Bend, Oregon: Well we picked a fantastic time to head to Bend, Oregon, right in the middle of the July PNW heat wave. Record temps of up to 115 were forecasted in Portland, Seattle and Vancouver. Bend was only supposed to get to 108. As we left California, we drove all the way to Klamath Falls because we needed better internet, and the small town of Mt. Shasta wasn’t going to cut it....
Our perfect camp spot is some secluded spot, nestled between some pine trees, or maybe in a red rocky desert in Utah, or even camped on a beach in Baja. But the perfect camp spot often requires a bit of effort to drive there, perfect timing to get there before anyone else, and planning out our food, water and battery levels if we plan on staying off grid for a while. If we’re driving through a big city, or on route to a farther destination, it isn’t always practical to find an off-grid camp spot, especially if we’re going to just pull in late, go to sleep, and keep driving the next morning. As cinematographers, we often end up spending a few days in Los Angeles between shoots. We also drive to a lot of of our shoots in other cities, and end up needing to find an easy place to sleep on our route. In these scenarios, the three most important things for us in finding a place to sleep are: it’s free, it’s nearby, and it’s safe. And it’s a bonus if there’s an Xfinity hotspot nearby!
Here’s 7 ways we find free and easy places to sleep in urban areas:
1. iOverlander app: I know everyone is using iOverlander these days, and I think a lot of people blame it for overcrowding a lot of dispersed camping areas, but it is very helpful in finding safe locations to park or sleep in cities for the RV/Van community. Users submit locations where it is safe and legal to park big rigs overnight. Sometimes this is as simple as a city street without parking restrictions, or it can be a beautiful dispersed camping area in the national forest. People can also post locations to refill propane, dump black/grey tanks, refill potable water, good mechanics, etc. It’s amazingly helpful. When we are passing through a big city I always check iOverlander for safe and easy places to park. But be sure to read any comments and check-ins from other users because sometimes places get closed down or restrictions change!
2. Commercial Parking Lots: Walmart is usually a safe place for RV’s to park overnight, BUT a lot of Walmarts in really big cities, cities where homelessness is a major problem, or ski towns, don’t allow overnight parking! For example, pretty much every Walmart in southern California prohibits overnight parking. We found it was also prohibited in Austin, TX, and Salt Lake City, UT. Sometimes Cabela’s or Camping Worlds will allow overnight RV parking. A lot of casinos also allow overnight parking for RVs. We’ve gotten away with parking at quite a few Home Depots and Planet Fitness parking lots as well, especially since a lot of gyms are open 24 hours. It helps to pick a parking lot in a less fancy area that you can bet won’t have a security officer. We’ve stayed at a Planet Fitness in Fullerton, CA plenty of times without anyone banging on our door, but we’ve also been kicked out of a Whole Foods and a Starbucks lot. If you see a security car, you should know they won’t allow overnight. Sometimes it’s hit or miss and you have to make a judgement call, but generally the worse that will happen is they ask you to leave, or give you a warning, and rarely can write you a ticket.
3. Even better than a commercial parking lot is a side street next to a shopping area: You have to use Google Satellite and Street View to figure this one out, but there’s often side streets next to or in between shopping centers that don’t have any parking restrictions, and it’s totally legal to be there because its a public street. We search for a Walmart/Home Depot, etc, and then check for side streets often separating it from a residential area or other shopping area, and then use street view to read any street signs. You have to be careful here because sometimes these side streets are often where the semi-trucks go for loading zones, and you don’t want to be in their way or woken up by them all night. We also made the mistake one time of parking on a side street behind a City Market in Moab, and we were woken up every hour by the bell for the “Top of the Hour Walk” calling all employees inside for cleaning. It was absolutely miserable!!
4. Industrial areas: You can also use Google Satellite to find industrial parks in major cities, where there are often no parking restrictions because employees and semi-trucks have to park there. Look for areas full of big white square warehouse looking buildings on Satellite, and find the side streets in between the buildings where you’ll often see semi-trucks and campers parked in Satellite image or Street View. These areas are often pretty quiet at night for traffic, BUT make sure that they aren’t too close to a train track! We’ve made that mistake too many times.
5. Abandoned parking lots: This one is kind of hit or miss, but we’ve been able to stay in several abandoned parking lots in urban areas where there was no security guard and barely anyone driving by. A few I can think of have been the parking lot of a run down Chinese Restaurant, an empty lot next to a Walgreens, and a big empty run down strip mall. This takes a lot of scouring on Google Satellite and Street View to find, but has worked for us a few times.
6. Highway Rest Stops and Truck Stops are often safe and convenient places to get some sleep after a travel day, and they generally have tons of space for big rigs. Places like this are often searchable on google maps already, so super easy to find. Some have signs posted saying 6-8 hour limits, but we’ve often stayed longer without any kind of issue, and never seen anyone regulating that. Obviously make that judgement call yourself, and either bring ear plugs or don’t park directly next to any semi-trucks idling all night, because these places can often be loud!
7. Residential areas: It always feels awkward to park in a residential area and hop into the back of the camper and go to sleep, but we’ve done it when we’re desperate for a place to stay and none of the other options are available. Again, we use Google Satellite and Street View to check for parking restrictions and low hanging branches, and we try to pick an area that isn’t right in front of someone’s house. If you take a detailed look on Satellite, you can often find a street in a neighborhood that runs along a park, or a fenced area, or tall hedges, so it won’t be so obvious when you pull up and don’t have to park directly in front of someone’s house. And obviously don’t pick a ritzy neighborhood, even though I admit we have slept in front of fancy homes in Beverly Hills before ha!
Things to remember, these types of areas can often be noisy, and watch out for street cleaning! Always use Street View to check for parking restrictions and low hanging branches! We always come up with a backup plan in case an area is too busy or just doesn’t feel right!