Free Camping

English only article – Slovak version coming soon | Článok je iba v angličtine, preklad pribudne čoskoro.

Depending on your budget, you can usually choose from variety of hotels, hostels, b&b, camps… Finding a hotel is usually easy, just use any form of online booking, or your trusty Lonely Planet guide. But there are a few choices for an overlander that might not be that obvious. Let’s look into them 🙂

Disclaimer – the information is valid for the whole world, but it is more focused on the Americas.

By far the most common and favorite choice of overlanders is free camping (also called wild camping or boondocking) and since most of us spend some time to get our vehicles outfitted to be basically homes on wheels, it’s easy to understand why.

 

Free camping means you will find a nice, suitable flat spot to park your vehicle – usually on public land, and you just stay there for the night 🙂 It can be anything from an instagram-worthy mountains with a beautiful view, directly on the beach, but it can be on a quiet street in the middle of the town as well. It all depends on the type of vehicle you have, the level of safety you want to have and how much time you have to look for a spot.

 

The main benefit of this is that you save a lot of money by not paying for the accommodation at all, since you are carrying your own home with you – you’re than basically paying only for the fuel and food. This basically means that our trip would cost us almost the same amount of money whether it would take us 6 months or 1 year – the only major difference being food, which is cheap when you cook on your own.

 

Another benefit is that the home you’re carrying with you is as comfortable as you make it – we had a very comfortable mattress so sleeping in our own car / rooftop tent was actually more comfortable than most hostels/hotels. Also worth mentioning is the fact that you can get to isolated places with great views where no campsites or hostels exist.

 

Downsides are obviously no amenities at all – you have to have everything, and take everything with you after you stay. #leavenotrace

 

Apart from beaches, empty fields or forests, there are a few specific places you can often stay for free – especially in the US, wild camping somewhere in the middle of nowhere isn’t as tolerated as anywhere south from there. Some of these are:

 

  • (USA) Rest area – designated places for people to rest on many major roads. These usually have some limit (8 hours, not more than xy days in month), but have public bathrooms and are for free.
  • (USA) BLM – Burreau of Land Management. Doesn’t explain itself well – but these are public lands, where you (mostly) can stay for free. There are many and you can find them online, or using an app like ParkAdvisor.
  • (USA) National/State Forest – Similar to BLM, these are public forests – many of them offer free camping, but check first, as each one has it’s own rules.
  • (USA) Walmart – It’s almost public knowledge, that many Walmarts (not in large cities like LA, SF or NYC) tolerate overnight parking. You’ll see many RVs parked there – basically if there isn’t a sign prohibiting it, you can stay there.
  • gas stations – Not sexy, I know. But when all else fails, you can usually ask at a gas station if it’s okay to stay for the night. In places where the security is questionable, this can be a safe backup option, since they are usually guarded.
  • restaurant – ask if you can stay for the night. Many times, they gladly let you stay overnight for free if you have a dinner or a few beers.
  • fire station –  They usually have large parking lots and can let you stay overnight (never tried this one). Also – in many places, there are no public firefighters, but they are all volunteers & donation only, so for a small donation, they are very happy to do so.
  • someone’s house – again, not so “instagram chick”, but in many places, you can just ask someone if it’s okay to park at his place, especially if it’s in the countryside.

 

The easiest way to find these spots, if you don’t have the time to explore on your own is to use the next app I’m going to mention, which is…

iOverlander.com

OK, this technically isn’t a type of accommodation, but since it’s been incredibly useful, I will mention it here as well as in useful links article.

 

iOverlander is a free website / mobile application, that lists camping and overlander-related spots on a map, with information about them – and it works offline. Anyone can add a new point on a map, leave a comment with a photo on and old one or edit the information already provided if it’s out of date. The web was started by overlanders to help others and they’re dedicated to keep it for free and rely on donations only. It lists free and paid campsites, dangerous or challenging roads, places to get purified water, propane, good mechanics and other useful information.

 

The app was popularized mostly in South America, where there are now more than 35 000 points of interest, but it’s quickly getting popularity in other parts of the world too. This has definitely been the most useful app of the whole journey – you could easily find places to stay during your whole pan american journey using just this one app. Download and install it right away. 🙂

Paid camping

Very common among overlanders in Latin America. This is usually not the typical “RV Campground” you’d find in the US with huge parking space, electric and water/sewage hookups – most of the time it’s just a place to park your car / pitch a tent, with some basic amenities like running water, toilet & shower of varying quality and maybe a place to cook.

 

These were usually between 2-5usd per person, but sometimes can be as much as a place in a hostel for two. Most of the overlanders we’ve met have a healthy balance between free and paid camping, going for the latter every few days to have a proper shower and some amenities. In some areas like the northern coast of Perú, it can be dangerous to wild camp due to frequent armed robberies – in these areas we stayed in secure paid campgrounds exclusively.

Hostels

OK, this is quite an obvious one. From the perspective of an overlander, hostels can be used in two different ways.

 

The first is the “normal” way – book a bed in a shared dorm or a private room. This can be useful if you are in the middle of a large city and it’s hard to find a suitable and safe spot to stay. We’d usually go and search for a hostel using one of the useful links. Don’t forget to look for a one with a free place to park your car – and if your car is large, write them a message before booking to see if you’d fit – if you don’t, you might find that your cheap hostel will end up not-so-cheap thanks to the parking you’ll have to pay.

 

Hostels usually have a bar or a big common area, a place for travelers to hang out and socialise with each other, so it might be good if you’re a solo traveller – you connect with like minded people. When choosing a hostel, you have to take into account that you would be sharing space with others. You have to respect them, keep quiet during night, especially when you are returning from a party. Unfortunately not everybody might be so considerate so do not forget your earplugs. 🙂

 

If your budget is really tight, or you just want to stay longer at one place, you could usually work at the hostel as well – just check with the owners of the hostel, but it’s very common. Do not expect a big salary though – lets just say that you’ll be able to stay there “for free”. 🙂

 

The other way overlanders can use a hostel is more interesting – if they have a place to park you car, you can try and negotiate to use the facilities (wifi, shower & toilet, and/or breakfast) only, since you probably have a comfortable bed with you already. Now this is not always possible, but we have stayed in a couple of hostels this way and actually preferred the privacy and the comfort of our own bed. Some of these can be found with the excellent iOverlander app.

Couchsurfing

To put it shortly, Couchsurfing is like Airbnb, but you don’t pay. But it would be wrong to say it’s just that – it is so much more.

 

It’s mostly about cultural exchange – people on couchsurfing like to meet new people and share with them – be it languages, food, good conversation, guiding them around their city or anything they want. It may sound a bit hippie, but it really is amazing – the best experiences we had in South America would be ones from Couchsurfing.

 

Christmas spent with a friend in Ushuaia, Argentina; a week with a family in Buenos Aires, nice stay with a fellow photography enthusiast in Sao Paolo, amazing stay in San Miguel de Tucumán in the northern part of Argentina (with probably the best food of this trip cooked by mother of our friend). Or spending a few days, getting used to earthquakes and photographing a wedding in Ovalle, Chile. Or spending a wonderful week in Punta del Este in Uruguay, going for another wedding photoshoot and a rally reenactment. These are a few things we would never get to see and live, if not for CS.

 

Some general info about Couchsurfing

 

Couchsurfing, as described on their website, started in 2004 as a small passion project. An email to a group of students in Iceland gave birth to the idea that people anywhere would want to share their homes with strangers (or, as they like to call them, friends you haven’t met yet). It is a global network of 10 million travelers in over 200,000 cities in the world, that connects travelers across the globe who share experiences ranging from hosting one another in their homes to having a beer to becoming close friends and travel companions. With couchsurfing, you can:

  • Stay with locals for free
  • Join a community of couchsurfers, in most cities they have a weekly event that is usually held at a bar or coffee shop
  • Open your home to travelers, and learn about new cultures or practice a language

Before you send a CouchRequest (request that you want to stay at someone’s place or meet in the city) it is worth to invest your time to the community. For example, attend meetings, so you can meet more experienced Couchsurfers to have an idea what kind of people you might meet and what to expect; host somebody at your place or if you do not have the possibility, you can still offer to meet with Couchsurfers and show them your city. This way you will acquire references and it will be easier to find a host. There aren’t many people who’d like to host a complete stranger, so having a nice, filled profile with a few references can make a huge difference.

 

Finding a place to stay is just part of the Couchsurfing experience. When you write a request, personalize your messages and let hosts know why you want to meet and why you think you’d enjoy each other’s company. When you’re there, get to know your host and their way of life.

 

To sum it up, Couchsurfing is definitely not for everybody – if you do not like socializing and meeting with new people, or you prefer anonymity/security of hotels and walking through the city with on your own, don’t worry – you are completely all right and there is nothing wrong with you 🙂 But if you want to meet locals, understand more their culture, learn something new and you are open to share, then it is the perfect way.

 

 If you want to know more, write us – especially Ivan has a lot of experience with Couchsurfing, we’ve hosted around 80 people so far and would be happy to share anything you want to know. But most importantly – if you are at least a bit careful and read the references, the chances of having a bad experience are close to 0. In fact, I’ve met probably the kindest people in my life on CS.

Airbnb

I don’t think I need to introduce this one, but for the sake of people who might not know, let’s do it.

Airbnb is a startup, that can be shortly described as a community marketplace for people to list, discover and book accommodation around the world. Anybody can earn some extra money (or use it for his business) by renting their extra place and meet people from all over the world. Types of accommodation vary from a spare room, an apartment or even a castle. I’ve seen a camper-converted bus you can rent, too. Airbnb is suitable for people who are looking for more privacy, comfort and calmness than in hostels, but also want to meet locals.

 

The website is really easy to use and you can quickly find a place to stay on a map, which can be very helpful – we’ve used the app during our travels with a car a few times, when we wanted to have a private and secure place to rest, or when other places were unavailable / unsuitable. As with a hostel, look for one with a parking space – and once again, don’t forget to check if it’s large enough for your car – we barely fit into a garage in Rio de Janeiro, where we booked a room with secure parking for our car during the carnaval – only to find out we probably won’t fit.

 

A good tip is also to look for deals – a lot of the times there can be a significant discount when you stay for a week or more. This might be good if you need a “vacation from a vacation”.

 

In the end, we used it about 5 times during our South American trip – and many times in the USA, before we’ve bought the car. In the US, it is often the best deal you can get – cheaper than a RV campsite.

House sitting

House Sitting, as described on a popular site MindMyHouse.com, is a practice where a homeowner, leaving their house for a period of time, entrusts it to one or more “house sitters”, who by a mutual agreement are entitled to live there rent-free in exchange for some responsibilities such as taking care of the homeowner’s pets, performing general maintenance etc. After signing up for one of these services, most of them have a sign-up fee, you get access to the database of available houses. Then you just find a place, contact the homeowner, work out an arrangement and sign documents (it’s important to ensure everyone is legally protected with clearly stated responsibilities). House-sitting is suitable for people who can stay in a destination for at least a couple of weeks.

 

Personally, we haven’t done any house sitting, but we’ve met overlanders who did – and they had a good experience. If you have a slow pace and want to settle somewhere for a while, perpahs to work online, write more blog posts, work on your car or edit photos – and you don’t mind working around a house, it might be for you. Our friends stayed for a couple of weeks in a beautiful jungle house in Costa Rica, managing it and a few airbnb guests that were coming in, while the owners were away. The advantage of this is you basically stay in a house for free.

 

Other similar sites are House Carers and Luxury House Sitting

Workaway

This is another way how to potentially earn some money, or at least save some of it while traveling. It is more popular among backpackers, but it might be interesting for overlanders too.

 

Basically, you trade your skills for a place to stay and sometimes you receive a small pay too. Basically, you volunteer – but there are thousands of positions available, so this is not only the typical “work in a hostel”. You can mix drinks on a bar on the beach, help with building a website for a new hostel, stay on a farm (there’s WWWOF website for this, specifically), or do basically any kind of job needed. My favourite that I’ve found was to help with photography and social media for a new chocolate farm in Peruvian amazon region, in exchange for food, acommodation and unlimited chocolate… 🙂

 

You can search for the available positions for free on workaway.info (or a similar site), and when you want to apply for one, you usually have to pay some small yearly registration fee.