How We Find Overnight Places On-The-Road

We spend the vast majority of our nights “free camping”. From Christmas 2014 to the time of writing this, late November 2015, we have visited 7 formal campgrounds, or other places, that we paid to spend the night. This is possible because our Berta is self-contained.

One of the few formal camping places we stayed at recently. In Brazil in Santa Marta.

One of the few formal camping places we stayed at recently. In Brazil in Santa Marta. Always good to get free WiFi and meet fellow overlanders, but we slept better the night after on a free site found nearby in an empty subdivision.

Introduction

There are basically two ways that people travel the Pan American with their own vehicles (excluding cyclists and motorbike riders).

One group does the trip in either in a small four-wheel-drive (a pick-up truck or a Land Rover/Landcruiser style vehicle) or in a small converted van. Due to limited space and load capacity, the set-up of these vehicles is usually not fully self-contained. Some might have a rooftop tent to sleep in, others a sleeping platform fitted into the back. Only a limited number of these carry a toilet or have shower facilities.

Then there are those, like us, who travel in larger vehicles; often much larger and heavier than ours, and usually built on a ‘real’ truck base. The truck chassis affords luxuries such as large water tanks, a fixed toilet, a large fridge, built-in cooking facilities (often including an oven) and sometimes, as the final luxury, even a washing machine. We often wish we had one!

But there is a price we pay for being self-contained: we use much more fuel than nimble small-to-medium sized 4×4s or vans – probably twice as much! And let’s not start on road tolls, maintenance, and other costs. Whether this evens out by having the option to use mostly free overnight places is open to discussion…

People in small vehicles need to stay at formal camping places more frequently, or occasionally spend the night in hostels. You simply can’t pop up your roof top tent in the middle of a city; if necessary we can always look for a quiet side street in a city to park and spend a night.

Although, we don’t like to overnight in noisy places, because we usually don’t sleep well, or sometimes, not at all! Our preferred places are away from bright street lights, traffic, barking dogs, and early roosters = away from densely built-up residential areas. This also means that we avoid large fuel stations with attached rest areas, an overnight option many other overland travellers seem to use a lot.

So where do we look for overnight places?

There’s no single answer to this question. Experience has taught us to tackle this almost daily search with a range of approaches. Most days one of them is successful but, on odd nights, we end up staying at places which are less than perfect.

Still one of our most favourite free camping sites, found by chance! Outside Cafayate in the quebrada.

Still one of our most favourite free camping sites, found by chance! Outside Cafayate in the quebrada. Nice walks right behind the camper.

1. Chance Discoveries

Since we usually don’t drive with a set destination at the end of the day, chance finds are often the best. For example: we might be driving along and notice a river bed, with a good access track and level dry banks; or we spot a nice level space just somewhere out in nature, with distance to the road. When we see something like this in the afternoon we almost always pull off the road and check it out. Many of these turn out to be our favourite overnight places.

I had a completely quiet night here - twice! My "private road" in a new subdivision in Concon, Chile.

I had a completely quiet night here – twice (on 2 occasions)! My “private road” in a new subdivision in Concón, Chile.

2. Empty New Development Sites

These are places we always look out for, although we hardly ever list these in our camping locations because they will almost certainly be short-lived options. You drive past such sites quite frequently: a new subdivision, all roads are done, but construction on buildings hasn’t started yet or is in its really early stages. You can often find good level ground or occasionally park right on the roads.
Careful: never use such sites if there is any indication that heavy earth moving machinery might still be in use, or if you could be hindering any construction work!

Camping behind an abandoned building near the PN Ischigualasto in Argentina.

Camping behind an abandoned building near the PN Ischigualasto in Argentina.

3. Abandoned Buildings

Closely related to the above but usually just one free standing unfenced building, which was obviously abandoned long ago. The usual indicators are smashed windows or missing roofing. Unfortunately these sites can be very trashy and are often too close to main roads.

A recent overnight spot at a soccer field in Obera, Argentina. I found this part of town by browsing though our GPS map.

A recent overnight spot at a soccer field in Obera, Argentina. I found this part of town by browsing though our GPS map.

4. Sports Fields

In Latin America these are mostly soccer fields. We use them occasionally, but are always careful not to drive onto a well-cared for flat green. But, if it’s a bumpy dirt lot with some rusty goal posts at each end, and not too many houses nearby, we have used them.

5. GPS Map

If we don’t find any of the above locations I often pull up my tablet and scroll through the GPS map. What I’m looking for are things like large parks, green areas, river banks, etc. Roughly half the time I am successful with this approach. We have found some really nice places by using this method, including our (unpublished) safe spot in Santiago de Chile, which we used on many occasions, for more than a year. At other times we waste a lot of fuel driving around, checking places out, and cursing the fact that our GPS maps don’t show contour lines (the ground is too steeply sloped for us to park), buildings (no open space), or fences (the nice river bank is all fenced in). And occasionally the neighbourhood just doesn’t feel right – more about this below.

Just a recent example from Brazil: you can see what I'm looking for (marker) when I try to find a overnight spot by browsing the GPS map.

Just a recent example from Brazil: you can see what I’m looking for (marker) when I try to find a overnight spot by browsing the GPS map.

Screen capture of iOverlander, the app for overland travellers.

Screen capture of iOverlander, the app for overland travellers. Dark green dots mark sites with a fee, light green free sites, there are also markers for mechanics, gas filling places, hostels, etc.

6. iOverlander

This is a popular free smart phone app, originally released in 2013 for iPhones only; the Android version has been available since mid-2015. Because we both own Android devices, we’ve only been running the app since September. Therefore, we are not really familiar with it yet and often simply forget about it. Also, since we travel slowly, listed places are often too far apart to be of any real use to us. Although, a couple of times we have found good spots with this app. Some listed places weren’t accessible for us (locked gates, height restrictions) or simply not to our liking.
Up to now iOverlander is our least used option, but the times we remember to open it are becoming more frequent.

Locations we have also used to stay overnight

We're often staying at a church overnight. We believe an added advantage might be that people respect church yards.

We’re often staying at a church overnight. We believe an added advantage might be that people respect church yards.

7. Parking Lots of Graveyards

These are often at the edge of a village, sometimes away from the road, and quiet. You might even find a tap with water. Parking lots of churches can belong in the same category (but check they don’t have a bell that chimes every hour).

We stayed overnight on the parking lot of the Jesuit mission in São Miguel, Brazil. This was a quiet spot at the edge of town.

We stayed overnight on the parking lot of the Jesuit mission in São Miguel, Brazil. This was a quiet spot at the edge of town.

8. Parking Lots of Tourist Sites

You can be lucky with these – they are away from traffic and quiet. Or you can be unlucky – they are too small, fenced in and the security guards won’t allow you to stay overnight, or they are right next to a major thoroughfare.
And, if you’re really lucky, you might even discover free Wi-Fi to hook into.

I had to go through our archive to find a photo of us camping at a "balneario". This was 2008 in Los Llanos in Colombia.

I had to go through our archive to find a photo of us camping at a “balneario”. This was 2008 in Los Llanos in Colombia.

9. Balnearios

Balnearios are basically places where people go for a swim when it’s hot. In Latin America these are mostly privately owned, large park-like grounds around a pool or dammed-up river. They usually have a restaurant, toilets, and other facilities. On our last trip through Central America we were always on the look-out for these. Often we had to explain, at some length, why we wanted to stay overnight, and usually it was up to us to offer some payment (US$5-10), or we consumed something in their restaurant. Be careful to check if the balneario operates late into the night. Some do, but most close at 9 or latest 10 pm.

Of course, there are numerous other places to stay overnight. This list only includes examples of those we seem to use most frequently…

Precautions

On the one hand, security should not be forgotten, although we believe that the most people are decent, friendly, and helpful. First and foremost we trust our gut feelings: if a place or neighbourhood doesn’t feel right, we move on; if locals or the police tell us the neighbourhood isn’t safe, we don’t stay!

On the other hand, we know of travellers who go to great lengths to remain hidden from everybody. They scout out a place in the middle of the day, set a GPS waypoint for it, and return in the dark of night without lights on – we find this a little extreme… We often park in full view of the entire neighbourhood and so far, have never been troubled. We have to admit that our Berta is also relatively difficult to break into. But we also believe that such openness offers some protection.

Places which become too popular with overland travellers, can pose a risk as well. Only a month before I wrote this, a story circulated on forums about a beach in Peru, where overlanders were attacked at nightfall, threatened with a pistol, had their windows smashed in, and only escaped because they could get from their living area into the driver’s seat, and thus managed to speed away. This was a location listed on iOverlander.

Whatever recommendation you find, on our lists or iOverlander or elsewhere, the decision to use any location will finally be up to you! Conditions change as the world is constantly changing…

How much better can it get? Clear vista of sunset and sunrise (time of photo) on a mountain outside San Pedro de Atacama in Chile.

How much better can it get? Clear vista of sunset and sunrise (time of photo) on a mountain outside San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. Only 2 dogs managed to find us somehow overnight, but they remained quiet.

Conclusion

As you can see from our list, and iOverlander, different people prefer different places for spending the night. Some look for nice facilities and easy access to a city centre or public transport; others want to be as far away from civilisation as possible. If possible, we prefer to be in a quiet spot, close to nature, but in some regions we encounter too many fences to get off the road. Some places are perfect, others less so, but we always find somewhere to sleep.

What is your preference?
Do you find lists, like ours, of any use?
Or do you always look for your own places? How do you go about this?
Is security a major concern for you? Or privacy? Or rather the price?
Please tell us in the ‘comments’ below! Maybe our readers, and we, can learn a thing or two from you…

Finally: don’t ask if travelling in a truck, like our Berta, is a better or cheaper way to experience Latin America than any kind of smaller vehicle. This is the most heated recurring discussion among overlanders. We believe this question will never lead to an all-encompassing conclusive answer!


You can look at and download the list of our camping locations here ! (Work in progress.)

Juergen

webmaster, main photographer & driver, second cook and only husband at dare2go.com. Freelance web designer with nearly 20 years of experience at webbeetle.com.au

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12 Responses

  1. Bob Clewley says:

    Hi

    Great article thanks.

    Just come back from a 4 week road trip in the US and used an app called Pocket Earth quite a lot. Not sure if it’s Andriod or not though.

    You can download the countries and buy the contour pack too. We found it really helpful. Even has good old Walmarts marked on it.

  2. Anda says:

    I’ve read your post with a lot of interest because I often envy you for traveling non-stop. To be honest however, I don’t think I would be able to give up my comfort and be on the road for so long. It takes a lot of courage and determination to be able to live in a large vehicle. If I were 30 years younger, who knows, maybe I’d do it too.

    • Juergen says:

      What shall I say to “If I were 30 years younger, who knows, maybe I’d do it too.”? We are both in our sixties and love it. The oldest overlanders we know of are close to eighty! I guess it’s rather the choices people make to fulfill their travel dreams.

  3. Paul L says:

    Juergen and Yasha, thank you for your wonderful website and excellent advice. Our 814d MB van is currently on route to Montevideo and we hope to spend about 8 months in South America. Fingers crossed we hope to bump into you guys, share travel tales and a vegetarian / vegan feast :)

    • Juergen says:

      Hi, Paul, thank you for your compliment!
      So you have an 814DA – I’m jealous already as this is my ‘dream overlanding vehicle’! 8 months for South America? Will that be enough or is there leeway to extend? We would love to meet you; our next destination is Bolivia, and after that slowly northwards through Peru. We are looking forward to the feast and exchange of stories. Have you seen our archive from the last trip?

  4. Rachel says:

    We tend to do a mixture of lucky finds, locals tips, other RV users and friend tips. Occasionally we consult online resources. If we have a good detailed map of the area that certainly helps save fuel searching.
    Viewpoints can be great, they often have a little car park or pull in, with a great view!
    It’s not so easy in England (Scotland is easy) and we occasionally use Certified Sites through the caravan club. They are cheap and have basic facilities, and are found everywhere. We certainly can’t ‘stealth camp’ in our rig.
    Height restrictions can often be a problem.

  5. Don Juane says:

    I recently drove to Central America in a 4WD drive vehicle and was shocked to learn I really didn’t need it on any of the routes I took. (Weather luckily was always cooperating.) I know you say not to ask which vehicle is better, but can you speak in percentages of how many places during normal travel that you need a high-rise vehicle as an absolute requirement? In other words can you actually maneuver through South America with say a conventional motor home, one that has a good 6′ overhang extension from the rear wheels where the “butt” here in the US drags quite frequently? I realize that the type of vehicle you have takes you basically anywhere you want to go but for someone who doesn’t want to invest in a specialized vehicle and is perhaps interested in taking an older conventional and less expensive model of motor home, how often would the roads be impassable visiting conventional points of interest? Thank you! P.S. Also, no one seems to address another issue of campers – where and how to dump the dumps. :-)

    • Juergen says:

      Okay – despite my statement that I don’t want a discussion about vehicle choice, here we go: yes, of course you can take an old standard RV on the trip. The shorter the rear overhang, the higher the ground clearance (look out for low hanging tanks!), the better. But consider: many don’t have decent locks on their overhead cupboards, so they might spring open on rough roads and empty their contents throughout the vehicle. A lot of furniture is simply stapled (we had that in our “quality” Bigfoot camper) and will fall apart after bumping over 1000s of miles of potholed roads (I was constantly repairing furniture joints). And finally of course you have a grey and (so-called) black water problem you mentioned, as these American rigs are designed for the convenience of RV parks with hook-ups or dumping stations…
      We have cassette toilet, which we can empty either into a normal toilet at any rest house, or occasionally tip out somewhere in nature (but the volume is much less than in holding tanks). We don’t use chemicals in the toilet, but instead installed a German designed exhaust fan system with a carbon filter. Our grey water goes into a 30-litre portable jerrycan; same deal: on campgrounds we empty this into a toilet, otherwise it feeds the plants. Both usually get emptied on a daily basis!

      • George F says:

        Thanks for answering one of my questions too, where to dump the dump :-)
        Do you find lots of rest houses? are there public restrooms like in the USA? by not using chemicals doesn’t it smell bad when you dump?

        • Juergen says:

          Not that often real “rest houses” but frequently large fuel stations with attached restrooms along major highways or thoroughfares. In most countries these provide a popular spot for a toilet break and are used by locals.
          Yes, it smells when you dump. Obviously the worse the longer the time between dumps. I usually try to find a well ventilated stall… If we can hope for daily dump opportunities we often add more liquid, like our dish washing water, to thin down what’s in the toilet. We also try to wash it out with a water-chlorine solution when possible; this is best done in an empty toilet during a day of travel on (semi-)rough roads. Finally: we have an odor filter, German technology, from SOG.

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