Tips, tricks and the best safety advice to help VanLifers develop the skill of knowing how and where to park overnight to get proper sleep.
Photo by IG: jimmy_conover
Sleep. Isn’t it kind of strange when you think about our need for it?
Years before even thinking about Vanlife, I was painfully aware that the sole biggest reason I was handing over 1/3 of my paycheck to the landlord was because I needed a safe, comfortable place to sleep every 12 hours or so.
Creating a system of parking your campervan overnight for sleep is the most important thing you need to master if your going to thrive in Van Life for the long term. Seriously.
There are other very important aspects to Van Life, like eating or bathing for example…
but these can always be improvised or even skipped for a few days (if you have you).
BUT getting a solid 4-8 hours of restful sleep is not something you can just skip without paying the consequences.
If you have never slept in your van before, its probably going to take a little while to get used to. At least it did for me…
Trust the process of adjusting to it…
As time passes, you will gradually feel more comfortable in your Van (even late at night).
You will soon find yourself NOT being as reactive or spooked out by every little noise or pedestrian that walks near your van.
If you stick with it, the day will come when your going to wake up refreshed in your van and realize that you just enjoyed several days in a row of great, anxiety free sleep.
Then, you will understand the freedom that comes from KNOWING you can survive and get amazing rest without having to pay off someone else’s mortgage or fork over hundreds of dollars for a Motel every time you want to take your camper van for a road trip!
This is a feeling you cannot miss my friends...
Photo by: https://unsplash.com/@we_are_rising
In this article were going to go over some important strategies, rules, and safety pre-cautions every Vanlifer should have at their disposal when it comes to both paid and especially free overnight parking.
Whether you drive a mini-van or 1970's style motorhome, the goal of this article is to be an all-inclusive resource for ALL Van Lifers of different shapes and sizes.
However, please keep in mind that I do have a bias towards being a “Stealth Camper”
What I mean by that, is that I live in the city and drive a basic “soccer mom” style of mini van with the goal of blending in as much as possible. (2)
For those of you driving a large RV, Sprinter Van, or 1970s Motorhome... just chill I got your back!
Not only am I a full time Van Lifer but I have also done a ton of research and put together a list of reliable overnight camping resources.
You will find these resources within and at the end of this article.
"I change during the course of a day. I wake and I'm one person, and when I go to sleep I know for certain I'm someone else" Bob Dylan
Let’s get started…
Where can you find free overnight parking?
A major benefit of driving a mini van like mine is that it’s easy to blend in pretty much anywhere.
However, this same benefit can also be a safety issue is you decide to just park anywhere without research or proper reconnaissance.
To give you an example of what I mean, you can read about the very first time I tried to park my campervan overnight in Las Vegas
The moral of the above story is that you should at least know a little bit about the area/neighborhood your about to park your van overnight in.
If your new to Van Life, the first thing I recommend for you is to try overnight parking for at least a week in your hometown
(or maybe start in an easy place to learn like San Diego)
Photo by: https://unsplash.com/@rooney
But, you probably know all the safe neighborhoods in your hometown though, right?
You know which streets are safe and which streets have been known to have “riff-raff” from time to time...
Avoiding sketchy areas to begin with is your best line of defense.
With that said, once you study the list of examples below, your first mission is to find ATLEAST 10 very good stealth camping spots for your van that you can use on a weekly rotation.
(By the way, I have seen Van Lifers of all shapes and sizes parking overnight at the stealth camping spots below)
List of where to find really good Stealth Camping spots:
(1) Pay attention to the streets right outside apartment complexes
Think about it, people in the neighborhood generally don't care who parks outside the complex or they just assume you’re a guest of one of the tenants.
Even if you park a large 1970's Hippy Beach Bus you will most likely be left alone as long as you follow the “Stealth Camping Rules for Overnight Parking” we will read about shortly.
(2) Near the Beach
In places like San Diego, the beach is often a place where you will find many other Van Lifers.
However, I wouldn't park directly on the beach nor would I try to stealth camp in the immediate neighborhoods next to that beach.
There tends to be a sweet spot in between the beach and the affluent coastal neighborhoods.
HINT: Pacific Coast Highway (the 101) is a road worth checking out because it basically runs parallel to the beach and stretches from San Diego all the way up to the Oregon border.
(3) Near Railroad tracks
Van Lifers of all types like to park near train tracks here in Southern California.
San Diego is a surprisingly good place to do this.
However, I have heard train tracks can be sketchy in other areas around the world.
Please do your own research before parking near train tracks in your area.
(4) Outskirts of residential neighborhoods
America is FULL of suburbs, and you can find an overwhelming amount of parking spots by looking for strips of sidewalk that are NOT in front of someone’s house.
Please don't scare or disrespect any homeowners by parking in front of their homes!
Good if there are a handful of other vehicles there – OR if you know the area and just have a good feeling about it.
(6) In front of grocery stores/Walmarts/Etc
There is usually a working night-crew at most grocery stores.
You will see maybe 5-10 of their cars in the front parking lot of the store.
You have a good chance of blending in with them.
Walmart in California will often advertise "No Overnight Parking" yet the parking lot will still have upwards of 15 Van Lifers parked at a respectable distance that does not interrupt the flow of business.
Play it by ear.
You would be surprised at what you can get away with when you show respect towards the businesses or neighborhoods in your chosen stealth camping locations.
"Be modest, be respectful of others, try to understand" Lakhdar Brahimi
And that’s pretty much it as far as places I prefer to park overnight!
I personally have found well over 20 really safe parking spots just using the simple examples above.
However, this list is definitely not the only options available for you...
Get creative with this stuff!
Start with the above parking ideas, and soon you will develop "an eye" for finding good spots pretty much anywhere you go.
Photo by: https://unsplash.com/@omarprestwich
Write down all of the good places you find in a notebook or App so you can remember and reference them when your tired.
However, that’s not all.
There are Stealth Camping Rules and etiquettes I suggest you follow as your testing out all of the overnight parking spots you find in your van.
List of Stealth Camping Rules for Overnight Parking
(1) Take care of ALL your nighttime duties and preparations BEFORE you park your van for the night.
(Ex: change your clothes, test your Carbon Monoxide alarm, crack your windows, hide any spare change, etc.)
(2) Park your van AFTER 11pm and be OUT of there by 6AM.
And ALWAYS park your van in a way where you would not be injured if some drunk were to crash into you while you slept.
(3) Never park in the same place 2-3 days in a row.
You want at least 10 really good spots that you use in a weekly rotation (at the minimum).
(4) Never park your van in front on somebodies residence.
People will trip. Ask me how I know…
(5) Read all the signs on the road in question (preferably during the day)
You don't want to get ticketed for being in the way of street sweeping or construction zones, etc.
(6) Once you park, its lights out.
Either use a blanket to cover the light from your phone or just go to sleep.
Don't do anything to let people know your basically urban camping on their street.
(7) Don’t leave the van or do anything obnoxious to draw people’s attention.
(Guys, keeping a Gatorade bottle handy to take a leak is a good idea.)
(8) Leave your spot better than you found it.
(Sometimes this means picking up other people’s trash they left before you parked.)
(9) ALWAYS be listening to your gut.
If something feels off, then get your van out of there no matter how annoying it might be. Safety first.
~I promise that if you try to combine these Stealth Camping Rules with the list of Stealth Camping Spot ideas we went over earlier, then sleeping in your van will shortly become a piece of cake!
Before we move on, I have to quickly mention that having proper bedding, ventilation, and privacy is super important if you want to get good sleep in a van. Since were focused on just finding overnight parking for now, I won't go into those things here... but check out this article that talks about how to achieve proper bedding, ventilation, and privacy on a budget.
What if I have no idea what town I’m in or where I should go!?
Let’s say you’re in an emergency scenario and you’re in some strange town in a completely unfamiliar area…
What can you do?
Well, you can start by picking a town/neighborhood and then quickly researching all of the recent arrests and criminal activities that have happened in that area.
My personal favorite tool to do this is on a website called https://spotcrime.com/
Spot Crime is an awesome, very easy to use tool that literally shows you recent incidents and arrests made in whatever area you put in the search bar!
Photo by: https://unsplash.com/@ezunder
Please keep in mind that even the most affluent neighborhoods (ie La Jolla in San Diego) are going to have at least some criminal activity.
For me personally, I am not too concerned by theft or even burglary as long as the neighborhood report isn't showing an overwhelming amount of these crimes happening on a daily basis.
If your Spot Crime report is showing a little too much criminal activity, then I suggest you keep searching for a safer area.
You might also consider parking your van at one of the following places:
Police station, Hospital, Casino, Rest Area, Gas Station, Beach, Walmart, Gym, Grocery Store, or quiet suburban neighborhood.
If appropriate, I might talk to the workers of one of the above establishments to let them know I was sleeping in their parking lot, and if they could keep an eye on me.
If I was REALLY spooked, then I would probably just drink some Red Bull and plan to sleep during the day. (Although this is hard to do in the middle of July or August!)
If I was exhausted and just wanted to sleep ASAP, then I would just ask a Police Officer point blank if I could sleep in their parking lot.
(Of coarse I would explain the situation to the Cops in a way where they probably are not going to write a ticket or give me any crap)
Or... I might just ask the officer if he could give me advice on where is a good area that I can park for a few hours.
Above all, listen to your gut in these types of scenarios!
If you park your van and start to get weird feelings, then it’s time to move (or get a hotel for a few days).
Always keep safety first and foremost in your mind…
"I've had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened." Mark Twain
What if I'm not trying to Stealth Camp or be near the city?
I understand that several of you have no need or interest in parking stealth camping or want be anywhere near a beach or city.
Photo by: https://unsplash.com/@adamkool
Have you been to YOSEMITE?
Maybe your a digital nomad who just escaped the San Fernando Valley in your converted Sprinter Van...
Or perhaps your a retired couple driving a motorhome...
The point is that were not always just looking for free overnight parking in the cities/suburbs.
There are many free & paid options available to us out in nature that provide you the benefit of not having to be stealthy or hide what your doing.
In the beginning of the article, I told all of the RV, Sprinter Van, and Motorhome folks that I have your back!
I did several hours of research and came up with this collection of different resources to help you guys/gals find abundant options for overnight parking.
Most of the websites and Apps below revolve around helping you find National Parks, Forests, Campgrounds, private beach, Private Lands, etc.
Some of these services are paid but almost all of them have some sort of Free option or avenue within the site that you can take advantage of (pun intended)
Take 1 or 2 of the below resources and just dive into them for all they are worth.
Harvest Hosts – If your interested in being out on a Winery, Farm, Golf Course, or Brewery then check this one out!
There are over 3,700 locations throughout the USA (especially in the North East).
There is a $79 yearly subscription but this could be a good Return on Investment if you focus on using this service for a extended period of time.
Boondocking.org – This is a great resource that is absolutely free from what I researched. It is very easy to use.
Just keep in mind that anybody can edit, comment, and even add overnight parking spots on the database. Check it out.
FreeRoam – This is a US Campground, Boondocking, and RV Park finder App that has a 4.7 Star rating on Google Play.
The people running the app seem to be very involved with keeping it updated and fixing any bugs that have come up previously.
iOverlander – This is one of the most widely used Global free apps for finding great spots all over the world.
It seems to be quite reliable but maybe not the best if your looking to be completely remote and alone wherever you decide to park your van or RV for the night.
CampgroundViews.com – It does not look like a free service but its very simple to use.
Every region I entered into the search came back with a overwhelming amount of RV parks and camp grounds to choose from.
At least check it out to see what is available in your region!
Campendium.com – For the US, Mexico, Canada. You must check this one out! Don’t forget to look under the “Free Camping” tab for a list of over 8,000 free places for you to go!
ReserveAmerica.com – This site seems to revolve around different National Parks and their surrounded camp sites thru ought the country. Be sure to check out all the resources on Free camping.
https://www.fs.fed.us/ivm/ - This is a general map of forest service lands. Very cool tool but it has mixed reviews.
https://www.allstays.com/apps/camprv.htm- US & Canada. They charge $9.99 and it is only available on Apple products but I have heard good things about them.
They claim to be “The ultimate camping app that lets you find Campgrounds, RV Parks and related services with or without internet".
https://www.hipcamp.com/en-US - Like Airbnb for camping, this is a very cool resource that connects private landowners to Van Lifers like you who are interested in staying on their land for way less that a hotel. They have listings across the globe!
https://www.boondockerswelcome.com – Very popular resource for overnight van & RV parking on private lands across North America!
It looks like there is a $79 annual fee for unlimited access. However, there may be some free options available if you search around the site.
Photo by: https://unsplash.com/@dinoreichmuth
"I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order" John Burroughs
What if I live in the UK and/or Europe?
Remember, that both https://www.hipcamp.com/en-US
iOverlander are globally used resources.
I also found a Van Life couple from the UK with an excellent blog site called the "Wandering-Bird" - https://www.wandering-bird.com/wild-camp-uk-motorhome/
The above link is an article about “motorhome wild camping”
The Wandering Bird seems to be a great resource and has a variety of overnight campervan tips for all my UK/Euro friends to look into.
There you have it folks!
I sure hope that you found everything you need to get started!
Do you have any suggestions that could make this a better resource for getting great, uninterrupted sleep in a van? Reach out to me!
Next: Is it Cheaper Living in a Van? The General answer is Yes, but of coarse it depends on how frugal you can be with your money, if you cook your own meals, how far you drive each day, etc. Have a look at this article detailing the cost of van life based on my own personal experiences starting up on a shoestring budget.