Van Life // Top 5 Free Camping Options
(USA and Canada)
Van Life can be a very economical way to live, but not if you have to spend money to sleep every night. Camping these days are getting to be expensive and it’s becoming harder to find free spots in some parts of the US and Canada.
We have spent 5 years on the road and can count on one hand the times we paid to sleep. So we’re going to give you our Top 5 free camping options to help keep your budget down.
1. Wild Camping
Camping out in the wild allows you to be completely one with nature, but roughing it is not for everyone! On the plus side you are more likely to find the best views to wake up to and have all to yourself. These spots listed below are where you are most likely to find free, wild camping in the USA and Canada.
BLM (Bureau of Land Management)
National Forests and Grasslands
These areas are publicly managed lands that allow free camping outside of developed camp grounds.
They are usually FREE spots to camp but each forest has different rules so make sure to check first. National Parks can be found on Google Maps and there are many sites (some listed at the end of this article) that can help you out.
- How’s the serenity? – Wild camping can offer the most serene places all to yourself
- There is space to pitch up a tent for those that need more sleeping space for your travel companions
- When nature calls you get to be closer with nature than you’ve ever been – Don’t forget to clean up after your waste responsibly. Don’t be THAT person that leaves toilet paper on the ground – As they say in Australia “That’s just not cricket!”
- They’re a great option to spend a few nights and set up an established camp
- They almost always have no amenities – That’s no running water, no electricity, and often no toilets
- You’ll most likely be far away from phone reception but that’s a good thing right?
- They’re not the best spots to find if you are in need of a last minute overnight camp spot
Generally you are allowed to camp for free on Crown Land for up to 21 days but this can vary between Provinces so much so that some areas do not allow it at all.
- About 89% of Canada is Crown Land – That’s a heck of a lot of free camp spots.
- It’s a great option in Canada for long term camping and camping with tents
- With the amount of land available to camp on you’ll be very unlucky if you happen to run into others camping around you. Private camp spots are extremely easy to find.
- Because of the varied rules and regulations depending on the province it can be hard to find the free camping. Some provinces have interactive maps online so plan your free camp spot beforehand.
- If you are not Canadian you may have to pay a permit in some provinces to use the Crown Land for free. To be honest we never had anyone asking for a permit and often it was hard to know where to buy a permit for particular areas.
2. Parking Lots
(Walmart, Truck stops, Cabela’s, Rest areas, Casinos, Hotel/Motel Parking)
You are most likely going to find at least one of the places above when you are in need of a safe place to park overnight. They are not however going to be a good place to put a tent up but it’s a perfect option for when you roll into town late at night and just need an easy, no fuss, overnight spot.
Note: Not ALL Walmart and Casinos allow for overnight parking so it’s best to check beforehand at sites like this Walmart Locator
- They usually have 24 hour access to toilets or at the very least they’ll be open for you to settle your business in the morning
- They’re a secure and safe place to be as they usually have 24 hour security
- They are not the nicest or the most tranquil places to spend the night. Expect to be woken up by a supermarket trolly or other cars pulling up next to you throughout your stay.
- The view sucks
Tip: If you are unsure of where to safely and legally park in town it’s best to call up the local police station and ask where you can temporarily park overnight. We have had many visits from police telling us we could not camp somewhere but gave us places that we could go.
3. Friends and the Community
When you’re on the road and travelling from place to place it’s often going to be a good idea to schedule in some time to see friends, family or a friendly face you have not yet met. There are community sites such as Couchsurfing or Boondockers Welcome that have a bunch of locals in the area you are visiting that are offering a couch, bed or driveway to sleep safely in.
- You get to visit a friendly face or meet awesome people to share travel stories and have a laugh
- If you ask really nicely they might even let you use their shower!
- Be prepared to share a nice meal and a beer or two
- It’ll be hard to say goodbye
- You might get too comfortable with being in a house again and will run the risk of missing ‘House Life’
4. Rest Areas
There are many rest stops that you’ll find you can stop at when you’re traveling along those busy highways but again it varies.
We usually find that we can find a quite road off the freeway where we are out of the way and making sure we’re not in front of driveways.
- Easy to find with GPS or internet access
- Most of the time rest areas have decent toilets, but rarely showers
- It’s a great option for a quick no fuss stop in between towns.
- It can be noisy
- Pets aren’t usually allowed off leash
- A lot of traffic, human and otherwise.
5. Outer City Neighbourhoods
We only try to stay in quiet neighbourhoods when we need a short overnight option, usually when we’re passing through. Just make sure to stay out of the way as to not disturb the locals and not to park in front of someone’s house. If your rig is pretty stealthy this shouldn’t be much of a problem.
- It’s a good option if any of the above are not possible
- There are neighbourhoods everywhere so that means there are lots of options.
- If you smile at people you might meet some friendly locals
- There are no public washrooms
- It isn’t always legal to ‘stealth camp’
- You are more likely to be asked to move on
- You are never completely relaxed and comfortable in someone else’s street
Helpful Sites for FREE Camping
If you’re just starting out or looking for some guidance on living out of your vehicle our Ebook has everything we have learnt over the 5 years of Vehicle Dwelling.
It may save you a lot of drama on the road ahead:
Tell us what you think?