New to Vanlife? Our Top Camping Tips for Beginners
Camping options in the United States are as varied as the paint jobs on our campervans. Our van camping tips can help you choose from several camping options when you decide to park it for the night. Most RV Parks, National & State Parks, and privately-owned campgrounds are well-documented and available for you to reserve online. Reserveamerica.com is one of the best sources to book these sites in advance. A couple of things to remember for all sites:
- You don’t need electrical hook-ups while booking a site for your Escape campervan unless you plan on using the heater or any of your own major appliance devices that require power.
- There is always somewhere to stay. Even in the peak periods of the busiest places, you will find a place to stay. The National and State Parks fill up early, but the privately-owned campgrounds surrounding the State Parks seem to always have something available.
National & State Park Camping Tips
One thing you’ll find is that the National Parks system in the United States is exceptionally well-run. Both National and State Park campsites provide you with the best real estate in America in your backyard. And they’re pretty cheap considering, typically running you $20-40 a night for a photo-worthy spot. They’re also crowded during the summer months—June through August—so try to book in advance.
RV Park Camping Tips
As a throwback to the glory days of post-WWII America, RV Parks are located in and around just about every tourist attraction you’d want to visit. They’re also expensive, seemingly, for what’s available to you upon arrival. With over 500 locations, KOA (Kampgrounds Of America) is by far the largest chain of privately-held parks in the US and Canada. You’ll also most likely be paying that extra coin for electrical and sewage hook-ups that aren’t needed for our campervans. They do have showers, though, which is a bonus.
Private Campground Camping Tips
Surrounding heavily-traveled areas, such as National Parks, you’ll find some really well-run private campgrounds. Websites like Hipcamp and Campground Views have made serious inroads into booking and describing these off-the-grid gems. Prices vary.
Free Van Camping
Dispersed camping, pirate camping, boondocking, roughing it… whatever you call it, there are many great options for free camping in the US for any budget-minded traveler. We recommend reading our full Dispersed Camping 101 guide, but here are the basics.
Look in the Road Atlas supplied with each Escape campervan and you’ll see a light green shaded area within each state designating National Forests. It is legal to car-camp for FREE in these areas! With over 191,000,000 acres of National Forest land available, you’re bound to pass through several of them as you head into the many scenic regions on your adventure. Look for the brown and yellow (usually) signs announcing your entrance to a public land and consider yourself good to go.
Unlike the paid campsites at National, State, and RV Parks, free dispersed campsites offer none of the amenities you’d typically expect like toilets, showers, supply shops, etc. What you do get in lieu of amenities are very few neighbors, a canopy of stars, the wind in the trees, and the satisfaction of knowing you’ve finally made it off the beaten track.
Unless stated otherwise, it’s LEGAL to sleep in your vehicle within any federally designated lands. These include:
- National Forests
- Bureau of Land Management (BLM)
- Wildlife Management Areas (WMA)
- National Grasslands
For an inside track into the best places to stay, keep an eye out for any BLM Ranger Station and ask the true locals (Rangers) for their suggestions. They’ll never lead you astray and you’ll be amazed at how they always go out of their way to help you out.
Rules of the Road
- Although there is no fee, permits are sometimes needed. Obtain them at the nearest Ranger Station or District Office.
- Pack out your trash. “Leave No Trace” is the official guideline.
- Keep your campervan at least 100 ft (30 meters) away from the nearest stream or lake
- Check for fire restrictions before you light a campfire. Fire danger is a real thing, especially in the hot, dry summer months.
- Be Bear Aware. Store food and other scented items accordingly.
- Attempt to camp on a paved road. If not possible, camp on bare, well-packed gravel. BEWARE: You are NOT covered by insurance and are NOT covered under the Escape Roadside Assistance plan if you are OFF a paved road.
Free camping isn’t solely limited to Federal Lands. Walmart parking lots, truck stops, and rest areas also make for serviceable places to park it for the night.
Wal-Mart Note: Recently, Wal-Mart changed its universal Free Car Camping policy and has left it up to individual stores to make the decision as to whether to continue this service. If you plan on sleeping in a Wal-Mart parking lot, please notify the manager upon arrival.
Van Camping – Helpful Links
- Camp Base: Campground directory
- Campsite Photos: Public and private campgrounds throughout the US
- California Parks: California State Parks listings
- Hipcamp: Discover the best camping near you
- KOA: Recommended camping near LAX
- Reviews.com: Budget travel advice
- Lifehacker: 5 Best Travel Planning Apps
- GasBuddy: Trip cost calculator
- National Park Service: National and State Park campsite reservations
- TripSavvy: How to Make Reservations at California State Parks
- TravelMath: Calculate driving distances and times
- Sierra Mountian Guides: The best mountain guides in the US!
- Just Ahead: Audio travel guides for the independent traveler