A Guide to Parking as a Vanlifer


Oct. 6 2021, Published 11:16 a.m. ET

Where do vanlifers park?
Source: Daniel J. Schwarz/UnSplash

Living on the road, vanlifers face a number of challenges, such as where to find water, where to shower, how to cook a meal, and how to earn a living. Perhaps the biggest challenge of all is understanding where vanlifers can park their vehicle.

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Navigating the roadways can be difficult enough, but navigating the vagaries of municipal, private, national, and public parking spaces can be equally as confusing. Fortunately, we can help fill you in on all the best van parking tips, even if you’re in unfamiliar territory.

Vanlifers camping out together
Source: Balkan Campers/UnSplash
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Parking spaces are always avaliable on public land.

Did you know that you can camp and park overnight on public land for free? We’re not just talking about preserves or national parks here, either. Towns and even cities have available public spaces for overnight parking, you just need to know where to look. For the purposes of our van-living wayfarers, however, we’ll start with the wild places.

According to Gnomad Home, national forests and land that is under the auspices of the Bureau of Land Management, otherwise known as BLM land, offer free camping experiences like no other. You can find these spots by checking local government websites, reading signs, or using apps such as iOverlander, RVParky, or Roadtrippers.

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It’s important to note that while there are fewer options in the Eastern U.S., the options in the Western U.S. tend to be spread further apart, so you’ll have to keep those conditions in mind as you drive through different parts of the country. Not all these spots are deep-set in the wilderness, either. Many tracts of BLM land are located right on the side of the highway or just off the main road, but those tend to attract more people than those that are high in the boondocks.

Though camping durations vary, many spots allow you to camp for up to 14 days at a time, though you can usually find out time limits by looking at posted signs, stopping by a local ranger’s station, or reading government websites. Also, be sure to ask if there are any bathroom or bathing facilities nearby and brush up on what potentially dangerous wildlife might be living nearby.

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Walmart parking lot
Source: Getty Images

If it’s late, Walmart parking lots will welcome you with open arms.

Walmart might not be one of the most ethical companies when it comes to meeting the rights and needs of its employees, but it is certainly friendly to wayfarers. According to Roadtrippers Magazine, Walmart parking lots have allowed free overnight parking for RV-type vehicles since its inception.

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The chain’s founder, Sam Walton, was a lifelong RV enthusiast, and he wanted to make sure that his people were taken care of. Walmart parking lots are hassle-free and are one of the highest-rated parking options by road travelers all over the U.S.

Stay with folks you know.

This one is kind of a no-brainer. If you’re traveling across the country and you have relatives or long-lost friends in other states, reach out to them. Be sure to give them a bit of time, of course, and don’t spring it on them in the middle of the night, but let them know that you’ll be in the area and see if they want to meet up. You could share a meal, bum a shower, and chances are pretty good they’ll let you park in their driveway for a night or two.

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Van parked by the ocean
Source: Nick Dunlap/UnSplash

Churches can be a sanctuary for vanlifers.

According to Smart Sleeping Tips, church parking lots are common spots for weary travelers to spend the night. If it’s late, you can probably rest assured no one is going to hassle you too much about shutting your eyes for a few minutes, but if you plan on spending the night and you get there early enough, just ask for permission. Most churches won’t object to you staying the night so long as you're clean, quiet, and don’t disrupt mass, guests, or clergy.

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Hotels, hospitals, and rest stops are a last resort.

The last few options on this list are the least reliable, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t available now and again. According to Outbound Living, one should use caution when parking in motel and hotel parking lots. This is mainly if you’re not staying at the hotel but have deigned to park in their lot. Smaller motels will likely notice you right away, but you might be able to get away for a night at a larger, more crowded hotel.

Use caution when staying at rest stops, however. These areas are usually perfect spots for criminals and it isn’t always safe to hunker down along a long stretch of dark highway, especially if you’re on your own.

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