If you’ve already invested a substantial amount of money into your camper van, you might be reluctant to pay to sleep at paid campgrounds and RV parks. $30 here, $20 there. These costs add up quickly and before you know it, you’re spending a considerable sum every month just to sleep in your own vehicle. Why not just camp for free?
Seriously. After all, you already have your own room and bed. All you need is a secure place to park every evening.
In this post, we’re going to talk about several of the most popular ways to camp for free while traveling in your camper van or RV. This includes not only how to find the most picturesque, dispersed campsites all across the United States but also how to overnight at convenient spots while driving along the nation’s major highways. Wherever you are, this van life free camping guide will make sure you don’t pay a dime to sleep.
So if you’re ready, let’s get to it!
Camp For Free On BLM Lands
Nature lovers on a budget can rejoice! Camping on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land is a fantastic way to get far out into the wilderness and camp for free.
Though paid & serviced campgrounds are available on BLM lands, these areas only make up a small percentage of the total land reserved under BLM. The rest of the area is designated for ‘dispersed camping’, which is camping on public land away from established recreation facilities.
Use the BLM online map to locate the closest BLM near you.
The downsides to dispersed camping on BLM land is that there are usually zero resources available to you. No toilets, showers, running water, or electricity is provided. But hey, it’s free. You get what you pay for. Just be sure to pack everything out when you leave your campsite.
Free Camping On National Forest Lands
Free camping opportunities also exist on National Forest lands. With over 150 National Forests in the United States, you can be sure at least one of these forests is located near you.
All National Forest lands are open to free dispersed camping, unless otherwise indicated. And since we started van life, we’ve almost never seen a sign explicitly prohibiting camping on these National Forest lands. So you can be sure that your spot is likely safe from those pesky forest rangers.
To find a National Forest near you, check out the locator feature on the US Forest Service website.
The downside of dispersed camping on National Forest land is that there are a number of rules you’ll need to follow to prevent damage to natural resources and wildlife. These include:
- Campfire restrictions with burn bans and permits
- Human waste disposal requirements
- Proper food storage procedures
- Following ‘Leave No Trace’ principles by packing all your things out when you leave.
For more information on dispersed camping regulations, check out the US Forest Service camping guide.
Overnight Parking At Walmart
Sleeping for free overnight at Walmart parking lots has been a staple among the van life & RV community for decades.
And it’s no wonder why that is. Walmart Supercenters are ubiquitous all across the country (and Canada!) and offer safe places to stay overnight with security personnel overseeing the parking lot. We’re not ashamed to admit that we’ve slept overnight at more than our fair share of Walmart parking lots across the country.
The downside of overnight parking at Walmart is that not all Walmarts are friendly to camper vans & RVs. If you happen to be at the ‘wrong’ Walmart, you may get a rude knock in the middle of the night and be asked to leave.
To ensure we’re staying at a Walmart that typically allows overnight RV parking, we use the iOverlander App and FreeCampSites.net and read the reviews from past campers.
Camp For Free At Truck Stops
When traveling along major transportation highways, you’ve probably gassed up at one of the many Flying J and Pilot service centers. These two brands, and a handful of others, used to only service the long haul trucking industry, but recently began prioritizing campers, RVs, and other private vehicles.
While certainly not the most beautiful free overnight parking solution, sleeping near the 24/7 convenience store won’t cost you a penny and guaranteed to be free from the dreaded ‘midnight knock’ from the police.
In addition, Flying J and Pilot service centers also offer a wealth of RV services like water dump stations and propane refills. Bonus: If you have a Good Sam account, then you’ll be able to get discounts off these services (as well as fuel discounts).
The downside to overnight camping at Flying J and Pilot service centers is the noise. If you haven’t had the pleasure of trying to sleep while gigantic diesel trucks drive by your camper, you’ll soon find out what we’re talking about.
To locate the nearest Flying J or Pilot location near us, we use the myRewards plus app.
Take Advantage Of Casinos
Many casinos offer free camping facilities to the van life and RV community. Although oftentimes the free ‘campsite’ is nothing more than a parking spot in the back of the Casino lot without even a bathroom nearby.
Of course, the hope is that you’ll wander into the casino and try your luck at the roulette table or slot machines. But if you practice good restraint, parking at casinos is a great way to camp for free in your vehicle.
Use the CasinoCamper website to find casinos that offer free overnight opportunities.
Sleep For Free At Highway Rest Areas
Another convenient free overnight solution is to park at rest stations, which are ubiquitous along major highways in the US.
Sleeping for free at these highway rest areas is possibly the most convenient method when long-hauling it across the country. That’s because you don’t have to drive very far off the highway to get to a rest area. In addition, there are always plenty of parking spaces, 24/7 bathroom facilities are available, and drinking water is usually nearby.
The downside of overnight parking at rest areas is that not every rest area allows parking overnight. And if it is allowed, most areas will restrict your parking to not more than 8 hours. However, our experience is that the ‘8-hour’ rule isn’t strictly enforced and can usually be stretched out to a 12 hour period.
Again, it’s best to consult review sites, like FreeCampSites.net to plan in advance which rest area you want to stay at.
Stealth Parking In Urban Areas
One of the most popular terms in the van life community is ‘stealth camping’, which involves discreetly camping for free in urban areas like residential neighborhoods, roadsides, and business parking lots.
To successfully stealth camp means evading the attention of the police, would-be thieves, and curious neighbors and usually involves sleeping in a vehicle that doesn’t overtly look like a camper. Hence the “stealth”.
A camper that looks like a basic white, standard commercial work van works best here.
But if we’re being honest, stealth camping is our least preferred method to camp for free. That’s because this overnight solution is the least safe from intruders and has the highest chance for you to get in trouble with the authorities. It’s also the most annoying to the local residents. Would you like it if your own neighborhood street became a popular urban camping location?
Not only is stealth camping our least preferred method, but we also almost never do it. There’s just too many better options that are safer and legally allowed (a nearby Walmart would be our pick).
To learn more about why we don’t recommend stealth camping, check out our post: Why Stealth Camping Is A Terrible Idea.
Best Tips for Finding Free Campsites
Finding free places to camp during van life is a bit of an art form. And it can take some time to learn how to search for a free site quickly and get it right the first time. That being said, here are some of our tips to finding free places to camp with your RV.
- Plan Ahead – Don’t get stuck trying to search for an overnight spot after dusk.
- Take Advantage Of Good Reception – If you have full cell reception now, use it. Don’t wait until later. You might end up in a reception dead zone.
- Utilize Different Resources – Whether you’re searching for BLM land, forest land, or just a truck stop, use the right tool (smartphone app) for the job.
- Don’t Get Discouraged – Just because you had a terrible experience at one free camp site, don’t get discouraged. Use it as a learning opportunity and keep searching for the next great place.
Final Thoughts: The Right Free Camping Spot Is A Magical Experience
Not every free camping spot is a fantastic place. Sometimes you just need a ‘good enough’ location to carry you over until the next morning.
But when you finally find that one picturesque spot out in nature that doesn’t cost you a dime, soak it in and enjoy the solitude. You’ve reached peak van life.
And as always, please help to keep these free campsites pristine and litter-free. Follow the ‘Leave No Trace’ principle and return your spot to the same condition as when you arrived.
If you have any questions or comments regarding camping for free with your vehicle, please let us know in the comments below. Thank you!