Ah, a quiet life in the country. Nothing but you, a warm summer breeze, a pitcher of lemonade, and a bottle of Southern Comfort…
Sounds nice! And it certainly is when you come across that hidden oasis. Then there’s the rest of the time. Let’s be honest, your RV’s not sporting concrete walls. Comparable to the walls of any sitcom-style Brooklyn apartment, when the neighbors get loud you can hear them in Hi-Fi. Finding a good night’s sleep on the road can sometimes be a challenge, especially when you’re first starting out.
Here’s what we’ve discovered about noise, travel, and where the twain meet thus far:
- Parking Lots
- Rest Stops
- Travel Plazas
- RV Parks
- City / County Parks
- State Park Campgrounds
- National Park Campgrounds
- Public Land
This is not an exhaustive list, and there are certainly exceptions to every case. If you’re seasoned, please note any great exceptions in the comments below! Just getting started? Here are some biased generalities that, for better or worse, are what we experienced on the road.
Often considered the bottom rung of “dry camping,” parking lot surfing entails pulling into a shopping center parking lot in the evening, getting a few hours of sleep, and then moving on in the morning. So the question is… how much quality rest can you actually get in a parking lot?
Looking into it, you can find a pile of commentary floating around the web condemning “Wally World parking” and saying things like “if you can’t afford $25 for a campground you shouldn’t own an RV.” Well I’m happy to report that you’re just as likely to have nightly neighbors driving a half-million dollar land-yacht towing a Jag as you are to be surrounded by old beaters. It’s not about the money. It’s about getting off the road for a few hours of rest without the hassle of finding a campground.
Here in the U.S., RVers frequent stores like Walmart, Sam’s Club, and Cabela’s. That generates a lot of revenue, and these retail chains tend to return in kind, allowing travelers to overnight along the edge of their lots. Some provide dedicated RV parking. Notably, Cabela’s has extra-wide RV spots, and many locations even offer their customers a free-to-use dump station.
Check with the store manager to make sure they’re okay with it and that there aren’t any city ordinances against sleeping in a vehicle. You want to avoid a knock at the door, light in your eyes, and a “what can I do for you, officer?” moment. Asking the store manager goes a long way. When you get there, stay inside, keep your shades drawn, and keep your slides in.
What’s it like sleeping in a parking lot?
The only disturbances you’re likely to encounter will come from the nighttime sounds common to any urban area. It’s common for teenagers to drive past with their music turned up too loud. 24-hour stores have round-the-clock customers. A few slamming car doors are normal throughout the evening and car alarms do go off from time to time. Also, unless the parking lot is exceptionally large, you’ll probably be buddied up with other RVs or semi-trucks, so you can expect some generators running around dinner time and occasional engine idling throughout the evening.
I grew up in the city and Valerie in the country. We have different tolerances for cityscape sounds, but a couple of techies like us have a common love for the sound of a computer fan lulling us to sleep. Similarly, after you’ve been on the road a while, the sound of an engine idling can become almost comforting.
One notable exception to parking lot pseudo-tranquility are the jack-holes. These types are the real-world equivalent of forum trolls. They drive in circles around overnight trucks and RVs, laying on their horn the whole way. They have nothing better to do than bother people, so they do. If you parking lot surf enough times, you will run into them. As with most trolls, they typically have no interest in actual confrontation (particularly with the police or an angry trucker), so after weaving in and out for a minute they usually just drive away.
Rest stops are different everywhere you go. Larger ones near state borders will have welcome centers. Medium sized ones will have flush toilets and maybe some snack machines. Some are nothing more than a pull-off vista with 4 or 5 car spaces. In any case, it’s best to know ahead of time if you can sleep at state rest areas by checking at a welcome center or by calling local authorities. Many rest areas will have “No Overnight Parking” signs posted, but just because there isn’t a sign doesn’t mean that you’re allowed to stay.
If you decide to wing it, your best bet is to follow what the truckers are doing, since your rig will probably best fit in one of the long truck spaces next to them. If there’s a line of 20 trucks at 11pm, and they’re all obviously sleeping, then you’re probably okay. A police officer is not likely to rouse each and every trucker from their slumber. That said, use your best judgment.
When considering a spot for the night, always keep safety in mind. Some of the more remote rest areas—particularly the “scenic view” turnoffs—are hidden and very quiet. Sometimes a little too quiet. Stick to the larger rest areas with lots of other people and regular police patrol.
What’s it like sleeping at a rest stop?
Given that you’ll likely be surrounded by trucks, as far as noise goes, you can expect a lot of engine idling. Other than that there’s generally not much to hear. Rest stops are typically built a good distance from surrounding neighborhoods and rural areas.
Keep in mind that rest areas are first-come-first-serve. It’s expected that you only stay as long as you need to. If you spend the night and are still there the following afternoon, be prepared. You might be not-so-kindly asked to move along.
Late one night, on a 1000-mile motorcycle ride, I tried to get a couple hours of shut-eye at a rest stop—just propped a bag up on the handlebars for a pillow, kicked my feet up on the saddlebags, and closed my eyes. I wasn’t laying there more than 15 minutes before one of Washington State’s finest asked me to hit the road. There was no apparent rule against sleeping. Many others were peacefully snoozing in their cars. It seemed my “biker appearance” had the potential to “scare other patrons” though. The moral of the story: appearances matter. If you stick out or look like a potential nuisance they may roll up the welcome mat. Keep your rig clean, dress for social encounters, keep to yourself, and you should be okay.
The term “Travel Plaza” refers to those big, 24-hour, highway-side pull-offs with fuel, a couple of restaurants, and a massive amount of truck parking. It also refers to some of the larger gas stations, like Flying-J or Loves. These places often have shower facilities, laundry, and a propane filling station (as well as lots of truck parking). We’re talking about new-age truck stops.
What’s it like sleeping at a travel plaza?
Travel plazas are a great option for a peaceful night’s rest. They typically even work in areas with city ordinances against sleeping in your car. They have their own private lots and can act as a haven for large vehicles in an otherwise over-crowded area. Additionally, they make for a fairly secure option (especially when they have dedicated RV parking up front). Usually there are security cameras and tons of people. As a perk, it’s also nice to grab a cup of joe and a donut before hitting the road in the morning.
As for the company, my uncle was a trucker so maybe I’m biased, but I’ve found most truckers are pretty nice guys (and gals). Even if they are sleep deprived, have a scruffy appearance, or greet you in their pajamas, they’re usually just down-to-earth folk with a job to do. Other than some close calls on the road, I’ve never had a problem with them. Don’t give ’em any crap and they can make for a fun chat at the diner or a good night’s neighbors.
Disclaimer: As with anyone you may run into anywhere, if they look dangerous, are yelling obscenities—or worse, have a obscenities tattooed on their forehead—tread lightly.
Vocabulary Lesson: Non-RVers often don’t know the difference between an “RV Park” and a “Trailer Park”, so let’s clear that up right now. It comes down to the type of rigs, residents, and amenities. RV parks are not something out of TV’s latest crime drama. They don’t usually allow full-time residents, though many will allow reserving a space for the season. RV parks are primarily filled with motorhomes and 5th-wheels, instead of extended, skirted perma-trailers. The majority of people you meet are travelers, retirees, and families on weekend retreat. Nightly rates include a swimming pool, playground, dog run, or whatever other amenities the park has to offer. Sometimes they even have a “continental” breakfast. We prefer breakfast in our own kitchen, but it’s nice to stop in for the coffee and to chat with some fellow travelers before getting back on the road.
Now that that’s out-of-the-way… RV parks are your every-day, run-of-the-mill, pay-as-you-go, full-hookup option. They’re great if you need a few days to unwind, plan the next leg of your trip, or just get some work (or writing) done. If you have a larger rig, an RV park will probably be the most accommodating. Some even have 80ft tractor trailer spots. Additionally, they often have the convenience of a camping store where you can pick up items like firewood and ice.
What’s it like sleeping at an RV park?
Safety wise, higher-end RV parks are usually one of the best options. There are a good number of regulars and possibly some seasonal residents. They also usually have a long list of rules nobody wants to break for fear of getting ejected. Good parks have round-the-clock golf cart patrols and some are even gated (with a security code or key card).
The phrase “a lot of people” and RV parks go hand in hand, especially during the summer (i.e. camping season). You have to keep in mind that your neighbors are on vacation, particularly if you’re there on the weekend. Expect BBQs, kids, and barking dogs.
Here’s some camping math for you:
- BBQs + Kids = Bones everywhere
- BBQs + Dogs = Park full of hungry dogs
- Kids + Dogs = Off-leash mayhem
…so if you’re traveling with furry friends of your own, keep your eyes and ears open. Our little barkers are happy to give you an earful, but they may quiet down if you bring them BBQ. So come on by!
To prevent the daytime craziness from spilling over into late night, practically all RV parks have “quiet hours” posted. These average 10pm–8am, so you can usually expect a peaceful night’s sleep. You may find yourself parked near the loud campfire drinking group. If you don’t want to join them, rest assured that they usually peter out before midnight.
City / County Parks
Let me just say that I love city and county parks. They come with most of the benefits of an RV park but with a lower average nightly rate. They are usually located in the nicer (or more scenic) parts of town. Sometimes they are located right in the middle of an otherwise inaccessible metropolitan area. Best of all, staying there provides funding back to the local community.
City and county parks aren’t usually gated because they contain day use areas for the surrounding community, so they’re often patrolled by the local police department. Pools are uncommon due to maintenance costs. They almost always have a large playground and covered picnic areas to cater to families and larger groups.
What’s it like sleeping at a county park?
Because these community parks aren’t generally listed as “RV Parks” or “Campgrounds” they’re not always as crowded as other parks in the area. However, they may provide the same RV hook-ups and tent camping options as their commercial counterparts, and usually provide wider spaces, better views, and local neighbors.
While the charred meat, children, and canine companions are just as common as everywhere else, the late-night campfire sessions are nearly non-existent. That might be a bummer if you’re the social type, but it makes for a peaceful evening and a good night’s rest.
State Park Campgrounds
State park campgrounds aren’t my favorite option, so I’m just going to get the pain points out-of-the-way first. To put it bluntly, I hope you like fish… because they pack campers in like sardines. Okay, okay, that’s not entirely fair. But if you find yourself in a state park campground mid-season expect low water pressure and low voltage power issues.
State parks themselves are great and we highly recommend grabbing a day pass on occasion. They’re often built around gorgeous waterfalls, canyons, state-run beaches, historic landmarks, and hiking trails galore. On the rare occasion, a park might let you set up camp just anywhere off the road. In that case, you’re set for a sweet night of camping. But if the campground’s your only option, well… just don’t go in with unreasonable expectations.
Because of the beautiful surroundings, everyone and their mother (who they’ve probably brought with them) wants to see the place. It’s not unusual for a state campground to have hundreds of spots. It’s also not unusual for almost all of them to be booked weeks in advance.
The campground roads are typically pretty tight—even without the inevitable extra unauthorized cars parked along the sides. Since you’ll likely be parking between trees (and on their roots), a larger rig is difficult in these scenarios. Scout for a good site or as the ranger before you get assigned to a nightmare.
What’s it like sleeping in a state park campground?
If you’re planning on staying a few days, a state park can offer some of the best family fun around. There’s tons to see and explore and you can do something completely different every day. You can and should expect to be tired come bed time. With so many people around, a lot of campfires burn every night. However, I’ve found them to be quieter than RV park campfire groups. Most state parks have strict no alcohol policies, so there aren’t many people drinking outdoors and the parties don’t usually get loud.
You can expect to hear the occasional screech-owl at night, or maybe even a coyote howling in the distance. The nearby wildlife tends to be pretty tame since the crowds and fires keep most creatures away. Bears aren’t as afraid of people as most other animals, so when you’re in bear country, remember to keep your food packed away in the fridge or an air-tight cooler in your RV before you go to bed. Most bears haven’t associated RVs as a source of food yet, but it’s not uncommon to hear about one breaking into a car to snag a candy bar off the dash.
National Park Campgrounds
National parks draw millions of visitors every year, but that doesn’t mean their campgrounds will be as crowded as their state park equivalents. While state parks make for convenient family getaways, national parks are usually larger and require more time and planning. Additionally, they tend to have more campground options spread throughout the park, so unless you absolutely want to stay right next to the big amazing thing that everyone’s there to see, you can probably find one that’s not so crowded just a short drive up the road. National parks are also more likely to provide public land use (see below), so you are also more likely to be able to pull off and boondock anywhere you like—as long as it’s not near an established camping area.
You’ll usually have the option to book online, but if not, you may have to find the local forest ranger to book a specific campsite. This deterrent can keep a lot of vacationers away from the smaller campgrounds and makes it more convenient for licensed hunters and fishers to find a spot for the weekend. If you’re the outdoorsy type, this might be just the crowd you’re looking for, but given the larger expanses, don’t expect a lot of social encounters.
National parks usually build their campsites in varying sizes, spaced well apart, around wide roads. Because they’re further out than their state-run counterparts, you don’t see as many stray vehicles parked along the roadside. Every campground is different, but on average, you’ll have an easier time getting in and out with that 40ft 5th-wheel. Keep in mind that some campsites are tent-only.
Security is primarily run by the park service, so expect to have rangers driving through periodically to make sure there’s no trouble. Generally the rules are a little more lax in national parks than in state parks, but rangers can be very nosy about how you’ve set up your fire ring and will want to ensure that you don’t leave any trash lying around. As always, try to leave your site cleaner than you found it (pay it forward).
What’s it like sleeping in a national park campground?
National forests have a lot of surrounding wildlife, and you’re strongly discouraged from interacting with it, both for the animals’ safety and your own. The rangers don’t drive by that often, so if you encounter a mountain lion, you could be in for trouble. Travel in groups when you’re out and about. Carry a snake bite kit and a reliable air horn. If you aren’t the type to use firearms, bear spray serves as a good supplementary defense system. (You didn’t hear it from me, but works to deter for bears and bad people.)
National parks are tranquil places during the day, but they really come alive at night. Because of all the critters, it can actually get pretty loud. From a babbling brook to the constant hum of insects, the twittering and screeching of various night birds, the snapping of twigs, rustling of leaves, and howling and growling of larger creatures—you can be in for an earful. It’s pretty amazing, whether you love nature or not, but it can also make for a sleepless night if you have young children or someone on board who’s not used to camping, so keep the evening’s audience in mind when choosing a location.
You can find hundreds of odes to federal public land from countless RVers across the net, and I’m certainly not here to diminish the value of their experiences. I, myself, wrote an article dedicated to the importance of preserving free access to our public lands (seriously… read it… it’s an important congressional issue). But saying “I like public land” is like saying “I like free lunch.” Of course you do… if what’s on the menu suits your palette.
When an RVer talks about public land, they’re referring to off-the-grid, undeveloped national forests, deserts, and wildlife preserves, in which you can pull off the road at just about any point, drive near or far, and set up camp pretty much anywhere you darn well please. There’s no better way to get in touch with nature.
Safety Notice: There’s also no better way to have a 127 Hours moment. We encourage spreading your wings and expanding your horizons. Get out there and see the world. But if this is full-timer week 1, please realize that camping 20 miles from the nearest phone and 80 miles from the nearest hospital is swinging without a safety net. Stay near the major roads until you’ve gotten a handle on things and you’re sure your rig is up to the task.
So what’s so fab about docking in the boonies? Well my good sir or madam, it’s just about the last bastion of real freedom you can find. It’s a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. You just don’t know what adventures you’re going to find until you get there. I mean, c’mon… it’s nature.
Federal public lands are a great inheritance that we have received from previous generations and something we need to preserve for generations to come. They encompass millions of acres of free to use—for up to 14 days at a time in most places—mostly unmaintained wilderness coast-to-coast across the USA. They’re amazing in that they contain something for everyone. Your particular something may be in New Mexico or Michigan. Don’t be discouraged if you have to travel to find it.
What’s it like sleeping on public land?
Sleeping in unadulterated nature is awesome. However, it’s too enormous a concept to narrow down to a specific set of noises. Start with the sounds of every insect and animal that might live in the area. If it’s hunting season, tack on a healthy dose of gun fire. If you find yourself on Utah’s Salt Flats you might even hear a drag race or two.
Nobody can tell you exactly what to expect. But, there’s plenty of space to have a good time. If you want peace and quiet, find a nice spot in a wildlife preserve next to a lake… preferably one without alligators.
The long and short of it is that the world is more than just something to see. It’s a loud and sometimes scary place, night and day, but that’s awesome in its own right. A big part of RVing is appreciating the outside world for what it is and getting a thrill out of doing something you didn’t know you could do. So get a good night’s sleep, get an early start, and spend tomorrow expanding your horizons with the sights and sounds the great expanses have to offer. Engage!