The easiest thing to do, of course, is to go to state or national camp grounds. So, let’s consider those first. I say “state” or “national campgrounds” because they are more reasonably priced and they are located on prime real estate.
Private camp grounds will be on the periphery of that prime real estate and they will be more expensive. When sizing up a private campground keep this in mind: the more development you see (playground, swimming pool, amusements, etc.), the more you’ll have to pay. It costs money to keep all that development going. The advantage private campgrounds have is that they will most certainly have shower facilities and dump stations for RVs. State and national campgrounds don’t always have these.
In fact, state and national campgrounds may be fairly undeveloped, if not downright primitive. That’s not a big issue for us van campers. But I need a shower, which I don’t have in my little van. I’d hate to pay $20 bucks for a campsite that offers nothing more than a pretty place to park. I’m not above bathing in a mountain creek. But I don’t want to make a habit of it. In short: state and national campgrounds are best if you’re looking for scenery, not amenities.
You should know that, at peak season, state and national campgrounds can be crowded. Very crowded. You should check in before noon. In the most popular places, all campsites may be gone by early afternoon. National parks no longer take reservations. It’s first come, first served. And, if you’re looking to be alone, this is not the place for you. Chances are, by dinner time, you’re going to be making small talk with your neighbors.
Let me be blunt: campgrounds are expensive. Some cost as much as a motel room. Staying at such campsites seems to defeat the purpose of van camping. The whole idea of van camping is that you are self-sufficient. The whole idea of paying a lot for camping is that you are not self-sufficient. Since I can’t afford to pay even $20 a night for a place to park, I seldom stay at campgrounds.
The nature of my travel (when I’m doing a book tour) often demands that I move quickly. That means I have to stay near the major highways. I don’t have time to drive 20 miles out of town to find a campground. I’ve got to be up at dawn and in a TV studio by eight sometimes or on the road for a 300 mile drive to the next town. That’s why I camp a lot in Walmart parking lots. Nationally, Walmart allows RVers and truckers to park overnight in their lots. It’s unofficial story policy. Why? It makes good business sense, because those overnighters will most likely shop at Walmart. Also, for those Walmarts that are open late or all night, the RVs and trucks help make the lot look fuller.
Notice that I said “unofficial” store policy. In my recent travels I did find one Walmart that prohibited overnight parking. It’s the store manager’s call. In this case, there had been a gang-related shooting in the lot. Obviously, not all Walmarts are ideal overnight stays.
Two things you should know: Walmart Super Centers have all night security patrols. The other Walmarts do not. The safest Walmarts are suburban stores. You can tell when you pull up to them that they are safe. Also, look for the other overnighters: you should see semis and RVs parked at the edges of the lot. I myself always pull up to a well-planted island (it gives Cleo a place to hang out) well away from the store — far enough away that no other vehicles are are nearby. That gives me a good view of anybody who might approach.
I have never been bothered in a Walmart parking lot. And even the security guard who told me I couldn’t park there overnight made an exception and let me stay. Still, whenever I park in unofficial locations (that is, outside of campgrounds), I keep a low profile. I don’t put out my awning. I don’t sit in a chair sunbathing or whatever. At night, I shade my windows and stay inside. By the way, if you don’t have window shades, you need to get some — for privacy, security, comfort (keeps the parking lot lights out of your eyes), and energy efficiency.
The best rest areas are Welcome Centers just as you enter a state. These are a showcase for that state’s hospitality and they not only have 24-hour security patrols, they also have RV dump stations and other amenities. Virtually all state highway patrols accept that rest areas can be used for overnight parking. Traffic safety demands that drivers have a place to pull off when sleepy. Truckers led the way in this regard, and you’ll find plenty of truckers parked overnight at any and every rest interstate rest stop.
The worst rest areas are local, county pull-overs that sometimes have only a porta-potty. Because these are usually close to a town or city, I don’t stop in them, since they are likely to attract teenagers or other revelers looking for a convenient place to park and party. Also, these rest areas are rarely patroled.
If you’re traveling the back roads and need an easy and safe place to park, just look for the nearest interstate. A quick search on your smart phone will tell you where the nearest rest stop is. Also, sites like rvdumps.com will show you where you can find rest stops with dump stations.
I meet a lot of people on the road — often in Walmart parking lots. They’re curious about my van and/or they want to meet Cleo, my basset hound. It’s good policy to be a friendly camper, meaning you should take the time to talk to most people who approach you. As often as not, these people may offer you a place to park. All you need is a driveway. Or a nice neighborhood. If you park in front of the house of somebody you know, then you are legit — you are that person’s guest. I have accepted a number of these invitations from people I have met. Parking in a safe neighborhood in front of a new acquaintance’s house is especially helpful in congested areas.
Old friends, of course, are always willing to help. When passing through a friend’s town, I will call in advance and ask if I can park in his driveway. I have even called to ask if I can pit-stop for a shower. In other words, we may already have a network of help across the country. If not, we can create a network by making friends as we go.
Dirt roads may lead you to public land. I once parked on a mountain top near a lake that was clearly public property but it was wholly unmarked. Another time I drove as far as I could on a dirt road, then pulled over to park. Later that night, the owner of the land came knocking on my door. I explained my predicament and he gave me permission to stay as long as I lit no fires and left no trash.
I assured him that I am wholly self-contained in my van and I thanked him for his generosity. Another time, I pulled off of the highway and hid among some trees where I could not be seen from the road, even though I was quite close to the road.
I prefer high ground to low ground and, if I have time (and light enough), I’ll go to the top of a mountain where there are transmitting towers for radio/TV: these are often public land. My main aim is to get out of the way — that is, out of heavily traveled areas — and out of sight. What you don’t want to do is park somewhere in a full campground.
Rangers almost always patrol campgrounds, especially during the high tourist season. Nor do you want to park in plain sight if you don’t know where you are. I make it a policy always to hide — this means driving off-road, usually across a grassy stretch, being careful of boulders and other obstacles.
Hiding is just common sense when you’re not sure where you are. Once parked, you must shade your windows. If your shades are reflective silver, then you’ll need to reverse them so that your windows won’t reflect any light. Keep your key in the ignition and sleep with your clothes on if you think you might need a fast get-away. If you don’t have a toilet in your van, then pee into a cup or bowl (and dump it out the window). Remember, you are most vulnerable when you are outside the van with your pants down. This includes running into a bear or a skunk.
I don’t mean to worry you by saying these things, but because we live in a world of crazies, a little caution will serve us well. 99.9% of the time, if somebody approaches your van, it will be reasonable, well-intentioned person — most likely the land owner. If you ask for help, 99.9% of the time, you’ll get it: “I’m lost and had to park because it got dark. I’ll be out of here first thing in the morning” or “I looked everywhere for a campground but everything is closed and I didn’t know what else to do but park here till morning.”
If you need more leverage, you can add: “I can pay you ten dollars, if that will help.” You’ve got nothing to lose by asking. Most of the time, the farmer will not accept your payment. Just be open and willing to chat and find ways to make him feel good about your being there — without sounding patronizing or full of shit.