Van life is wonderful, but van life is also hard. I make an incredible amount of sacrifices to live in my van. From the outset, I have been determined to never pay for camping – I have no interest in remaining beholden to the man. Nor do I have any interest in being around other campers, many of whom run generators and generally bother me with their presence.
Because my rig is entirely self-contained and a nuisance to exactly nobody, I have never had any moral misgivings about this. I don’t (explicitly) break the law and I don’t leave human feces around my campsite. If there is any trash nearby, I pick it up. I always practice leave-no-trace. I don’t make noise and don’t run a generator.
I try to be an asset in every community I visit by positively contributing to the local economy in other ways than paying for a campground I don’t need or want. It’s worked out for me so far and I’m going to share my process.
The satellite view in your phone’s mapping app, or better yet Google Earth, is a great way to get started looking for a place to settle for the night. This is what separates me from the van life pack in my opinion. Knowing what an area looks like from above will help you find the perfect nooks where you can park and attract little notice. The features I look for include:
- Dirt roads with pullouts or clearings – this one is often a winner in a pinch.
- Cleared spaces along secluded roads.
- Trailhead parking lots.
- Ponds and lakes often have parking areas nearby.
- Large secluded parking lots, like old, abandoned department stores or commuter lots.
These are just a few examples of places. From natural wonderlands where I’ve stayed for weeks to abandoned gas stations that were the perfect place to stop for the night, I’ve found many of my most frequent spots using this method. Tag a few spots on your map because sometimes they don’t work out right away; the perfect-looking clearing might turn out to have a No Trespassing sign on it.
Pro Tip: It’s way easier to find a spot during the day than bumbling around in the dark. Start early if you’re not sure where you’re going.
It’s easy to find really sweet camping in National Forests. Most van lifers already know this, but just to summarize:
- 14-day limit.
- Technically you are allowed to camp anywhere, but the government often has specific areas where they want you to stay. Sometimes these can fill up. Use the satellite method to find a pull-off somewhere for the night if you can’t find a site. Don’t clear vegetation to make your own site – always use established pull-offs and clearings.
- There are also paid campgrounds in National Forests.
When you are camping in National Forests, please be bear aware. There are bears throughout the country and they will eat your food if you are not careful. If you are in the western forests, please adhere to any fire bans.
Unlike BLM land, you can usually find water and firewood in National Forests. Also, they are often closer (Here’s the map) to the rad mountain towns where you probably want to be hanging out instead of out in the middle of the desert.
BLM (Bureau of Land Management)
BLM is like the holy grail of camping. Most BLM land is on vast stretches of desert and high desert scrubland in the western USA. There usually are not many trees; rather, that land has been designated National Forest.
BLM land is mixed-use. Most commonly, you will come across signs of cattle ranching. Occasionally, there will be oil and gas extraction. Despite these uses of the land, however, you will still have unlimited access to an incredibly large, natural, and peaceful landscape to call home. I usually see far more cows than people on BLM land.
Tracts of BLM land are usually heavily crisscrossed by ranching roads so you can choose your adventure and find absolute solitude – I have never experienced silence like deep out in the desert on windless nights. Since there are few trees and little government oversight, there is virtually unlimited real estate for camping.
Because of its remote, desolate nature, there is not a whole lot of access to natural resources on BLM land. You must have plenty of water, fuel, and firewood. You also must be aware that precipitation, whether rain or snow, can drastically change the conditions of rough cattle double track. You could be stranded in the event of a storm.
Here is the U.S. Government’s compilation map of various public lands (additionally, all National Forest is demarcated in green). For a comprehensive essay on BLM camping, check out Sara’s take!
These apps aren’t amazing for clutch parking close to civilization, but they can help you find some of the more popular spots if you are new to an area. They will clue you into established dispersed camping areas in National Forest and save you some time searching around. They are unlikely to have any good secret spots, however.
One thing that I love about the apps is knowing whether or not an area will have cell phone coverage before you get there. If you are a digital nomad, you will want to incorporate these apps into your repertoire to find pleasant camping with internet access.
Some examples include Freeroam, Campendium, and iOverlander.
It’s not super common, but it is worth checking. If you are going to a resort to ski, ride at a bike park, or just hang out, you may be able to camp on the property. In the wintertime, for example, camping is permitted at Wolf Creek Ski Area and Revelstoke. In the summer, you can camp at Killington and Bolton Valley, both in VT. There are dozens of resorts that will let you stay for a few days, especially in the summer, but you’ll have to do that research when planning to visit your specific resort.
Unfortunately, this method has been under assault. Whistler recently terminated free camping in one of the outer lots, and Crystal Mountain, Whitewater Ski, and Grand Targhee have begun charging a fee. Angel Fire and Thunder Mountain Bike Parks have also built campgrounds and started charging. It’s crazy how much this scene has changed in the last seven years.
Research & Have A Plan Before You Arrive
This one seems like a cop-out. Like, “oh, he ran out of ideas.” Instead, this is the most important step avoid paying for camping or having to deal with the cops. I always do my research before I arrive, or even before I decide to go somewhere in the first place.
Let’s use Santa Barbara as an example. There is great mountain biking there, and I wanted to visit some friends. I was skeptical at first because SB is notoriously wealthy, and I had just gotten pretty much shut down in San Diego. I checked out some maps and found National Forest in the Santa Inez mountains just above the town. Then I zoomed in on satellite view and found several good pull-offs that looked ripe for camping. I dropped a pin and checked the commute time – 15 min to town. Plus, to mountain bike, I didn’t even need to move my vehicle.
Asking People That Seem Like They Would Know
An absolutely classic method and a great way to get beta quickly, instead of staring at your phone for an hour. Also, it never hurts to have an excuse to introduce yourself when you’re in a new place. You would not believe how often people know the perfect place to put your rig.
Sometimes, they will invite you to stay on their property. Once, in Bozeman, MT, somebody invited me to stay in their actual house. I stayed in my van but used the house to do some laundry. Now that’s what I call good karma; thanks again if you ever read this!
Always abide by the golden rule; treat others the way you want to be treated. Don’t park in neighborhoods, schools, or marked private property. As a last resort, if you are desperate and unsure of the legality of your spot, try to get up early and leave. Besides, evidence shows that successful people get up early. By following these general guidelines, the van community can gain acceptance in the coming years.
Sergei has spent his adult life traveling around in his van searching for answers. He is inspired by nature, extreme sports, culture, music, history, science, creative human beings, and animals who live in the mountains with nothing but the fur on their backs.