(This post is part of a series. If you’re new to my blog or this is the first you’ve seen of this series, you might look at the introduction first.)
Living in an RV means that home is indeed wherever you choose to park it. But where? The possibilities are virtually endless, limited only by your imagination, resourcefulness, and sense of adventure. Let’s look at some of the options.
RV Parks And Campgrounds
First of all, what’s the difference between a park and a campground? There’s no real rule and sometimes the difference is in name only. Generally speaking, however, an RV park is oriented more toward longer-term residency — months, seasonal, or full-time. Campgrounds tend to be geared more to short-time visitors, and usually allow non-RV camping too.
Hook Me Up
RV Parks will almost always have full hook ups, meaning water, electric, and sewer connections. Cable TV, telephone, and WiFi may also be available. They are a good place to stay for someone who wants or needs the conveniences of “on-grid” living.
Campgrounds are often more rustic, and may offer fewer or different amenities. They may or may not have electricity. There may not be water or sewer hookups at each site, but rather a shared dump station and water spigot for campers to dump and fill as needed. Since campgrounds usually allow all types of camping, including tents, tiny trailers and vehicles without their own facilities, there are often toilets and showers available. You’ll frequently find picnic tables and fire rings. Campsites tend to be spread out more than they are in densely packed RV parks. You are not likely to find cable TV nor telephone hookups, and WiFi is rare, too.
If you like privacy and space, and plan to stay put for a while, a plot of private land, rented or owned, may be a good option. If you are renting, your ability to customize the property might be limited. If you own the land, you are free to do as you please, minding local codes, of course. You have the choice of using available electric, water, and sewer infrastructure, or going off-grid with solar or wind power and your own well and septic system. You could even plant a garden and grow your own food! While you might enjoy a similar lifestyle in a small cabin or “Tiny House,” the advantage of an RV is that you can travel in it whenever you want, knowing you have your own home base to return to.
With the downturn in the economy, some private homeowners rent space to RVers to raise extra cash. Space, hookups, and amenities vary greatly, but it can be a nice alternative to an RV park. Craigslist is a good place to find such opportunities. Look in housing > parking & storage. While many of these private RV spaces are in exurban and rural areas, you can find them in cities and suburbs too.
So far I’ve talked about places that will probably cost money. There are also places you can park and camp for free. You may give up some convenience as well as most amenities, but the price is right. You’ll need a fully self-contained RV for most of the free options.
Parking lots are good for overnight stays. Wal-Mart is a popular spot; most of their stores are RV-friendly, knowing that the occupant is likely to do some shopping while there. Sometimes, however, local laws get in the way – if you’re not sure, check with store management or security. If you arrive late in the evening and leave early in the morning, you can usually get away with overnighting in almost any parking lot. Just use common sense, keep a low profile, and if you’re asked to leave, be polite, apologetic, and compliant.
Truck stops are another place to stop overnight or even for a few days. On the plus side, they have some useful amenities for the traveler: fuel, restaurant, laundry, showers, WiFi, and a store. Many truck stops even cater to RVers by providing a separate RV parking section, water and dump station, and propane. On the minus side, they can be busy and noisy, and some might find the diesel fumes unpleasant.
While parking lots and truck stops may be fine for spending a night or two along the road between where you were and where you’re going, you wouldn’t want to spend too much time there. So what to do when you get where you’re going?
This Land Is Your Land…
Plenty of public land, mostly overseen by the US Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, is available for what is called dispersed camping. This is totally free camping outside of designated improved camping areas. It’s an opportunity to get away from it all, enjoying nature while testing your own self-sufficiency. There are no hookups or amenities of any kind. You bring what you need, and take everything back out when you go, leaving the land exactly as you found it.
While there’s a 14-day limit on dispersed camping, the BLM maintains Long Term Visitor Areas in Arizona and California that allow seasonal camping for up to seven months (September 15th – April 15th). These areas have dump stations, potable water, and trash dumpsters available. LTVA camping is not free, but it’s darn close to it at $40 for two weeks or $180 for the whole season.
Thousands of full-time RVers spend their winters on BLM land near Quartzsite, AZ in either the LTVAs or dispersed camping areas. I spend some time there myself each winter, part of it attending the annual week-long Quartzfest ham radio gathering in January.
Unfortunately there really isn’t a good single source of information regarding camping on public lands — you’ll have to start by going to each agency’s website (BLM or USFS) and then choosing the state you are interested in. A couple of crowd-sourced online databases look interesting — boondocking.org and freecampsites.net — the first allows you to search based on proximity to desired GPS coordinates, while the second lets you browse by state.
Friends and Family
Last but not least, if they have the room, you might be able to camp in a friend or family member’s driveway or yard. It’s a great way to visit loved ones, or to support them in times of need.
Please share your thoughts — comments are open!
This is going to be an obnoxiously basic question, but….
You talk about having hookups for water, electricity, etc. I would assume that RVs have some sort of water reserve built-in (to run something like a shower), and some sort of electrical storage system (a network of car batteries) + an inverter. Is that correct?
If so, how long would the reserves last you if you weren’t stopping to refill?
Also….do RVs get tolerable amounts of miles to the gallon?
Just curious. 🙂
Not obnoxious at all, Robert. Those are good questions. In the next installment of this series I’ll be going into more detail about the various systems, but the quick answer is yes, RVs carry an on-board fresh water supply as well as holding tanks for waste water and human waste, and an electrical system that may or may not include an inverter (basic necessities such as lights and water pump operate directly from 12 volts). I do have an inverter in mine. Also a solar array to keep the battery bank charged, and a gasoline powered generator just in case.
How long one can go without dumping and filling is determined by the sizes of the various tanks as well as one’s usage patterns and number of occupants. As for myself, I have a 25 gallon fresh water tank, and 15 gallons each for grey (wastewater) and black (human waste) holding tanks. I can go about two weeks at a time with my current setup.
Fuel mileage of most RVs is nothing to brag about. I get 8-10 mpg in mine, even as small as it is, but then again it’s over 30 years old. Newer rigs do a little better. Also a small van might get 18-20 while a bus conversion would be lucky to get 8-10 with a tailwind.
We love the State Parks in South Carolina. Most have full hookups, the lots are laarge and shady and are inexpensive. Traveling outside of SC, we have stayed mostly in KOA’s and they are convenient, have laundry rooms and all the frills but are expensive.
I’ve heard of staying at Wal-Mart but we never have.
Lots of good information, thanks!
Your state parks sound really nice, Betty, and even better that they are inexpensive. I’ve heard some of the Forest Service’s improved campgrounds are as expensive as commercial ones.
Just some info on parking at wall mart, was told by management I could Park there for seven days, manager was present and agreed to what I was told , but just after the third day , without notice or warning MY rv was chain ed and padlocked with a notice on side of rv to call to get chained and lock removed, which I did when tow truck arrived I was told I had to pay 99.00 dollars to get released . I tried to explain I was on ssi and didn’t have the money for this expense I even went in to talk to the same manager asked why or what happened to approvAL for the seven days he denied everything and nothing he could do,tow truck driver said I had one hour to come up with the money or would cost me over six hundred dollars for towing if not more at there discretion, thanks to friends and family I was able to get the money before it was towed, just wanted to give a heads up for those thinking about staying at Walmart, there was no warning in my case and feel scammed by wally world in with towing co. L.O.L. J.L.LONG
This is so interesting Mike. I’ve always wondered what the difference was between choosing an RV park and campground.
And that’s funny that Walmart is a typical place to park. I’ve actually seen RVs at the Walmart near us, but I never really considered that they were staying there!
Thanks, Jenny. The practice is so prevalent that it has prompted commercial parks and campgrounds in some towns to lobby for laws prohibiting parking lot camping. They fear it is cutting into their profits. Often the resulting laws are worded to prohibit sleeping in vehicles, targeting a segment of the homeless population in addition to Wal-Mart campers.
What a fun post. 🙂 When we were doing our pop-top mini-van camping we slept at Walmart, Truck stops, secluded BLM spots, and one very, very cold springtime on our 5 acres. Your post reminded me of all that fun! We just pretended our little pop-up was an rv and no one ever messed with us. 🙂
When we did that, we had a book (I can’t remember the name or the author) that listed all the free camp spots in the U.S. We found the most out-of-the-way, bizarre, and funny little places to park for the night. Sometimes we’d drive for 20 miles through nowhere to get to a 1 mile stretch that was “designated”. A lot of it was BLM land.
Anyways, in case anyone out there is interested I dug around on Amazon and found a book that “may” have been the one we had. Here’s the link to it: Don Wrights Guide to Free Campgrounds. It (or whatever version we had) really helped us out!
This is a fun series Mike, I’m looking forward to reading the rest and I just went back and got caught up on the first post. 🙂
Looks like a useful book, Tanja. The particular edition you linked to is out of print, but used copies are available for ridiculous prices (several sellers offered the $18.95 cover-price book for $799 – yes, eight hundred dollars). On other editions of the same book, as well as other titles by the same author, prices varied from reasonable to incredible.
I’m glad you’re enjoying the series – this was the fourth installment, with seven or eight more to go.
what a wonderful post. so informative. and robert’s question was one i wanted to ask too.
our state has a program in our state parks called “camp host.” it lets you stay free if you act as “host” to the campers and rv’ers coming thru the gate.
i think you’re supposed to pick up trash too. haha. not exactly “free” i think!
but retired people love it. when the busy season stops they really feel like the park is their own. and they still get to stay free.
looking forward to the rest of the series!
Camp hosting and other volunteer positions can be a great opportunity, Tammy, especially if it is in a place you want to be anyway. I’ll be talking about volunteering, workamping, and other ways of bartering for a place to park in a future installment.
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very good information, just what I was looking for. About to sell my house and live in a Fifth wheel RV, thanks very much.
Question city and county ordinances? How do you obtain information about what the rules and laws are. If a permit is needed how do u obtain one. If you have knowledge about contra Costa county? Unincorporated city of Bay Point California?
I have been looking for a site that offers your services for two days and I found what i was looking for, a customized solution to rv living. Thanks