5 Tips for Maximizing Your Vanlife or RV Campsite Budget /// North Carolina – Texas

Some people call us cheap. The polite ones call us “frugal”. But I’ve come up with a new favourite description for us… “value-driven”! Most of our friends will still keep calling us cheap and that’s ok – we’ll take it as a compliment 😉

We’re always looking to get the best bang for our buck while travelling. It’s not always about what campsites and activities are cheapest, but rather what option presents the best value to us under the circumstances. Jeez – I already feel like I’m managing to make camping sound boring. But this is important, people!

In our last blog entry, we were hard at work in Cape Hatteras, NC. Since leaving, we’ve sped across the southeastern states at a speed that’s impressively fast for a van with “Slow” in her name. It’s not that there aren’t a lot of interesting things to see in these states – there are – but we were rather late leaving home and spent more time in Cape Hatteras than expected so we felt like we need to make up some time. It turns out, this leg of our trip from North Carolina to Texas perfectly exemplifies our top 5 tips for maximizing your campsite budget.

/// TIPS ///

Tip #1: Choose Your Campsite Based on Value
Budget options for a campsite range from FREE (yay!) to well over $50 USD per night. I’m using the word campsite very loosely here… referring to basically anywhere you might decide to park your van or RV overnight. We always pick a site based on our needs and wants in the present circumstance, which is always changing.

For example, if we’ve been on the road all day and just need a place to park overnight before getting back on the road in the morning, we’ll try really hard to park somewhere for free. On the other hand, if there are some campsites and trails in a National Park and we’d like to spend a few days exploring, we may splurge and spend $30-40 USD /night to camp in the park. Also, if we get REALLY dirty (it happens!), we may pay to camp somewhere with hot showers available. You get the idea.

Tip #2: The Best Ways to Find Cheap/Free Campsites
“Real” campgrounds and RV Parks are pretty easy to find with a quick online search but cheap and free campsites can be a lot harder to locate. We rely heavily on these 3 crowd-sourced apps/websites to find the best camping options in the locations we’ll be visiting. All of them contain data for various types of camping options but we tend to have favourites, depending on where we are and what we’re looking for.

  • iOverlander: This is our #1 go-to app – I swear we use it daily. We find it has the broadest range of campground options and has information for all of the Americas (and I think also the world).
  • Freecamping.net: We mostly use this app when we’re looking for rural camping options such as fishing camps, national forests and conservation areas – especially in the USA. It has information for Canada, USA and Mexico.
  • All Stays: All Stays is more geared toward RVers (less toward Vanlifers) and is the best app for finding overnight options in parking lots belonging to large retailers. It has information for Canada and US.

Tip #3: Have a “Plan B”
All of the apps/websites mentioned in Tip #2 are crowd-sourced. This is awesome because it means that information is constantly being added and updated by real campers. However, it also means there can be errors and information can become stale. More than once we’ve arrived at a campsite to discover that: 1) the campsite is now closed (damn!); 2) the GPS coordinates are wrong and the campsite is nowhere to be seen (idiots!); or 3) the owners or local authorities no longer allow people to stay overnight (pleeaaase!). As a result, when using these apps and websites we strongly recommend that you identify a ‘Plan B’ (and maybe even ‘C’) just in case.

Tip #4: Best Cheap/Free Sites for Forest/Rural Camping
Wilderness and rural campsites are our favourites. Here are a few of the places we’ve camped out in the wild:
• National Forests (USA)
• BLM, Crown and Municipal Lands (USA & CAN)
• Boat ramps, launches and ferry docks (USA & CAN)
• Beaches or beach parking lots (USA, CAN & MEX)
• Parking lots associated waterfalls, balenarios (private pools), etc. (MEX)
• Abandoned driveways tucked into the forest (CAN & USA)

Tip #5: Best Cheap/Free Sites for Urban/Suburban Camping
We usually only stay in urban or suburban sites when we are visiting the area or where there are no other convenient alternatives. Some of the best ones we’ve found are:
• Visitor Centre Parking Lots and Rest Areas (CAN, USA, MEX)
• Big box store parking lots – Walmart, Cracker Barrel, etc. (CAN, USA)
• Restaurants and hotels with gated grounds (MEX)
• Secure/supervised parking lots (MEX, USA)
• Parking lots for neighbourhood parks (USA, CAN, MEX)
• Pemex gas stations (MEX)
• Marinas (CAN, USA, MEX)

/// NORTH CAROLINA TO TEXAS ///

The first stop on our leg from North Carolina to Texas was Columbia, South Carolina. We’d never heard of this city until a few days earlier when we were perusing iOverlander. The app had an interesting looking entry for a campsite at the local boat ramp. It was a beautiful spot… no signs restricting overnight parking, quiet, a view of the river and the whole place to ourselves. It was an amazing place to wake up and eat breakfast with a view… not to mention only a few minutes off the Interstate and even closer to a Starbucks – bonus point!

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We could only enjoy the boat ramp for a short time as we had a long drive ahead to Montgomery Alabama. There were a few reasons for choosing Montgomery but the decision was solidified when I found a freecamping.net entry indicating that there was a private campground that housed wild goats and the Town of Spectre – from Tim Burton’s movie Big Fish. SOLD! The cost was $20 for the night ($10/person). We decided that the place sounded cool and we’d be spending some time there, so it would be worth it. The campground didn’t disappoint! Everything was just as described with goats, a weird movie set town, spooky forests and an amazing sunset.

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We spent the next morning exploring the campground and then headed into Montgomery. We were pleased to discover that Montgomery is a super tourist-friendly city. Free parking for visitors, very dog friendly, and an extremely helpful host at the Visitor’s Centre who told us all about the city’s history and oddly, detailed instructions about what to do in case of a tornado (apparently, they get a lot there). The tourist maps were great and we learned all about the city’s role in the Civil Rights movement and the legacy of Martin Luther King. We ate hot dogs at Chris’s… the oldest restaurant in the City. The hot dogs were delicious… surely Elvis, Hank Williams, Harry Truman and both President Bushes couldn’t be wrong! The owner may have even let Walter come in and hang out while we gobbled hot dogs… don’t tell!

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We had planned to go back to the Town of Spectre for another night but it was already dark and we had a long day of driving the next day so we opted for a cheapy night at Walmart. Marc looked it up on All Stays and the app confirmed that the Montgomery Walmart allowed campers. Unfortunately, the Manager said ‘not anymore’. She sent us to Burger King across the parking lot, saying they allowed people to camp in their lot. At Burger King they told us that their lot belonged to Walmart so they couldn’t give us permission. Very confusing. In the end, they told us it would be no problem if we just parked beside the 18-wheeler, which was apparently some sort of “no man’s parking land”. Not a glamourous spot but it made do and we kept $20 US in our pockets.

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The last over-night on the way to Texas was in Lake Charles, Louisiana. It took Slow Sally a good 12-hours to get there through rain, wind and generally disgusting weather. The pack was happy for most of the day until the last 1.5 hours when Marc got cranky and Walter got whiny… it was time to stop! iOverlander recommended staying over in the parking lot for Veteran’s Memorial Park, located right on the lake shore. It was a quiet night in the parking lot and we woke up to sunny skies, a beautiful view and a long waterfront pathway to explore. We hadn’t planned to stay and sightsee but exhausted from the days of travel, we took the morning off and explored the City. Lake Charles has a cute historic downtown – the type I just love stumbling upon. Morning lattes were scarce but other than that, it was ideal.

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So there you have it – 4 nights, 3 apps used, $20 US spent on camping and every type of campsite you can imagine. Next stop – Texas!

8 thoughts on “5 Tips for Maximizing Your Vanlife or RV Campsite Budget /// North Carolina – Texas

  1. Great read. Nat, I can see you intently poring over your research as your dad does. What is it they say about the apple and the tree? It’s fun to be an armchair adventurer with you. Love, Claire

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    1. Thanks Claire! Marc says you’re absolutely right about the apple and tree😉. And just like Dad, every once in a while I get a little too efficient with my research and we get a big surprise when we arrive at our destination 😆

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  2. GReat to read your blog. Almost felt like we were along with you as we had seen several of these places, too. We pull over like you do, but had not heard of a couple of these apps before, so will for sure check them out.

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