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How to stay free overnight in your RV in a small town

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By Gary Jefferson
My wife and I have become pretty good at finding places to stay in our van for free. Early on we learned about the Walmart, Home Depot, Cracker Barrel and fitness gyms that everyone uses. We’ve used all of those. However, we are on the road right now and at the end of two weeks, we’ve not stayed in any of these, and have only paid for one night ($15 for spot, dump and shower). We paid because it was like paying for a dump and shower and staying for free. In other words, it was a bargain we couldn’t let pass us by.

When some people talk about a place to stay, they are talking about days. We don’t usually stay for days in the same spot. Even if we’re in the same city, we will try to find a different spot to spend the next night. I’ve found that most people don’t mind us staying nearby if we don’t set up camp and if we disappear the next morning. We are more about traveling in our van than setting up a homestead. For us, learning to ASK has given us many more opportunities for overnight free spots.

A FEW NIGHTS AGO, after doing our laundry in a small town, we called the posted number on the wall and told the owner his laundromat was great. Then I asked if he owned the open gravel area next door or knew who did. “That’s mine,” he said. I told him my wife and I, seniors, were traveling in a self-contained van, needed no hookups and leave nothing but tire tracks. Could we spend the night in his lot. “Sure,” he said. I thanked him and we slept in the next morning because we didn’t feel the need to get out of Dodge before being noticed.

And just a few hours ago … once again, we ended up looking for a spot in a small town. After looking things over, we had two locations that looked good for us. One was the hospital, but when we entered the area there was a manned security booth. It may have also been a womaned security booth, as well, but she wasn’t on duty … he was. So, Melva, with her nicest smile (she is irritable when she wants to be) (I typed IRRESISTIBLE but the spellcheck changed it), asked where two tired traveling seniors (a bit of a sympathy ploy) might spend the night in their little town. He pointed to a nice level spot next door, with a building to block the high winds we are having, saying it would be fine to stay there. We’re there now, and it’s perfect!

Gas stations, grocery stores, park rangers, police departments, city workers and even people walking down the street have given us permission to stay for free in their town. Supporting a local business, wearing a nice smile and asking politely is one of our best ways to find a place to park for the night.

Gary Jefferson is the author of The Story of RVing, Van Living Explained, available at Amazon. When he’s not on the road, he lives in Redlands, Calif., where he has photographed the downtown residents for five years, which he posts to a delightful Facebook page called Redlands People.

##RVT1072

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21 Comments
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J.O.
1 month ago

A lot of commenters have been talking about the enormous amount of homeless and thos living in cars and Rvs by necessity…and the damage many do to their surrounding areas.

It would be great if communities invested in low income housing for the homeless. It seems like there should be 3 kinds of housing:

-Low income for the working poor – both with or without kids- who cannot afford housing.
-Tiny house communities for those who are trying to get off the drugs and alcohol (the first step to getting sober is having stable housing, and mental health services)
-tiny house communities or rooms in buildings, for those who are not ready to sober up.

Access to community support services in each.

(The above would take a lot of the pressure off of camp sites, as those who are only camping due to necessity will less likely to be doing that.)

Note: the above suggestions aren’t about being selfish and wanting more places to camp, it’s about ways to help our fellow humans.

Chris
2 months ago

While I’m sure this works well for you, especially in a smaller van, it seems like a bit of trouble. You can just join Harvest Hosts and Boondockers Welcome (one organization) for a small annual fee. Boondockers Welcome is free other than a small fee for utilities, but only if you use them. And, you know where they are in advance so you can plan, and make a reservation. Many allow more than one night, and most hosts are understanding if your plans change.

We use HH/BW as often as possible if traveling from “A” to “B”, and actually prefer them to a campground. We also enjoy being a Boondockers Welcome host when we’re home.

Last edited 2 months ago by Chris
Pursuits
2 months ago

Todays RVers are so diverse, I’m not even sure the term has any real meaning. To me, campers are those who tent or boondock, relying more on nature and less on conveniences.

Either way, we love visiting small towns and try to spend money there. I hope those who take advantage of these freebies, use those saved $$s at local businesses.

And a note of caution: small towns may no longer be the safe havens they used to be. Our sleepy little town has had several random drive by shootings lately. Enjoy, but don’t let your guard down. Not everyone may be asleep!

Impavid
2 months ago

Everyone has an opinion and it’s not always necessary to share in a non-constructive manner. So, don’t take life too seriously, nobody gets out alive.

Thomas D
2 months ago

Don’t forget, county fairgrounds. Most have at least water and dump. And cheap too.

Ted Denman
2 months ago
Reply to  Thomas D

And the fairgrounds usually have full hookups 50amp power. Not during fair time. Lol

Louis J. Finkle, PhD
2 months ago

This is my 20th year of traveling as a dry camper (still using “boondocker” among friends). Having been to all 48 states, mostly parking for free in small towns and rest stops, I am “seeing the country we defend” with S*M*A*R*T friends. The money saved supports eating in restaurants, buying supplies and/or fuel in each community. With campgrounds increasing fees exponentially, it is a matter of survival of the poorest. My Class C is small and we do not put out slide, chairs or adornments. Only showing our smiles and friendliness.

Ron
2 months ago

If you can afford a rv, then quit being a cheapskate and pay for your overnight stay in a campground or sell.

Joseph Phebus
2 months ago
Reply to  Ron

Well, that was uncalled for.

Thank you for the article, Gary. We’re in a Class A DP, so a little more challenging in this case, But I love these stories of human kindness and generosity, making connections and memories with people who go about their days making the world a better place and showing us that not everyone out there walks around with a chip on their shoulder.

We started full-timing anticipating the joys of beatiful places to visit. While this didn’t disappoint, we’ve come to appreciate its all the good folks and new friends we meet along the way that make this lifestyle truly special.

Last edited 2 months ago by Joseph Phebus
Bob M
2 months ago
Reply to  Joseph Phebus

I agree Ron’s comment is uncalled for. Not everyone is lucky enough to have had a good job with endless amount of money. Anyway you can save a buck is good. especially this year with gas being so expensive. I know I spent $500. on gas this year pulling my camper that two years ago would have cost $250. Thanks for the informative article Gary

Gene Bjerke
2 months ago
Reply to  Ron

Let’s keep this lifestyle for the snooty well-to-do only.

Spike
2 months ago
Reply to  Ron

Wow!!! What an uncalled for statement, Ron!

IMO, if people have permission and treat a property with all due respect, then using free facilities is perfectly fine. You must hate businesses and participating properties like Boondockers Welcome or Harvest Hosts. And what about use of OUR federal lands where free camping is allowed?

“Pay” campsites are but one option. Nothing wrong with the many available free options. And no doubt…small RVs can definitely have advantage in this space.

Ken S
2 months ago
Reply to  Ron

That attitude is inappropriate and insulting.

Thomas D
2 months ago
Reply to  Ron

I can afford to pay for a campsite, but why when basically we use nothing. Ive stayed places where i NEVER step out of camper.
The most expensive campsite was a KOA in Florida that we stopped with grandchildren.pure DUMP.
I wouldn’t let them go in the pool, green with algee, broken play equipment. No amenities. The same as a parking space at walmart

B Early
2 months ago
Reply to  Ron

Ron, I’m fairly certain you must live in Martha’s Vineyard owing to your accommodating comment.

Drew
2 months ago
Reply to  B Early

🙂 🙂

Drew
2 months ago
Reply to  Ron

Now that is an honest man! I’m still laughing….

Bill Fisher
2 months ago

I’m happy that works for you in a van, but doubtful it would work as well for those of us towing 35’ or more of fifth wheel.

Engineer
2 months ago

A smaller rig and the ability to be able to talk politely to people creates many opportunities.

Tommy Molnar
2 months ago

Having a small van sure helps a lot. Less intrusive.

Phil
2 months ago
Reply to  Tommy Molnar

So, bigger isn’t better in this case 🤪🤪

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