One of the most common questions I get is “How do you know where you’re allowed to park?”, “How do you find all the good spots?” and “How do you keep safe?” along with people who just think I stay at campgrounds all the time. In this article I’ll share all my best tips, my previous experiences and answer all your burning questions.
Benefits of Paying Campgrounds
Fact is, I just about always free camp. I usually stay at free parking or in nature where I’m allowed to park the van.
I can count the number of times I’ve stayed at paying campgrounds on one hand. I’ve checked into paying campgrounds four times. One was because I needed wifi for work, the wifi wasn’t good though so I actually left after fifteen minutes. Another time was because I wanted electricity to slowly charge my leisure battery to make sure it was in a good condition, another time was when I was in Barcelona for work and needed a safe place to park my Van while I was working since Barcelona is known for their brake-ins in vans. The last time was in Sweden when my brother and his family was parked in a camping to fish during their vacation, I checked in for two nights to spend some time with them.
As you may realize now, I’ve never checked into a camping for safety reasons of my own behalf.
I believe I can be just as safe parking as I do now as I would be in a campground. Campgrounds really vary depending on which country you’re in. The ones I was at in Spain all had bars at the entry so not anyone could get in, the one I was at in Sweden didn’t have any bars at all and even had to entries to the campsite.
With that being said, there’s nothing wrong with wanting or needing to go to a campsite every now and then.
There’s lots of facilities and services to take advantage of at them. You can usually find electricity, wi-fi, water, dumping, showers and laundry rooms for example.
Eco Tourism & Responsibility
I just about always park in the nature or in free parkings surrounded by nature.
What’s important to know while parking in the nature is of course – which shouldn’t even have to be mentioned in my opinion, but I’m bringing it up anyways – Leave the place as it was, preferably even better! We need to stress the importance of leave NO TRACE behind.
If we want to be able to park as we do and enjoy the nature and of living a free life as Vanlifers in such a budget friendly way as we do, the least we can do is to make sure to leave the place we’ve been at as it SHOULD be – Untouched and without litter!
If we don’t, high chances are there’s going to be more restrictions, less free parkings and more places would be forbidden.
In some parts of Europe it can be really dirty and litter on many sites, so I took it on me to create a new habit. The first thing I did when I arrived at a place, was to take a bag and fill it up with all the litter that I saw. On many places I could fill up a bag in 5-10 minutes, some places needed one bag – some fifteen.
If we all take on the responsibility and the habit of picking up trash – no matter who it belongs to – we will do ourself and the nature a favor. We can not go around and think in terms of “It’s not my trash/It’s not my job”, it will be a easier job for the next person – and that next person might be you at a different location. We have to realize we do it for the nature, we do it for Mother Earth, and for ourselves.
When we take our responsibility, we are not only doing ourselves a favor, it’s beneficial for the locals, the nature and the animals. We will get a better reception of the locals if we act and are Eco Tourists.
How to Find Parkings
My best tip is to use the app Park4Night, it’s what I use to find just about every single parking I stay at. The app allow you to fill in different information about whereas you want a free parking, a paying parking or a campsite. You can choose to see rest stops and nature too. It’s also good to use to find places to refill water and empty gray/black water.
Back to how I use the app: When I look for parkings, I always think about what I want to be surrounded by. If I want to be close to some kind of water source like a lake or the ocean, I zoom in on the map and hit update to see all the parkings in that area. I usually check them all out and mark the ones I like as favorites. If I travel with someone it’s easy to show the other person which parkings you like and then they can choose from that or vise versa.
If you then arrive at the site and you don’t like it, you can easily look at the other parkings that you’ve already marked and go to te next one.
In this Podcast episode I’m sharing everything I know and do to find good and safe parkings
How to know Where you're Allowed to Park
First things first – Different countries may have different rules, so there’s not one right answer, it all depends on where you are.
In Croatia for example, you’re not allowed to sleep in your vehicle. In Sweden, we are allowed to sleep in vehicles. In Spain it’s forbidden to camp in some places – but it’s allowed to sleep in the vehicle. “Camping” in Spain is when you have anything outside of the vehicle – a chair, a stool, a blanket, a awning, a open window, a pop-up ceiling, a roof-top-tent etc. As soon as anything is outside or sticking out of the vehicle, it’s camping. If you keep all your things inside however, it’s not considered camping.
So your number one thing to do is to check what local regulations apply for the country or area that you’re visiting. I’m sure you can find most information through a quick Google Search.
Next thing to do it to keep an eye out for any signs about parking where you are and then follow them. Don’t stay where you’re not wanted, and don’t stay longer then allowed.
How to Keep Safe
You can’t really say “If you do this, and if you park here you’ll be safe”, anything can happen anytime and anywhere. The question is, do you want something that could happen – but may not even happen – limit you and your life?
Of course you should try to stay as safe as possible doing what you want to do in life. The more safe you feel, the more relaxed you can be and the more you’ll enjoy yourself and your time.
I trust my gut a lot, but I make sure to have just conditions to make a fair assessment of a place. As an example, I’m scared of the dark so I always make sure to arrive at my next location well before sundown, and I’m always ready to leave a place if I don’t feel safe. It’s better to be prepared to leave a place you’re going to so it won’t be a big deal to move if you need to.
Other things I do to feel more safe is to always park with the front of the van out, so I easily can hop into my drivers seat and leave the place without having to back up.
I also always read the reviews of the parkings on Park4Night, that way I can exclude some parkings, because if someone has had a bad experience somewhere – high chances are they’ve written about it on the app.
Some people put shoes outside of their van to show strangers that there’s people inside the van. I’ve never done that however.
I believe most people who break into vans aren’t after you as a person, they’re after your belongings. They usually hold a stake out and brake into your van when you’re not there. So my advice is to either have a real safe in your van for your valuables and/or bring everything with you.
For some it’s important to be incognito or to stealth camp as it’s called. My personal beliefs however is that if you have solar panels on your roof and/or a fan/vent, the people who are after breaking into vans will know that it is a camper van, they’ll know what to look for. So if you choose to have stickers on your van or have shades in your windows, it doesn’t matter in my opinion.
Q: If you’re being spontaneous and go somewhere outside of your rut, is it difficult to find parkings then?
A: I’d say no. But it also depends on how picky you are. If I’m going from point A to point C, and if I know point C is a very good location or if I have to work there for example, then maybe point B is just a regular parking among houses or behind a gas station, because I’m literally just spending a night to get from point A to point C.
But if I want a new place to just chill and I don’t have any appointments to attend, I’ll pick how and where I’m going after what places and parkings there is.
Q: Aren’t you afraid of brake-ins? What do you do to feel safe, what places and routines etc? I read about someone leaving their shoes outside of their van while sleeping for example.
A: I don’t leave anything outside of my van while sleeping, I’m always ready to leave a place if I don’t feel safe/if something happens.
You can see that my van is a Campervan from looking at it from the outside, so they’ll know that I’m probably in there anyways.
I have a car alarm, a fire alarm and a carbon monoxide alarm. I never park in a place I don’t feel safe, if I feel unsafe – I keep on driving.
Q: Do you prefer to park close to other Vanlifers to feel safe or do you park alone?
A: When I had just moved into my van I was always relieved when I saw other vans or if someone showed up shortly after I parked because then I knew there was other people in the same situation. But with time I’ve felt more and more safe because I’ve gotten used to this way of life, and now I don’t have any problems with parking alone at a location. Most of the time the crazy people are in the cities and not out in the nature as I usually are.
Q: Do you have a fire extinguisher? Fire blanket?
A: I have a fire extinguisher, but no fire blanket. Which is 100% more than I had living in a house.
Q: What safety equipment do you have?
A: The Safety Equipment I have other than the things I’ve already said is nothing I go out with publicly since it’s a matter of my own safety, and I advice everyone else to not do so either. I do advice you however to search a bit online about selfdefense and choose something that fit you. A lot of women who travel solo and move into a van take a selfdefense course before moving into the van.
Q: What is your best tip to feel safe when traveling/parking as a solo female?
A: I don’t know how to compare since I’ve never been a dude, and I’ve also only traveled solo so I wouldn’t know how to compare with traveling as a pair.
But as I mentioned before in this article, make sure to mark a couple of parkings before you go to your new area, make sure its light out when you get there with a couple of hours to spare. If you don’t get a good gut feeling, trust it and leave. And always park so you easily can leave a place quick. All of these are things I’d do no matter if I was a female, male or a part of a couple though.
Q: Is there a site/app where you can find information about good and nice places to park?
A: I use the app Park4Night to find parkings, but I also use a app called Green Zones – its an app where you can see where you’re allowed and not allowed to drive with your vehicle in Europe. A lot of bigger vehicles/diesel vehicles aren’t allowed/need special permission to go in many big cities in Europe because of the environmental impact.
There’s also the German app Stellplatz Europe, but I haven’t used it since Park4Night has worked so well. In the US there’s other sites like freecampsites.net and other apps like iOverlander and The Dyrt.
Remember to take care of the places you visit, yourself & safe travels!