Over the course of our three months travelling across the USA we never paid for a campsite. Every night we found somewhere to sleep for free in our van. It’s not that hard to do the same when you know what to look out for. The longer you’re living in a van, the easier it becomes to spot a good place to park your van overnight for free and not be asked to move.
Despite the fact that we’ve only travelled in the USA and Canada in our van these tips will prove useful where ever you are.
Is your van stealthy?
Bear in mind that finding somewhere to camp for free is way easier if your van is more stealthy. We own a Ford E150. It’s a standard white van. It’s the type of van you expect workmen to drive around in and, in fact, that’s what our Elvis was used for before we bought him.
We did have a roof box on while we travelled so we looked more like a camper van but that still didn’t seem to cause us any difficulty.
If you have a VW van thats covered in stickers and is a colour other than white it’s more obvious that it’s a camper van. For that reason you’re likely to draw more attention to yourself.
However the below tips for finding a good place to park your van overnight for free should still be relevant.
This post refers to camping in residential, urban areas. For more options for free places to sleep in your van take a look at this post.
How to find a good place to park your van overnight for free
Don’t park directly outside someone’s house
Whenever we are travelling in more urban areas we always make sure not to park directly outside someone’s house. Parking directly outside someones house will raise suspicions and you’re more likely to be asked to move.
Think about it. If you were in your house and saw an unusual van pull up and park right outside you’d probably be wondering what’s going on.
Usually we’d pull up slightly out of view of the windows, or along the side of a house.
There are exceptions to parking outside a house. For example, if the parking on that street is all street parking and thus there aren’t any driveways, your van is less likely to be a “strange new vehicle in the neighbourhood”.
Check the signs
This is common sense really but make sure you check the signs. The parking might be for residents only or prohibited for certain times and you want to avoid both being ticketing and being asked to move at 4am.
You’ll find that in towns popular for outdoor activities there will be signs saying “no parking between 2am-6am”. This seems like a weird time but it’s obviously done so as to prevent camper vans staying there for the night.
If there aren’t any signs you’re usually good to go.
Arrive late, leave early
A general rule for any free camping spot is to arrive late and leave early. This minimises the chances of being spotted and it’s just good etiquette when camping for free.
If something makes you feel uncomfortable get out
Trust your gut. If something about the area feels dodgy then it probably is. If there are cars with spray paint all over them, smashed in windows, boarded up houses (you get the gist), then you probably don’t want to stay there.
Even if nothing happened you’d probably end up having a bad night’s sleep worrying about every tiny noise you hear.
Find several spots and rotate them
For extended stays in urban areas it’s important to change up your spot; ideally every night. Get a collection of 3-5 spots and rotate them. Don’t always follow the same order either, you don’t want to end up with an angry resident waiting for you at 10pm when you pull up to your Tuesday night spot giving you an ear full about why you can’t park there.
Have night and day spots
A good tip to avoid being asked to move and limit the chance of being caught living in your van is to have night and day spots.
Your day spot can be where you feel comfortable cooking dinner and chilling out in your van. Your night spot should be the place you pull up to sleep late at night and then get out early.
Don’t be the lone vehicle
Don’t be the lone van in the carpark or street. It’ll make you stand out no matter how stealthy you look and will draw attention to you that you probably don’t want.
What to do if someone knocks on your van
We were woken up about three times during the three months of travelling. Never by a resident but usually by security for a carpark. You should just apologise and ask if they know anywhere you could park overnight. I left Thom to deal with this and it resulted in us having conversations with Walmart security guards about how they dream of living in a van, and getting tips on where we absolutely should not park from others.
We were never ticketed for staying in our van – just be nice and most people will let you move on.