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Best Places to Park Overnight on the East Coast



I first learned to appreciate nature in Virginia. I will always feel at home climbing Old Rag mountain or walking along the mighty Occoquan River. A morning hike in a forest full of beautiful autumn leaves gives my heart a special kind of peace. Unfortunately, the East Coast is not always known to be van life friendly. Because of this, I've had to get savvy about finding somewhere to park overnight.


To avoid getting ticketed, towed, or kicked out of your parking spot in the middle of the night, make sure that you are not trespassing, staying longer than allowed, or causing a disturbance. While established campgrounds are the easiest places to park, there are also quite a few other options if you know where to look.


Free Campsites



When researching van life, I watched dozens of videos claiming that BLM land was easily available all throughout the United States, leaving me with me lofty dreams of never paying to park overnight. These dreams were quickly dashed once I actually got on the road, as I could never find any public land without going significantly out of my way.

Because of this, it is important to plan ahead and do your research regarding boondocking. Call or register online to determine the availability of any free campsites before you plan on camping there. Some require a reservation, while others are first come first serve. In both situations it is a good idea to secure your site early.



During my trip to Virginia Beach, I found a free lake-side camp and decided to stay there. It had beautiful views, an established trail, a bathroom, and great security. I arrived an hour before the gates closed with the intent to stay overnight, only to find that I was not allowed to sleep in my vehicle. Thankfully I was on vacation and had the time to set up my tent in one of their campsites, but if it had been a normal work day this oversight would have destroyed my schedule. By calling ahead, I could have learned this information ahead of time and steered clear.

Campendium, Ultimate Campgrounds and Freecampsites.net are great resources for finding dispersed camping.


Paid Campsites and RV parks

Most campgrounds charge a fee for camping at their location. These fees are affected by many factors, including the organization or business, location of the campsite, amenities offered, how many people are in your party, and the type of vehicle you are arriving in.

Paying to camp overnight can add up fast, and I only do so if I am truly burnt out and need access to the amenities. Thankfully, there are ways to save if you need to pay for a campsite. National, state, county and city park campsites are normally cheaper than KOAs or independent RV parks, though the quality can vary. You can also save by avoiding electric sites if you don’t need them, choosing locations with fewer amenities, and getting a KOA membership.

Freeroam, iOverlander, and The Dyrt are my favorite ways to find paid campsites.


Private Property


Joel Holland


RV membership programs: Memberships like Boondockers Welcome and Harvest Hosts allow members to stay overnight on private property. This can include homes, farms, wineries, restaurants, and more. While I haven’t tried one of these programs yet, the maps look extensive and I have heard good reviews.

Couchsurfing Apps: Couchsurfing apps can not only help you find a place to park but also access to a “real” shower, bed and kitchen for a few days. I have had great experiences with Trusted Housesitters, where you take care of the homeowner’s pet for free in exchange for a free place to stay.

Airbnb/Hipcamp: I’ve seen RV parking spots on Airbnb, but have never found them to be cheaper or more accessible than a normal campsite, especially with the service fees. I prefer to use Hipcamp, which has a similar structure with normally better prices.



Truck Stops and Highway Rest Stops

On a long road trip, especially when driving solo, it is important to stop for a few hours to rest and recharge. While some can feel seedy, finding a good truck stop is relatively easy. I have come across some great truck stops that were well-lit and clean with designated spots for overnight parking, a 24-hour restaurant, and a gas station.

Some rest stops also allow overnight parking. It is important to check for signs or ask an employee regarding the length of stay; most rest areas don’t allow you to park for more than 8-12 hours, and some have special rules or designated areas for sleepers.

In both situations, there are normally at least a few other travelers parked there for the night, helping it to feel a bit safer.

The AllStays app is one way to find these rest stops, though I tend to just follow the road signs.


Businesses

Big box stores: Walmart is a well-known to be good for overnight parking if you are in a city that allows it. These parking lots are generally safe and well - lit, have 24 hour bathrooms, and there are often other travelers. During my trip to Maine I stopped overnight at two different Walmarts, and each was a perfectly fine experience.


Some stores that are also well known for allowing free overnight parking in their lots include Cabela’s, Bass Pro Shops, Camping World and Cracker Barrel. I have found that grocery stores and hardware stores can also be accepting of nomads looking for a place to stay, such as the Home Depot I stayed at for a few nights while renovating the bathroom in the bus. It is always a good idea to call and ask about overnight parking, including whether it is allowed and if there is a certain area you should be parking.


24 hour gyms and laundromats: I love to park overnight at Planet Fitness or Sudsville. The beauty of a 24 hour business is that no one really pays attention to how long you stay - it's expected that at least a few vehicles will be there throughout the night. While staying at one of these you can get in a workout or do your laundry before settling in for the night, and they are often near a grocery store. Because of the convenience, these businesses are my favorite lots to park in on days that I have to run a bunch of errands. I’ve also seen people RV camping outside of a YMCA and a Gold’s Gym, though it would be important to ask first regarding these.

Casinos: While I haven’t tried it yet, many casinos allow nomads to park in their lots. Some even go so far as to provide services such as dump or water stations. If you are in the area and need a place to camp for a few days, a casino parking lot can be a good choice. They are often conveniently located with 24 hour bathrooms and cell service. They are also one of the safer parking lot camping choices with good lighting, cameras and security patrols. This makes parking at a casino a great option for solo travelers or those looking to save money in remote areas.

Many casinos stopped offering this benefit in 2020 and 2021, so it's a good idea to confirm with the casino or check the reviews to see if camping is still allowed.

Hospitals: While living in Baltimore I saw an RV that was parked on the edge of a hospital parking lot for several days. Eventually I approached the owner, who was unabashedly cooking on a grill outside. I asked him if he was worried about being kicked out, and he said that he often parked there, as he had gotten permission to do so. Because most hospitals are considered private property, rules regarding parking your RV overnight will vary by facility and by city ordinances. It’s always best to get a firm answer from a hospital administrator, otherwise you risk being asked to leave by security staff.


Residential Neighborhoods

Because I get easily overwhelmed driving in urban areas and stealth parking with the bus isn’t really an option for me, I have found a lot of success parking in residential neighborhoods. The suburbs are much quieter than the city, and it is easier to determine where you can and cannot park. There's no way for residents to know if you are sleeping in the vehicle or visiting someone who lives there, so as long as you are courteous to your neighbors and go to bed early, no one tends to take issue.


When staying in a residential neighborhood I simply ensure that I pick up after my dog and keep my lights low at night. Not only have I had good experiences parking in residential areas, I was able to find a few neighborhoods that, whenever I was in the area, I returned to the same spot to park.

Tips for parking in a residential neighborhood:

  • Don’t overstay your welcome- It’s a good idea move to a different street the next day.

  • Double check before settling down- Read street signs to ensure that you are not parking in residents’ only, street sweeping, or hourly parking. Ensure that you are not blocking a fire hydrant or driveway.


Summary

Choosing where to park often starts a few hours or even a full day before, by going over your plans for the day and trying to find accessible parking nearby. Making a strong choice the first time with help reduce decision fatigue and avoid getting ticketed or towed. Thankfully, there are several apps and membership programs to help you find a spot no matter your parking needs and preferences.




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Hi, I'm Koi!

I'm an environmental project manager who decided to make a change from office life to to outdoor projects and small business ownership.

My goal is to help promote forward movement in outdoor spaces and live events towards full accessibility and diversity by giving everyone the inspiration and tools to create their own adventure.

I love self expression, hiking, music festivals, and Burning Man, and want to show that celebrating diversity in the outdoors makes it better for everyone.

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