Van Life: Finding Campsites on the Road

Learn how to find free places to camp for van life including all the apps and resources we use for finding campsites while on the road.

Finding campsites while traveling in the van can be more challenging than you would think, especially if you’re trying to get out of paid campgrounds to save a little cash and get further off the grid.

In this lesson, I share my experience of going from paying for camping at campgrounds every night to camping for free most nights in my van. I’ve included a list of apps and resources I use and share my step by step process for finding epic free places to camp while on the road.


Resources for on the Road

Before we dive into how to find campsites while on the road, the first thing I recommend is to download the apps listed here. I’ll also put them in the resources section of this lesson in case you want to download them later. These are the tools I use every single day as a van lifer. With these apps, you’ll become a trip planning pro and finding campsites, things to do, and amenities will be as simple as pulling out your phone. I’ll be referring to some of these apps and websites throughout the rest of the lessons in this module.

  • iOverlander
  • Ultimate US Public Campgrounds
  • All Stays Camp & RV
  • AllTrails
  • Gaia
  • MTB Project
  • Trail Forks
  • Google Maps
  • Waze
  • Gas Buddy
  • OpenSignal
Learn how to find free places to camp for van life including all the apps and resources we use for finding campsites while on the road.

How to Find Free Campsites

The first thing we’ll talk about when it comes to hitting the road in your van is how to find free campsites. “Where do you sleep?” is one of the most common questions I get. This past year, we only paid for camping about 6 or 7 nights, usually when we needed a shower. The rest of our travels, we used a combination of apps and paper maps to find some of the most epic free campsites I’ve ever stayed at.

But I’ll let you know, it wasn’t always this way. My first year doing van life, I stayed at paid campgrounds more often than not. The caveat here was that I was traveling solo, and as a new solo female van lifer, I felt more comfortable at paid campgrounds where there were other people around. I’ll talk more about this and safety later on in this module.

Also, many of my favorite apps back then weren’t as robust as what I use now, and in 4 short years, it’s become much easier to find free campsites. With these tools, many free camping areas are now busier than they were a few years ago…but maybe that’s not such a bad thing, especially for you solo folks who don’t want to be in the middle of nowhere completely alone.

Learn how to find free places to camp for van life including all the apps and resources we use for finding campsites while on the road.

Public Lands Designations

Before we get into the details, you should understand different public lands designations. Not all public lands agencies manage dispersed camping the same. Some, like the National Park Units, offer mostly paid camping, while others have a 14 day free camping limit.

BLM, or the Bureau of Land Management, and US Forest Service land are the two types of public land where free camping is most easily found. Regulations vary by location and you’ll typically find signs at the start of the dirt road telling you how long you can stay, any fire restrictions in place, and any other important information that you’ll want to know. Any areas that are off-limits are generally marked by signs.


Tools for Finding Free Campsites

So what tools do I use? I basically have an easy step by step formula for finding free camping that I’m going to share here. There are, of course, more apps available than the ones I’m going to mention here, but the issue with downloading too many apps is you end up with analysis paralysis. Instead of quickly finding a campsite, you’ll spend time flipping between all of the apps and likely end up with the same result.

By using the simple resources I’m going to share, you won’t have to worry too much about this, but it’s something you at least want to be aware of.

Here are the main tools that I use when looking for free camping, in the order that I use them. I’ll go through my process and how I use each now.

  • Paper atlas
  • iOverlander
  • US Ultimate Public Campgrounds
  • All Stays Camp & RV

Paper Atlas

When looking for free camping, I typically start with a paper atlas. Now if you are on a cross country road trip trying to hit all 50 states, it might not be feasible for you to carry paper atlases for every destination you visit. However, if you spend a majority of your time between a few different states, it’s worth investing in paper maps for those areas. In rural areas, google maps can be unreliable, and if your service cuts out, you’ll be happy you have an old school paper map to navigate with.

I really like Benchmark Atlases. In my van, I carry them for almost all of the western states and I keep the state we are currently exploring up on my dash. Every day, I look at the map, I see where we are, and I find dirt roads that travel through public lands near the area we want to camp. This is good not just for finding campsites, but for finding cool back roads to explore.

One reason I like Benchmark Atlases is because they differentiate between 2wd and 4wd dirt roads. In my experience, these indicators have been pretty accurate and when it says 4×4, the road really is rough. Just having a sense of the terrain and accessibility is a good place to start.

Learn how to find free places to camp for van life including all the apps and resources we use for finding campsites while on the road.

iOverlander

Next I get on the free app called iOverlander. This is an app where users submit information about places they’ve camped, and it’s one of the most comprehensive crowdsourced databases I’ve found. Users can upload photos, a description, and other information, like internet availability, along with GPS coordinates.

Most of the campsites in iOverlander are free, but there are also paid campsites, and they have recently started adding other amenities like dump stations, propane fill locations, and more that you can filter by. It’s not the fanciest of apps, but it’s my go-to. While iOverlander doesn’t officially work offline, you’ll still be able to see your location and nearby dispersed camping areas. You just won’t be able to see the map background.

US Ultimate Public Campgrounds

If I can’t find anything on iOverlander nearby, I move onto two other apps. The first is US Ultimate Public Campgrounds. It costs a few bucks and it’s very comprehensive. This app includes both free and paid campgrounds operated by public lands agencies, including local, state, and federal. It does not include private campgrounds and RV parks. We’ve found everything from big dispersed camping areas to single campsites hidden on the side of the road with this app. Offline access works the same way it does for iOverlander – you’ll be able to see your location and nearby campsites, but the map background won’t display.

All Stays Camp and RV

A final campsite finder app I’ll mention is All Stays Camp and RV. All Stays includes paid and dispersed campsites, but for dispersed it’s not as comprehensive as the previous two apps I mentioned. What I like about All Stays is that it also has other types of places you can park for free, including Walmarts, rest-stops, and casinos, as well as other amenities.

Once you’ve found a spot you want to camp using one of these apps, open up Google Maps to get directions. I like to use satellite view to zoom in to see if I can tell anything else about the campsite. For example, if there’s more than one site in the area, I’ll see if I can scope out which one is going to be the best.

If you don’t have service, you can use your paper atlas or a GPS if you have one to navigate. In the lesson on aftermarket van accessories, I mentioned that I have an in-dash GPS that I installed when I converted this van. Offline navigation is one of the reasons why I did this, however you can get by without one with a little planning ahead.

Learn how to find free places to camp for van life including all the apps and resources we use for finding campsites while on the road.

Van Life Camping Tips

First, finding a campsite is much easier when you are still in service. So, if you know the general region you want to stay in, do your research before you get out of cell range. Again, my preferred apps have some functionality offline, but you can plan with more certainty when you have a signal.

Second, searching for campsites is easier and less stressful during daylight. If at all possible, try to be settled before it gets dark.

Third, adopting a mindset that you don’t have to have a perfect campsite every night will make van life a lot easier. Some nights you might be in the forest with no view or you might be parked in a big open area near a lot of other campers. If you are camping only one weekend a year, a view and solitude might be super important to you, but remember you’re going to be camping all the time. Some nights, you’ll hit the jackpot. Other nights, your campsites might be mediocre, and that’s ok. You can pack up in the morning and move on to somewhere better. All you really need is a flat spot with enough space, and the biggest thing is that you feel safe and you aren’t blatantly breaking the law.

Finally, ranger stations can be a great resource for information. If you are unsure about where you are allowed to camp, swing into the local ranger station for maps and advice.

Learn how to find free places to camp for van life including all the apps and resources we use for finding campsites while on the road.

Other Options for Free Overnight Parking

Before we move on, I want to quickly talk about other types of free places to park overnight.

Walmarts often allow free overnight parking, but this isn’t always the case. Some Walmarts prohibit overnight parking, so it’s best to call or go inside and ask. As always, obey any signs you might see. Cabelas and Cracker Barrel are two other nationwide chains that typically allow overnight parking.

Casinos, truck stops, and rest stops also offer overnight parking. Usually their parking lots are well lit (which is nice for safety), and some will have a dedicated area for big rigs and even shower facilities. These can be noisy depending on their proximity to the road and the coming and going of big rigs, but if you’re in a pinch or just need a convenient place to overnight, these are good options.

Another great option is Harvest Hosts. Pricing currently starts at $79 a year and a membership allows you to park overnight for free at a variety of wineries, breweries, farms, museums, golf courses, and other attractions.

Overall, finding free or low cost camping, especially if you plan on living or traveling long term in your van, will be a huge factor in helping you save money on the road. Now, if you haven’t already, download and check out some of the apps I mentioned, and remember that you can always revisit this lesson if you need a refresher on my process for finding free campsites when you’re ready to hit the road.

Learn how to find free places to camp for van life including all the apps and resources we use for finding campsites while on the road.

Resources Section

  • iOverlander
  • Ultimate US Public Campgrounds
  • All Stays Camp & RV
  • AllTrails
  • Gaia
  • MTB Project
  • Trail Forks
  • Google Maps
  • Waze
  • Gas Buddy
  • OpenSignal
  • Harvest Hosts

If you want to jump around to other lessons in Module 4, here are other van life topics we cover (more coming soon!):

  • Lesson 1: How to Find Free Campsites (current lesson)
  • Lesson 2: Stealth Camping
  • Lesson 3: Finding Things to Do on the Road
  • Lesson 4: Finding Important Amenities on the Road
  • Lesson 5: Van Life Internet Access & Staying Connected
  • Lesson 6: Leave No Trace & Van Life
  • Lesson 7: Managing Relationships on the Road
  • Lesson 8: Finding Community & Solo Travel
  • Lesson 9: Safety & Van Life
  • Lesson 10: Pets & Van Life
  • Lesson 11: Van Life in Winter

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What are your favorite apps for finding campsites? Did we miss any? Share your questions, tips, and experiences down in the comments, and make sure to sign up for course updates here.

5 comments on “Van Life: Finding Campsites on the Road

  1. That’s really helpful, Kristen. You and your readers also might like an app called The Dyrt. With the PRO version you can download maps that include BLM/public/free areas. That means you can access maps when/if you lose service. I have found it very helpful. Plus it’s a women-owned business. I don’t work for them, but as a PRO member, I can offer 30 percent discounts on PRO memberships, meaning it’s about $25 per year. Offer good through the end of September 2020. Here’s a link: https://thedyrt-dot-yamm-track.appspot.com/Redirect?ukey=1njiDrfyOcCSIs-aJurKwUBbgrp29u5hFfdieI4yS0a0-708837146&key=YAMMID-70025863&link=https%3A%2F%2Fthedyrt.com%2Fpro%2Fcheckout%3Fcouponcode%3Dbuell-jr-30

    1. Yes, thank you for mentioning the Vanlife App! We’ve used freecampsites.net in the past as well but the site appears to be down…

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