Like us, you probably prefer places to boondock that have fantastic views – perhaps at a beautiful lake or somewhere with a majestic mountain view. But as we all know, that’s not always possible.
Beautiful places like these are ultimately your destination. And along the way, sometimes you just have to pull over and park somewhere to get to some sleep before you get where you’re going. Because fuel and food are expensive enough on long journeys, you don’t want to spend money you don’t have to spend in RV parks if you can help it.
On our journey, we’ve stayed at a lot of great places – and some really bad places. This is a list of the places to boondock with your van (or RV) while driving to your final destination. Although all of them are decent, I’ve listed them from my least preferred to my most preferred.
8. Truck stops (T/A, Flying J, Pilot, etc.)
We’re not big fans of boondocking at truck stops. We’ve done it a couple of times now and the experiences weren’t that great. First of all, they’re always busy. Trucks and cars pull in 24 hours a day and you shouldn’t expect that they’ll know people are trying to sleep there.
Secondly, truck stops always seem to attract the worst people after dark – people who’ll blast loud music while filling up, others who just stop by to be loud for no other reason than to be loud, and others involved in minor domestic disputes who feel the need to air those grievances as loudly as possible.
But they’ll do in a pinch
If you have no other options, then a truck stops can be last-minute places to boondock. But if you have other options, take them.
Some truck stops, like Flying J and Pilot may even have dump stations you can use (for a fee).
7. Boondocking at Walmart
Many of the same complaints about truck stops often apply to Walmart parking lots. If you’ve followed any of the Facebook groups related to boondocking or van life (like the #vanlife group we joined), you might notice that a lot of people, mostly newbies, seem to think the local Walmart parking lot is a boondocker’s paradise.
More experienced van lifers quickly jump in to clear up any confusion. Walmart parking lots, while popular places to boondock, are often loud and brightly-lit.
The upside, of course, is that Walmart offers a one-stop place to get supplies (though there are better places to do that, in our opinion). They also usually have reasonably clean bathrooms.
In some places, Walmart has been cracking down on RVs and vans that park overnight. This is especially true in parking lots that Walmart shares with other businesses. In large, stand-alone Walmart Supercenters, you can often park overnight without worrying too much about it.
In places where Walmart shares parking with other businesses (like large strip malls), you may have difficulty because the lots are managed by outside companies. In New Orleans, for example, the parking lot was managed by an outside company and we were asked to leave by 10 PM.
When in doubt, ask the manager if it’s OK to stay in a far corner of the lot – preferably near other RVs or vans.
6. Many Casinos allow free stays
Experienced Vanlifers and RVers know that most casinos are great places to boondock. They allow you to stay on their properties for free. Of course, they do expect that you’ll come in and gamble. But even if you don’t gamble (we don’t) you can still stay there.
During a recent couple of months in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, we stayed in several casinos along the way. Two of those casinos even offered free electricity, water, and sewer. We did the same in Louisiana.
Usually, casinos enforce a maximum stay of three days and you are required to register at the front desk. They usually give you a tag with your check out date to place in your front window.
For us, the downside of boondocking at a casino is that they are usually quite a bit out of the way. There’s usually not much within walking distance.
5. Cracker Barrel Old Country Store
We didn’t think we’d like parking here, but we do! Cracker Barrel is one of the only restaurants we’ve been able to find that consistently offers RV parking – usually at the back of the store. It’s also one of the only places that we’ve never been disturbed. The spots are specifically marked for RVs and trucks and they are normally in the quietest part of the parking lot.
The best part of Cracker Barrel is that you can find at least one along every major road in the United States. On our trip around the country, we’ve stayed at several. And even when we did not, there was always one close by.
When looking for places to boondock on our travels, Cracker Barrel is an easy choice.
4. Boondocking on Beaches
Recently, we boondocked at San Padre Island beach in Texas. Since we have a National Park Pass, we didn’t have to pay a dime (it’s $20 otherwise). If you love the beach and walking miles along the water, a beach is one of the best places to boondock. Bolivar Flats in Texas is an example of a place that’s completely free.
Just be very careful to stay on the beaten path with your van or you may end up like us – stuck. Fortunately, we were able to get unstuck, but it was the beginning of a nightmare up to that point!
The downside of a beach though is sand. Everywhere. In your van, in your shoes, in your bed. And this is doubly so if you have a dog. For some reason, the dirtier the environment, the more our dog seems to want to go in and out and in and out constantly. And this is why beaches aren’t generally one of our favorite places to boondock.
The upside though is usually a breezy place to stay where you fall asleep to waves. A constant white noise that’s so appealing to some people. And at many beaches, you’ll be treated to a night sky that can’t be beat.
3. Harvest Hosts
While technically not free (or boondocking, for that matter), we’ve really enjoyed our experiences with Harvest Hosts. Harvest Hosts is a network of farms, wineries, breweries, museums, and other places that allows you to park at their location overnight for free.
There is a sign-up fee to use Harvest Hosts (currently around $70 per year, although they do offer discounts occasionally), and you are expected to spend some money at the business that’s hosting you.
Further reading: We wrote an entire post about Harvest Hosts that we think you’ll find helpful in making a decision about whether or not it’s right for you.
It’s not quite boondocking, I know, but it’s an option – especially if you love wine and beer and were going to spend that money anyway. Our stays at Harvest Hosts have been invariably good – even exceptional.
2. Overnight parking at Cabela’s
In our opinion, Cabela’s is one of the best places to boondock. Like Cracker Barrel, Cabela’s almost always has an area set aside for RVs to park. We’ve stayed here many times on our van journey around the U.S. and haven’t had a single issue, with the exception of one place that couldn’t let us stay due to a local overnight parking ordinance. More on that below.
Many Cabela’s stores around the country not only have parking for RVs, they also have dump stations. Generally, these stations cost just $5 to use. And they’re free if you become a Cabela’s Club member. That is, you apply for a Cabela’s MasterCard in-store. It’s a no-fee card, so it costs nothing.
Cabela’s sister store, Bass Pro Shops, is similar. They’ll usually let you park in a part of the lot that’s not too busy, though they generally don’t have dump stations.
We always talk to the manager before parking at Cabela’s or Bass Pro Shops. They are always super-friendly. Even in places with overnight parking ordinances, they explained those rules with a *wink* (i.e., “This is the local law but we really don’t think anyone will bother you if you stay.”)
1. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Camping
Some of the best places to boondock that we’ve ever found were in Colorado on BLM land. We spent over a month there in August and September of 2020 and we were really impressed with the number of places to boondock.
The Bureau of Land Management (commonly referred to as BLM) allows people to camp on-site for two weeks at a time. You then have to move on. From the BLM Web site:
Dispersed camping is allowed on public land for a period not to exceed 14 days within a 28 consecutive day period. The 28 day period begins when a camper initially occupies a specific location on public lands. The 14 day limit may be reached either through a number of separate visits or through 14 days of continuous overnight occupation during the 28 day period. After the 14th day of occupation, the camper must move outside of a 25 mile radius of the previous location until the 29th day since the initial occupation.Bureau of Land Management
The BLM also has established campgrounds that require a fee. These campgrounds are developed and some include full hookups. But if you’re looking for free camping, dispersed is the way to go.
BLM land is far more common in the Western states than it is in the east, as much of the land in the west is owned by the federal government.
Local parking ordinances
Even in places where the business itself doesn’t mind you parking overnight, local ordinances might prevent the business from allowing you to stay.
For example, Cabela’s is generally OK with overnight RV stays. But in Buda, TX, there is a local ordinance that prevents RVs from parking overnight at any local business and it’s strictly enforced.
When you go inside to ask about overnight parking, the desk attendant will explain the ordinance but may avoid telling you that you can’t stay there. He’s basically telling you that he can’t legally let you stay, but probably no one will bother you.
And he was right. We had a perfectly fine night.
But be aware that, even though they may not generally be strictly enforced, fines can be steep.
Why do we need places to boondock?
With the exception of BLM land, boondocking is usually not an end in itself for us. While we have a nice van that we paid good money for, we still try to keep our journey within a reasonable budget. Right now, we’re making our way out west to New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and California.
That’s where we want to be.
One thing you will notice if you travel along major highways is that there is no shortage of paid RV sites. However, these usually run about $40-$60 a night or more. For us, that would absolutely blow our budget. So finding places to boondock along the way literally saves us hundreds of dollars each month.
While we definitely live in our van for months at a time, there are others who truly live in their vans as a way to avoid rent and mortgages. Good for them – we agree with that choice entirely. Finding free places to boondock each night is part of the journey they’re on, too.
Whatever the reason, places to boondock are critical for vanlife on a budget.
Your boondocking suggestions?
We’d love to hear of other places you’ve found – especially those you stop at for a quick, free overnight. Let us know in the comments!
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Michael is originally from Canada but now resides in Atlanta, GA with his husband, Halef, who also writes here. He is a Couchsurfing expert. Michael has traveled to over 50 countries learning how to experience more for less as he travels.
Great idea thanks