So where do you park?

This is the question I get asked most often after “Where do you shower?”

The showering question I’ve answered in a post on my website, so I’ll direct you there in case you’re interested in ideas for keeping clean while living in a car.

It’s hard to give general advice on where to park because there are so many factors to take into account. Most important is finding a place you feel comfortable with. Below is a fairly general list of places I’ve parked, both while traveling and while staying put.

Campgrounds

These are great if you’re just getting used to the idea of sleeping in your car. When I first tried living in my car I drove 40-60 minutes each night to stay at one of the few campgrounds in the LA area. (I know, sort of defeated the non-commuting advantage of living in a car.) It took me a while before I felt comfortable sleeping “out in the open”, and it wasn’t until I grew frustrated with the drive that I started trying out some places in town.

While traveling, campgrounds are great. You have a chance to relax and meet other people. You can do some cooking (it’s hard to pull out the campstove in the grocery store parking lot and still be stealthy) and of course, many campgrounds have showers. Always a nice bonus.

Sunrise at the Salton Sea as seen from my campground
I have a tendency to look at the cost of the campground and wonder if I’d rather have that money the next day to discover a new museum or restaurant instead. Still, I like campgrounds. They force me to take a day off from traveling and site-seeing.

Walmarts and grocery stores

This is my favorite type of parking spot when on the road, especially if they’re 24-hour stores. Easy to find and easy to blend in. Most Walmarts allow people to stay overnight (not all, but when they don’t it’s usually a city law and it’s mostly to stop the RVers). Even if they’re not 24-hour stores there are usually cars there overnight from the people who work the graveyard shift stocking the shelves. Hospital parking lots also seem to be a favorite among the vandwelling community. I’ve stayed in them but I am not a big fan myself, though I couldn’t tell you what exactly about them makes me uncomfortable. Maybe it’s just security patrolling ever 3 minutes. That will depend on the hospital, I suppose.

NZ open road

Truckstops

Great for the safety and access to facilities, but usually very loud. That being said, if you drive around the area a bit you’ll often find a quieter spot away from the buildings where there are a couple of trucks parked. I love finding the truckers. They’re easy to spot since the trucks are big (and the truckers don’t go far off the main roads). I can be pretty certain wherever there’s a number of them gathered it means the spot has already been established as a good place to catch some sleep by both the truckers and the police. I don’t like being parked off by myself since I feel like I’ve then made myself a target. If I park near the truckers then I feel comfortable in that I’m neither going to be woken up by the police nor attacked by crazy people. Just, as my mom says, by crazy truckers.

Rest stops and vista points

Rest stops are great though sometimes loud/busy. Vista points are usually quieter and darker which is nice. If I’m the only car there I will sometimes be concerned, but usually I’m a fan of rest stops and vista points. Parking at a vista point also guarantees a great view in the morning.

Residential streets

These can be tricky and each one should be taken on a case-by-case basis. Make sure you don’t need a special parking pass to park there overnight then decide how you feel about it. The main question you need to ask yourself is if it’s the sort of place where the neighbors are going to notice a new car. Don’t get there too early. Don’t stay too late.

Main commercial streets

Busy, but again, if there are other cars around you’re not going to stand out. Just make sure you follow all the parking regulations. Many places don’t allow parking between 2am and 5am or have some similar rule.

The view in the morning from a spot in Anza-Borrego State park where I boondocked for a night.

Country roads and back woods

To be honest, it bothers me to park in the middle of nowhere, or on a turnout of a country road. I don’t like standing out and a car near the road is likely to be noticed. On the other hand, I don’t like going into the woods because even though I’m less likely to be noticed I feel like I’m more likely to be hassled if I am. It’s perhaps an unfounded fear, and I will park on the turnout of a country road if I can’t find another place, but I’m not a fan of them. I know other vandwellers (both male and female) who like finding a spot out in the woods. Maybe it’s something I’ll get used to, but you just have to go with what’s comfortable for you.

As you can tell there isn’t really one great all-purpose spot to park. Each place you travel is going to have a whole different set of situations and it’s really up to you to try out different places and find out what you prefer. I’ve also been asked, “What if you’re parked in a bad neighborhood? Don’t you get scared?” Except that I don’t park in bad neighborhoods. The best thing about traveling and sleeping in a car is the mobility. If you don’t like where you are then keep driving. There’s plenty of good places out there.

As for me, I spent the last weekend moving from my van into a Toyota Prius. I’ll be spending some of my gas savings on campgrounds more often (more like once a week rather than once a month). I’m trying to get myself to slow down more as I travel. When you live in a car it’s nice to have a small plot of land, even if it’s only for a night and it only has a picnic table and a fire pit.

Your thoughts on "So where do you park?"

  • You left a great one off the list. Aprtment and condo guest parking. I have been vandwelling for about six months and my main sleeping spot is in a nice quiet corner of some condos across from the beach. I've been parking there long enough now that I'm sure anyone who has noticed just figures I live there or am a friend of someone who does.

    on November 5, 2010 at 4:18 pm Reply
  • Similar to country roads but drawing even less attention are hiking trailhead parking areas. The North Shore (MN) has many of these and people parking for multiple days doesn't attract attention.

    on November 20, 2011 at 12:58 pm Reply
  • Sadly many cities and towns are cracking down on free places to park over night. I have watched you tube videos of people getting fined $150 for parking in a rest stop on the highway. I think it's because of the stigma of living in a vehicle also the campsite owners really don't want to lose out on income. Walmart is my favorite since I feel safe with the bright lights and the other rv's parked there. Last night I had some teenagers around the place about 5 of us were parked. They were swearing and counting the overnight vehicles and making noise. The first time I thought maybe there would be a problem. Usually it's a quiet place to sleep.

    on August 9, 2012 at 3:10 pm Reply
    • Yes, they are. I know in many parts of New Zealand they're cracking down on 'freedom camping' because people aren't using... shall we say, hygienic bathroom methods. So there's social reasons as well as the income side of it. The Walmart/RV parking deal seems pretty amazing to me; I hope it's still going strong when we're next in the States.

      on August 9, 2012 at 4:45 pm Reply

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