One of the first things people ask me when I tell them that I live in a school bus is “Where do you park your school bus?” The short answer is: anywhere we can. Since April of 2018, we have not paid for a single night of camping, and we have gotten pretty good at sniffing out places where we won’t be bothered and we won’t bother anyone else.
In this article, I won’t share exact places that we stay for a few specific reasons that I’ll discuss later, but I will share guidelines and useful resources that we have used over the last year.
Keep in mind that these are not hard and fast rules, but only what we have found to work for us so far, and that the legality of parking anywhere is always subject to change and depends on what state, county, and city you are in. ALWAYS look for signs about whether overnight parking and camping is allowed when you arrive and follow Leave No Trace principles wherever you end up.
If you have a short school bus, it’s much easier to “stealth camp” on the streets or in parking lots because you can fit into most parking spaces, whereas it wouldn’t be feasible with a 40-footer. In most (but not all) cities, you can park a vehicle on the street in an area with no signs for 72 hours at a time.
However, sleeping in vehicles on property owned by cities is generally illegal. This becomes a Schrodinger’s Cat type of scenario if you have all your windows blocked and are sleeping in your bus, because if a police officer suspects you are sleeping in there and knocks, then you will no longer be sleeping and the officer theoretically won’t be able to charge you with that particular offense.
Of course we are not advocating for our readers to break the law, but we want you to know what the laws are surrounding stealth camping and parking on city streets.
Obviously, stealth camping requires that you can be totally off the grid and self-contained, since there won’t be power or water hookups or places to dump gray water and the like. It should go without saying, but if you choose to stealth camp, do not fire up a generator on the side of the street or bust out the grill to cook on the sidewalk.
Walmart and Cracker Barrel
It’s long been a part of buslife lore that you can park overnight in Walmart parking lots. This is increasingly untrue unfortunately. More and more Walmarts are hiring security companies that post no parking signs and patrol their lots 24 hours a day.
This is particularly true in or near big cities, whereas in rural areas you can generally still park at Walmart. The same goes for Cracker Barrels: it depends on the particular restaurant. You can call ahead to ask if they will allow it.
Many casinos will allow you to park overnight and even have designated areas for RVs. Some will require you to register with the parking lot attendant, sign in with the front desk, or sign up for a (usually free) player’s card in the hopes that you will spend some money while you are there.
We usually politely listen to their spiel and then retreat to the bus. Some casinos allow only one night of parking, but check with the attendant to find out specific rules at each location.
Parking In Front of a Friend’s House
Sometimes it is incredibly convenient to park in front of a friend’s house, especially if they are so kind as to share amenities like showers, laundry, water to fill your tanks, etc. However, if they live on a road that is city-owned and maintained, you will run into the same issue of sleeping in a vehicle on property owned by the city.
Of course, you can avoid this if your friend allows you to sleep inside their home, or if they live on a rural road, have a large property that you can park on, etc.
Things to look out for include Homeowners Associations rules or city bylaws that might prohibit over sized vehicles, and neighbors that might complain. For instance, some cities have rules that prohibit RVs from being parked at someone’s home for more than four hours at a time and only for loading and unloading, so even residents must store their RVs elsewhere.
Naturally, be courteous to everyone around you – don’t use generators or play music at night, park as out-of-the-way as possible, and dump your waste products in appropriate locations.
BLM Land and National Forests
BLM land is an excellent option for boondocking, and it makes up nearly one eighth of the country’s land area. BLM land is available to everyone for camping, fishing, hunting, and other recreational activities, although some of it is leased out for mining and grazing purposes.
Most BLM land is located in the western half of the United States, and dispersed camping (also called boondocking) is allowed on nearly all of it, for up to 14 days at a time unless otherwise posted.
National forests also allow dispersed camping for 14 days at a time unless otherwise posted. Some of our favorite camping spots have been in national forests and on BLM land. Be aware of your bus’ capabilities and turning radius, as some forest service roads are not well maintained.
If you have a larger bus and a follow car, it’s usually a good idea to take the car up the road first to scout out potholes, sharp turns, and whether or not you will be able to turn the bus around. Otherwise you might be stuck backing down a narrow, tree-lined road for miles.
If you choose to camp on BLM or national forest land, be sure to park off the road and out of the way in case other campers, logging trucks, or mining vehicles need to pass by.
Something to note here is that national forests are totally different than national parks. Most national parks require admission fees or a pass to enter, and dispersed camping isn’t allowed in most national parks. There are campgrounds in most parks, but you will have to pay a daily fee.
Pull-outs and Rest Stops
In most states, it is legal to sleep in your car at rest stops along highways and freeways. Some have 8 or 12 hour limits, although we have never been kicked out for staying 13 hours as long as you arrive at night and leave in the morning.
Rest stops are usually a bit noisy since they are by necessity right next to the highway and there are people coming and going at all hours, but we usually park as far from the bathrooms as we can and far away from the truck side since it’s usually much busier over there throughout the night.
However, if you have a 40-foot bus, the truck side of rest stops is a perfect and free place to spend the night. We have spent a few nights on truck sides when we were caravaning with friends who had larger buses.
Truckers tend to leave their engines running all night so they can have air conditioning or heat in the cabins while they are sleeping, which can be annoying but eventually turns into white noise and isn’t so bad unless they turn the engine off and on a lot.
On a similar note, we have stayed at designated truck stops a few times before as well. They usually have convenient but expensive amenities (showers, truck washes, diesel, etc.) and are even more noisy than rest stops. However, we have found secluded corners of truck stops where we have spent relatively peaceful nights.
In our experience, truckers can be ornery when RVers are “in their way” while they are working, so be respectful and stay out of their way as much as possible if you choose to stay at a truck stop.
Finally, we have spent many nights at pull-outs along the road. As long as there are no signs prohibiting overnight parking or camping, these are generally fair game. There are some particularly incredible vista points that we slept at in California. As with the other options in this category, there is probably going to be some road noise unless you are way out in the boonies.
But, after a few weeks of living in the bus, we can sleep almost anywhere and a little noise doesn’t bother us.
Campgrounds and RV Parks
I haven’t personally stayed in any campsites or RV parks because we don’t pay for camping, but several of our friends have done so with their skoolies and they have had good experiences for the most part.
Many of them will boondock for a few weeks and then spent a night or two in a campground so they can shower, dump trash and gray water, charge up devices, access wifi, etc. While there are tons of beautiful free campsites, sometimes there are places that you can only stay at by paying for an organized campground, for instance in national parks.
The only place we have debated paying to camp so far was in the Yosemite Valley, because all the free camping is about a 45 minute drive up a windy road from the valley floor.
Campgrounds sometimes have length limits though, so be sure to check that out in advance. You will also have to follow rules about check in and out times, quiet hours, and so forth. More than likely there will be dozens of other campers in very close proximity to you as well. There are trade offs involved in paying for a campsite, but some people enjoy having the amenities available occasionally.
In a similar vein, some skoolie owners choose to stay in RV parks. These are generally even more expensive than standard campsites because they include hookups (although some campgrounds provide hookups in RV spots as well).
Some RV parks have appearance rules about which types of RVs are allowed to stay there as well — for instance, only RVs manufactured after 1990, must be clean and in good condition, etc. This can make it tricky to stay with a skoolie, so it’s always a good idea to check ahead with the RV park managers to see if they have any restrictions around buses.
Helpful Apps and Websites
There are several apps and websites that can help you find free or cheap places to camp in your skoolie. Here’s a few of the best that we have found…
This is a crowdsourced site where anyone can add a campsite to the map, and other users can leave reviews and comments if they have stayed there. Campsite pages include relevant information such as how many days you can stay there, cost per night (if any), maximum vehicle length, amenities available, and what else is nearby.
It is super helpful that they include maximum lengths and a description of the road to get to the campsite, because then we know if we will be able to turn the bus around and/or fit into the campsites before we get there. We have stayed in some absolutely amazing campsites and boondocking spots that we have found on this website and met some incredible travelers there.
This is an excellent free resource.
It’s super convenient to pull up the map feature and see which spots are nearby and easily read the reviews before making a decision. The campsite icons on the map are color-coded so you know whether they are free, less than $12 per night, require a permit of some kind, or the cost is unknown.
Not all of the spots listed on here are gems however, and some of them get too popular which leads to them getting trashed and eventually shut down since many of these places aren’t regulated or serviced.
Campendium is quite similar to freecampsites.net except that it’s a free app instead of a website. You can search for specific things like nearby RV parks, public lands, free camping, overnight parking, dump stations, and so forth, or you can look at the map view and see different icons for each of those things.
When you click on an icon it shows you the name of the place, whether it’s free or not, and a star rating if people have left reviews. Then on the detail page, it tells you whether you can go there with a big rig, if there is cell service, hookups, and if tent camping is allowed — similar to the information you can get on freecampsites.net.
We use Campendium less frequently than freecampsites.net only because it has seemed to have less campsites populated in the app, although more are added daily I’m sure so it may have caught up by now. Some friends of ours swear by Campendium.
This is another free app similar to the previous two that I’ve mentioned. You can search by specific amenities which is convenient. For instance, you can search only places where big rigs are allowed or only places with bathrooms.
Otherwise, it’s quite similar, but by using any or all three of these free apps/websites, you can usually find something promising in your area.
This is a subscription-based service, but it only costs $30 for an entire year. The premise is similar to AirBnB but instead of sharing rooms or houses, hosts are sharing space on their property for you to park your vehicle and boondock for a few nights at a time.
The amazing thing about this site is that once you’ve paid the $30 for the annual membership, you do not have to pay per stay, so you could theoretically stay at a different host location every single night of the year and not pay any additional fees.
We learned about this site from a friend that we met in a Safeway parking lot when she spotted the bus and came to say hi. She invited us to come stay in her yard and said she regularly hosted boondockers, so we did end up staying there and becoming great friends with her. She told us about this website and we became members and have used it a few other times so far.
It requires a bit more coordination since you need to contact the potential host and set up arrival times and so forth, but it’s a great way to meet locals and have a safe space to stay in cities where you otherwise might not be able to find a legal parking space.
Some hosts offer electricity, water, and trash services but there is a “mandatory donation” policy if you choose to take advantage of these services.
This is another platform similar to Boondockers Welcome, but the hosts are more commercial in nature, like wineries, working farms, etc. It has a similar set-up where you pay the annual membership fee, but then guests are encouraged to spend around $20 at each host’s place of business, like by buying a bottle of wine at the winery or some produce from the farm.
This is a great idea and some of the host locations look amazing, but for us that’s not a super economical way to camp, as you could stay in a campground with full hookups sometimes for $20 a night.
This free app isn’t specifically for finding camping, but it is still an excellent resource. It is similar to any other map app except for the fact that you can download maps by state and then use them with full function even when you don’t have cell service.
This has saved us a few times when we are trying to get somewhere but are so far out of cell service that we can’t even get the image of the map to load in other apps.
This is also a super helpful app if you are hiking, because it has thousands of trails loaded into the app and you can use it to make sure you are on the trail you need to be on, see how much farther you have to hike, etc. Again, very convenient in areas where there isn’t cell service.
This is an obvious one, but we use Google Maps quite a bit to determine whether we are in a national forest or on public land, to know whether we can camp someplace. The app conveniently shows public lands in green, so you know right away where you stand.
We use Instagram a lot to get in touch with other buslifers, arrange meetups, ask questions, and share information. It’s a great tool for networking and finding people in your area.
This is our overriding rule for when we are looking for a place to park for the night: if there aren’t any signs saying we can’t, we at least have plausible deniability if a cop or parking attendant comes by. We can say, “Oh we’re so sorry, we didn’t know, we’ll move right along,” and avoid getting a ticket.
If we aren’t in the bus and happen to get a ticket, we can contest it and chances are it will be dismissed because we are from out of town, we checked for signs, and it would have been our first offense in whatever place we are in.
Why We Don’t Share Exact Locations
As I mentioned in the section about freecampsites.net, when some campsites are posted on public sites, they become super popular and then get overrun because no one maintains them and some campers do not follow Leave No Trace principles, leaving the place trashed, which then eventually results in the campground or boondocking area being closed to everyone. This is annoying and heartbreaking.
The same thing goes for geotagging on Instagram. When everyone can easily see on a popular post where the incredible picture was taken, chances are they will flock there to get the same picture. People are often unprepared and uneducated, and can either injure themselves or damage the land.
We still geotag on Instagram, but only with general tags that show what state, city, or national park we are near, without spelling out exact locations. It’s a fine line between wanting to share what beautiful places we are exploring and wanting to preserve incredible natural spaces.
“We never geotag boondocking spots, in the hope of keeping them at least a little bit wild.”
This is also a safety issue. We don’t want to provide exact GPS coordinates to where we are and wake up to someone breaking into the bus or any other scary scenarios.
Plus, part of buslife is the thrill of the hunt for the next great camping spot! Happy boondocking 🙂