Everyday Vanlife

HYGIENE

  • Public swimming pools (usually 5$ per person) are a good place to go take a shower. In the United States, though, not every city has a public swimming pool… In Ashland, Oregon, we RENTED a bathroom for half an hour for 16$, crazy!
  • Hot Springs are also a nice alternative, but more expensive (except Hot Springs National Park in Thermopolis, Wyoming, where you can stay 20 minutes for free).
  • Big National Parks (or towns nearby) often have showers for tourists. It usually costs 5$ per person (but there is a time limit, usually 5 or 10 minutes).
  • We were told that truck stops also have showers. We haven’t actually tried this one out, as we don’t take the interstates that much.
  • If you can’t manage to find a shower and feel really dirty, you can always boil some water, wash yourself with a washcloth and wash your hair in the sink of the van. We did this sometimes, and it’s easier than you would imagine.
  • We also always have baby-wipes in our van, for our daily hygiene. Be shure though to buy the ones that are not full of chemicals.
  • Summertime is the best : you can shower on the beach, wash yourself in lakes and rivers, or use a solar shower. If you do this, please buy ecological soap and shampoo!

WATER

  • Buy a water hose, you will need it.
  • You can fill up the tank of your van at gas stations. Courtesy wants you to fill up on gas also. It is not indicated if you can drink the water or not, but we have always drinked it, and never became sick.
  • A sani-dump station (usually in National Park and State Park campgrounds) is also a good place to get water. Usually, there is potable and non-potable water. The problem is that sometimes there is a fee: on the Californian coast, for example, you have to pay 15$, very expensive when you only have greywater.
  • You can get drinking water at all the Visitor Centers of the National Parks.

WIFI

We all need it, no matter how simple our lifestyle is! You can find it for free here :

  • Visitor and Information Centers
  • Parking lots of big stores or chains (Walmart, Home Depot, Starbucks, McDonalds…)
  • Public Libraries
  • City Parks (sometimes)

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.

Stuff you need in your Van

THE USUAL

That’s the stuff you need everyday in any case : clothes, cooking material (please don’t buy disposable plates and cutlery, it’s such a big waste and so much more expensive), cleaning material (for your body and your van), blankets and cushions, electronics and cameras, etc.

FOR EMERGENCIES”

  • A tool-box with the usuals
  • Headlights or a rechargeable lamp
  • Camping stove, if you have no more propane in your van or backcountry camping
  • Water container (we have 7,5 liters), fill it whenever possible
  • Fast to cook or ready to eat food (Canned or lyophilisised soups, energy bars, …)
  • Sleeping bags if it gets too cold for the regular blanket. If you’re really cold, a hot water bottle can also help.
  • Some extra gas (we have 5 liters)
  • A bear-spray, a good knife, and a hatchet

FOR FUN

  • Some firewood for the barbecues
  • An e-book (it’s so tiny and you can download any book you want when you have wifi! Also, the battery lasts like a month)
  • Some real books (about wildlife for example, or some books about the area you’re visiting)
  • A small music instrument (now is the time to learn!)
  • Some games and movies for the rainy days

Guidelines for a peaceful Vanlife

  • Tidy up your van

When everything has it’s own particular place, it’s faster and easier to find stuff, and it will avoid a lot of irritation. In a small living-space, it is important to categorize everything (leisure, meals, electronics, clothes…) : try having a “system”, and put back your stuff where it belongs, everytime.
Your van can get quite dirty and messy in a very short period, but fortunately it is also quick to clean and tidy up… It usually takes us less than half an hour every 4/5 days.

  • Have everything you need, but not more

Lose all the superficial stuff! You won’t need that 4th pair of pants, hairdryer or toaster. The less you have, the happier you’ll be. Be sure though to take some stuff you really like and enjoy using…
For more on that, check out our article : “stuff you absolutely need in your van”.

  • Know your van

Garages are neither fun not cheap. In French, we would say “il vaut mieux prévenir que guérir” (it’s better to prevent than heal). Check your van before going on a long trip. Check the oil level every few weeks and refill if needed. Do an oil change every 5000-8000 miles. Check your air filter and change it if it’s dirty or every 10 000 miles. Check your tires every few weeks.
It’s also a good idea to buy the manual of your van, you’d be surprised how easy it is to fix a problem sometimes.

  • Trust your instincts

If you feel not safe sleeping somewhere, go somewhere else or ask someone! It is not fun to wake up and move in the middle of the night. For more on sleeping in your van, check out our article “Where to sleep for free”.
The same goes for roads you may or may not go on. Dirt, sand or gravel roads must be taken with precaution : check the weather forecast if you can, know how long the road is and where it will lead you, etc.

  • Don’t run out of food, water or gas

If you plan to go into the middle of nowhere, better be prepared and buy everything you need beforhand. Also, food and gas are cheaper when you are in or around a city.

  • Living together 24/7

When you are two or more, privacy is a questionable notion, so get used to doing things you wouldn’t be doing usually in front of your partner/friends (we won’t go into details, you’ll see). Our advice would be to laugh together rather than mock one another.
Be sure to give yourselves a break sometimes : it’s nice (and primordial) to have some mutual passions (for us, that would mostly be photography and hiking), but if Alex wants to go fishing and I want to read, that’s ok too.