesn’t feel right – move on to another location.
The general guidelines for taking care of our public lands are:
- Use an existing fire ring. Do not make your own. If there isn’t an existing ring, do not make a fire unless you have a self-contained unit and the fire regulations allow for it.
- Pack everything out that you pack in. This means everything.
- Do not create your own roads. Stay on the roads provided and avoid driving across open fields or off-road destroying the local ecosystem.
- If you don’t have a self-contained bathroom in your van, learn the correct way to dig a poop hole and dispose of your waste. This goes for picking up your pet’s waste as well.
This article has shown you that there are many options for free van camping across the US if you do enough digging. As you gain experience in your van life adventures, finding these places will become easier and easier.
Now that you know where to park for free, go check out our ultimate beginner’s guide to van life.