You’ve packed the van, mapped your route, and quit your day job. You’re finally doing it. You’re finally going all-in on #vanlife. But, there’s one thing you probably haven’t considered. There’s one dirty little logistical secret that every vanlifing Instagram account conveniently overlooks: where to park your rig? Thankfully, there are thousands of places — free and almost free — throughout North America as long as you know where to look.
Walmart’s ubiquity — the fact that they exist in every small town in America — is what makes them invaluable for vanlifers. The retail giant has long had a lax, friendly policy towards RVers and car campers. To be clear: overnighting in a soulless, concrete Wally World parking lot is hardly the dream of vanliving. But, it’s a solid backup plan if (when) you find yourself in a strange town in the middle of nowhere without a place to crash. Upon arrival, your best bet is to head inside and speak to a member of management to clarify their overnight parking policy. Their unofficial company policy is to welcome anyone who asks nicely and doesn’t overstay their welcome. You need only be quiet, courteous, and clean up after yourself. Cabela’s is an admittedly smaller chain, but the outdoor retailer offers a similar camper-friendly policy. Some stores even boast a safe, dedicated area for van and RV overnighters.
For something more inline with your idyllic vanlife dreams, sites like Harvest Hosts connect RV campers with prospective hosts. The best part is that every host is situated on a beautiful, one-of-a-kind location like a farm, winery, or brewery. The annual $49 membership fee means the site isn’t entirely free, but there’s no per-stay cost. So, most vanlifers can recoup the fee with their first night’s stay. The site does suggest purchasing something — a bottle of wine, a six-pack of beer, fresh produce, etc. — from your hosts, if available. It’s not mandatory, but it’s the right thing to do. While a bit pricier, Hipcamp is a similar, Airbnb-style option with campsites available on more than 285,000 campgrounds, parks, farms, and ranches throughout the country.
But, BLM land (Bureau of Land Management) is arguably the best camping option of all, and it’s the one that’s least publicized. The bureau manages nearly 250 million acres of land throughout the United States — nearly one-eighth of the country’s entire landmass. This includes parks, recreational sites, campgrounds, hiking trails, national conservation areas, and more. The vast majority is located in the Western/Midwestern U.S., and offers free dispersed camping. It’s among the wildest, most pristine, most beautiful land in the entire country, and it’s open to all.
The best way to plan your stays is through a dedicated mobile app like Allstays Camp and RV. It combines most of the above options into a searchable map and database with independent reviews, photos, pricing, and all the pertinent details you might need.