This post is a continuation of last week’s post – Our Camper Van: The Grand Tour. Make sure to check it out if you haven’t already!
When we’re traveling, folks love to ask us questions about van living. While we don’t live in our van full time, we spent about two months out of the last year living on the road, so the van is kind of like our second home. In fact, we’re actually about to embark on our longest journey yet next week – six whole weeks! We can’t wait!
Camping: Before Van Life
Back in 2015, we started dreaming about van life when we road tripped out to California in my Subaru. We’d driven from Utah to Malibu in one day (about 11 hours of driving), and we had dreams of pulling up to the ocean and camping beachside. Ha! Were we wrong. Not only are most beachfront campgrounds in Southern California RV only (no tent sites), they were all packed to the brim like parking lots, even on a Monday night.
After scouring the internet on our phones at 9:00 PM (post-sunset watching of course), we managed to find a campground about an hour away up in the Santa Barbara hills. We had no idea if they’d have a spot for us or not since it was a first-come, first-serve, county-run campground. We didn’t really have any other good options though, so we rolled the dice and made the drive, without a Plan B. Fortunately, we found a spot and set up in the dark. It was actually lovely, but driving around at night, with our fingers crossed we’d find something, was not what we’d envisioned after traveling over 700 miles.
We love California, and our 2 1/2 weeks there that summer were amazing. We backpacked the Lost Coast, we mountain biked in redwood forests, we hiked gorgeous ocean bluffs, and we ate and drank local everything.
It was heaven – except the part where we felt like we were constantly struggling to figure out where we would stay. We spent countless hours driving around, hoping we’d find an empty campsite most nights – it was exhausting. That’s when we decided that someday, we’d buy a camper van.
Related Article: Why You Should Make “Someday” Today
2019 in Our Camper Van: Where We Sleep
Fast forward to 2019 – we’ve had our van for about 20 months, and we feel like we’ve got life on the road pretty dialed in. One question we get a lot from new or prospective camper van owners is where we sleep – how do we find places to just crash for the night, and how do we find breathtaking off-the-grid campsites, too?
The short answer is – the van gives us soooo many more options when it comes to sleeping. Although many of them are not glamorous or Instagram-worthy, life feels pretty damned easy compared to sleeping in a tent every night. There’s less searching, less planning, less setting up – in general, it just feels so much more free (which most of the time, it actually is free – in price that is!).
Generally, most camping options fall into two categories: choosing a spot for convenience and ease, or choosing a spot for the magnificent experience and tranquil beauty.
(Not-so) “Stealth” Camping or Urban Camping
When we’re hauling across multiple states in a day, it’s easy to pull over and park just about anywhere that doesn’t have a “no overnight parking” sign. We’ve slept at:
- Flying J’s/Pilots
- state rest areas
- welcome centers
- ski area parking lots
- the side of quiet highways (usually a mountain pass)
Most of these places have bathrooms, so it’s easy to go when nature calls in the middle of the night (since we don’t have a toilet on board).
When we bought our van, our goal was to be as “stealth” as possible with camping in more urban areas, but quickly realized it was kind of a joke since we ran into dozens of other van owners doing the same thing. The key is that wherever you are, respect the place and the people around you:
- don’t cook outside
- don’t set up your camp chairs
- don’t pee outside
- don’t blast your music
- be discreet
Most people will probably know you’re camping (um, especially when you have firewood and a Road Shower on your roof rack, like we do). So you don’t have to totally hide, but don’t make a scene or throw a party either. Be respectful of others and your environment.
Off the Grid Camping in Our Camper Van
While we love the convenience of being able to sleep almost anywhere, what we really love is disappearing off the grid for multiple days at a time. Our favorite places to camp are mostly the same types of places we loved when we tent camped, but the van lets us linger a little longer, and setting up takes less work. And it’s amazing to head down a national forest road and still have fresh vegetables and cold beer 3 days in.
When we’re heading to a new town, we usually start by searching the internet for “dispersed camping ________ (town name)” to look for a spot. Dispersed camping usually means there are designated sites, but very little if any facilities (i.e. pit toilets). In the Western United States, dispersed camping is mostly found on public lands like national forest and BLM (Bureau of Land Management), but sometimes state forest or other lands. The roads are almost always dirt, and can get a little rough (even for the van occasionally), but usually the trip is worth it.
When camping on public lands, make sure you research and abide by local laws and any temporary restrictions, like fire bans. Understand what the rules are about going to bathroom in the woods and having campfires, before you head out on your adventure, and be prepared.
For example, I recently shared one of my favorite dispersed camping locations with a good friend, and I erroneously assumed he knew that this particular BLM area requires that you carry out all human waste (no burying your poop or TP!), and he didn’t bring – ahem – the tools to get the job done. Fortunately for him, there was a pit toilet within a 5-minute drive. Lesson learned: research and plan ahead!
No matter where you camp, make sure to always follow Leave No Trace principles!
Resources for Finding the Best Off-Grid Campsites
In addition to just using good ol’ Google, we’ve also had decent luck finding good campsites with some specific online resources:
- FreeCampsites.net has crowd-sourced data and ratings on places to park and/or camp. Read the site descriptions carefully as they will tell you what to expect – whether it’s a secluded gorgeous spot in a canyon, or just a dusty, dirt parking lot.
- ParkAdvisor app, which lists/maps all types of developed or semi-developed campgrounds (not dispersed, but often remote). You can filter by commercial campgrounds (KOA type places), as well as basic, but usually beautiful government-run campgrounds. Also search for Wal-marts, Costcos, REIs, Cabelas, trucks stops, etc.
- Recreation.gov has a surprisingly robust user interface for searching and booking federal campgrounds. You can search by site type, amenities, even activities the campground has to offer.
There are also some newer camping apps that are better designed to help you find dispersed camping options. We haven’t checked them out yet but are looking forward to trying soon (I’ll report back!):
On the rare occasion when the interwebs have let us down in finding a good campsite, we’ve also turned to the locals or other van dwellers. We generally ask people we’ve developed a bit of rapport with – the bartender we’ve been chatting with for 30 minutes, the couple in the Sprinter parked across the street who came to check out our van, the guy I bought my bike shoes from (which – crazy true story – turned out to have gone to my high school despite the fact we were about 3,000 miles from our hometown – what?!? Small world).
Wow! Did you know there was so much to know about searching for a place to camp in a van? This post got pretty long, so I’m going to save some of the goodies I promised last week (working from the van, winter van camping, eating/cooking, etc.) for next week.
Do you have a resource you love for finding awesome campsites or other places to sleep? Share it in the comments!