Best Places for Vanlife
After living and traveling in a van full time for a long time, we know a lot about the best places for vanlife. We moved into our 2017 Ram Promaster Campervan in May of 2018. We had it for a few months and had taken it on a few short trips. It didn’t take long for us to realize it was the best thing that ever happened to us and that we wanted to live in it full time. TO read more about how we chose the Promaster, check out our blog post!
We sold our house and moved into the van a few months after it was done being built. Not many months later, we quit our jobs and hit the road full time. We’ve been all over the western United States, the MidWest, Canada, Baja, and have dreams of so much more! We’re definitely not slowing down anytime soon!
So, after all of that traveling, what are the best places for vanlife? A lot of what makes a place “the best” has to do with your priorities. As vanlifers, we look for several things:
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Campground fees add up fast. We prefer to camp for free on public land such as BLM or National Forest. Our favorite places have easy access to free public land. Most importantly, public land that is accessible in our van and not super crowded. Some public land can only be reached with a 4×4 rig, which we don’t have. Other areas are super easy to get to, which makes them crowded. Something in between those options is ideal!
Access to Showers/Water
Most places don’t have free showers, but a river or a lake is a great way to rinse the grime of a day’s adventure off before bed. It’s a bonus when we can find a shower for a few bucks, or a free rinse shower at the beach!
We’re out here to have fun. Our recreational hobbies include everything from hiking, biking, fishing, surfing, and rock climbing. If an area has one, or several, of these activities, we are stoked. We stop in cities to check out good food and resupply, but for the most part, we are looking for outdoor fun!
Cool Vibes/Community = BEST PLACES FOR VANLIFE
Cool mountain towns and dusty desert cities can be hit or miss when it comes to culture. Some small towns aren’t super welcoming, resenting the fact that their town has become “best place to hike” or some infamous magazine headline. Others embrace tourism because it brings new and diverse life to their town, welcoming outsiders with open arms. The best towns have it down to a science where newcomers are welcome, but there’s not a tourism billboard on every corner, conveying a secret small-town vibe. We look for cool breweries, fun ice cream shops and great public spaces. We don’t eat out a lot though, if you’re curious how we cook in our van, check out this blog post here!
Given that criteria, we’ve identified a few really cool communities that are on our list of BEST PLACES FOR VANLIFE.
Black Hills, South Dakota
While South Dakota is on everyone’s radar for Mount Rushmore, it’s one of our favorite places for vanlife for another reason: rock climbing. In our opinion, South Dakota is sport climbing’s best kept secret. There’s free camping & a pit toilet right off of a main road. It’s some of the easiest access you can ask for. With well protected routes that range from beginner to advanced, there’s something for everyone to climb in the Mount Rushmore and Needles area.
Not only that, but you can drive down the road to the KOA campground for unlimited pancakes for $2.99 every single day. This area does lack a little culture, since it’s founded on the tourism activity coming to see Mount Rushmore. But the local community is friendly and welcoming.
The mountain biking mecca of the west, Moab has been one of our favorite locations for over a decade. What Moab lacks in free, accessible camping close to town, it makes up for in a huge supply of awesome campgrounds that are reasonably priced. During the busy months, it can be impossible to find a campsite. Since most campsites are first come, first serve, it can be a pain to get one. Between the river, the mountain biking trails, and access to the La Salle mountains, Moab has enough recreational activities to keep you busy for a lifetime. As it’s gotten busier, the local culture is less tolerant of tourists. Visiting in the off season gives you insight to a laid back, desert culture that Moab locals are known for. And these are some of the many reasons why Moab is one of the best placed for vanlife.
You may not have heard of this tiny mountain town, but it’s heaven on earth for people pursuing outdoor adventure all four seasons of the year. It has epic ski resorts in the winter and access to some of the most beautiful trails in the summer. Not to mention, there is so much accessible public land in Idaho, it’s unreal. In addition, it is relatively easy to find free camping. Lastly, McCall is one of the best places for vanlife because it’s such a great town. Although it has its share of tourist traps , locals are incredibly friendly and welcoming. Plus, there is a place called Ice Cream Alley that is home of the Mountain Scoop-sized ice cream cones and it is AMAZING!
Upper Peninsula, MI
If I had to narrow it down to one town in the UP, we’d have to choose Marquette, MI. But to be honest, the entire upper peninsula is a vanlifer heaven. Copper Harbor has world class mountain biking, free camping within a few miles of the trailhead and decent beer for a small town. Although Copper Harbor has terrible cellular signal and almost no services to speak of, it is a beautiful town with a free bike wash station, public bathrooms and free wifi at the visitor’s center.
As for Marquette, their mountain biking trails are some of the most fun that we’ve ever ridden. What it lacks in free public land for camping, it makes up for with a public park that has a rinsing station at the beach. Although it’s cold water, it’s nice to take a quick rinse after a long, humid day riding. Since Marquette is a college town, there are tons of great breweries and restaurants to choose from as well. All in all, if you don’t mind sleeping at WalMart, Marquette is one of the best places for vanlife.
While definitely not a small town, Bend Oregon is perhaps the perfect place for vanlife. Seemingly unlimited public land within a 10 minute drive of downtown makes it easy to find a place to sleep every night after a full day of adventuring. Don’t worry about spending half of the day trying to find a campsite, giving you more time to explore. There’s also a ton of outdoor activities like hiking, mountain biking, and hot springs. To top it off, the river runs right through town and has a whitewater park. Completing this picture perfect mountain town, there are restaurants, breweries, farmers markets and an awesome, down-to-earth culture. And the best part? There is an epic vanlife event at the end of the summer called Descend on Bend that every nomad will love!