Oftentimes, as I travel through new lands, people want to recommend campgrounds where I should stay. While very kind, the truth is, I’ve grown to dislike regular campgrounds. It’s not just the cost, but the crowds tend to annoy me. As I grew to fall in love with solo camping, the part I cherish the most is the solitude. It’s sort of annoying, yet also amusing that when I tell people I live in a van, they exclaim, “You can park in a Walmart for free!” I don’t share their excitement. The idea of camping in a Walmart parking lot makes my skin crawl. I don’t shop at Walmart, and don’t get the charm of sleeping with a group of freeloaders in a big box parking lot. That’s not appealing to me.
I’m not putting anyone down, as we all have different lifestyles. It is important for all #vanlifers to celebrate that we all approach this life in different ways. Whether you drive a super cool retro van that you renovated yourself, or a custom built fancy brand new renovation, or anything in between, we need to celebrate that we’re all gutsy enough to hit the road looking for life’s awesome new adventures. I dislike self-segregation, which is a big thing in #vanlife culture. We are a different kind of homeowner, and we need to applaud each other for doing this at all, whether you’re a weekend warrior or full timer, you’re doing it, Woot.
Now that I’ve dropped these disclaimers, I think I need to explain what Boondocking actually is. With a host of different nicknames, like Dirtbagging or Wild Camping, this expression basically means free camping. Boondockers can be found everywhere from rest stops to deep in the woods far from anyone or anything. There are apps to help you find free spots, and I’ve found Dyrt, iOverlander and RV Parky pretty helpful in a pinch.
Boondocking provides a sense of thrill and uncertainty sometimes, and when I get away with parking in a spot that is far from designated for camping. Just the other night, I parked next to a no camping sign. To confess the honest truth, my disdain for authority and need to fight it is sated when I’m naughty and park where I’m not supposed to. I broke one of my main rules, not to park next to a no camping sign the other night. I don’t know if I’d do it as a regular habitual thing. I would prefer a better night’s sleep over my satisfaction with throwing the bird up at the man.
Finding free camping came pretty easily to me. Thanks to all the #vanlife groups I belong to, I had read loads of threads on the subject and created my own set of parameters on how to find a good spot and sleep through the night. It’s important to mention that the first protocol I put into place was my “night night” go to sleep set up. When I go to bed, I lock the doors, put my phone and keys on the shelf right above my head. I sleep in pjs anyone can see me in, no sexy nighties. PJ pants and tees are my standard. If for any reason I have to get up, I don’t want to have to get dressed, that can take too much time. If I’m sleeping someplace where people might walk by, I put up the reflectix and privacy covers on all windows. No one needs to see inside my rig, especially when I’m sleeping. Lastly, I keep a pair of shoes I can slip right on by the driver seat. If anything funky goes down, I can jump up and drive right outta there.
The first two nights I spent in the van, I slept in truck stops out of desperation of needing sleep. I was on a mission to get to Minnesota to see my son and drop off his things. My van was full of Zoren’s things, which were all on my bed. I had to sleep in my passenger seat, which could recline further back with nothing behind it. What surprised me was that I slept so soundly in a truck stop. I felt secure and safe inside my rig. Go figure.
After I unloaded my son’s things, I wanted to get as far away from MN as I could without passing out. After crossing into Wisconsin, I turned down a road that pointed to a lake and drove into a state park where I Boondocked in a beautiful spot for the very first time. The rain was heavy, pitter pattering on the roof above, and I had half of my bed free now to sleep in comfortably. Snuggled up in some blankets, with my cat curled up beside me, I slept by a lake, and had the park to myself.
What I relished most about this first morning waking up by Lake Wissota on this chilly, rainy April morning was the quiet, the beauty, and the freedom I felt. I had escaped to a place of relaxing solitude, and had space to breathe and be. The trip was just beginning. My #vanlife was brand spanking new.
Since that morning, I have parked in a host of wonderful spots not designated for camping. There are different kinds of free spots, and rules I’ve created to ensure I am being respectful, thoughtful while designating a safe place to crash for me and the critters. Here are a few of those rules.
1. Don’t park in front of someone’s house.
It goes without saying, people who don’t know about #vanlife don’t want some freeloader parking in front of their crib. They might think I’m a vagrant or homeless. Why make them uncomfortable? This is more about being respectful of other people’s space, than thinking of myself. I just don’t want to make anyone wig out that there’s a lady in her van on or near their property.
That being said, I have fallen in love with urban camping. I love camping on a residential street, I just make sure it’s not directly in front of someone’s house. If it’s by an apartment building, I may make an exception, if the apartments start up on a higher floor.
An example of a successful urban residential spot might be where I parked in Victoria, BC. Just at the end of a block by the water, it was a legal spot but down from anyone’s house or home entrance. Once I put up reflectix, it was totally private, no one could see us inside. I parked here for one of the days and one of the nights into the next day, breaking to move the car to another residential spot about five minutes away, also on the water in a 3 hour limit zone. I was mindful to get in and out quietly in a single movement, and if I was walking the dog I got in and out with him from one door to ensure we were discrete.
It was awesome being able to see Victoria and not worry about driving, paying parking fees or being unlawful in any way. Well, I don’t know if it was lawful to crash in my van overnight, but I was respectful and quiet. That’s the key. I was reading in one of my apps that a lot of people pay for a lot in the middle of downtown and park and sleep there. Same rules applied, if you’re chill and respectful, no one says a thing about you parking in the lot. I opted not to do that as I don’t like camping next to other campers, I prefer the anonymity of my stealthy rig.
2. Be Stealth!
This is a matter of style and taste for many #vanlifers. I like being stealthy. When you look at my whip, you have no idea if it’s a work van or what. Today, I copped a guy driving around and looking at my rig from a few angles. He didn’t know I was watching him. I thought he might be outing me or getting my license plate number. Turns out, he was looking my rig over and scratching his head trying to figure out what it was. SCORE! I ended up introducing myself and giving him a quick tour of the inside, and he was very surprised. He thought it might belong to a fellow mechanic and didn’t expect it to be a homey home on wheels.
Some people wear their travel with pride and I applaud that. I don’t think I would get away with parking all the groovy places I have, if I had a van covered in stickers or travel art or my Insta handle. By staying totally stealthy, I have ensured people don’t know what’s going on in my rig. I prefer the anonymity. Being stealth means being able to park in commercial neighborhoods, next to big trucks or on tree lined streets. my neutral looking van could hide just about anywhere.
3. Be nice!
I’m pretty confident that my being nice has afforded me some killer places to stay and people looking out for me. Right now, I’m crashing in the parking lot of a marina and fishing haven in a small fishing town. By spending a little money, being friendly, and smiling a ton, I’ve been offered a place to park and chill. Even at places like Harvest Host joints, I have found that my hosts are far more amenable when I’m a delightful fun person to be around.
Being nice has gotten me out of a few jams too. The other night I decided to ignore the no camping signs at Sooke Potholes, and sure enough, at 9pm, security came by to tap on the windows. I was still dressed and waiting to see if I’d be able to camp out there or not. I jumped up and immediately apologized. My slip on shoes were right by the driver seat. When security came knocking, I let him know that I’m sorry, I was reading a book and I’ll move right away.
“Wow, you’re a lot nicer than the other people I come across here,” he exclaimed and smiled.
Going with it, I kept up the friendly responding, and in turn, he helped me find a legal overnight pull out spot down the road. Pretty cool, eh?
4. Trust your gut.
If you don’t feel comfortable, keep moving on. No matter how chill or cool a spot may be, if you’re not feeling it, you’re not sleeping. I’ve stayed in a few places where I was nervous, spent the night tossing and turning and bugging out at every noise I heard. That’s not healthy, or fun. It doesn’t matter if you are being overly cautious. If a spot feels wrong, you won’t sleep. Just go somewhere else.
Common sense goes a long way, if I need to be super stealthy, I keep the lights down or off, put up full window covers and stay quiet. If I have room to breathe, I still make sure my food is secure and that critters aren’t getting in. I mean, do I really need a bear coming for us through the screen door at night? If I’m nervous, I close up the van to sleep.
5. Nothing wrong with a regular good old fashioned rest stop.
If it’s really nerve wracking looking for a spot, go to a legit parking place like a truck stop or rest stop. Nothing wrong with allowing yourself the luxury of knowing you’re legal for a night. By traveling mostly backroads, some of the rest stops I’ve found have been gloriously awesome. Flush toilets, nice scenery and epic views. I use these places to clean the pet water bowl, fill water bottles, rinse off dishes and stuff like that. These are also good places to get rid of grey water and all things trash. Bonus? I go right to sleep, because I know I am legally parked in an overnight spot.
6. Leave No Trace!
This goes without saying. Don’t be a dick, clean up after yourself. Clean up after you pets. I can’t tell you how much trash I’ve found everywhere I go. Just cuz a site is free, don’t mean you have to be a lame ass and leave shit, cigg butts, empty cans and whatever else behind. I shouldn’t have to say much else. Clean up after yourself. Please.
7. Make your own spot.
Being self-contained means I can park anywhere and it’s camping. I dig parking in pretty places. If it seems like I won’t be bothered, I go for it. Public parks, woods, forest land, BLM land, national parks and other pretty places all make great places to camp. Going up the Oregon and Washington coast, I parked in marinas and watched the boats go by. In Montana, I made the most of the public fishing spots by giant rivers. If I park in a parking lot of a business, I get permission and spend money there.
Boondocking is definitely a thrill and a chosen way of life. Some people say not to tell people you’re traveling alone or point out your rig. I break both those rules. I find that people want to help me out, take care of me and make my life a little easier when they know my truth. That being said, I did fall for one scuzzy moment that turned into a scary moment when I met a fellow traveler at a BBQ joint in Nashville. He turned out to be a drunk, scary groping ass. Fortunately, I was careful to make sure he was nowhere near when I booked back to my rig and I opted to camp somewhere else that night. I may not be the most cautious, but I feel I have enough street smarts to know when to be forthcoming and when to keep it on the down low.
I love the anarchic nature of sleeping wherever I want and choosing my home location each night. I prefer the silence and solitude of sleeping alone over a crowded camp grounds. Being self reliant, having my own potty and sink make it great for never having to get out when I feel any sort of concern for my safety. It’s fun getting up and feeling like, woot, I got away with it again! Yay me! The best is opening up the doors and finding myself someplace incredible and different morning after morning. And hey, if it’s really dope, I may stay a night or two longer.
If you have questions or want more info on my Boondocking antics, just ask. I’m an open book, but I may not share all my super best spots with you because I might want to keep them to myself.