Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Stealth Van Camping

Camping isn't the bargain it once was.  I remember my mother and dad talking about how our family of six spent about $600 traveling around the US for a month, west coast to east and back.  We hit all the usual attractions including several days in Washington DC, camped everywhere we went, visited friends and family, and never spent a night in a motel or ate at a restaurant. That was in the early '70s.
Camping at Red's Meadow,  in 1974
Preparing for backpacking on the John Muir Trail
I'm on the right in a while t-shirt
Now fuel and food (and Vanagon repairs) are exponentially more expensive.  In Washington State, toll roads and bridges are something new and likely to increase in number.  Then there are campground fees which can run from $15 to $50 a night and more.

Access fees to public lands are now commonplace.  These fees help to cover shortfalls in state and federal budgets so we can continue to enjoy these areas and facilities.  I don't like paying all these fees, but I don't try to get around them.  If these recreation and wild areas close to public use, they are unlikely to re-open any time soon.  And if they are auctioned off for development or harvesting of natural resources, it's a huge loss to us now and to future generations.

In Washington state we have the Discover Pass which, according to their website grants these benefits:

The Discover Pass allows you to enjoy nearly 3 million acres of Washington state-managed recreation lands – including state parks, water-access points, heritage sites, wildlife and natural areas, trails and trailheads.

All for only $35 annually ($30 + $5 dealer fee). Signs are popping up in even in the most remote places prompting the visitor to display the pass prominently or risk a $99 fine.  It may be transferred between two vehicles.

For National Forests, there is the NW Forest Pass, which covers Washington and Oregon.  It's also $35 for the annual pass, and necessary for parking at any trail head, picnic area or boat launch in National Forest recreation sites.  It is transferable between vehicles in a household.  If you travel around many states, an inter-agency pass is available.

There's also the Washington State Dept of Fish and Wildlife Vehicle Access Pass which comes with a fishing or hunting license.  This allows access to state wildlife lands, but not Dept of Natural Resources areas or State Parks - you need the Access Pass for those.  Additional passes cover boating and winter sports and the Inland Empire Paper Company issues a pass to recreate on it's 116,000 acres in NE Washington and Northern Idaho.  I recently picked up a free pass from Puget Sound Energy to access 10,000 acres around the Wild Horse Wind and Solar Facility in Eastern Washington. If all this seems confusing, that's because it is and we've likely just seen the beginning of it.

So, what is a happy camper on a limited budget to do?  These work for me:

> Slow Down - Most vehicles, and especially brick-like Vanagons, can get substantially more miles per gallon at 55-60 mph rather than 65-75 or higher. You'll still get there - enjoy the trip as part of the adventure!  Note - if you are easily intimidated by hot semi breath inches from your back bumper or are offended by "the look" or "the bird" as others pass, this might not be the best course of action for you.

> Plan ahead for meals - Bring food to prepare from home, where you likely purchased it in a larger quantity, maybe on sale, maybe even with a coupon or two. If you normally buy groceries at the corner Handy Mart anyway, never mind.

> Camp on Bureau of Land Management and State Forest land - They maintain small campgrounds in many areas that are usually free or very low cost, or just find a wide spot with a view on a dirt road somewhere. You need to be somewhat self-contained as there will be no or very primitive facilities.  Depending on the state, you may need a pass as described above.  If you must have a camp fire, disperse the ashes and rocks (if you gathered some) when it's all cool.  And of course, take any garbage (your's and the inconsiderate slob's who was there before you) away when you leave.

> Practice Stealth Van Camping.  No hibachi grills, hammocks or sitting around the glowing embers of the campfire singing another chorus of kum-ba-ya here. The idea is to keep a low profile - close the curtains if you have some, lock the doors, turn out the lights.  If you have a Westy, keep the pop-top closed. Just get some rest and get on your way.

At a Northwest casino - lots of parking and maybe a cheap breakfast
Of course, you don't want to do this all the time. The campground experience is generally paramount in planning a getaway.  But say you are on your way to a destination.  You could arrive by nightfall, and pay the campground fee just to sleep.  Now, if you stealth camp that night, then arrive at your destination next morning feeling fresh and alive, you have the whole day ahead of you and extra $ in your pocket.  Or if you're on a several day trip to your destination, extra $$$.  Just saying...

Ready to go after sweet dreams and hot oatmeal at a rest area in Western Washington
Some places where you might Stealth Van Camp:

     Rest Areas - Most allow sleeping up to 8 hours and have restrooms.
     Truck Stops - Park out of the way of the trucks. Often have showers.  Check out Flying J.
     Wal Mart parking lot - Not allowed in some towns - watch the signs.
     CampingWorld - If there's one of these along your way they allow overnight parking.
     24-hour businesses - Just don't park right at the front door.
     Casinos - People coming and going at all hours.  May need to check with Security for permission.
     Hospitals - Lot's of people hang out there overnight.  Have a "story" ready.
     Hotel/Motel parking lots - Doesn't hurt to ask - they might even let you use the pool.
     Industrial parks - Larger cites have these. Works best if your vehicle resembles a work truck.
     Family / Friends' place - Remember that time you dropped them off at the airport at 4AM and had
        their car in your driveway all week while they were in Hawaii?  Well now they totally owe you
        one  (ok, maybe this doesn't apply to you, but I live near an international airport).

If police or security guards come knocking on your window during the night, be polite.  Explain your situation (on the road, needed a few hours of rest). If they tell you to move on, don't make a federal case out of it. Hit the road and find someplace else.

I lived in Westly for a short time.  It was kind of like camping, except that I had to get up and go to work every day (where I could also shower, so it wasn't that much of an inconvenience).

If you really get into this (some people live in their vans full time), check out Cheaperliving.com for loads of useful tips about living in your car, truck, van or RV.


  1. I love this post! We've stealth camped in our bus numerous times as well to avoid high camping fees ($35 is the cheapest you'll find in California now) but I much prefer camping without the need for stealthy-ness. National Forests are great places to free camp if they allow "dispersed camping," which they almost always do. Rules are similar to BLM land camping. Great blog - will follow!

  2. Jenn - Thanks! I miss camping in California. Especially around the San Bernardino National Forest (my grandparents had a dairy farm in Corona) and Yucca Valley, although it's probably changed some now - I haven't been back there in 15 years. Think it's about time to plan a trip south...

  3. awesome van... I enjoy your writing too

    1. Thanks Dominic - and thanks for following also!

  4. Great information, I didn't know that's true about walmart. I took notice of the 40 footer in the parking lot, with curtains pulled, yesterday in Austin, TX.

  5. In my experience, as long as there are no signs specifically prohibiting it, they're ok with it. Also Camping World parking lots are good if there happens to be one on your way.

  6. How nice of you to share all your camping experience. They are definitely great and practical camping tips and ideas.

  7. The $600 sounds inexpensive for now, but in today's dollars your parents spent the equivalent of $3,500!