If you’re new to van life, you’re probably wondering “where can I find free overnight parking?” and “where is overnight parking allowed?” No need to worry, there are plenty of options across the U.S. for legit, free overnight parking – without having to “stealth camp.” Many are well-known retail stores and restaurant chains. And where one chain might not be availabe in certain regions, another will. There are also tons of public lands where you can park up for free, and usually for up to fourteen days!
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What Makes Us Experts On Free Overnight Parking?
We should mention that we’re also pretty new to #vanlife ourselves – as of October 2022! We might not be “experts” yet, but we did loads of research before flying to Portland to buy our Sprinter, aka “Ace.” We dove head-first into the lifestyle by spending the next two and a half weeks driving her cross-country, back to our home base in western North Carolina. Since then we also spent a couple of months road tripping around the eastern part of the U.S., and we’ve had experience with overnight parking at each of the various types of options below. So, whether you’re looking for a parking lot, or a boondocking spot somewhere more remote, read on. We’ve got a solid and reliable list for you, as well as some recs on apps to help you find even more spots – in real time, out in the wild.
Best Practices for Overnighting
Ask Permission First
Call ahead before making your way to a specific location. Even the establishments that generally allow overnight parking (like Cracker Barrel) have locations where they do not allow it. Policies change over time and also vary by location. Calling ahead will take the guesswork out of it for you. Once you arrive, check for signs around the parking lot forsty, and then it still wouldn’t hurt to ask the manager in person, as ultimately, they have the final say.
Safety: Check Local Crime Rates When in Doubt
The Federal Bureau of Investigation Crime Data Explorer is a great way to find out crime rates for a city, state, or location you might want to park overnight in. Also, Google is your best friend. Simply search neighborhood safety and crime rates by zip code. But primarily, use discretion. When you arrive at any location, if it seems sketchy, move on. While it might be a little frustrating, your peace of mind is more than worth the extra few miles.
Arrive Late, Leave Early
For businesses that allow free overnight parking, it’s a common courtesy to arrive closer to closing time and leave by the time they open the next morning. This allows parking spaces to remain available for their customers during business hours. While many of these places have ample parking, and some even have designated RV and bus-sized spaces around back or on the side of the main entrance, this isn’t always the case. So return the extended courtesy by being respectful of their space, and don’t overstay your welcome. Also, arriving before closing time allows you time to double check if overnight parking is ok, and even patronize the business if you’re so inclined.
Don’t Set Up Camp!
There’s a difference between overnight parking and overnight camping. By “setting up camp” we mean things like extending your awning, slides, setting up tables, chairs, or grills, etc. Basically, anything that would keep you from driving straight away if instructed to do so, is not cool.
Leave No Trace
This should go without saying, but when you leave, there should be no evidence that you were even there. Don’t litter, dump your trash (unless permission has been granted to use their bins), empty your grey or black(!) water tanks, and by all means, do not use their property as a bathroom. If you arrive before closing, there should be no issue with using their restrooms.
What Businesses Allow Overnight Parking for Campervans and RVs?
Lots! There are probably more than this, but here’s our list of places we’ve either parked overnight at ourselves, or we know for a fact that they allow it. As mentioned, even though a chain might allow overnight parking as a rule, policies can vary on a local level. We haven’t experienced this yet, but there’s always a chance. Ultimately, it’s up to the store’s manager to make the call. If in doubt, call ahead or ask when you arrive. And the best part is, they’re are all free!
Cracker Barrel has been our favorite parking lot option for free overnight parking thus far. They’re well-known for allowing overnight parking for busess, RVs, campervans, and even cars. With around 650+ Cracker Barrel locations across the U.S., you shouldn’t have a hard time finding one when you want it – we haven’t. In fact, there are only five states at the time of this writing without a Cracker Barrel. In addition to the many locations, there are oversized parking spaces specifically marked “Bus/RV” and plenty of regular-sized spaces, all of which are usually around back or on the side of the main entrance. The lots are well-lit and we’ve always felt safe, with one exception – in Montgomery, AL. When we asked permission to park overnight, the employee that answered with a pleasant “yes, of course” also cautioned us to “keep our eyes and ears open” and “be alert.” This was a first, and it did spook us just a bit for a minute, but fortunately we had no issues. It was a good reminder that not all parking lots are equal, and we appreciated the heads-up. Overall, we find sleeping in a Cracker Barrel parking lot is as comforting as the food they pride themselves on serving. Speaking of which, that’s the other great thing about parking here – you can get a hot breakfast in the morning!
Admittedly, we struggle to actually workout at Planet Fitness as much as we pop in to use the wifi, showers, and amazing hydro-massage chairs (at the newer locations that have them). Hey, we’re working on the workout part, lol! Seriously though, for around $25/month, a “PF Black” membership includes awesome benefits, especially if you’re traveling as a pair: like access to over 2,400 Planet Fitness locations worldwide; the ability to bring a guest for free; free wifi; and access to the VIP lounge – most of which have a comfy seating area to catch up on some quick work, recharge batteries, or just kick back outside of the van for a bit. Since we’re always together while out on the road, it’s like getting two membersips for the price of one! And if you don’t have a membership it’s usually possible to get a cheap (or sometimes free) day-pass to use the facilities or take a shower. As far as we know, most 24-hour gyms allow overnight parking. Of course, since they are actually open for business around the clock, be sure to ask permission and where they’d prefer you park. The safest bet is taking one of the farthest spots from the entrance.
Lowe’s, Home Depot, Menards
Many home improvement stores allow free overnight parking. Home Depot is arguably the most commonly known, but we prefer Lowe’s, so we were excited to learn that they allow it, too. There are over 1,700 Lowe’s locations in the U.S. alone, only around 600 less than the aforementioned. In our opinion they generally feel a little neater and less crowded, and this translates to the parking lots, too. But, if you want more options (and who doesn’t?) you can search the Home Depot store directory by state. Family-owned Menards also makes the list, albeit with only around 500 stores or less. Check Menards store locations here.
Cabela’s, Bass Pro Shop, Dick’s Sporting Goods
We advise calling ahead more strongly for these than some of the others. Cabela’s used to be a ringer for overnight parking, and some of their locations even had dump and water refill stations. But we’re learning that since Bass Pro acquired them several years ago, more and more Cabela’s have been pulling out their dump and water stations and putting up signs prohibitting overnight parking. As far as we know, Bass Pro Shops and Dick’s are generally still cool with it, but you guessed it… call ahead to be sure. You can find each of these stores’ locations here: Cabela’s store locations, Bass Pro Shop store locations, Dick’s Sporting Goods store locations.
Costco and Sam’s Club
Bulk discount stores like these are great because they have large, (usually) clean lots that are well-lit. You need a membership to shop inside, but it’s pretty safe to assume you can park overnight there, unless posted otherwise in their parking lots. Both have lots of locations: Costco locations by state, Sam’s Club store locator.
Camping World is mostly recognized as an RV dealership and RV-ing store, but some locations allow overnight parking and some even have free dump and water refill stations! We found one in Florida, and the dump station was on the side of the property where the service department building was, and about midway into the parkig lot. Word on the street is that less and less are allowing free overnight parking, but here are the Camping World locations for you to check specifically.
That Super-Mega-Store That Rhymes With “Paul Blart”
When you hear about free overnight parking in major stores’ lots, Walmart is probably the one you hear talked about the most, especially if you’ve been following #vanlife vloggers on YouTube. But even Walmart isn’t a resound “yes” straight across the board like it once was. We don’t have any firsthand experience here, as, let’s just say, we’re not big fans in general (hence the “Paul Blart” euphimism). To be fair, we’d rather not take advantage of a free stay if we wouldn’t want to patronize the establishment in return. But from what we understand, even with less locations allowing it, you still shouldn’t have much difficulty spending a night for the most part. One thing’s for sure – there are many Walmart locations if you feel so inclined.
Can You Park Overnight at Buc-ees?
It might seem odd that we’re singling out Buc-ees specifically. One might assume that the 24-hour “world’s largest convenience store” would certainly allow free overnight parking, but no – it’s not a thing. In fact, they’re asked about overnight parking so often that they put it in the FAQs on their website: “In an effort to maintain a safe and secure environment for all of our customers, we do not accommodate vehicles for an extended amount of time in our lots.” It makes sense when you think about it. Compared to other “truck stop” travel centers, Buc-ees is practically a roadside attraction, what with its endless amounts of branded snacks (Beaver Nuggets!), swag, freshmade food, and just about anything else you might need. Hot tip #1: Check out the restrooms, they’re massive and clean. Hot tip #2: Their coffee is actually quite good, and not weak. Take it from someone (Stephen) who likes really strong coffee.
What Other Free Overnight Parking Options Are There?
Now we’re getting into the fun stuff! Boondocking, a.k.a. dispersed camping, or “wild camping” on public land – without being connected to water, electric, or sewage. We can’t wait until we finish re-doing the buildout of our van so we’re able to stay off grid for longer periods. We’ve wild camped a couple times, but we intend to make it our primary camping option ultimately.
Boondocking on Public Lands: National Forests and BLM
If you’re not familiar, BLM is the Bureau of Land Management. Between BLM and National Forests (which are managed by the U.S. National Forest Service), there are tons of free dispersed camping options. You’ll usually have few neighbors, if any, your own secluded slice of wilderness, and plenty of wildlife spotting opportunities – which, if you’re like us, is big deal! The trickiest part can be finding just the right spot, because you’re on your own, away from delevloped recreation facilities.
Some National Forests also established campgrounds as well, which usually cost around $15 or so, and some offer a discount if you have an America the Beautiful inter-agency annual parks pass. Not sure what an America the Beautiful pass is? Check out our short post: Why You Should Buy an America the Beautiful Annual Pass. These campgrounds are usually nice, yet mostly no-frills. Conversely, some of them might even have full RV hookups. You’ll definitely have more neighbors than with dispersed camping, though. The upside is they’re less expensive than private campgrounds, plus, you’re supporting our public lands.
Public lands are much more widespread in the West, so you’ll be harder pressed to find them in the East. Check out the official BLM site for more about camping on public lands. Worst case, if you’re not clear on the details of a particular public land before you go, just get yourself to it and you can sort it out from there. Unless there are signs stating otheriwse, if it’s public land, you’re usually allowed to camp. It should be obvious what the designated campsites are, just look for firerings and try to stick to those sites – the ecosystem thanks you in advance.
Pilot Flying J, Love’s, TA, Petro
Truck stops, or “travel centers” are great for a quick off-and-back-on the highway option. We haven’t yet stayed overnight at one, but we’ve made stops at plenty. They’re all similar in that they have food, laundry, showers, and most have water, propane, and dump stations, too. These services aren’t usually free, but if you’re in a pinch, they’re not cost prohibitive either – we’ve paid $10 to use the dump station at Flying J, for instance. These travel centers all have apps you can use to find locations, check fuel prices, reserve showers, etc. in advance, and they all have rewards programs where you earn things like free showers, drinks, and more. Speaking of which, Good Sam has partnered with Flying J for an RV specific rewards program that offers discounts on some of these RV services. Travel centers like this might not be our first choice for free overnight parking, considering the amount of 24-hour traffic they get, but they’re certainly a good option and we’re sure sure we’ll be staying at one at some point. They’ve all got plenty of locations which you can find here: Pilot Flying J locations, Love’s locations, TA Petro locations.
Highway Rest Areas
One would assume that highway rest areas all allow overnight parking, but that’s not the case. Some do, some don’t, but there will be posted signs as you enter – especially if they don’t allow it. Take this brand new rest area just outside of Asheville, NC for example. On this particular early moring stop (pictured), we did see a couple of cars and campervans that had obviously spent the night there, despite the posted signs. We don’t recommend this. It’s not worth being awoken by “the knock” and having to move on all groggy-eyed, or worse yet, getting fined.
Casino Parking Lots
We hear this is common, but haven’t tried it. If you find yourself near one and you’re looking for overnight parking, apply the above “best practices” and give it a shot. The parking lots are usually huge, well-lit, and surely they wouldn’t mind you coming in to use the restrooms, grab a drink, snacks, play some slots or what have you.
Apps for Finding Overnight Camping Spots
Campendium has so far been the app we’ve used most for finding places to camp. It gives you free boondocking spots and paid options, and has a great interface. So far we’ve done more parking lot and state and national park camping than boondocking, so even though we found the boondocking options we needed, we look forward to trying some of these others as we wild camp more in the future.
Our favorite thing about Free Roam is it’s a non-profit that’s dedicated to preserving nature and supporting the nomadic lifestyle. Like other similar apps, it gives you nearby camping locations, both free and paid. It’s got tons of data about the campsites and is very well organized. You can even sort data by season! Users can review and rate each site, including cell coverage by carrier – with map overlays, noise levels, how crowded it might be, cleanliness, road conditions,and more.
Not only can you find all types of camping – tent, trailer, RV, cabins, or glamping with this free app – but you can also list your property as a campground and earn money on commission-free bookings. There’s also a Pro plan with an annual rate of about $36, and with this you can skip booking fees, have a road trip planner, no layers, offline mode, and discounts at thousands of campgrounds. Pretty cool to have an option to earn money if you have property to book out!
Similarly, you can find a variety of places to camp overnight on iOverlander, and it seems to have more random little spots to stop over for a night than other apps. There can be an issue with double bookings at more popular sites like national parks, from what we’ve heard, and rumor has it that it’s particularly great for finding camping in Baja.
Allstays is a great app for finding all types of camping – free, paid, and basic overnight parking in a business parking lot. You can see all of your parking options for an area, and then filter for the exact type of parking you’re looking for. This app seems to be a bit more geared towards RVs, so the overnight parking search results you’ll get seem to be more RV-friendly. You’ll find less boondocking spots than you will campgrounds, but if you’re looking for state parks, a Flying J, or Cracker Barrel, this app is. a great option.
Camping On Private Property
Camping on private property is not free, but if you’ve got the budget it is a wonderful alternative for overnight parking. These are just a few options that we know of so far.
Hands down, this is our favorite paid overnight parking option by far. Harvest Hosts is a membership program that allows self-contained campervans and RVs to camp overnight at thousands of unique locations in all of the lower 48 U.S. states, Canada, Alaska, and Baja, California. Tyoes of locationsd include wineries, breweries, farms, stores, attractions, and more. It’s an annual membership for $99. You make your reservations in the app, wait for approval from the business owner, and all that is required from there is that you patronize the local business during your stay. Each location has specific requirements, which can be anything from spending a minimum of $20, to making a donation of an amount you choose. There are no booking fees beyond your Harvest Hosts membership cost. So far, we’ve stayed at an antique store in southern California (largest in the country!), a coffee roastery in Hot Springs, AR, and our favorite has been an alpaca farm in Mississippi, where our “spend” was two pairs of comfy , warm alpaca socks! If you’re interested in joining, you can save 15% by using our Harvest Hosts referral link and we’ll receive a small comission, too. Win-win! We can’t recommend Harvest Hosts enough. You meet some wonderful, local business owners (and sometimes their animals!), support a local economy, and get to stay a cool places. We can’t wait to see what our next stay will be!
It’s like couch-surfing for campervans and RVs. For an annual membership fee of around $79, you have access to a few thousand unique, privately owned properties across the U.S. and Canada. Most of the Boondockers Welcome hosts offer hookups, and they don’t expect any money for their hospitality – just a thank you and a great review. And you can also become a Boondowckers Welcome host yourself. Overall, this is another great way to meet locals and fellow van lifers and RV-ers.
Hipcamp is a wonderful way to find a wide variety of camping situations, including tents, RV parks, cabins, treehouses(!) and glamping. It’s free to sign up, and each location has its own cost to book a night’s stay, along with a small Hipcamp booking fee which is proportional to the cost of the booking. And if you own land or have a cabin, etc., you can also earn money as a host. We’ve been itching for a treehouse stay since before we got into van life, so next time we get the urge to sleep outside the van, we know where we’ll be looking!
Get Out There and Enjoy Finding Your Overnight Spots!
Finding your spot to sleep is such a big part of the daliy adventures of van life. We’re not gonna lie, at times it can be stressful. But for the most part, finding that perfect free overnight parking spot is quite fun – especially if you plan just a little in advance. Of course, plans often change, but with so many options available, it’s actaully quite easy to have a plan A, B, and C in your back pocket and be ready to pivot if necessary. It’s quite the liberating feeling, not knowing where you might be sleeping for the night – aside from inside your van, that is.
We’re super excited for all of our upcoming #vanlife adventures, and especially can’t wait to see what cool overnight spots we end up at next. Please feel free to share your own experiences with us here in the comments. We’ll be updating this post over time, and we’d love to share your tips, too!
And finally, we’re on a mission to see all 50 states (+ D.C.) in our Sprinter, + Puerto Rico (not in our Sprinter), so please follow along! And we would be so happy if you subscribe to our YouTube channel for all of our van life adventures in vlog form – and there’s a whole bunch of our travel vlogs from our pre-van life travels that you’ll love, too!