This post is written for anyone who is looking to brush up on some camper life basics!
When Shane and I first thought about getting a van to convert and travel in, I’ll admit it– I was excited, but boy was I nervous, too! Without any friends or family who had knowledge or prior experience in this niche yet emerging subculture, I was hungry for tips from anywhere we could find them and would have loved to run into a post like this. So, with a couple years under our belts, here are some resources and tips I would pass along to anyone looking into van or car dwelling for the first time.
The #vanlife community runs strong on social media, and it’s very alive on visual channels like Instagram and Youtube. I use Instagram as a way to connect with other van dwellers and find more camper friends– some of whom I have met in real life! It’s a surprisingly supportive network and makes for a great resource.
How do you know where you can overnight camp? Some of them are more obvious than others. It’s important to be thoughtful about where you park, and respectful of your surroundings. Here are some of the places you might try out based on where you’re headed:
– Rest stops. This is an old standby, and there are always public restrooms onsite, which is nice. The only downside is that rest stops aren’t made for camping, but they are great for taking a rest while you’re en route to your next location.
– Overnight street parking. If you’re staying more on the grid, you will probably find the most success with parking on the street. In little beach towns, especially, we’ve found a lot of success with parking over some gorgeous vistas. While street parking is something most of us do every day, it’s very different for sleeping overnight in your vehicle. One of the first things you want to check in on when entering a new town is whether there is a citywide ordinance against ‘camping’, meaning overnight car/van sleeping. I usually Google it and do my best to check it out to make sure we won’t get woken up by local police in the middle of the night (not the most fun experience). If there is no ordinance against overnight camping within city limits, find a low profile, public place to park your car where there are no parking restrictions. Sometimes we have gone into residential streets to park, but only when it is the best sleeping environment and there is plenty of street parking. It’s not cool to take a local’s residential parking spot!
– Walmart parking lots. In larger town/cities, this is often the best option. If you have the option and the parking lot seems subdued, I recommend parking here among the other vans, busses, and moving trucks. Although most Walmarts are open 24/7, some are not and those parking lots are not necessarily open for overnight parking, so make sure to check that out before getting settled in for the night.
– Turn outs. You can find some pretty amazing places to camp in turn outs if you know what to look for! We personally prefer turnouts that are nice and wide, have a nice view, and are on less-used roads. Although you might pull over on the road at night, think about how it might be in the morning. If you think it’s going to be massively busy or home to a semi route, it might end up being noisier than you’d like.
– BLM lands. Hands down, the best free camping experiences we’ve had have been on BLM land. BLM (Bureau of Land Management) oversees the public lands in the USA, and there are millions of acres nationwide to camp on. Forest service roads are typically how we access BLM lands in the van, and we have rarely had better sleep or enjoyed more solace. BLM is definitely more adventurous and worth the trek out, but it doesn’t always lead to a spot that is conducive for parking. Be prepared to have a back-up plan (like a turn out) but hope for the best!
Some additional tips for your first time sleeping in your van or car:
– If you have a car alarm, deactivate it when you lock yourself inside to sleep so it doesn’t get triggered from your body weight shifting around overnight. Keep your key close by at all times.
– Crack the windows for ventilation.
– Window covers make your sleeping arrangement far move comfortable. Black-out fabric custom cut to the size of your windows works great, but if that’s not available to you then black poster board works well, too!
– If someone (such as local police or parking security) do come to your car at night, from my experience they will be very respectful and you’ll know it’s someone official. They will have a flashlight and will knock on your window or door until you open a window. Be polite and take any recommendations they have for where you can sleep.
WHAT ABOUT BATHROOMS OR SHOWERS?
When you have access to the woods, the answer is easy. But when you don’t, here are some options:
– Local stores. Convenience marts, grocery stores, Walmarts, and a good ol’ 24/7 Starbucks might all be viable options.
– Bottles. We have them for the van for when we need them. Ladies might want to consider investing in a device to help with going standing up. I personally use this one and it’s been a game-changer.
For access to a good shower, here are some things we’ve done in the past:
– Hostel showers. Some hostels will have public access to showers if you pay for a pass (usually $3-5 if they offer it).
– Public outdoor showers. Free outdoor showers exist in beach towns on the West Coast if you look closely. Find them at public beaches!
– Community fitness center/swim club. A lot of our favorite towns have very nice community centers, which feel like a luxury for a small price of $5-7. We always make a big day of our trips to the community centers (especially on cold or rainy days) and make use of any special fitness equipment, the pool, and (of course) the hot tub before taking our actual showers. Make sure you bring in a towel, and quarters for the locker key!
– DIY van showers. It’s really nice to have your own personal shower anywhere you go. Ours is a simple solar-powered camp shower water bag, and it does the trick most times. Just throw up a shower curtain off the back of your van doors and use some eco-friendly soap– you’re good to go!
With these tips and your own adventurous spirit, you should be good to go! Remember that everyone’s experiences are different and as long as you are doing your best to respect the environment, the law, and others, you are going to be a-okay.
GOT ANY TIPS TO ADD?
Do you have other resources, insights, or stories for first-time van/car campers? Share them in the comments!