Where to sleep for free in North America

If you are a long-term Vanlifer, you have probably done the math : paying 20$ a night for a place to park is sometimes more expensive than renting a flat in the city. Here is some advice for “boondocking” like a pro!

First of all, there are some useful apps you can use to locate free campgrounds. We sometimes use “iOverlander”, which is a nice app, but only works when there is wifi.

IN OR NEAR CITIES

  • The Walmart parking lot is always a solution. It is not very glamourous, but every vanlifer has slept there one night or another (and if they say the opposite, they lie). We have discovered that we could also sleep on the Home Depot parking lot. They have better WiFi, and it’s way calmer. Don’t advertise it, though, or they’ll put “no overnight parking” signs…
  • If you have a small van like us, you can sleep pretty much anywhere in cities, as long as there are no “no overnight parking” signs. We prefer residential or town park areas, they are calmer, and you can ask residents if it’s ok to park overnight.
  • A good option is to park in front of a small town library : it is very calm, and there often is wifi. We tested Moab in Utah, Pinedale and Thermopolis in Wyoming.

IN NATIONAL PARKS

  • In big National Parks like the Grand Canyon, it is easy to sleep on the parking lot of a store, an inn or even the backcountry office. It’s not really legal though, so be careful with lights and noise. It never happened to us, but if someone comes knocking, don’t hide! Just say you didn’t know and go to a campground (otherwise you’d probably get a ticket).
  • Some National Parks have free campgrounds (for example Badlands, South Dakota) or can inform you of places to stay outside of the park. Don’t hesitate to ask the rangers, they understand that you can’t pay every night!
  • If backcountry camping is free (like in Wind Cave, South Dakota), you can always take your tent and go hiking (even if it’s not free, it’s nice to change from time to time). If it’s free and you don’t want to sleep in a tent, you can always tell the ranger that you go camping, but instead, stay in your van on the trailhead parking.

IN STATE PARKS

  • When you travel in off-season, like we do, it’s easy not to pay in State Parks, especially when they are far away from towns or cities. If someone comes to collect a fee, you can always say that you’ve just arrived and didn’t pay yet (this happened to us in Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada).
  • When there is a ranger or a ranger station, you can either pay (usually 15-20$) or go sleep somewhere else. The Californian coast is really difficult for this, it is one State Park after the other. We ended up driving and searching a lot for free places to sleep.

NATIONAL FORESTS / BLM LAND / RECREATION AREAS / REST AREAS

  • National Forests have a lot of free campgrounds. They are usually quite far away from everything, which is nice, except at winter-time when they are closed because the roads are not plowed. Nobody bothered us, though, when we slept on pull-offs or little roads in National Forests.
  • BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land is the vanlifer’s friend. You can sleep anywhere, as long as you’re not on the road. Sometimes, though, it’s hard to know where the BLM lands are. But you can always ask a ranger or someone in the area.
  • Recreation Areas are often free and have a limit of more or less 14 days. They are easily accessible and often quite nice (near a lake or a river, near some trails…), but also often very dirty. For us, it seams crazy to leave toilet paper, cans or bottles lying around, but not for everyone obviously.
  • You can sleep in Rest Areas for two consecutive nights (but I think nobody checks, we slept 5 nights on a rest area near Bryce Canyon). They are just off the highway and sometimes noisy, but they do the job. There are not many on regular highways (there must be more on the interstates, I guess), we only slept on two.

PLACES TO AVOID

  • Tucson, Arizona! The Walmart security woke us up at 2.30 am to tell us we couldn’t sleep there.
  • Appart from that, we haven’t had any other problems, except one night in the middle of nowhere where there were gun shots at night (probably just some people shooting on cans, but still). They didn’t bother us, but we didn’t feel safe at all. We decided to stay anyway because the road to get there was really rugged and long, and we felt that it was more risky to go away than to stay and do as if it didn’t bother us.

NICEST PLACES WE STAYED SO FAR

  • In the middle of the redwoods, on a pull-off. We arrived late and departed early. Still, it was nice to wake up in the middle of gigantic trees.
  • Sproat Lake campground, Vancouver Island. Very calm and very far away from any civilisation.
  • Klamath River. Again, nobody around to bother us, and a wonderful river.
  • Oregon Coast. There’s a lot of free places there.
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2 thoughts on “Where to sleep for free in North America

  1. Your trip is MEMORABLE for sure…It is what I wish to do…I am turning 65 this summer and it is my goal to do just this. I would love to buy your van but, alas cannot at this point and I am SURE you have any other offers….I just want to congratulate you for doing this Sincerely, Mara

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