We chose to travel around the USA in a van not just for the convenience and ease of getting around but also because it’s very budget friendly.
In the entire three months of travel (plus two months extra that we were in Vancouver) we only spent money on accommodation twice. Once at a hotel in Austin where we were hoping to pick up some post, and again in Las Vegas. The other 148ish nights we didn’t spend a penny on accommodation.
We quickly discovered that campsites in America really aren’t very good value for money. In many cases it would have been cheaper for us to book a night in a hotel than to stay in a campsite!
The only benefit of staying in a campsite to us would’ve been a toilet and a shower. We already had electricity thanks to our solar panel and free water from places like this. Since we’d figured out how to shower too we saved our money and found free places to camp.
The website we turned to again and again during our three-month road trip in America was iOverlander. It’s full of free camping spots that other travellers have used and we found some picturesque places thanks to that app.
Even without iOverlander, there are certain places across the US which you can count on being able to sleep at for free.
(This is not at all sponsored it’s just a really useful app!)
As we journeyed down the east coast in search of warmer weather (sleeping in a van at minus 20 is never fun no matter how much insulation you have!), we slept in a lot of Walmart carparks.
They’re so far removed from the Instagram #vanflife shots you see but they’re often the reality.
Walmart carparks were great. Yes, sometimes they were noisy and occasionally you’d get asked to move on, but most of the time they were a fail safe option.
We could pick up food for dinner, stock up on water for free, use their toilet and park our car during the day when we explored a city. Sometimes they had wifi and other times they even had some pretty good views like this Walmart in Almogordo.
We definitely weren’t the only ones sleeping in Walmart carparks. You’d see some people in massive RVs (sometimes they took it too far, in my opinion, and set up their camping tables and chairs, or played Frisbee across the carpark), people living in their cars and plenty more #vanlifers.
Tips for sleeping in Walmart carparks
- Don’t take the piss. You’re in a carpark not a campsite. Don’t take up more than one car parking space and don’t set up chairs and tables.
- A lot of Walmarts have a security car patrolling at night. Mostly we found this was to keep an eye on the drunk/high people who seemed to set up camp in Walmart carparks. However, it’s also good to check with the security man whether you’re allowed to stay overnight. The ones we spoke to were always friendly – Thom even had a conversation about van conversions with one of them – and if you can’t stay then they’ll usually tell you about a Walmart where you can.
- Other RVs/camper vans in the carpark are usually a good sign you can stay. You’ll usually notice a corner of the carpark where there are several camper vans or RVs parked, if there aren’t any then chances are you’re probably not allowed to stay.
- The area of the carpark where the camper vans are is usually in the furthest corner from the main entrance where you’re less of a pain. Don’t park super close to the doors.
- 24 hour Walmarts are best. Not only will you being parked in a carpark look less weird as you could just be shopping, but they’re more receptive to overnight campers. Plus there’s a toilet should you need to get up in the middle of the night!
The BLM (Bureau of Land Management) have areas of land that are free for public use across America. Most of this is in the South West, and it’s not always free if you want to stay overnight.
In Moab, for example, the campsites there were $15 a night for a pretty barren space with pit toilets. Whilst I was keen to stay somewhere where I wouldn’t worry about being asked to move on, I also didn’t want to spend $15 a night when I knew I could sleep somewhere else for free.
I failed to find a good map of BLM land but we did find some good BLM camping spots through iOverlander. These camping sites fill up fairly early in the afternoon but there’s normally some space you can squeeze into if you arrive in the evening.
Expect no toilets or running water at most places – they’re just a patch of land.
24 Hour planet fitness
If you’ve signed up to Planet Fitness like we did in order to shower, then you can usually get away with staying in their carpark. We did this a couple of times during our road trip and had no issues.
We’ve read that it works best if you get one of their Planet Fitness stickers to place on your van so that they know you’re a member.
America’s National Forests are a Godsend for vanlifers. They’re completely free to stay in for up to 14 days a month.
The first forest we stayed in was in Florida where I’m pretty sure a family and their several dogs had been living there for months (if not longer).
We stayed in National Forest again several times and they were particularly useful when we were on the National Park section of our road trip.
More often than not there’s National Forest land just outside the entrance to the National Parks which gives you free camping, right outside the National Park – closer than most of the hotels even!
Free camping in the National Forests often involves driving down a dirt track for a little while. Again, they get full pretty quickly and especially at weekends.
You should be able to spot little pull outs from the road where there’s enough space to drive into and set up camp for the night.
Despite the fact I’ve since read some pretty awful horror stories about rest areas I’m still adding them to this list. We stayed in a couple during our road trip and had surprisingly peaceful nights’ sleep.
They were never our first choice and in some states you are prohibited from staying over night or limited to 8 hours at a time (which you can usually eek out to 10/12 hours without issue).
In Florida, all the rest areas had 24-hour security and you’ll find other rest areas with security too to give you that extra peace of mind.
Stealth camping in the street
As you’d expect, finding free camping in a city was the hardest. It’s still not impossible though! We camping on the side of the road many a time during our trip. This is probably harder to do if you’re obviously in a campervan but I’m sure it’s still possible.
We liked to pull our curtain across in the evenings and put our covers in the windows to make it less obvious we were in the van. Make sure to read the parking signs properly as you don’t want to wake up to a fine on your windscreen!
When we couldn’t find a Walmart we stayed in other carparks. These included Home Depot carparks; Rona car parks (a couple of times in Toronto and Niagara), Planet Fitness as above, park and ride and church carparks!
I’ve also seen a lot of people talking about casino carparks. Casinos seem pretty open to having you stay in their carpark as they expect you’ll come in during the evening and gamble a bit.
Most of them ask you to register your vehicle and some even give you free casino chips when you do!
Anywhere there isn’t a “no overnight camping” sign
If all else fails just drive until you see a spot that doesn’t have a “no overnight camping” sign. If you get asked to move just say sorry and move on!
Some of the random places we stayed during our three month road trip
I checked in at a lot of the places we slept for free at on iOverlander. You can see them here but these below were some of the best (or most random!)
- The beach in Louisiana
- A forest in Florida
- SO many Walmart carparks
- Church carparks in Portland
- A layby in California
- Behind the Youth Centre in Klamath, CA – free wifi and water!
- A rest area with free coffee, tea and biscuits!
- Layby at the top of the hill in Oregon