When you first hear about “van life,” one of the most often mentioned highlights is the freedom to sleep anywhere. But does “anywhere” really mean anywhere? Not quite. Keep reading for the types of overnight options you can use, how to find them, and how Cabana can help.
At Cabana, we’re honored to be the first foray into mobile travel for the majority of our guests. Trying something new can feel daunting, but we know that with the right guidance, anyone can feel empowered to explore.
So I’ll lead with the best news: When you’re traveling with Cabana, we can plan it all for you. If you’re interested in “pull up and park” type camping, your travel guide will recommend locations and provide the resources to empower you to find your own campsites in case you change your route. (And if you’re not interested in this type of camping, no worries! Your guide will recommend reservable campsites all along your route.) Just add our complimentary trip planning to your booking and enjoy the ease of personalized plans.
The 6 Types of Campsites
Whether you’re thinking of traveling with Cabana, car camping on your own, or pitching a tent somewhere remote, these are the types of overnight accommodations you’ll come across.
1. Reservable Public Campsites
At many national and state parks, you can reserve a campsite in advance. This is ideal for visiting popular destinations during peak seasons, like Zion National Park in the summer or Joshua Tree National Park in the winter.
This is also a great option for some added peace of mind. If this is your first road trip or camping experience, it’s nice to know you have a guaranteed spot waiting for you. If you know you’ll be arriving at your destination after dark, an established campsite will take away a lot of the uncertainty you may feel. With Cabana, you’ll be able to check in and pull right into your numbered spot, and you won’t even have to leave your vehicle before turning in for the night. You may find the campsite eerie in the dark, but in the morning you’ll most likely be pleasantly surprised by the scenery around you.
If you have a specific destination you know you want to visit during your trip, I recommend booking a campsite in advance to avoid any disappointment down the road. When I took a Cabana through Oregon with my sister, I knew we wanted to spend at least one night at Cape Lookout State Park. I didn’t know what the rest of our trip would entail, but when I looked at the availability for this coastal campground, there was only one spot left! I reserved it about two weeks before our summer trip, and then we created the rest of our route with that reservation in mind. (If you’re ever hoping to stay along the coast, I highly recommend reserving in advance.)
Campsites at state and national parks range in price from around $15 to $50, and can usually be booked online. Some state parks open bookings 12 months in advance and most national parks open reservations 6 months in advance. A few parks like Yosemite have their own timeline and might sell out within minutes for peak season.
If you’re traveling with Cabana, your trip planner will suggest campsites like these and can even book them on your behalf!
2. First-Come First-Served Public Campgrounds
First-come first-served campsites are pretty much the same as the sites above but without reservations. Some state/national parks switch to FCFS sites during their low travel season, and some stick with FCFS campgrounds year-round.
This is a nice option if you aren’t sure how far along your route you’ll make it in a day, but I recommend having back ups in case the campground is full. On my Oregon road trip, I knew we wanted to visit Crater Lake National Park, but I wasn’t sure which day we would go. We traveled in June, which was just before peak season, and I knew we would arrive early in the day, so we planned to stay at a FCFS campground. Since we were arriving with plenty of daylight left and I knew of a few campground options outside of the park, I felt comfortable with a little bit of unknown. When we arrived, we were able to snag a spot and settle in before doing the scenic rim drive.
These public campgrounds (both reservable and non-reservable) typically have amenities like restrooms and showers. You won’t need these with Cabana, but if you’re camping on your own you’ll likely take advantage of these options. Most established campsites have potable water, fire rings, and often firewood available for purchase, too. Some destinations close their restrooms and other services during low season, so be sure to double check before relying on a campsite’s amenities.
3. Private Campsites
I think of the difference between public and private campgrounds like the difference between a chain hotel and a home rental. Public campgrounds are pretty much the same all over the US, so you can feel comfortable reserving these sites unseen. Private campgrounds can be much more unique, more spacious, and more scenic, but there’s a chance of a misleading site description. Overall, if you choose sites with positive online reviews, you’ll likely be in for a really lovely experience. I recommend planning to arrive before dark whenever possible, because sometimes the directions can be a little confusing.
With that warning out of the way, I’ll add that my favorite campground I’ve taken a Cabana to was a Hipcamp in Central California. My friend and I stayed at an orchard that had goats we could pet and adorable farm cats roaming around. There was a s’mores kit for purchase and a winery within walking distance. Spending the evening here was the highlight of that trip!
Private sites like these are ideal for when you’re planning to spend a little more time relaxing at your campsite or are looking for something out of the ordinary. Private sites around national parks also tend to have availability even after the public campgrounds fill up. For example, if you’re visiting Olympic National Park in July, the national park sites may fill up a few months in advance, but there are some really pretty private locations in the area to try.
Make sure to read the restrictions for a site before booking. Some only allow tents, while some only allow self-contained vehicles (meaning you’re bringing your own bathroom and water). Amenities vary greatly between properties – some have entire outdoor kitchens, some offer tours and activities, and some are simply a place to park.
4. RV Parks
RV parks are private properties with all of the necessary amenities for RV travel, such as electric hook ups, generators, gray and black water emptying stations, and water refill stations.
The quality and cleanliness of RV parks varies, so I recommend reading reviews on a site like Campendium when possible. Personally, RV parks aren’t my first choice for accommodations, but I will say if what you’re picturing is from a few movies, there are many locations that are much more scenic than that image!
If you’re taking a longer Cabana trip, you’ll need to empty gray and black water every 3-5 nights. You can stay at an RV park to do this, or many of these locations will allow you to use their facilities for about $10 without spending the night (most will even do the maintenance for you!). Many state and national parks also have “RV sites'' that may have water hookups, and some private campsites on Hipcamp have these amenities, too. If you’re looking for amenities like swimming pools and rec rooms, an RV park is a good choice. And like private campsites, you’ll usually have better luck finding a last minute RV park if public sites are full. Personally, I like to have an RV park in mind as a backup if I’m planning for a first-come first-serve site.
5. Dispersed Campsites
Dispersed camping is where we start to get into what you probably picture when you think of van travel. This is when you stay on public land outside of designated campgrounds, usually for free. This is also referred to as dry camping.
Although this is the “stay anywhere” style camping, there are still restrictions as to where you can stop and sleep. Dispersed camping is allowed in most national forests and on a lot of Bureau of Land Management land. However, in national parks, camping is only allowed in designated campgrounds.
Unliked designated campgrounds, there are no nearby amenities when dispersed camping. Make sure to pack enough water and food for your stay. With Cabana, you’ll have your toilet, shower, and kitchen with you, but if you’re car camping, those are details you’ll need to plan for.
Dispersed camping is the most cost effective way to road trip, and it’s a great way to get some space in nature compared to a proper campground. If you travel this way, you’ll probably experience a mixture of nights with incredible views and nights with nothing to write home about. If you’re traveling with Cabana and want to try dispersed camping for a night or two, your travel guide can send along suggested coordinates as well as more detailed instructions for finding your own spots. When looking for a safe spot to stay, I recommend the app iOverlander to read reviews. Just like with standard campsites, you’ll likely feel a lot more comfortable if you plan to settle somewhere before dark. One last tip before you take the road less traveled: keep road conditions and weather in mind. Cabanas have two wheel drive, so avoid driving in sand, mud, or on roads that require 4WD.
6. Stealth “Campsites”
You may have seen the “expectation versus reality” style videos of vanlifers opening their doors to a WalMart parking lot. Yep, that’s stealth camping. Stealth camping is when you stay on a city street or private parking lot. When doing so, you’ll want to lay low (hence the “stealth”).
This is a convenient and cost-effective way to cover a lot of ground in a short time. When I took a Cabana from LA to Oregon, my sister and I knew we wanted to quickly move through Northern California. We decided we’d drive until we were tired on our first day, then we’d stop wherever was most convenient. We made it to Sacramento around 11pm and decided to call it a night. After reading reviews on iOverlander, we picked Cracker Barrel as our parking lot of choice. I admit I was a little nervous for my first “stealth camping” experience, but I knew we were parked legally and the lot had great reviews from many travelers who had done the same thing. We pulled in, covered our windows (Cabana provides window covers for all windows), and got ready for bed. We didn’t have to step out of the vehicle at all! In the morning, we made coffee inside our Cabana and hit the road right away. It wasn't our most scenic stop of the trip, but it didn’t take us off course at all –– and the novelty made it one of my favorite memories from the trip.
Places like WalMart and Cracker Barrel are known for allowing vehicles to stay overnight, but in some areas you can also stay overnight on city streets. Here are some tips for being a good neighbor while car camping:
- Find a spot that is legal. (Check for any no parking signs.)
- Avoid parking directly in front of someone’s home.
- Avoid using the kitchen in open city areas.
- Be discreet. (Draw your curtains.)
- Be neighborly! (Keep noise down after hours.)
If you’re visiting an area like Seattle, a night of city camping can be a fun way to start your road trip and experience the city. Stealth camping is also great for when you have a long driving day before you reach a destination, are visiting friends and want to stay nearby, or are taking a longer road trip and want to save some money for a few nights.
The Best City Parking Spots in Seattle for Overnight Parking
Ready to start exploring? Add Cabana Trip Planning to your next booking for assistance finding and booking the campsites that are best for you.