We've all been there. It's late at night and you're tired from driving all day. You're right outside a city and you're tempted to post up in a Walmart for a few hours because it's easy. Genevieve of Lady Adventures would argue that it's not worth your time. Here's her advice for how you can trade bright lights for remote camping locations.
In September of 2015, with no road life experience other than weekend camping trips, I packed up my newly purchased 1985 Toyota Bandit Camper and left my native born home state of Florida for a cross-country road trip with no end date in the foreseeable future. During my first night on the road, I camped at a Savannah-area RV park to get my road feet dirty. And since that night, the Willie Rose—save for the occasional RV park day use for shower and/or Wi-Fi—has not parked at an RV park or even a Walmart in more than one and a half years on the road.
That's not to say there hasn't been some really crappy (both figuratively and literally) camp spots and urban camping in parking lots. But never spending a night in a Walmart parking lot is one of my minuscule claims to even more minuscule fame, and I'm keeping it.
If the idea of parking your happy little home and resting your road weary head under the harshly cool street lamps of one of the monstrous paved public parking lots plopped in front of a monolithic symbol of corporate America doesn't sound appealing to you, then don't do it. Just don't. This is a PSA for the vanlifers against Walmart camping support group: You're not alone and you don't have to give in to doing what you don't want to do. Knowing is half the battle. So take a stand, make your pledge and repeat after me.
Okay, don't you feel better? Now that that's over with, you know that whole freedom thing about road life that everyone is drawn to? Well, the very definition of freedom is the power to act as one wants. My friends, freedom also means you have the power to figure out how not to do the things you don't want to do, namely sleeping in Walmart parking lots.
Finding really beautiful places to camp takes time, effort and quite honestly, a good amount of hard work and dedication. Sure, every once in a blue moon, you'll stumble on a hidden gem of a boondock spot and post that gypsy heart stopping "look where I parked" geotag-less epic photo on Instagram to make everyone think you effortlessly woke up like that every day of vanlife. But 99.69% of the time you have to work hard for that money shot view, whether by finding it, getting to it or both. I honestly can't really think of a single part of life on the road that is effortless or easy. It's all hard work, and to the right people, it's all so worth it. There's a reason that the best things in life aren't easy, and clearly Beyoncé never lived in a van, because the look of a dirtbag vanlifer at sundown gives a whole new meaning to "I woke up like this."
So by now I'm sure you're thinking, "thanks for the vague motivational pep talk, Genevieve, but how the hell do I do all this hard work to find camp spots that aren't Walmart?" Well, you have to plan ahead. However, there's looseness to plans in road life. What I learned from my event planning days that I've carried over to road life is to make plans that aren't concrete by researching your options so that when the time comes, you have the freedom to go with the flow and be all wild, free and loosey goosey without a worry in the world. Your backup plan to your backup plan has a backup plan. We wanderers don't really take too kindly to making plans, but we sure do love our maps.
Before I get on the road on a long drive stretch or once I get to a place where I'm going to be spending more than one night, there's some planning steps I take to find the spots I'd enjoy parking overnight at, and they pretty much all involve maps.
Because the prettiest spots often are remote and without cell phone service, downloading an offline Google map of an area is great if you're going to be spending a few days or more on national public land that has no cellphone service. This allows you to search and route yourself to campgrounds, hiking trails, points of interest and businesses within the saved offline map area, even when you don't have service. I use the Google Maps app as my go-to for everything mapping and navigating—and I'll speak more to the magic of Google Maps throughout this blog post—but, yeah, the app pretty much walks you through the process of downloading offline maps. Just click the three lines at the upper left corner of your Google Maps app and you'll see the "Offline areas" option on the slide-out menu.
Turn your Google Maps to "Satellite" view and search for places that look cool to park. I search for dirt roads and/or OHV trails to park off of roadways that I'm traveling on long driving stretches, especially when I'm getting too tired to drive. You may have to settle for a pullout, but more often than not you can follow waterways to really sweet waterfront camping spots or even river access points and roadways to off-road and forest access roads.
Freecampsites.net is a great way to find free campsites if you're in the right areas (it's not so great in SoCal and on the east coast). Freecampsites.net has also found me and some girlfriends at a dilapidated old casino/flea market with a muddy dirt lot and a bunch of garbage cans with human feces in them off a mountain highway in Wyoming. You can't win them all with the quick and easy database search, but you can read the comments from others who have been there before, which I highly suggest if you don't have a 4WD vehicle. Many of the better free campsites involve navigating down some gnarly roads, and you'll want to know what road conditions to expect when pulling in after dark. I'll often give myself a few options along my route (and save the GPS coordinates in my Google Maps app) so I have more options down the road if I feel like getting more miles under my belt before hitting the hay or the first spot isn't safe or accessible.
BLM and National Forest areas are pretty much open dispersed free camping areas. If you didn't know that, I have no words for you. If you did know that, please also know that you can download most public lands maps in PDF to your iBooks app on your iPhone. Then you save trees and have digital maps to view on your phone when you are a dummy and didn't do that whole downloading the offline Google Map thing.
Have a Photographic Memory
Just kidding. No, but really, remember all those spots you see photos of. Sounds hard, huh? Well, with a little bit of organizational effort, you can rely on the photographic memory of the electronic devices you pretty much have on you all the time. Yay technology! So, here's how my short-term memory-deficient brain remembers photographically:
- Screenshot and organize by geographic albums. I have photo albums in my iPhone for each state I have or hope to travel to. Every time I see an Instagram post, read a blog, look through a magazine or online periodical or just happen upon a dope-looking spot to park it and camp, I take a picture or screenshot of the location and save the photo to its respective state album on my phone. So when I go to Utah, I can pull up the Utah photo album and “Voila!” there's a whole bunch of rad, hand-selected Utah locations I can visit and add to my Google Maps, either on the fly with my iPhone or by saving it to my road trip map while using my laptop, during times when I have Wi-Fi access.
- Speaking of my road trip map, I created a private Google map years ago, because living on the road was always a dream for me. I started by adding all the US National Parks, and over the years, I’ve added more and more locations to my user-created map. The cool thing about this map that I worked on for so long is that I can access it from my phone with the Google Maps app and have all those locations pop up on my GPS navigational map while I’m out traveling. I don’t even have to look for places because they are all right there in the map on my phone.
- The only other campsite (and other points of interest) finding app that I occasionally use is Roadtrippers, along with their Facebook and website/blog. The app itself allows you to search for campgrounds near you and has visually stunning and well-documented reviews and photos of the location, along with a ton of other info you would nee to camp there. The roadblock for Roadtrippers, for me, is that the campsites and campgrounds in their database are more often than not pretty popular and well-known spots that one could easily find by googling the name of the area and camping. However, if you’re the kind of vanlifer who splurges on a hotel, inn, Airbnb or hostel night when the weather conditions are less than optimal or you’re just feeling fancy like that, it has some detailed options for sleeping accommodation searches, including Unique Stays, which is how I came across La Loma Del Chivo, the hostel and experimental community that became the first place to capture my heart and soul on the road. It is also great for finding bizarre roadside attractions, abandoned properties, Instagram drool-worthy photo opportunities that everyone gets right from their car, hiking trails, natural points of interest and so much more. If you use the app, I highly suggest following the Roadtrippers Facebook page. They keep the feed stocked with enticing clickthroughs to their blog, where they will post actual road trip writing entries, with detailed notes, striking photos and quick clicks to save any or all of the road trip destinations to your personal map. This was really helpful and inspiring while I was still working long hours at a computer, trying to amp up for an epic road trip, in that it tossed a few epic locations on my radar initially.
You don’t have to be super social or the life of the party, but if you live on the road for any extended period of time, you better be friendly. Being friendly helps you make friends, and when you are solo, especially if you are a lady, making friends will most often lead to you getting something in return for your general friendliness and kindness. In regards to finding camp spots:
- Make nice with the locals. This is real easy and very pleasant to do in small towns, which is where I prefer to spend most of my time on the road, and which quite often don’t even have Walmarts. Please buy local as you travel; co-ops, markets, coffee shops, cafes, restaurants, local businesses and galleries, these are all places you will be going as you travel through small towns and cities. Locals working in these businesses will often be intrigued by your travels and start asking questions. This gives you an easy in to ask questions about camping spots in the area. If you are real friendly and really get chatting, it might even lead to you getting to park on someone’s private property or having a free shower and/or a warm home-cooked meal. One thing is for sure, you’ll have at least one new friend by the end of the interaction and that’s the best thing to get for free.
- Use and build your social networks. Instagram is surely the way most vanlifers connect or stay connected while traveling. I’ve followed geotags of locations that I am traveling through to meet other vanlifers who posted photos in that location. Leave comments and send a DM without sounding like a stalker. Quite often, all it takes is saying that you also live in a van and are in the same area. Facebook is something I personally prefer to keep personal and private to family, friends and people that I have met on the road and want to keep in touch with, so I feel very comfortable posting my location and asking friends for suggestions of camp spots. Hell, I’m usually hoping that someone else is nearby to road fam it with. Tinder, yes I am on Tinder, is most often a last resort for making friends the electronic way. It’s like finding a really dirty needle in a haystack to find other dirtbag vanlifers on Tinder, but way more of us use it than you’d expect and I’ve met some really magical, talented and free-spirited humans through Tinder. Even if you don’t want to do the Tinder meetup, you can surely ask for suggestions of that traveler’s or local cutie’s favorite local camp spots.
- Consider cultural immersion. Some people dip their feet into the vanlife culture when, for me, it's been highly enriching to my lifestyle to go balls deep into the road life culture itself, primarily the dirtbag climbing culture. The first group of solo travelers I met were rock-climbing dirtbags, and ever since that first magical winter in Joshua Tree, I’ve had a network of solid homies floating around the country, with a wealth of knowledge on where to camp in climbing destinations and their home states. I’ve also kept involved in the vanlife culture within the Instagram content provider segment; these are also friendships I cherish and have utilized in word of mouth camping location acquiring.
Ask for Forgiveness, Not Permission
Making friends on the road also lends to adapting your practices through seeing how others operate while living on the road. I spent this last summer traveling with a bad-ass solo vanlifer lady who practiced the “ask for forgiveness, not permission” principal, which I quickly adopted.
There's a lot of irony to the ebb and flow of life on the road. Like how writing this blog was unplanned and being inspired to fit in writing, late on a town day of maximizing the only decent Wi-Fi access, so half of it has been written in a McDonald’s parking lot (the best 24-hour free Wi-Fi in Moab). Don’t be disheartened vanlife romanticizers: I decided to go offline and off the grid to finish up this blog writing endeavor in a much more inspiring scenic remote desert area off a 4WD road near Canyonlands National Park surrounded by majestic red rock towers and the Colorado River. Sometimes all the planning and research in the world will still leave you flying by the seat of your pants to find a nightly camp spot for your mobile home. My suggestion? Park now and ask for forgiveness later.
Use common sense and a decent sense of respect when applying this principle to your last-minute boondocking:
- Don’t trespass on posted private property.
- Leave no trace when you camp anywhere, all of the time, but keep your van home spreading to a minimum when stealth camping.
- Keep it stealthy. Be as quiet as possible. This means both sound and light pollution.
- Only start a fire if there is a previously used fire circle at the location and if doing so wouldn’t draw any attention or break any area fire restrictions.
- If urban boondocking, do everything you can to make your van appear as if it is parked without anyone inside of it. Many cities have laws against sleeping in your vehicle. If you can’t avoid breaking this law...
- Avoid making yourself a law enforcement issue, but should you have an interaction with law enforcement, don’t be an idiot and don’t be doing anything else illegal. You don’t want to get a heavy fine or a night in jail slapped on your ass all because you needed to park in three-hour parking for three days during a pagan fertility festival to use the only good Wi-Fi in a small Colorado mountain town (that actually happened, sans law enforcement interaction) and weren’t friendly in asking for forgiveness.
Ultimately, if you decide to live in your vehicle for an extended period of time, the places you go are up to you. If you have a self-entitled attitude and expect everything to fall in your lap, then you won’t reap the nightly camping reward of not settling, planning ahead, researching, being friendly and having good intentions that it takes to wake up in beautiful places rather than a Walmart parking lot.