Over the last 3 months, we have paid a total of $5 for accommodations!
This is huge- when you're downsizing and trying to simplify your life, you really just can't be paying upwards of $30 per night to have somewhere to park. The good thing is, it gets easier and easier with experience to discover free/cheap camping.
Here are my most important tips:
- Become as self-contained as possible. If you need water and electric hookups, dump stations, etc. you're going to be tied to paid campgrounds for the most part. Look into installing a solar system, composting toilet, etc. It is possible to find free campsites that have facilities, but it will take much more planning.
- Learn about the different types of public lands and their rules. Do your research ahead of time, because oftentimes your campsite will not have service. For example, BLM land is usually open to dispersed camping, but you need to know the specific rules. The same is true of National Forest lands.
- Download an app to help you out. Don't make life harder than it has to be. Here are my two favorites:
Campendium - This is usually my first stop when looking for a spot to stay. You can filter by the price, or the type of camping. The app also has a couple of extras that are really helpful such as user reviews and cell phone coverage ratings. It isn't perfect but it will definitely give you a better idea of where you should stop. Plus, it's free but you do have to sign up.
iOverlander- Another free app that I love, iOverlander is great because they map out all the places that you might need, such as laundromats, shower facilities, and dump stations. It is all crowdsourced, just like Campendium so you can't rely 100% on the information there, but it's usually pretty legit. They often have more spots for overnighting than Campedium, so if I can't find a campsite there, iOverlander is usually my second stop.
4. Accept that sometimes you might just have to find a new site at 10pm. This is a big tip for van life in general: things don't always go as planned. If you are comfortable with having your plans change at the last minute, life in a van will be much easier for you. Sometimes you have a great spot ALL mapped out and then when you get there, there's a road closure that makes it impossible to camp there. Some of the places I was most excited about ended up letting me down and the places I nearly skipped turned out to be amazing. Just keep your expectations open and roll with the punches. Also, don't let zero reviews scare you.
5. Don't be afraid to stop at the BLM office and chat. Or talk to the cashier in the grocery store, or the bartender that just got you a much-needed beer. People can give you great insight. The BLM office will often have maps that show you exactly where you are allowed to drive– places that are not on either of the apps I mentioned before. And getting the inside scoop from locals will always give you great insight.
We really got into our groove once we got out to the midwest. Like anything, it takes time to learn the ins and outs. There will be certain things that are more important or less important to you. For instance, we like to be near water. And some days you just don't mind paying $5 if it means you get a shower and that's okay!!