Van Life Camping Tips You Need To Know

The road is usually bumpy, spitting up gravel and dust. Most of the time, it’s long. There’s often no water or bathrooms at the end of this road, no signs, no picnic tables with kiosks displaying maps. There are no ranger talks or general stores, no gas stations or cell service. There are no people. But let me tell you what there is at the end of this road.

There are stars, a dark sky riddled with glowing dots that are so numerous they seem to be playing connect-the-dot. There is wide open space, wilderness as far as the eye can see. There is a quiet so noticeable you’d think it was speaking, and a freedom that reaches out to be touched. This is where the road ends, and this is where I stay.

As someone who lives in a van, choosing places to sleep for the night—or stay for awhile—has become a game, and a skill. Early in the game, I was woken up by cops and rangers a few nights, and greeted by a couple tickets on my windshield in the morning. Rookie mistakes. Throughout the years, I’ve picked up the unspoken, unwritten beta of van dwellers. You can’t sleep in your van in Yosemite, but the harbor in Santa Barbara seems to be fair game. Rest areas are inviting, but not truck stops. Arriving late and leaving early is a privilege reserved for those whose camp is already set up in their van, and paying to sleep is a sign of selling out. The glory of living in a van is being self-contained and inconspicuous, able to blend in with parked cars and leave on a dime. When creativity is employed in choosing where to sleep, the world becomes your campground.

Sometimes we dirtbags tend to be tight-lipped about our secret spots and stealthy ways, an exclusivity born out of loving what we’ve discovered and knowing it’s a limited resource. I get it. However, there’s room for all of us van dwellers as long as there’s room for vehicles in this world! Some places are kinder to van lifers than others, and in the spirit of sharing a piece of the wealth and lessons learned, here are my top three places for van-friendly living.

BLM Land

Perhaps considered the National Park Service’s estranged younger brother, the Bureau of Land Management is a dirtbag’s dream. Rules are few, and access is easy and [usually] free. If you live in your van, your ears are tuned to the locations of BLM land. If not, you’ve probably spent many nights hosted by the BLM without even knowing it. My BLM tick list is long, but a few of my favorite areas to climb—and live in my van—are Indian Creek and the Eastern Sierra. Both areas offer world class climbing and free and absolutely beautiful camping. Just drive up a dirt road and find yourself a pull-off or trailhead. And if you don’t want to pay the newly-instated fees in Indian Creek, just don’t stay in the established campgrounds!

Oregon’s Public Beaches

Little known fact: If you’re out of sight from a state park, outside city limits, and don’t see any “camping prohibited” signs, you can camp on the beach in Oregon! I discovered this incredible fact with some friends in college, and we enjoyed weekends of campfires and dawn patrols and bioluminesce-laden sand, for free! Just make sure your van or car is capable of getting around in the sand—or that you and your companions are capable of digging it out.

Squamish

Squamish is a rock climber’s paradise, and it’s also a dreamy place to live in a van for the summer. I used to spend weeks living out of my van for free at The Chief parking lot and campground, but halfway through my stay during the summer of 2014, signs were put up banning against camping in the parking lot. No problem for the seekers of the wild and free, however; there exist a plethora of vehicle camping options up Mamquam River Forest Service Road, not far from the granite wonderland.

Perhaps you can check out a few of these suggestions, or check out freecampsites.net, or perhaps you can find your own! Regardless, I hope you find that spot at the end of the road where the birds sing louder and the wind actually speaks, where the expansiveness inspires your soul to roam and dream and the sun seems to linger on the horizon just a little bit longer, as if it were being watched. I hope you find that place, and I hope you stay a while.

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Photos by Forest Woodward and Jenny Abegg.