Vanlife How-To: Where to Park and Sleep in Cities

Where to Park and Sleep in Cities

It’s wonderful to camp out in ‘nature’ with nice views, fresh air, places to go hike and do other fun things, and space for yourself without other people. But there will be times that you have good reasons to be in cities and towns. Maybe you’ll need some wifi and a place to get some work done, or to go shopping, do laundry, to meet people, or to spend time with friends and family. But you’re not supposed to camp in a city, right? You’re supposed to live in a house or apartment or at least a hotel. Well…. no. Camping in a city is A-OK. And in this post I’ll show you where to park and sleep in cities.

Where to Park and Sleep in Cities
From a nice little park overlooking Seattle and Mt. Rainier

 

First – Some Important things

  • Actively ensure you are safe from violence, theft, or people crashing into your vehicle
  • Don’t scare people, don’t get bothered by or in trouble with police
  • Blend in as much as is reasonably easy
  • For sleeping, arrive to the spot at bedtime, leave when you wake. DO NOT STAY there into the next day.
  • Don’t keep sleeping in the same spot
  • Use blackout window covers
  • You can sleep in all kinds of neighborhoods – near houses, apartments, businesses, industrial areas, downtown, and so on. I’ll share examples from each type of neighborhood.
Where to Park and Sleep in Cities
In Encinitas, CA

Vehicle types

  • The best vehicle for stealth camping inside a city is probably a minivan or SUV. If the outside looks normal, no one would ever guess a person is sleeping inside.
  • People generally don’t notice solar panels or roof vents, but the more there are of that kind of thing, the more likely they recognize it as a camper.
  • White cargo vans are the next best vehicle.
  • Obvious RVs – (conversion vans with the stripes on them, or RVs or trailers) stand out the most, and a good deal of people will assume you’re sleeping in there.

The higher your vehicle is on the list above, the easier it is to camp in cities and blend in. If you have an obvious recreational vehicle, it’s going to be a bit tougher. But you can still do it.

Where to Park and Sleep in Cities
Beach parking lot in Ocean Beach, San Diego, CA. Great place to spend the day (by coming in the morning when spots are open), but overnight parking not allowed – and it get’s weird there at night anyways

 

Block out your windows!

The most important modification for your vehicle to camp in cities is to have a way to block all light at the windows. The most common method for this is to use blackout curtains. Other methods are to paint the inside of the windows or to make some kind of insert. Reflectix is the worst method because it is commonly used by “homeless people” and down-on-their-luck drug addicts. You don’t want to look like one of those. At night, when you have lights on inside your vehicle, you should either have all your windows blocked, or you should be parked in a place where you don’t care if people notice. When I’m in the city I keep my curtains up nearly all the time, except that I take some down while I’m driving, or sometimes while I’m inside the van.

Where to Park and Sleep in Cities
Parking lot behind casinos, on the strip in Las Vegas. I slept here many nights and would just keep the van here without moving it.

(This is how my van looks with the curtains up and the lights on inside)

 

Overall strategy

Blend in! While you’re parked somewhere in a city, the main thing you want to avoid is having people notice your vehicle (and you) and get scared, worried, or bothered by you. The more reasonable it would seem that your vehicle is there for a normal reason, the better.
During the day, blending in is less important. But still, here are some ways to do that:

  • Generally, no one gets bothered by vehicles in parking lots. So as long as it’s parking lot that’s open to the public, you can probably spend as much time as you want there. Parking lots that are shared by multiple business are better.
  • In residential areas, people are most likely to be bothered in neighborhoods where few or no people park on the streets. Residents who have big houses are the most likely to be alarmed by your vehicle – these folks know the cars of their neighbors, and are generally the most worried about burglaries, so they notice unfamiliar people and vehicles very quickly.
  • In a neighborhood with houses closer together where a lot of people live and where many people park on the street, residents are less likely to take notice of new vehicles. This is especially true where street parking is used so much that a resident wouldn’t normally expect to be able to park right in front of their home.
  • Coming and going at the right times, so even if someone does notice you and get bothered, you’re likely gone before anything happens (and don’t worry, what happens is not that bad. I’ll cover that later)
  • A note on exactly where you park. It’s safer to park on street where fewer people drive, and it’s safer to park a little ways in front of another vehicle – that way if someone (a drunk or distracted driver maybe) is driving along and smashes into the back of a parked car, your rig is less likely to be hit.
Where to Park and Sleep in Cities
In Portland

 

Don’t hang out where you sleep!

This one is simple and is every bit as important as choosing the right place to park. Do this:

  • At some point in the day (it could be right at bedtime), get an idea of where you want to park
  • Once you’re entirely ready for bed, drive to (or find) the spot where you’ll sleep. (You don’t have to scope out the exact spot prior to this, you just needed to have ideas/areas in mind). Park there.
  • Go to sleep.
  • When you wake up in the morning, drive somewhere else. It could be just one block away.

This way, you’ll be arriving while most people are also getting ready for bed or are asleep. You’ll be gone before most people notice or would do anything about it.

 

WHERE TO PARK – HOW TO FIND GOOD SPOTS

Residential

The main keys are:

  • Park in a neighborhood where a lot of people park on the streets
  • Don’t park in really fancy neighborhoods. Those residents are the most paranoid/worried.
  • It’s best to not park directly in front of a house. Park on a street that faces the sides of homes, or at least park in the spaces inbetween houses.

 

Residential – With Houses

Here’s a bad one. It’s too fancy:

Where to Park and Sleep in Cities

This one is also bad – the houses look big and fancy, and barely anyone is parked on the street. But if you really need/want, the best spot is on the side street, highlighted by the red circle.

Where to Park and Sleep in Cities

People who live in big houses call the cops a lot. Generally, the people who will call the police the quickest are people over 40 years of age who have big expensive houses full of expensive stuff that they have concerns about being stolen. The folks least likely to call the police about a van or camper are ages 25 and under, apartment dwellers, and lower middle-class neighborhoods and “below”.

This neighborhood below looks better. A lot of people park on the street, and it’s dense enough that a resident wont be surprised or bothered by any certain vehicle being in front of their home.

Where to Park and Sleep in Cities

Arkansas ave would be a good place to check because less people park on that street. You’ll actually be able to find a parking spot – and one that you can drive forwards into and not have to parallel park. Plus, you’ll be parked on the street facing the sides of people’s homes. A lot of people get the opinion in their head that the length of the street front of their property is theirs, but they feel less so about a street that borders the side of their house. And they’re just less likely to notice you on the side. The spot highlighted below with the grey pin is also not right next to the house, which is better than being parked right next to it, especially when the street is this close to the house. (those are garages along the alley).

Here’s the street view of that spot on Arkansas Ave:

Where to Park and Sleep in Cities

 

As you can see, you’re in plain view from the house. At night, there were a few other cars also parked on this street, and since it’s area where the streets going the other direction get filled up with park cars, it will just look like you’re a normal person parking in the neighborhood like all the other cars.

Here’s another spot on the end of a block. There are trees obstructing the view of the street from inside the house. (See the grey pin)

Where to Park and Sleep in Cities

Here’s a street view picture of an obstruction between the house and street. The spot that has a car parked in it (with the arrow pointing at it) would be good as it probably can’t be seen from the house windows – the view is blocked by the fence and the tree.

Where to Park and Sleep in Cities

You don’t really need to hide. But, spots like these are much less likely to be seen by residents as “their” spot, and they are less likely to notice you, especially if you’re only there while the residents are inside and sleeping.

The picture below shows another neighborhood where a lot of people park in the street. But there’s one car directly in front of each house. In areas looking like this, the spot in front of each house is most often occupied by someone who lives there. It is, in practice, their spot. Don’t park in their spot.

Where to Park and Sleep in Cities

Residential – With Apartments

Areas with apartments are generally easier/better than houses. With apartments, people are more used to coming and going, and they won’t recognize new vehicles. It’s best to find apartments where (some of) the residents park on the street.

This is an example of an apartment that’s not a good candidate. All the parking is in the apartment property. This is private property.

Where to Park and Sleep in Cities

In practice, you can likely park in there without trouble. But it’s generally better to park near apartments like this:

Where to Park and Sleep in Cities

Note that in an area like this, there will usually be (a lot) more cars parked on the street at night. These map pictures are taken in the middle of the day while most people are at work. This street is a great candidate. If you have solar panels, the spot highlighted with the grey pin would be good – because that’s the spot most likely to get direct sun the earliest. You should, of course, be leaving very early. But if it’s a time of year where the sun comes up around 6am, you might as well be parked in a spot that’s going to get you some juice in your battery.

Here’s a street view of apartments with street parking:

Where to Park and Sleep in Cities

 

Residential Neighborhoods – Weird Streets

Some parts of the country have residential streets that are paved, but have some dirt or gravel area along some parts of the road that people park on. They can look like this:
map view:

Where to Park and Sleep in Cities

street view:

Where to Park and Sleep in Cities

I avoid these areas. I’m not certain, but I have a feeling those sides of the road are private property, particularly so in the areas where sometimes of the lots have yards going all the way up to the street and some lots have a gravel section next to the road like these.

 

Industrial Areas

I don’t park in these often, but it’s certainly possible. Here’s an example:
An industrial area:

Where to Park and Sleep in Cities

Map view of a promising spot:

Where to Park and Sleep in Cities

Street view of that spot:

Where to Park and Sleep in Cities

Again, these are streets with the strange gravel section on the sides, so I don’t know for sure whether that’s still the street or whether it’s the property containing that junkyard. So it’s best to leave early in the morning.

 

Downtown Areas

Parking rules vary widely in downtown areas. Some places have meters that you only have to pay during daytime hours. Some places have “2 hour parking, 8am-6pm” signs. You can park in places like that. Here’s an example of a street I parked on in Carmel-By-The-Sea, a super fancy little town along the California coast:

Where to Park and Sleep in Cities

If you park in a downtown area, find a street that’s less busy. I parked on 8th street in the map above. A few blocks north, the street parallel to this was much busier and had people out walking around late at night (they’d been out to eat/drink), but down here on 8th street, the businesses were long closes and it was super quiet. Some of the California coast towns are tricky, and Carmel is one of those. In Carmel, there’s 2 hour parking downtown during the day. At night, only residents (with a permit) are allowed to park on streets in the residential areas. So I would go down and park at the beach during the day, and then come park downtown to sleep at night. That was a nice time :-).

One night I parked on the busy street downtown in Carmel. I don’t think I was even going to sleep there, but while I was just hanging out, some police came. They were nice and recommended that I go park in a big strip mall / business park and ensured me that I wouldn’t be bothered there.

 

Nooks and Crannies

Here’s a spot that some people camp. It’s away from any homes or businesses:

Where to Park and Sleep in Cities

And it’s right in the middle of a giant city, in Denver, next to downtown:

Where to Park and Sleep in Cities

Some of the nooks and crannies like this are decent places to park. But some of them have major problems. They are away from houses and apartments and businesses, but they are not away from people. I drove down this street while in Denver this summer. There were a handful of people parked there living out of their cars – really ratty cars full of stuff and trash. And there were some vans and RVs – one that look like they haven’t moved in a year and have piles of trash around them. If you think you’d like to camp in a spot like this in order to be away from people, that doesn’t always work out, and you might end up to people you’d much rather not be near.

 

Wal-Marts

Many Wal-Marts allow overnight camping. I believe there is a way to check online if a certain store allows it or not.

This website has a list, but it is not official and does not appear to always be updated:  http://www.walmartlocator.com/no-park-walmarts/

If you need to plan ahead, of if you prefer to just be sure whether it’s ok, call the store and ask. That’s what is recommended in the FAQ on the Wal-Mart website:

Where to Park and Sleep in Cities

Because I don’t need to plan ahead, I don’t check that. I’ve camped in a couple Wal-Marts where it was obvious camping was allowed and I happened to be right next to it at bed-time.

If, for some reason, you prefer to just try to use Google Maps to see if camping is allowed in a Wal-Mart, sometimes you can see, like this one in Page:

Where to Park and Sleep in Cities

A closer view:

Where to Park and Sleep in Cities

Those are campers. Here’s the street view:

Where to Park and Sleep in Cities

Be warned, this is not a reliable method. The Wal-Mart at Cedar City Utah is also a VERY popular camping site – with around 20 obvious Vans and RVs there each night, so it is clearly allowed, but the Google Maps picture shows no obvious campers.

Where to Park and Sleep in Cities

There are some other businesses that allow camping. Cracker Barrel is one. In some parts of the country, there are Cracker Barrels everywhere. Again, the normal/expected practice is to call the location and ask them about it.

 

Casinos

Some casinos will either allow you to camp for free, or they won’t notice you or bother you. If you go to Las Vegas, parking at/near the strip can be complicated. There’s usually some place you can park, but that seems to change as construction projects start and and. The off-strip casinos are easy. Here’s one that I believe I slept at:

Where to Park and Sleep in Cities

At off-strip casinos (at least in Vegas) with parking lots like this, you’ll probably be fine. I’m not entirely sure what happens if you have an obvious RV/Camper though.

 

Businesses where you’re not allowed

When you’re good at blending in, if you choose to, you can often get away with parking at businesses too. I’ve done very little of this, so I don’t know all the ins and outs. I’ve parked at hotels about ten nights worth and never had trouble. Keep in mind that these are private property and they could choose to boot or two your vehicle.

I’ve not done much of this because most of the time I can easily find places to park on public streets. But if you choose to, its a possibility at many different types of businesses.

There are some where you’re less likely to stand out, such as:

  • Hotels (as long as they aren’t strict about checking the cars and acting on it.. Don’t park in a lot that’s nearly full)
  • Bars (Ones that are open late and busy late, where some customers may get drunk and then take a cab or Uber home, or find true love and go home with someone else)
  • Ones with vans. (Some businesses will have a row of white vans outside. If you have a white van, you can probably find yourself a spot)
  • Grocery stores and others where they have some overnight employees (particularly in parking lots that serve many businesses)
  • Hospitals
  • Churches
  • And so on… Basically, if there’s a parking lot, there’s a possibility. Just don’t blame me if you get in trouble.

 

Ask the Police

One option is to call or go to the police station and ask them. You can explain that you’re a full time traveler and you’d like to spend a couple days in their city to shop, eat, etc. and ask if they have any advice on where you should park and sleep overnight. I’ve had the police come talk to be four times. Three of those times, they gave me specific and useful advice on where It’d be ok to park overnight. Getting that advice from them right off-the-bat may be a good idea.

 

Fear / Nervousness

During your first few times camping on a city street or parking lot, you’ll probably have some fear, nervousness, and excitement that comes and goes a few times.

  • What if someone notices that you’re in there sleeping? — What will they do? Well, what would you do if you were walking down the street and notice someone sleeping in a vehicle. Probably nothing. And you may forget about it entirely by the next day. These days, with vandwelling becoming more and more well known and admired, if someone recognizes you, they might hope or try to make friends with you.
  • What if someone tries to rob you? That’s not any more likely to happen than if you were in a house. If someone does happen to try to break into your rig, they’re going to be spooked when they realize that someone’s inside. They’re going to run away. (This actually happened to me once when I was parked in a pretty rough neighborhood. Around 7am when I was halfway awake, someone opened the side door of my van. And I though “What!? I forgot to lock it!… Where do I have the nearest knife?… does he see me?”. He was leaning in the van and looking around, and hadn’t seemed to notice me. I just said to him “Close the door”. He did, and then he ran away.
  • It can just feel like you’re doing something wrong by ~camping in a city. But remind yourself, you only have that feeling because of society norms, and those are not even real things – they’re just made up, they’re just subjective constructs – and much of what’s normal is actually kind of stupid.
  • Once you’ve done this a few times, it will start to feel more normal and less scary. I do still get some feelings or awareness that I’m doing something very out of the ordinary, which can be a good feeling – a sort of excitement.

 

If the police come

I’ll probably make a more in-depth post about this. In short:

  • Usually the cops really don’t care about someone sleeping overnight in a vehicle. They have other more important things to worry about, and also most officers hate doing paper work and prefer for situations to just dissolve without them needing to do anything other than talk to people. If they come talk to you, it’s nearly always because someone called and asked them to, and they’re coming to make sure you’re not some home invader that’s high on bath salts with a van full of stolen stuff. If they realize you’re just a traveler that’s sleeping for the night, they’ll probably be relieved and let their guard down.
  • Be courteous to them. Do NOT act rude or defensive. You can defend yourself by choosing what you say to them, but do it in a friendly or neutral tone. For example, if they say that someone called them complaining that you’re camping there, you may choose to just say “well, I parked the van here yesterday around 10pm” (with emphasis on ‘parked the van’. Usually they won’t press the question. They usually don’t care. They’re just here because someone called the cops and all they want is for that person to not call the cops more.
  • The important thing is to help the police realize that you’re a normal person and that you’re not up to no good. The main way to do this is to speak to them clearly and concisely, to not fidget, look them in the eye, and have consistency in your answers (don’t contradict something you previously told them).
  • Often, the police are just there because someone called and complained. They’re likely to give you advice on where else to go park that you’re less likely to bother anyone.
  • Many cities have ordinances against sleeping in a vehicle or ‘camping’ in general in the city. So it’s possible for the officer to give you a ticket or maybe worse. I think this happens very rarely and, and the more put-together you and your vehicle are, the less likely it is to happen. I believe those kind of tickets are given out to problematic/long-term street campers, and maybe some here and there that are jerks rude to the officers.
Where to Park and Sleep in Cities
In San Diego

 

Conclusion

I wish you happy and easy city camping. Living on the fringes of society in this way can take some more effort (of driving around and looking for places), but is really not that hard, and I’ve found it to be easier than managing and taking care of a house. If, by living mobile you are freeing yourself from the need for a house or apartment, you are probably winning in a lot of ways – you’ll likely be living a much less inexpensive life, having an incredibly lower environmental impact, and you have some giant advantages of mobility – you can stay in town for only as long as you want, you can go where you want afterwords, and while you’re in town, if you decide you don’t like a neighborhood or a street, you can move your house in 15 minutes.

How to find Free Campsites

How to find free campsites

In the United States alone, there are over 100,000 squares miles of federal land, and a good portion of this is land you can camp on. There are easily over a million places you could camp. Finding and getting to the ones you’ll like the most takes some work, and in this post I’ll explain how How to find free campsites – beautiful wonderful fun ones.

How to find free campsites [Campsite example]
Camped on an OHV area in the middle of Utah
First – a note. This is a long and detailed post about how to find campsites yourself. If you are lazy or in a hurry, don’t read this. Just go to www.campendium.com and you’ll probably find plenty of sites good enough for a lazy person.

 

Scope of this Post

The focus of this post is finding campsites within a certain area. There is a set of related posts I’m expecting to make:

  • Choosing a general area to go to
  • Finding campsites  (this is the post you’re reading)
  • Using My Maps and Google Maps to plan travel
  • How to be prepared when you go out camping
  • How to not die while you’re out camping

So this post will start with the assumption that you have selected a general area or region where you want to go camp, and shows you how to find a great campsite in that area.

How to find free campsites [Campsite example]
Found this nice place to camp not far from San Diego
 

Resources

ARC GIS Maps – shows all federal land in the U.S.

Other maps showing federal lands. They are split up into states and the files ate PDFs. So you can save them on your computer and/or print them off

Google maps

 

How to find free campsites [Campsite example]
A wonderful free campsite at Lake Mohave
 

Dispersed Camping

Dispersed Camping is the name used for camping outside of official or improved campsites. Meaning these types of campers are dispersed throughout the area rather than gathered at a campsite.

That means there will be no bathrooms or picnic tables or running water. There will often be fire rings in the places you dispersed camp

Regardless of price, dispersed camping is usually better than camping in official campsites. You can go where you want instead of just to the campsite, you can get better views, and you can get much more space from other campers and have peace and quiet.

 

How to find free campsites [Campsite example]
Camping in Utah under an amazing night sky
 

Land types and where you can camp

These are the main ones.

  • National Parks – Camping is generally only allowed in paid campsites or in hotels. Backcountry camping is an option in some parks (where you park your vehicle and hike in to the park with your camping gear) but you still have to pay for it.

 

  • National Forests – The rules vary by forest and even districts. In general, most National Forests allow you to camp wherever you want. But you must not be messing the place up. For example, it’s nearly always ok to drive into an established campsite where there’s already a road or path and a spot to park, but it’s usually now not ok to just pull off a road, drive through a meadow, and stop to set up camp right in the middle of it.  Some Forests only allow camping along certain roads. Some only allow camping in small designated areas. Some only allow camping in paid camp sites. It varies widely. Camping in one spot is allowed for up to 14 days, and then you’re expected to move 25 miles or so

 

  • BLM – Other than wilderness areas, BLM land is the least managed type of federal land. BLM camping rules are usually similar to National Forests, but BLM often has fewer rule and guidelines. In general, you can do what you want, as long as you don’t cause any damage, scare/hurt wildlife, and so on. As always, it’s still best to check the rules early on, and you’ll get more used to it over time. National Forests and BLM make up the vast majority of all Public Land. Camping in one spot is allowed for up to 14 days, and then you’re expected to move 25 miles or so

 

  • National Recreation areas – The rules can vary a lot. In some you can dispersed camp. Some recreation areas have free campsites with some amount of improvements

 

  • National Wildlife Areas – Some do allowed camping, but the rules for these vary widely.

 

  • National Wilderness Areas – These areas are intended to be left to the plants and animals. You can hike through them, and you can hike in and camp, but you can’t drive in and camp – and there aren’t roads to drive on anyways.

 

  • National Monuments – They vary a lot. Most are managed by the National Park Service.Some are  just one small point of interest and there is no camping at all.  Some are managed by the BLM and are very similar to BLM land – and you can camp all over.

 

  • State parks – The rules in most State Parks are similar to National Parks – meaning you’re only allowed to camp in improved campsite that you pay for. You also have to pay to get into most State Parks. A National Parks Pass gets you a discount at some State Parks, but won’t get you in for free.

 

  • State forests – There aren’t a lot of state forests. The ones I’ve encountered had camping rules like National Forests

 

How to find free campsites [Campsite example]
Camping on BLM land in western Arizona. The land isn’t all that exciting, but I believe this area has the best sunrises and sunsets in the U.S.
 

Locating Federal Land

Do not use only Google Maps! They can be horribly inaccurate in showing National Forests, and they do not show BLM at all.

The ARCGIS map is the best maps I’ve found for locating federal lands. It shows all federal land, but it does not show state land, so you won’t see the State Parks or State Forests.

[[ Update 10/20/2017 — It looks like the ARCGIS map is switching to a paid model, and will stop working for free fairly soon ]]

The Western U.S. is mostly federal land. It’s all ours! It’s an incredible place for nomadic outdoorsy people. All those orange and light green areas are BLM and National Forests. That means you can camp for free in most of the entire western half of the country. Wow!!!

How to find free campsites [map explanations]

Here is a closer view, looking at southwestern Colorado

How to find free campsites [map explanations]

Note that the cities and towns are not very visible on this map.  You’ll likely need to look at this map along with another one to sort out exactly where places are.

Now, let’s say I’m in Durango (I actually am as I write this), and I want to go camping up in the mountains nearby. Here’s where Durango is:

How to find free campsites [map explanations]

That purple land to the south is Indian Reservation. To the north is some National Forest. So, let’s check out that National Forest.

 

What National Forest is that? 

The ArcGIS map doesn’t say. Let’s look at Google.

How to find free campsites [map explanations]

It does show. That’s the San Juan National Forest. Ok. We’ll need to know that for finding a Motor Vehicle Use Map later on.

But sometimes, well, actually often, Google does not show the National Forest names. Or the names may be shown but it’s not clear enough because you can’t see borders. Here is part of Utah, with no National Forest names at all.

How to find free campsites [map explanations]

You can find out quickly with a search. Here’s the image search result for “national forests in Utah”

How to find free campsites [map explanations]

Looking closer, I can see that the area I was looking at on Google was Dixie National Forest

How to find free campsites [map explanations]

It may not be super clear from this picture, because of the shapes of the forests, but it’s pretty easy to match them up when you’re looking yourself.

 

Finding MVUMs

Motor Vehicle Use Maps (MVUMs) are maps made by the Forest Service. They show where it is legal to drive vehicles. Some MVUMs also show where you are allowed to dispersed camp.

It is important that you adhere to the MVUMs. The rules in Forests are enforced in a very wide variety of degrees. In some Forests, you’ll almost never see a Ranger, and in some parts of other Forests, the Rangers enforce the rules strictly and give out tickets with fines to those who break the rules.

And the rules can be a little tricky. In a city, where there’s a road, it’s commonly understood that you can drive on it. The only reason you wouldn’t is if there’s a big “road closed” sign and barricades blocking your way. There are a lot of roads in National Forests, and generally, you can drive on all of them. But there are times where the Forests close a road. They generally do put up a gate and sign blocking it. The problem is, these are remote areas, a few jerk faces here and there decide they want to go down these road, so they take out the signs and toss them behind some bushes, and then if a ranger confronts them, they’ll say “I didn’t know it was closed, there was no sign when I came through”. So, the rules are that you must follow what’s on the map. There are, at times, roads that you can drive right onto and down, but that are actually closed and it’s illegal to drive on (and there either never was a sign there, or some jerk face removed it). The MVUM is what shows where it’s legal to drive. It is the only official document. If you’re driving your vehicle in a place that isn’t shown as a road on a MVUM, it’s possible for a ranger to come ticket you. It doesn’t matter that you were ignorant about it being closed, it’s your responsibility to use the MVUM and know where you are.

Now, don’t get too worked up. It’s not nearly as complicated or risky as it sounds, and if you use common sense, you’ll probably never get a ticket, much less have a ranger tell you you’re doing something wrong.

Since an MVUM is the main source of driving and dispersed camping laws, you should always get copies of the them for the areas you’re planning to go. Here’s how to get them:

  • Go to a National Forest building. This is the easiest method if you end up near one. They have different names, generally starting with the N.F. name. Sometimes they are called Ranger Stations, sometimes Visitor’s Centers, and sometimes other things.  For our example, we were looking at San Juan N.F. in Colorado, so you could search in Google Maps for “San Juan National Forest” and the results may show the Forest buildings. When you go to one of these, there’s going to be a desk or table with a person present to talk to you. They’ll have paper copies of their MVUMs, and they are always free, plus they’ll usually have other types of maps, some books about hiking or animals in the area, and so on.
  • Download them from the National Forest Website. This is the way to do it if you’re not near one of their offices. You can generally search for the forest name and the official website will come up first. Go to the website and click on “Maps and Publications” on the left side. Then look for the MVUMs. The layout of the maps page can vary by forest. The Forests are divided up into Districts, and there is typically one separate MVUM for each district. You should probably just download them all. To sort out what district is in what part of the forest, look at the vicinity maps on the MVUMs, or do a Google image search for Google search “[National Forest name] ranger district map” and you’ll probably find a map of that forest showing it’s districts.

 

Ask the Forest Employees Where to Camp

If you go to get a paper MVUM, ask the employees for advice. Often, they know the area very well and can help you find the kind of campsites you enjoy. The expertise of the person working at the front desk varies though, sometimes you may get a person who doesn’t even know what a MVUM is, and sometimes you’ll get a person who knows the whole forest district like the back of their hand.

Ask about these:

  • Dispersed camping rules for that forest / district
  • Get paper copies of MVUMs, if you want, ask if they have MVUMs for nearby districts and forests.
  • Is there a fire ban?
  • Are there any current wildfires?
  • Tell them what kind of campsites you like, what type of vehicle you have, and if you’re also looking for hiking or water stuff near where you camp, and ask them which areas would work well for you.
  • Ask them about areas you’ve already researched (sometimes it works well to already have places in mind, and then you can ask them about those specific roads and areas), and ask if there are better areas to go than these ones
  • Ask about road conditions for getting to these

Even if you do a very good job scouting out roads and campsites on your own, sometimes the rangers will be able to tell you about recent occurrences  – like how a road just washed out last week and you won’t be able to get past this certain point, or about a big gathering of Jeep lovers happening in that area you were looking at, and if you go there it will be really crowded.

 

Using MVUMs

  • The very upper left corner of the MVUM will show the Forest and District name (Upside down).
  • The left side of the map has information such as the road symbol key, notes about when roads are closed, and notes/rules about dispersed camping.

To use the map, first orient yourself using the little vicinity map that shows the outline of this map with in the whole Forest. It will be over on the left side.

How to find free campsites [map explanations]

Here’s a closer look at the vicinity map

How to find free campsites [map explanations]

Ok. Now we’re going to look at the map and see if it shows where dispersed camping is allowed. In some Forests, you’re only allowed to dispersed camp off of certain roads. For those forests, the roads that you can camp near are usually designated on the map using little dots along each side of the road. Like this:

How to find free campsites [map explanations]

So this means you could drive along that road and if there are some sites established, you can camp in them. The dots do not correspond to actual campsites being where each dot is. The dots are always in that same pattern/spacing.

For the MVUMs that do not use this designation, you will either be able to  camp off of any road in the forest, or only in a few specific designated dispersed camping areas. If it’s the latter, it is usually explained on the left side of the map and then there is a certain symbol on the map where these areas are. If the map doesn’t have the dots and doesn’t say anything about dispersed camping, you’re probably allowed to do it anywhere, but check with the rangers just to be sure.

Let’s look at the map near Durango:

How to find free campsites [map explanations]

There are’t a lot of roads in the forest close to town. There’s that one almost straight north (that 204 leads to), and some others over to the west. Let’s look closer at that area to the west:

How to find free campsites [map explanations]

Wow. There’s a lot going on over there. We have those 6 campsites, plus dispersed camping on a handful of roads.

One thing to note here is that those white areas you see near the bottom are private property. Don’t camp there. Sometimes there are signs and fences marking private property, and sometimes there aren’t. The main thing is: don’t go over the fences and past private property signs. Some private property looks no different from the rest of the forest and even has established dispersed campsites. You shouldn’t camp in those, but it seems like the owners are unlikely to freak out about it.

Sometimes the official/improved campsites are free.

For the area we’re looking at as this example, we could look up those campsites to see whether they are free. We can just search for them in google and they’ll come up. (Search for “Bay City campsite” or “Bay City Campsite San Juan”).

Ok, I see that Bay City is a free campsite. But, uh oh, people don’t have very good things to say about it on the internet:

How to find free campsites [map explanations]

So I’m not going to plan on staying there. And, assuming Douglas Tooley is correct, all those other campsites along the road are not free, so I won’t bother looking them up.

Now, let’s look at those roads. First off, they are shown using a strange road symbol. The map key shows that this road symbol means the road has a special designation:

How to find free campsites [map explanations]

We can look up the designations on the map. They’re in a table over on the left side of the map, like this

How to find free campsites [map explanations]

Looks like most all the designations say that these roads are open from June to December. It’s now August, so we’re good.

Ok. So we’ve found some roads that we’re allowed to camp on. I highlighted them on the MVUM:

How to find free campsites [map explanations]

Now… let’s go check those out on Google maps and see how they look.

 

Google Maps brief overview

Ok, first, for those not familiar, Google Maps has a handful of different views:

  • Normal map
  • Satellite view (the 2D Picture)
  • Satellite view (the crappy 3D rendering)
  • Terrain view (a topo map)
  • Street view

In this post, I’ll use the normal 2D satellite view and the terrain view.

Here’s how to switch between them. To switch between the normal map view and the satellite view, you can click the little square box in the bottom left corner.

How to find free campsites [map explanations]

To turn on the terrain view, you click the button in the top left corner with three horizontal lines, and then click terrain

How to find free campsites [map explanations]

If you’re not familiar with how topo maps work, here is bit of an explanation. The terrain (topo) map shows the elevation, or altitude of the land. There are lines on the map corresponding to specific altitudes. A line that says 7,000 means that everywhere on the map where that line is shown is at 7,000 feet altitude. If you were to walk along that exact line, you would walk a flat path. A line next to it for 6,950 means that spot is 50 feet lower, and thus, there is a hill going upwards from the 6,950 line to the 7,000 line.

We can use this view to see what the lay of the land is like, where the hills are, where the low points are, whether a road is going uphill or downhill or is going on a flat path along the side of a hill. We can learn the kind of things that I’ve noted on the map below.

How to find free campsites [map explanations]

If you’re in the satellite view and get stuck looking at a crappy 3D rendering, here’s how to switch to the normal 2D picture: click the button in the top left with three lines, then click “3D On”

How to find free campsites [map explanations]

 

Using Google Maps to Find Campsites

Ok, again, here are the areas we identified on the MVUM:

How to find free campsites [map explanations]

Let’s look at road 171. I’ll pull it up starting at the bottom of that circled area.

 

Examples of places to camp

I see a few potential spots out there. Right where the dispersed camping starts being allowed, there is this trailhead:

How to find free campsites [map explanations]

The main trailhead parking lot is to the right of the horseshoe bend, and then there’s short a path/road going north, and it looks like you could go camp up there. I recommend we find another spot. If the hiking trail is very popular, that main lot will fill up, and then cars will park in that other path to the north.

Moving on, this might be a spot to camp:

How to find free campsites [map explanations]

Here’s one that looks more promising

How to find free campsites [map explanations]

Zooming in, we can see what’s likely a fire ring. That’s a very good sign

How to find free campsites [map explanations]

Ok, here’s another one. Looks like some people were parked or camping there when the picture was taken

How to find free campsites [map explanations]

Here’s a spot. There’s a fire ring down there, but it looks like maybe you can’t drive all the way in to that clearing where the fire ring is.

How to find free campsites [map explanations]

Areas with the most trees are the most difficult to find campsites using satellite view. In places like the PNW where there are way more trees than this, it is more difficult and you almost have to go drive the road. Of course, if you know you need a campsite where you’ll get sun for your solar panels, then you’ll just be looking for clearings in the trees and those are easy to spot on the satellite view.

Finding campsites on satellite view is probably the easiest in drier areas. Here’s a look at a spot near Sedona, Arizona, which is extra easy because it’s a popular area to camp so you can see vehicles and tents in many sites:

How to find free campsites [map explanations]

When you are looking for places to camp, you’ll want some way of keeping track of what you saw. Here are some methods:

  • Just get a general idea of a road and if it looks ok, go there. Relating to the example I’m using, now that we’ve seen there are some camp sites along road 171, I know that’s an ok place to go look for a spot to camp. If I’m going to head out soon and I’m not looking at many different roads, it’s easy enough to remember one or two roads that look ok.
  • Put markings on a paper map (A MVUM or road map)
  • When you find a spot on Google Maps, click the map so a marker comes up and then write down the GPS coordinate

Here are two more methods where we’d record the campsite locations on an online map:

  • Record spots in Google Maps
  • Record spots and/or highlights areas in Google’s My Maps

Using these allows you to mark spots exactly, and have those markings on a map that you can use later in the future without having to save a ragged old MVUM or papers where you wrote them down. Once you’re accustomed to updating these online maps, it’s easy. It does take a while to explain and show with pictures, so I’ll do it in a separate post.

 

Examples that are not places to camp

Here are a few examples along this road that might initially seem like places we could camp, but they probably aren’t.

In this first one, there’s clearing of trees and there’s dirt/rocks. That’s just a hill. It’s probably steep, so we’re definitely not going to camp there.

How to find free campsites [map explanations]

Here’s a road or path we could drive on, coming down from the upper right corner. But.. then the path sort of disappears and comes back again. It’s a path that is rarely driven on. It’s likely not a good place to plan on traversing. It might end up being very bumpy.

How to find free campsites [map explanations]

These things below are from road graders. While grading the road, they push excess dirt and rocks off to the side. Those little slanted paths going off are often very inclined (at a sideways angle) and they aren’t a place to camp

How to find free campsites [map explanations]

 

Examples of Road Conditions

It is important to know the capabilities and limitations of your vehicle, and to assess roads so you know what you’re getting into. Roads in these remote areas exist in many different conditions. Some are well maintained  and you could drive any vehicle on them, and some are never maintained and are rocky and perilous. Here’s a few simple examples to get you started on assessing roads:

A paved road:

How to find free campsites [map explanations]

Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether a road is paved. If Street View is available, it’s obvious:

How to find free campsites [map explanations]

A very well maintained gravel/dirt road:

How to find free campsites [map explanations]

 

A dirt road that looks a bit rough:

How to find free campsites [map explanations]

 

This road looks very rough; I wouldn’t expect to drive on that

How to find free campsites [map explanations]

It can be tough to assess roads using only pictures from high above. You can’t be exactly sure what you’re seeing, but they can give you a general idea.

If you’re really doing a lot of exploring, Books showing 4×4 roads and trails, like the ones  Charles Wells and Matt Peterson write  can be very helpful. They have a road difficult classification system – something like easy/moderate/difficult/hard. If roads that I’m thinking about driving on are classified by them as easy or moderate, I can expect to drive them. If they’re classified as difficult or hard, I won’t bother trying.

A few of the National Forest maps have a system for classifying the road conditions that gives wonderful clarification on which roads you’ll be able to travers with your vehicle. This is really handy, but it exists on very few MVUMs

 

Finding campsites with good views

Everyone has their own preference on what makes a good campsite. I like having a nice view, where I can see far and wide. Here’s an example of a spot with a good view, and how you can get an idea whether spots you’re researching will have nice views.

If there are many trees where you’re looking, you’ll need to find spots that have fairly large areas free of trees. Here’s one.

How to find free campsites [map explanations]

Generally, you’re more likely to have a good view when there’s a downward sloping hill in front of you and you can see a long ways. Here’s what the terrain map shows for this spot:

How to find free campsites [map explanations]

So from that spot, the hill goes downward in most directions. When we compare the two maps together, it looks like many of the downhill directions also have no trees for a while down. That means we’ll be able to see at least past the edges of what’s shown in the terrain map. We could also zoom out on the terrain map and compare the nearby area. If it’s all lower than 10,000 feet, we’ll be able to see a long ways.

Here’s how it looks in person at that site:

How to find free campsites [map explanations]
Yeah – it does have a nice view

Once you go out there – choosing a site

Once you’re off a main road and driving along a back road, if you pass a vehicle coming in the opposite direction, wave at them and ask about the road condition and whatever else you want to know

When you get to where you’re seeing campsites, take one of these strategies:

  • As you see sites, check them out. When you find sites that are quite nice, mark their location somehow (on Google Maps, on paper, record the coordinates, write down what your odometer was at and be ready to do the math, or just remember it in your head). If you really like one spot, stop there and camp. If you’ve driven enough and decide you don’t want to drive further, go back to the best spot you found
  • As you see sites, check them out. Once you find the first acceptable site – where you wouldn’t mind camping, stop there. Don’t get totally settled in. Just get situated enough to go on a hike or a bike ride to check out other camp sites. Bring your phone along so you can mark spots on the map or write down the GPS coordinates. Find the best damn camp site in the area. Then go back to your vehicle and drive it to that campsite. Now you got some exercise and the best campsite around. You win.

 

How to find free campsites
Wyoming has some incredible back-roads

  

Finding Campsites from Online Resources

I’ve described how to find campsites on your own. Another option is to check resources where people have shared campsite locations. You can look at mine, of course, and find some wonderful campsites like you’ve seen in these pictures. There are also public sites with contributions from many people.

I don’t use these a lot, so I probably don’t know about all of them. Here are some:

  • Campendium.com – I’ve found this to be the best one
  • FreeCampsites.net – Most entries are from folks with big trailers and RVs. There are way fewer entries than on Campendium
  • Allstays.com – Looks like it’s just RV Parks and paid campsites. I think this is aimed at truck drivers and RVers.
  • My map of campsites. Most sites on the map are in Arizona, Utah, and Colorado. (Available on Patreon for $1/month Partrons)

When you use these resources, you should still look at the area on maps. See where it is, what the roads are like, if there are other campsites nearby, etc.

If you know of more campsite location resources, particularly ones that you find useful, share them in the comments and I’ll add them to this list.

A reminder – the federal lands in the western U.S. are incredibly huge – over 100,000 square miles, which is almost 30% of the United States. Don’t just look at these campsite resources and limit yourself to what’s on them. Go out and explore. Find new places and soak them up.

How to find free campsites
This has been my favorite campsite so far. It’s in Northern Arizona, next to the Colorado River.

 

Conclusion – Get Out and Explore

Americans have a colorful history of moving west across the continent, of exploring, of trailblazing, of finding rugged and beautiful places to camp and call home. We’re incredibly lucky to still have all this land belonging to all of us, so join in on the tradition. Peruse your maps, load up your supplies, and set off.

And while you’re out enjoying the views and forgetting about the hustle and bustle of the world, read a book that helps you connect with this great American past. Here are two of my favorites, they’re both continually entertaining and also both include great descriptions of the huge and wonderful landscapes, the plants and wildlife, and many stories and details about the other people they encountered.

Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose – About the Lewis & Clark Expedition, with many excerpts directly from their journals.

Roughing It, by Mark Twain – About Twain’s adventurous travels through the western U.S., including attempts at mining and the kind of hi-jinx you expect from Twain. It has such tall and colorful tales that it’s hard to guess which are true and which are legends or jokes. Sometimes I found myself wondering whether he made the whole thing up, and then when he shared some story or details that I could check to confirm, I’d look them up, and they’d be true. It’s a wonderful read.

Also, if you use a different method in general for how to find free campsites, share it here in a comment.