Look, I’m a lover, but one thing I hate is paying for camping.
I didn’t start living in my van to keep paying rent. Spending $15 a night to camp ($450 a month) is the equivalent of paying rent, which is unacceptable to me.
Below is my process for finding free camping anywhere… these are the steps I’m using to build my Wheel Estate Empire.
The single most important step to finding (great) free camping is deciding to stop paying for camping. Since there are so many convenient, paid campsites, if you’re not committed to finding free(dom), you won’t find it.
1) Get your mind right. Hunting for free camping with great views and ample resources (water & wood) is work. Think of the hunt as equal to the energy required to cook a good meal or have a thoughtful conversation. If you don’t go into the hunt with these energy expectations, frustration will certainly ensue.
[Note: The upside of this energy (and potentially gas) expense is the free spot will be yours forever. It will be your little secret, your little treasure. Put an X on your map and smile every time you think about it… then share it with those you love.]
2) Get yourself as detailed a paper map(s) as you can find. Yes PAPER! They still exist. I always have a state atlas riding shotgun with me. Why paper when we have phones? At least two reasons:
a) The only way to get a holistic sense of a landscape is to look at a region topographically… its curves and peaks and valleys, its swimming holesand water sources (all the way down to its fresh water springs). Paper maps also show dirt roads, which will be important later.
b) You’ll need paper because you probably won’t have cell service in the places I’m talking about in this article.
3) Apps can help too, but don’t rely on them. I use Topo Maps often. It allows you to download any USGS quadrangle in North America, which helps with the details – the quadrangles show every dirt road and delineate between 2WD and 4WD. The app also works with No Service.
4) Now that you’ve got your map(s) and your mind(s) right, let the real fun begin. Look at all public land allocations within a two-hour radius.
In summer, I’ve come to prefer National Forests because they are shady and have ample water sources. In winter, I prefer Bureau of Land Management lands (BLM) – typically open grasslands or high deserts – which tend to be abundant in sun and my favorite fire woods, pinyon and juniper.
[Note: For those of you in the east or midwest where there is very little public land, your hunt is a lot harder. This article is about my Western process. My Eastern process is simpler: I find private land I can camp without getting hassled, or I park in towns and cities (which I’ll get into later). The same issue goes for Southern California and warm beach areas, which have become so overpopulated that finding free camping is nearly impossible, but it still can be done.]
5) With your map of public lands, decide what mood you’re in. Is it hot? Should you get high on a mountain, or to the coast or to a lake? Is it cold? Should you get to a hot spring or the desert?
The more you pursue your intuition, the better you’ll get at finding the best spots. This sounds very fuzzy because it is, but when your brain is drawn to something on a map, there’s a reason. And the more you follow these reasons, the luckier you’ll get.
6) Learn to love the dirt! Dirt roads keep the tourists away and rarely lead to anything but treasures. When I started getting dirty every night, my luck increased exponentially.
[Note: While we’re on the topic of dirty, it’s unfortunate, but much of our public land has been trashed by thoughtless folks. Many times, I will come across a perfect camp with a nicely built fire ring, only to find dirty diapers stashed in the woods, shotgun shells littered throughout, and eight Keystone Ice cans in the fire.
Don’t get discouraged. If it’s a good camp, stay. Use it as an opportunity to clean up the land and leave your own trace (none). Bag the trash and disperse the negative energy others have left behind; make it your own home with your own energy. I try to leave each campsite improved… cleaned up and (if energy permits) with firewood for the next free-seeker.]
7) Let’s say you’ve driven for an hour and are stumped. Here are landmarks that are sure winners:
a) Bridges – before and after bridges there is usually a (well-hidden) dirt road that leads down to the water source and camping near it.
b) Radio towers – all radio towers have roads to them. Some of these roads have gates, but many are left unlocked. If you can stand the thought of the incoming/outgoing waves, the views are unparalleled.
c) Telephone lines – same story as radio towers, most have access roads to them that are never used.
d) Around paid campsites – often the best place to look, especially in National Forests. People with the same free-camping philosophy have most likely carved out a camp nearby.
e) Railroad tracks – paralleling all railroad tracks are dirt roads and pullouts. Just don’t park too close to the tracks or the train engineers will whistle at you all night long.
f) Trailheads – any place that allows overnight hiker parking is (free)game for camping!
8) You’re still stumped and out of energy? Don’t be afraid to break the rules, just be thoughtful in your execution. Don’t add unnecessary harm to the land or others. Be able to justify your camp to a reasonable person if asked. My #1 rule in breaking the rules: don’t bother anyone and you won’t get caught.
I really try not to urban camp because you have to be sneaky about it, which takes away the feeling of freedom. But I have to say, I do get a kick out of it – there’s something mischievous about sleeping in front of someone’s house who has no idea you’re there.
[Note: Urban camping is way harder (or impossible) if you have a dog (one of the reasons I don’t) or if you’re traveling with 3 or more people or a small child.]
When my three buddies from Current Sea were on the road, they had to pop the top every night for sleeping room. They often pulled into neighborhoods and asked permission from the neighbors to pop and park the night. Often they heard “Yes!” I thought this was rad but have never done it myself.]
On Walmart – somehow Walmart has gotten the reputation as being a great place to urban camp. I totally disagree. The last place I would camp is under 82 fluorescent lights with a bunch of people driving around all night. There is another way.
1) Get your cooking done and your van tidied up before seeking good urban camping. I’ve definitely cooked on the street in front of someone’s house before (which actually helped me meet three amazing friends). But, finding a spot and going to bed is the surest way to stay low profile. Reading, watching movies, etc. is fine too, just avoid activities that require a lot of van shuffling.
2) Find a good neighborhood. This is the question I ask myself: where’s the nicest view in town where neighbors won’t notice an unfamiliar vehicle?
There are nice neighborhoods where people have “their parking spot” and would be peeved if you took it. You’re looking for the rung of neighborhoods just below that kind… the ones where your van fits in as a visiting friend.
This is a feel thing, I can’t explain how I know the good neighborhoods, I just do. You’ll know them too. I’ve gotten some epic views in neighborhoods where people pay multi-millions for their lot. Very few things feel better than that.
3) Look for parks, double lots, empty lots, tall hedges, and houses for sale.
a) City parks are always the first place my eyes go to on the map. Many times there are parking restrictions at parks (for people like us!), but a block away, there won’t be.
b) If you can’t find a good park, start looking for empty lots. When you’re aware of them, you’d be amazed at how many empty lots there are in any town or city. Park in front of one, make it your lot.
c) Next best to empty lots are double lots. Park in the back part (yard part) of the lot, so the homeowners won’t notice you when they’re eating dinner.
d) Tall hedges, ahhh, my best friend. Those people who want privacy so bad, they can’t even see your van on the street. Perfection.
e) Houses for sale that are uninhabited. Their tell-tale sign is the single porch light and single living room light that are on. They also have a strange vacant energy if you watch them long enough.
4) Okay, you’ve found a good spot, but it has a horribly uneven lie. You have three options:
a) High energy level – leave, find something better.
b) Medium energy – pull your tires up on the curb to level out. Yes, it will look obvious, but if you’re not bothering anyone with your post-parking activities, no one will bother you.
c) Low energy – stay, do nothing, lie with the lie. The nights I have a horrible lie and don’t care are the nights I will have zero problem sleeping anywhere.
5) What about peeing? I’ve never been one for a pee-bottle (or bucket) because they smell, it’s easy to miss (or overfill), and you have to deal with them later.
If you’ve followed the steps above, you will have an urban camp with green space nearby… (queue mischievous feeling)… I just get out and pee when everyone’s asleep (my bladder has a way of picking 3:23AM).
6) What about extended urban stays? The longest urban stretch I’ve done was a week in multiple places. Find a good 3-4 spots and rotate them. I’ve got my rotation dialed in Anchorage, Jasper, Durango, etc.
I know you’re wondering, have I ever been hassled? Never by weirdos, three times by authorities.
Twice while rural camping (illegally). Both times I got moving too late. Both times I was pleasant. Both times – after the authorities saw I wasn’t causing any harm to anyone or the land – they let me go without a citation. Just let the authorities feel like they’ve won, because guess what, that means you will too.
I can’t say you’ll never get caught camping illegally if you leave before 6:30AM, but I’m almost positive you won’t get caught (I never have). Most government agencies don’t pay well enough to get their people up before then.
I’ve been hassled once while urban camping, but I asked for it. It was the night of a friend’s wedding, and I had a buddy in the van with me, pop top up. I was being arrogant with the top up.
We knew what to do if someone knocked… do nothing, stay quiet. Sure enough, at 2AM, we got knocked on and flash-lighted. Trouble for the authorities was, since they couldn’t see us (curtains drawn) and we didn’t make a peep, all they could do was leave.
That’s all I got for now. Happy free living… happy Wheel Estate Empire building! If you explore what I’ve outlined above, your concept about rent and land ownership will change forever. I’m just warning you now…