Sunday, June 10, 2012

Finding overnight spots

A few days ago, after I posted about being camped at a free Montana fishing access site on the Bighorn River, friend and fellow bus aficionado RJ asked a very good question in the comments:
I am totally fascinated by you and Louise's ability to find these "hidden in plain view" overnight stops. I suspect some planning goes into this task - altho sometimes these stops may just fall into your lap, so to speak. Have you ever written a blog post about how the two of you approach this process?
Yes, as it turns out, we have already written one blog post about this. It is one of our most popular posts ever, detailing the myriad printed directories we use, usually while under way, to find overnight stopping spots, put together (and occasionally updated) by Louise:

Many, many (most?) of our overnight spots can be found in those directories. After eight years on the road, we can say that some are more useful than others, and quite a few get a constant workout, whereas others stay on the shelf unless we are traveling through specific types of territory. Of the ones we simply can not live without, tops on the list are the Escapees "Day's End" directory, and the Elks Lodge camping directories.

As RJ (and others) has surmised, though, it is often not as simple as whipping out the directories while we are barreling down the road (although that is, more often than you might think, exactly what happens). In addition to the printed guides, which we would not be without because the Internet does not exist on many of the roads we travel, and its hard to use while driving anyway, I have a variety of on-line resources that I also consult, and we tend to have a general idea each morning where we will end up at day's end.

In this post I will try to illuminate a little of our process. I need to start with two overarching points that need to be considered by anyone contemplating following in our footsteps. The first and foremost is that we have a certain preferred mode of travel, and, frankly, it's not for everyone. It's actually a bit hard to describe, and if you go back through eight years of camp sites, you might even say it's hard to discern a pattern -- we might seem to be, uhh, all over the map, if you will pardon the pun.

I can probably start by saying we detest campgrounds. If we are in the forest, we'd rather be by ourselves in a clearing off a little-used dirt road than in a well-maintained Forest Service campground. If we are in a populated area, we'd rather be at Walmart, Cabela's, or even parallel-parked on the street than in an RV park. Part of this preference is that we are cheap -- we designed Odyssey specifically so that we would not usually require the services provided by a campground of any kind, and the forest clearing or the on-street parking spot are both free, whereas the campground or RV park will cost us money, for what amounts to nothing more than a convenient parking space. But mostly, we just prefer to be off by ourselves rather than with other campers (not counting friends with whom we're comfortable).

When neither wide-open public lands nor friendly merchant parking lots are available, we have something of a hierarchy of preferences, all else being equal. We'd rather stay in a Park Service, Forest Service, or other government campground than in a private one. We'd rather be in a spot away from other campers (and other facilities, like rest rooms) than close by. We'd prefer to be in the dark than any place well-lit. And when we are in the country, we'd rather be away from it all, whereas when we are in the city, we'd like to be in walking or transit distance of everything.

The second concept that I need to discuss is that the best method for finding an overnight spot varies widely depending on what part of the country one is in. Finding great spots in the Southwest is a vastly different exercise than finding great spots along the eastern seaboard. Also, finding a spot to stop for the night might be very different from finding a spot to spend a week or two.

That having been established, our own personal process starts with the map. And, specifically, that's a combination of AAA state road maps, and DeLorme's Street Atlas USA. On this latter item, I'm a few revs out of date, but roads don't change all that often -- we don't use the Point-of-Interest data. The AAA map tells us what (major) highways in the state are generally passable -- roads that Street Atlas will happily route you on may be dirt or even 4x4 -- and any seasonal pass closures or other information. The AAA map also highlights National Parks and other interesting features. What DeLorme adds to the equation is automatic calculation of approximate overnight stops. We've encoded our preferred speeds on various types of roads, and for any given pair of end-points I can use the program to figure time and distance via various routes.

As you, no doubt, already know, we generally shun the Interstate and tend to stick more to US and State highways. I usually have to force the program to route us via our preferred methods, and through rather than around interesting places. Once done the program will show me an icon at various intervals representing suggested end-of-day stops -- right now, I have our daily travel time set to 2.5 hours, which is typical for us, but I will adjust this if we need to get someplace faster, such as when we are being deployed for the Red Cross, or are heading to a conference, rally, or other scheduled event.

Once I have the icon positioned for the night's stop, we will start to look in the guides I mentioned above as well as some on-line resources, including the list of Walmarts (showing which ones do or do not allow overnight parking), the on-line Elks directory, the updated on-line Day's End directory, and even several "free campground" web sites, for any options a half hour or so either side of the program's suggested end-of-day stop. The result of that search may cause me to go back and change the route to a different road, or set a different time limit for the day if no suitable options are available nearby.

Our search of the printed and on-line guides is assisted by several "overlays" for Street Atlas, available free from the Discovery Owners Group web site ("Discovery" is a model of RV built by Fleetwood Industries). These overlays can show me on the interactive map the approximate location of, for example, Elks lodges and Day's End listings. Once I have a short list of possible sites and a general idea of the stopping location, I go on-line with Google Earth.

Google Earth shows satellite imagery of most of the places we contemplate staying, as well as the roads leading up to them. In many locations, "street view" imagery is available shot from a moving, camera-equipped car, that shows the actual condition of the streets and surrounding terrain or buildings. More than once, we have rejected a possible stop based on what we saw either on the overhead satellite view, or the rolling street view. By contrast, we've seen some spots that would have given us pause, especially if they involved a detour of several miles from our preferred route, which we've gone to anyway because the street and satellite views revealed it was do-able.

Notwithstanding all of this advance planning, the real work of finding our overnight parking starts after we are already on the road. Louise has all the printed directories right in front of her, on the bookshelf we installed in the dashboard for just this purpose. Often circumstance will dictate that none of the pre-scoped options will work, and that's when we fall back to the paper map and printed directories. Long-time readers will know, for example, that we've sometimes been to three Walmarts in a row, all listed without any NOP notations in our directory, none of which allowed overnight parking. As I wrote here a few days ago, sometimes Day's End listings are simply wrong, or out of date. Some really appealing spots proved simply too challenging to get Odyssey into (or out of -- I won't drive more than half a mile down a road without knowing there is someplace to turn around further along).

In the densely populated areas of the country, such as the east coast, the Gulf coast, and much of the west coast, as well as major cities wherever located, our search tends to focus on Elks lodges and retail parking lots. In the largely unpopulated west, our search tends towards BLM and National Forest land. After eight years of doing this, we can tell if an on-street parking spot or a roadside clearing is going to be OK for the night or if we're likely to be rousted by the constabulary, or security. Our sixth-sense is well honed; in eight years on the road, we've been asked to move along twice.

I have quite a number of web sites bookmarked on my computer. Since specific web pages often go out of date, I will let you search on these yourself:

  • Bass Pro Shops store locator: most Bass Pro/Outdoor World locations will let you spend one night. Many have restaurants attached.
  • Cabela's store locator: most Cabela's have specially striped RV parking, fresh water and a dump station, and will usually let you spend the night.
  • Camping World store locator: At CW stores that are not otherwise attached to a fee-based campground (some are) or located where it is prohibited by ordinance, many will allow you to spend the night, and some even provide free hookups for customers.
  • Casino Camper web site: Lists RV-friendly casinos by state.
  • Pilot/FlyingJ: A truck stop chain that allows RV parking at almost all locations, and provides separate dedicated RV lots at many of them.
  • Google Maps: useful for satellite imagery, street view, turn-by-turn directions, and nearby points of interest such as restaurants and transit stops. I prefer Google Earth, a dedicated program which provides the same functions but which I find easier to pan and zoom.

I also keep links to lists of dump stations, all the other truck stop brands, state highway departments, and numerous map sites, most of which I use only occasionally. I have about three or four links to "free campground" sites, but I find these to be only partly reliable and the list changes. If you search on "Free Campgrounds" you will come up with the same links, but I will give a special mention for the most reliable one maintained by fellow blogger and full-timer Jenn of Hitek Homeless,

When we do find a real gem, we love to share it here with our readers. Other than updating the Elks and Walmart directories, I generally do not submit our finds to other directories. But we always post a map link (unless we are on private property by special permission) and discuss the site right here in the blog. We're happy for you to go back through our map links and stay at the same places; all we ask is that you be courteous and discreet so that these sites remain available in the future.


  1. Ah ha! There IS a method to the madness!!

    Thanks, Sean, for posting this, it's very helpful. And to think I just renewed my AAA membership for another year - serendipity!!

    Plus capital KUDOS to Louise for becoming a navigator extraordinaire!

    1. Aw, Russ, thanks! That's sweet of you to notice :-)

  2. Do you pick the "You Might Also Like" links each day, or does your blogger program? If the later, do you know what criteria it uses? Just curious, as it seems like it would be time consuming to do it manually.

    1. Phil, we use a blog widget called "LinkWithin," which posts those. We have no real insight into how it works, and some of the suggestions are just plain weird, but it tries to match up keywords in the current post to posts in the archives. So if, for example, I use the word "fluoridated" in today's post, and I've used that word twice before, one or both of the older posts with that word might show up as suggestions.

  3. Thanks for the mention, guys. This is a great resource. It would be a shame not to to share it with the boondocking crowd... so we ( did!

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. Sorry, I had to delete this comment because it contained a link to content which requires a paid subscription to view. We don't want to subject our readers to those sorts of web tactics, particularly without a warning ahead of time that they will be asked for money.


Share your comments on this post! We currently allow anyone to comment without registering. If you choose to use the "anonymous" option, please add your name or nickname to the bottom of your comment, within the main comment box. Getting feedback signed simply "anonymous" is kind of like having strangers shout things at us on the street: a bit disconcerting. Thanks!