So you are all packed and ready to hit the road in your new home. It is going to be a little nerve-wracking for that first night in your new 9’x5’ car camping home. If you’re like me, you are most likely going to drive around for at least half an hour looking for the most comfortable, “safest” place to park and set up camp. But what is car camping?
What is car camping?
Car camping is a movement associated with the trending lifestyle known as #VanLife. It is a like-minded community of minimalists who recognize the potential of travel when the majority of your budget is not spent on a bed to sleep on at night. Car camping is all about making sacrifices in order to enhance your adventure in other aspects of the journey. But is it safe?
The truth is, you will never find a place that is 100% safe when car camping. There have been horror stories about these kinds of things that haunt everyone’s perceptions about car camping. But if you let those stories overshadow all the people who have led safe experiences living out of their car, you will never feel comfortable. The good tremendously outweighs the bad in this situation.
So where can you car camp that will make you feel comfortable?
Believe it or not, in my experiences, I’ve been much more concerned about a knock on the window from a police officer or security guard rather than a crazy serial killer. Despite what Hollywood movies show you, you can’t just overnight camp wherever you want in America. Unfortunately, there are strict laws in many places you would imagine as a perfect place to wake up in the morning.
There are a few places where it is always okay to set up camp for the night:
Wal-Mart Parking Lots:
Yes, Sam Walton (the Owner and CEO of Wal-Mart) has made it publicly known that he doesn’t mind car and RV overnight camping in his parking lots across the nation. Which is incredibly generous, so be a gracious nomad. This means not over-staying your welcome. Do not stay longer than one night in the same parking lot. Try to arrive later in the evening, wake up and move out early in the morning, and PARK IN THE BACK OF THE LOT! Don’t take it upon yourself to have a tailgate in the parking lot- don’t ruin this privilege for the rest of us. In addition, as a courtesy gesture, if you have to use the bathroom inside the store, try to buy something small from the store.
Pro Tip: Despite Sam Walton making it clear that all Wal-Mart’s should allow overnight camping, some store managers are still jerks. Individual managers will post “No Overnight Camping” signs in their parking lots. Respect these signs and move on to the next Wal-Mart.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is an agency within the United States Department of the Interior. They administrate more than 247.3 million acres (1,001,000 km2) of public lands in the United States. That constitutes one-eighth of the landmass of the country.
This land is public and 100% free to camp on for anybody. It is fairly nice and usually the best camping scenery you can find for free. This is something I didn’t know about until I was waist-deep into my car-living experience. To learn more, visit the Bureau of Land Management web page.
Highway Rest Stops:
Probably the most well-known place to car camp is the highway rest stops. These can also be the most convenient as they are right off the highway and you hardly have to make a detour. All travelers are welcomed to take a rest here; however, overnight sleeping isn’t really the purpose of them. With that being said, I have slept overnight plenty of times at rest stops across the nation and have never once run into any trouble (as have many). Rest stops can be found all over the nation, but especially in abundance in the West. They are most easily located in a Rand McNally Atlas (as are Wal-Mart’s).
Designated Camping Grounds:
Designated camping grounds can be found in every state. These campsites will generally charge you anywhere from $7-$30 per night just to park your car. They are always some of the most beautiful areas in the state. The sights are nice to wake up to, but who wants to pay campground fees while car camping?
Residential/Highway Shoulder Parking:
I do not recommend either of these tactics; however, I have used both of them when falling into desperate measures. Late at night, when you are getting heavy eyes and can’t seem to find any of the above places to call it a night, there may be no other options but these.
By residential car camping, I mean finding a neighborhood and parking curbside as if you are visiting someone in the area. Be quick to leave in the morning, though. If residents see a mysterious car outside for too long, they may be quick to call the police.
Highway shoulder camping is by far and away the most dangerous. It should only be done when you believe you’re putting yourself in more harm by driving tired. Try your best to find a wide shoulder and park as far away from the highway as you can. I am always nervous when doing this as all it takes is one night-time driver drifting into the shoulder to put you in serious danger.
As you get more experienced, you will be surprised at the places you feel comfortable sleeping at night when compared to your first night in your car home. At the end of your trip, you will be completely satisfied with your decision. Especially when you realize how much you saved by choosing to car camp.