Driving with Donna: Where to Park an RV for Free
Posted: July 29, 2022
Categories: Travel & Lifestyle
Lippert Scouts Donna Weathers and Vic Mulieri are retired veterans who have been traveling the U.S. full-time for the past two years. They alternate their time between months-long volunteer gigs at state and national parks and road tripping in between those opportunities. Unencumbered by deadlines, pets or kids, they often have no idea what day it is and have forgotten how to set alarms. Their home on wheels is a 5th wheel toy hauler and they love exploring the outdoors, historic places and great restaurants wherever they visit. To follow Donna and Vic’s RV adventures, be sure to subscribe to Donna’s blog at wheretonowus.travel.blog.
Where to Park an RV for Free
by Donna Weathers
Let’s face it, when we travel full-time, there are plenty of days filled with just watching the scenery pass by as we drive along from one cool place to another. Every place is what you make of it, but not every place is somewhere we want to stay for days on end. Often, especially in the vastness of the western U.S., the fun touristy places we want to visit are miles and miles apart.
Our sweet spot for mileage is about 250 miles in a day. That may not seem like a lot of miles to some, but we are retired and enjoy a leisurely pace — and our morning coffee! There are times when we want to stretch the miles we drive in a day and the easiest way for us to do that is to avoid hitching up, packing up and all that comes with staying at a campground. It’s these times when we look for a quick, easy access, no frills parking spot.
Hamburgers Before Hook-Ups
If the weather is pleasant and we just need an overnight rest, why pay for utilities and amenities we don’t need? That’s money I could spend on a yummy burger and beer at a local foodery! So, when we are just trying to get from one place to another, I’ll often do a search for “where to park an RV for free” at a given location.
There are apps and websites like Campendium, AllStays, RV Life, Harvest Hosts/Boondockers Welcome and dozens of others to help you find free RV parking. We found that iOverlander was great if you are a van dweller or have a small truck camper, but most of the places listed were too far off the beaten path for our 32-foot-long 5th wheel.
Some of the websites are free and others are subscription or membership-based. You simply need to type in a search for “where to park an RV for free” and you’ll get plenty of hits. Each has its own niche in the world of free RV parking. It’s good to take advantage of the free trials offered by some of them, as not all are suitable for all RV types. The nice thing about most of these apps is that there are photos and reviews from actual people who have stayed there. There are also benefits for some state and national park pass holders that include free campsites.
Not all of these free overnights are just one night. Layover days, or zero-mile days, are great for taking a break, restocking the pantry or visiting an attraction that doesn’t take all day but that you don’t want to miss out on. We’ve got one such stay planned for Dinosaur National Monument later this summer. It is halfway between two longer stops but we don’t anticipate needing more than a few hours to enjoy the park. They have campgrounds at the park that are suitable for our size and can be reserved, but they don’t have any utilities. If I’m just parking, why pay? Remember that yummy burger? So, we will stay overnight near the park on free public land, stay hitched up and drive into the park early the next day.
Most national park visitor centers have a few RV parking spots, but you aren’t allowed to stay overnight in those spots. We can either unload the ebikes, take a short hike near the visitor center or even unhitch if we want a longer scenic drive. When we are done, we have the option of returning to the free campsite or moving along and finding a rest stop closer to our destination.
At Dinosaur National Monument, we are taking advantage of free overnight parking on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land and plan to enjoy a short excursion. More often, we just need a place to park safely overnight and continue our journey the next day. This is when I look for a retail parking lot or rest area, sometimes called lot-docking.
Last summer, during our return trip home from California to Georgia, we did this frequently. Walmart parking lots are most commonly available, but it is best to ask for permission first as not all retail stores allow overnight parking. We also stayed at interstate rest areas, truck stop lots, designated RV overnight parking spots in city parks, at least one Harvest Host brewery and a diner along Route 66.
The nice thing about the retail lots or diners and breweries is you can often get a real sit-down meal at the end of your day, or a nice breakfast to start the next day’s journey. A lot of RVers use Cracker Barrel parking lots for this very reason. Their billboards often indicate if they are RV-friendly, meaning they have designated overnight RV parking.
We learned the hard way that most are just too small for our setup. We take up about six standard parking spaces and need a little room to maneuver in and out, so a quick peek at Google Maps satellite view can help me decide if the lot is suitable.
Parking vs. Camping
We’ve seen plenty of posted signs in parking lots and rest areas all describing the prohibitions or allowances on overnight parking. But the key word is parking. Here are some of the best practices we’ve adopted for parking our RV.
Get approval before you unhitch.
We don’t unhitch and leave the trailer unattended without explicit approval to do so. Even then, we would leave our contact information affixed to the trailer and with the property owner.
Don't open your slide-outs unless absolutely necessary.
We generally don’t open our slides. We are fortunate that our RV floorplan allows us to function without deploying the slides. On rare occasions, we have partially pushed out the bedroom slide to make it easier to get around our bed, like the time I was in a foot cast. We parked strategically knowing we might need to do this, making sure we didn’t overhang a sidewalk or another parking spot. I mean, we have all hit our heads on those dang slide corners, right?
Don't set up camp.
We only cook inside. Grilling, or setting up camp chairs and fire pits is considered camping and is most often prohibited in these parking lots.
Get permission before you park.
If we are using a retail parking lot, we call ahead to get permission and find out where it is acceptable to park. Waking up in the middle of the night because the big truck can’t get to the loading dock is not conducive to a good night’s rest!
We eat, drink and shop when possible. If it’s a small business and we enjoyed the service or meal, we are sure to leave a good review as a small “thank you” in addition to our purchases. But I’d never leave a bad review if it wasn’t favorable – after all, you get what you pay for!
Know the rules and regulations in your area.
We know the restrictions and time limits. Not all rest stops are created equal. Each state has its own regulations about overnighting at an interstate rest stop. At the present time, Texas allows up to 12-hour stays, but Colorado prohibits overnight parking unless otherwise explicitly posted. Arkansas, on the other hand, welcomes RVers to stay overnight and even has designated spots for them at some rest areas.
Get to your spot early.
To avoid getting stuck next to the roadway or under a bright light, we get there early enough to get situated. You don’t want to be tempted to just park anywhere because it’s late and you are tired.
Is Lot-Docking Safe?
I’ve been traveling for over 10 years. The first six, I did most of my traveling solo and had only my little zippy Mazda 6 and a tent. There were plenty of times I passed on a free campsite or parking lot stay because it just didn’t feel right. Even now with a travel partner and a large RV, we sometimes just get a weird vibe and pass. Sleeping in a parking lot is never without risks. Use your judgement, read reviews and always have a backup plan!
Is Lot-Docking for Everyone?
NO. There have been plenty of nights on our travels these past few weeks where a parking lot might have been sufficient. But with temperatures in the upper 80s overnight, there was no way we were going to get a good night’s sleep without air conditioning. Don’t judge – I’m menopausal! Using our generator overnight in parking lots is not something we choose to do, though others do.
Families with small children might find truck stops too busy and chaotic. If your kids, or pets, need room to stretch their legs, an interstate rest area or free campsite might be more appealing.
If you are a light sleeper easily bothered by highway noise, truck engines or bright lights, you might be better off using free public lands rather than retail or truck stop lots.
Know Your Needs
If you want to enjoy your campfire and grill, open your slides and stay for a while, then go to a campground! Don’t be the reason RVers lose this awesome privilege offered by retail outlets, rest stops and municipalities.
Safe travels, and we will see you at the next stop!