Getting shut-eye and finding places to do sleep is one of the central crafts to living the vanlife. Even more important is the cost of doing so.
One of the main questions we’ve been asked since traveling the U.S. is where we sleep. There are many factors that determine one’s choice of where to hit the hay: cost, location, safety, amenities, and comfort to name a few.
In a month and a half on the road, we’ve found six surefire ways of finding sleep every night, for free: Wal-Mart, Freecampsites.net, AllStays Camp & RV app, U.S. National Forests, casinos, and rest areas.
When in doubt, Wal-Mart parking lots will in many situations become your best friend. But be wary, because not all lots guarantee overnight parking.
In most cases, you can pull up to any Wal-Mart and in far-off corners of the parking lot will reside several vans/RVs.
But even if the Wal-Mart doesn’t mind overnight guests, city ordinance may dictate otherwise.
Especially on the west coast, most cities have laws prohibiting overnight parking unless it’s a designated camping area.
It’s best to call whichever store you’re near and ask if they allow overnight RV parking before pulling up. Or check this list of Wal-Mart’s that don’t allow overnight parking.
The parking lot lighting can be bright and there is usually traffic around the sections for overnight parking — good for safety, not that great for sleep.
On the other hand, there are bathrooms inside. Fun fact: supercenters also have (clean) restrooms in the back of the store.
And if you need anything (medicine, water, food), then it’s a minute away.
In times of having service and looking for a spot to stay, Freecampsites.net delivers many options considered “free dispersed campsites”, meaning they’re free and usually off the grid.
We included this, despite it not being a single place, because when in doubt, it gave us a plethora of spots to stay.
Simply type in your location and the results will show both red and green tent symbols near you. Red represents cost sites and green free.
Every single time we’ve chosen a location, it’s checked out.
Each site normally has reviews/ratings from previous stayers, a description, and address/GPS coordinates.
Although many times these spots are farther out of the way and have fewer amenities, they are less noisy and more rustic, giving you more of a wilderness experience and a better sleep.
AllStays Camp & RV Mobile App
AllStays is a mobile app similar to freecampsites.net, but includes a lot of filters that make it easier to find a free or cheap spot for the night.
The app comes at a price ($10), but we’ve definitely gotten our money’s worth and – major benefit – it stores locally on your phone and works without service as long as you’re receiving a GPS signal.
In other words, this is the citizens’ land. National Forest pull outs and dispersed camping sites offer anyone a free place to stay, whether it’s in your vehicle or a tent off the road.
We’ve confirmed this with many National Park Rangers.
As long as you’re in National Forest boundaries and there aren’t signs specifically prohibiting camping, you’re free to pull off and stay the night, as long as you follow forest and federal regulations.
This has been our most frequent method of finding a place to hang out and sleep, since we’re visiting a lot of National Parks.
At night, traffic dwindles and it’s quiet and dark. You’re in wilderness and the exposed cosmos at night radiate with brilliance.
Fewer amenities, but safety and a good night’s rest are great pros.
Most National Parks are closely surrounded by National Forest land, so we tend to drive outside the park at night to camp for free and re-enter in the morning – made possible with the $80 Annual National Parks Pass that allows unlimited entries to any National Park.
Through the Allstays app we found that many casinos offer overnight parking.
Though some require that you register with security inside (pro obviously being safety), others allow overnight parking without contacting them. Their website should inform of such mandates.
Registration is simply giving them your license plate number and model and make, so they know your vehicle is staying overnight when they do routine parking lot patrol.
Hell, at the Red Fox casino in Laytonville, NoCal, we registered and then were given ten dollars for joining their Players Club (also free) and nearly doubled our money.
It was a good time and we were happy with the free night’s stay. Many are 24 hours, so if you need to use the restroom this method is convenient.
Though much sparser and typically time-limited, rest areas have been convenient places to stay on rare occasion.
The usual rest area will have an 8-hour stay limit within a 24-hour period (signs should be posted or you can check the state’s Department of Transportation website for what’s allowed at rest areas). Which means if you are exploring near one you can always go back after 24 hours.
Each one we’ve stayed at, we’ve stayed a couple hours longer without hassle. They also have restrooms and usually water spigots.
Rest areas are perhaps the noisiest spot you’ll stay and their safety is debatable, but they are well-lit and right off highways if you need a short stop.
Sleep Is Not For The Weak
We all know sleep is important, but when traveling for an extended period of time it becomes even more necessary.
Whether you’re backpacking the next day, doing a day hike, or have miles to cover for your next destination, a good night’s rest makes all the difference.
If you’re out there living the vanlife, drop a comment below letting us know the best sleeping spots you’ve found while on the road!