The wheres, whys & hows of wild camping around Europe in a motorhome
I have to admit that it took us quite a long time to really understand the concept of wild camping. Our first ‘off site’ overnight stay was in a sports centre car park in Luxembourg- not exactly ‘wild’. Completely unplanned, out of necessity and pretty scary. (Read about it here). Apart from getting very little sleep, it was a successful overnight park up: we weren’t asked to move on & we were safe- the two most important parts of ‘wild camping’. As I said though, we didn’t get much sleep: we were nervous about being there, kept waiting for a knock on the door and it was on quite a noisy industrial estate. We didn’t wild camp again until we got to Croatia, for one night in October, then when we got to Greece that’s nearly all we did. For the 5 weeks we were in Greece we paid for maybe one week of campsites. It was glorious and we completely fell in love with wild camping. It certainly helped that we were there out of the tourist season so we had most places to ourselves.
There’s lots of great information online about wild camping. I’ll include a few links at the end. This particular blog is about our experiences and what we’ve learned from the past 9 months of full time living in our motorhome. If you’re searching for more information one thing to know is that wild camping can be called free camping, stealth camping, parking up or, in the US ‘boon docking’ and it doesn’t have to be in the ‘wild’. As I said above, our first night was in a sports centre car park in Luxembourg & the second was outside a guest house in Croatia (with the owner’s permission). Lots of towns, especially in France, Spain and Portugal have free aires, or parking areas with water & waste disposal, that are ideal for one or two nights stay.
My first & most important tip would be to stay safe. Wherever you decide to stay, for however long, make sure you feel safe there. We have stopped at a few places, that have been recommended to us, or are on a parking app and have not felt safe, so we’ve moved on. If you don’t feel safe you are no going to sleep and it’s just not worth taking the chance.
Secondly: Know your van. We live & travel full time in our Fiat Bessacarr motorhome, it has lots of things that perhaps a camper van or van conversion might not have (built in bathroom, full kitchen, water storage etc) that helps us to wild camp for longer, or in a bit more ‘luxury’. On the other hand, we are quite obviously travelling in our home. We’re easy to spot in a car park or wild camping place where a van might blend in a bit more. We are also big! The van is 7.5m long plus we have a bike rack on the back that takes us to about 8m. We need two empty car parking spaces in front of each other when we go to the supermarket, for example. We are also nearly 3m high so we can’t fit in most underground car parks. After one incident of nearly getting stuck entering an underground car park in Croatia, we don’t even try now. Know your dimensions and your van’s capabilities. We have our dimensions (height, width, length & weight) along with our number plate printed on a piece of card that lives in the visor above the driver’s seat. It has been so useful on lots of occasions (trying to drive through tunnels or over bridges) to have that information right there.
Know where you & your van are safe to drive. It took a good couple of months for Callum to feel comfortable driving down winding mountain roads or narrower, off road places. We are still very careful about where we drive and park though, especially after it’s been raining. Our van does weigh just under 3.5 tonnes and is not easy to move if it gets stuck. A lesson we learned after we got stuck in the mud, after a thunder storm, at a campsite in Albania and had to be towed out!
The second part of know your van is know your capacity limits ie how long you can wild camp for. We usually try to wild camp for about a week then we find a camper stop or park up where we can empty the toilet & grey water and fill up the fresh water. We also try to have a proper shower and do some laundry at this point too so it doesn’t accumulate and I like clean sheets! During the coronavirus quarantine we were self isolating; wild camping next to a lake in Spain for two weeks. We were right at our full capacity for everything by then: toilet, water etc. I’d started washing pants & t-shirts by hand and we’d filled the water tank (that we don’t drink) from the lake a couple of times too- to wash dishes & ourselves. Our usual weekly routine works well but it’s good to know that we have that extra fews days if necessary.
Our favourite app for finding great parking spots is park4night. It’s free, available on most devices, easy to use and has made wild camping possible for us. You don’t have to spend ours driving around when you’re tired and it’s starting to get dark, the information is there for you. After you download the app you can choose places near you, input a certain place name or just search on the map. It shows places to park up & to stay overnight including camper stops, aires, campsites and wild camping spots. You can also find places to park just for the day, where to get water, to fill with LPG and to do laundry. Most of the places have reviews and photos, which is especially helpful if you have a bigger motorhome like ours. As I said, we don’t always fit in one parking space or in underground car parks etc. You can also read the reviews and look at the photos to check out the terrain. There is a separate category for 4x4s or off-roading but sometimes the places added as ‘parking spots’ aren’t always accessible for larger/heavier vehicles.
We also find Google maps really useful. Not just for directions and planning our journeys but also for parking places. The park4night app conveniently works with Google maps to direct you to the parking places. We also like to switch to the satellite view to see exactly what the parking areas and the roads leading up to them are like. As I said above; we drive a large vehicle and although the parking places themselves may be suitable for us, sometimes the drive up there isn’t. A great example is our journey up Mt Olympus to the restaurant where we eventually had dinner and spent the night. The tiny, narrow streets of the route from Google maps were very much not suitable for our motorhome (although navigated expertly by Callum) so we found another way up, which was also trepidatious but much easier than the first. You can see a video of it on our YouTube channel- prepare to hold your breath often!
Be aware of where you are. Different countries have different rules for wild camping. Some allow sleeping in your vehicle overnight but no ‘camping behaviour’ (putting out chairs or awnings), others welcome wild camping nearly everywhere and then in other countries you are only allowed to stay at official, paid campsites or camper stops. Do your research & know the rules before you go. There are heavy fines in many places for breaking the rules. Also keep an eye open for signs and local information. If there is a ‘no motorhome’ or ‘no camping’ sign it’s best to avoid that place, even if it IS on your app. Rules change and maybe what was allowed before isn’t now. There’s no point annoying the locals or the police just so you can stay somewhere for one night. We sometimes bring our bikes inside the van if we are wild camping in a city, so we don’t have to listen out for someone stealing them off the rack during the night. It’s one of the reasons that we chose folding e-bikes, so that they can fit through the habitation door. If you don’t have room to do that make sure anything on the outside of your van is fully secured & check it before you got to sleep. There’s nothing more annoying than lying awake listening out for everyone who walks by because you’re worried about something being tampered with or stolen. And most importantly, as I said before, keep safe. If you don’t feel safe, don’t park there. Move on.
Be prepared to ask. One thing that we learned during our time in Greece is that people are usually happy for you to park in their business car park if you are spending money with them. If we’re wild camping, or not paying for accommodation, we try to spend the money that we would have spent at a campsite on eating out and putting it back into the local economy, especially into small businesses. We spent quite a few nights staying in the car parks of restaurants or bars if we just said “We’d love to eat here and have a few drinks. We can have an extra drink or two if we can park overnight in your car park”. Everyone we asked said that it was fine. It probably helped that we were travelling through Greece in December, well out of the tourist season, so they were happy for our custom. In Croatia we parked at a spot from the park4night app that was the car park of a guest house, just down the road from Plitvice National Park. The guest house was closed to customers but the owner was happy for us to stay the night as we had asked nicely & would be leaving first thing in the morning. We did have the fright of our life from their tame ‘wolf’ though!
Be prepared. The one time we had a bad wild camping experience was in Luxembourg. We had driven all day, were tired and got to the campsite too late to check in so we had to find somewhere else to spend the night. This meant that we were rushing around, stressed and just wanted to go to sleep. Now we try to plan ahead, using the app to find a place that is suitable for us. Sometimes what looks great on the app isn’t as good when we get there, or we can’t fit, so we have a back up that is close that we can move to. We try to get to our parking spot before it gets dark so we can have a little look around the area, know where we are parking and make sure it is safe. We have had to park after dark a few times and are surprised to find what we are parked right next to the following morning (bins that are being emptied earrly in the morning in Greece, for example).
Also try to make sure that you and your vehicle are prepared for a wild camping night: have enough of everything that you’ll need so you can just park up and relax. There’s nothing more annoying than realising you’ve run out of something or your toilet is full after you’ve found a great place to park. Prepare your van for moving before you go to bed. Put things away in cupboards, do the washing up etc. If we need to move on during the night we want to be able to get up and go straight away. This is the reason that we choose not to drink alcohol when we are wild camping, it’s just not worth the risks.
Another reason for arriving at places before dark is to enjoy nature, the scenery and especially the stunning sunsets. A huge benefit of wild camping is that you are often away from other people, their noise and light pollution. We love sitting out whilst watching the sun set and the sky turn all the colours of the rainbow. It really is magical and never gets old, no matter how many times you see it. It’s different every night!
Be a good human. This is one of the things that makes me most angry and sad: how selfish some people can be. Lots of great camping places have been closed to wild camping because of selfish human behaviour and there is just no need for it. If you are going to wild camp then plan ahead how you will do it and what you will need. How will you got to the toilet? How are you going to dispose of any mess or rubbish? How are you going to eat/cook your food? Making a fire is not permitted in many places for a whole list of reasons, but mostly because of fire safety. For example wild camping/overnight sleeping in your vehicle is permitted in most places in Spain but camp fires are not allowed because of the risk of forest fires. Be sensible & conscientious. If you make a mess or cause damage that will likely affect the people who come after you. Even better make it your mission to leave places BETTER than you find them. I keep a long ‘litter picker’ and bin bags in the van and pick up litter wherever we stop then take it to the next bin. We have cleaned whole beaches as we travel around. We have the time to do it, so why not? Let’s leave the world better than we find it ❤
Waste management. A really important part of wild camping is how you will manage your waste. Depending where you are the way you empty your toilet, grey water and dispose of your rubbish will differ. Look out for signs and places to safely empty your toilet (black water) whenever you can, even if it’s not full. You might not find another emptying site for a while. Be careful which chemicals, if any, you’re using in your toilet. When we do use toilet chemicals we try to use the green eco-chem which is safe for disposal in any toilet emptying spot. Some others are not suitable for sceptic tanks, for example. We also don’t put toilet roll in our toilet cassette, we have little bin at the side of our toilet. It means our toilet doesn’t fill as quickly and it’s easier to empty. Please NEVER empty your toilet in wild camping spots. If you don’t have a toilet in your van read up about safe wild toiletting including how to bury it to protect animals and how far away from water supplies you need to be. Nature is wonderful & we’d all like to keep enjoying it. Don’t ruin it by being lazy or ignorant and we can continue to stay in places like this (wild camping in Greece).
Keeping clean. This area will vary widely depending on your personal hygiene routines, habits and how much wild camping you’re doing. As I said above, we try to keep to around 7-10 days between stopping at campsites, aires or camper stops so we can empty/refill the motorhome but also so we can keep clean. We try to do some laundry at this time too; either using the washing facilities at a campsite/stop or a local laundrette. What’s on offer and how much it will cost will differ depending where you are & what you need to do. A load of washing is usually between €4-8. We did start off doing ‘proper laundry’ ie dividing by colours (darks, coloureds and whites) but that has mostly disappeared now & I just pop in a colour catcher sheet if we only have enough for one wash. We’ve had no problems so far. If we are using a laundrette then we usually use the dryer too but if are overnight at a site then we try to line dry our clothes, mostly because it saves a bit of money, the sun helps get stains out, it’s better for the environment and because we can. Be prepared and have everything that you need with you: washing detergent, pegs, some kind of washing line/dryer and a laundry bag. We have a long piece of washing line that can be attached to anything (trees, the van, the awning etc) plus a clothes dryer that fits over the open window on the outside of the van. Some places include detergent in your wash, some need coins, others take special tokens, some only use one kind of cycle, some take SO long (be careful to read the instructions). If you’re hand washing and tipping out that water be careful which chemicals you are using and how you are disposing of the water so that you don’t contaminate the water table! Callum and I aren’t precious about our clothes, we’re not ones for designer labels or the latest fashions. Nearly everything that we own fits into our motorhome including two small cupboards each for clothes (which is a lot more than many vans we’ve seen). We’ve come to the conclusion that what we wear during our travels probably won’t last past our van life adventure. We’ll wear it until it’s worn out, sew up any holes or tears, replace a few buttons (a small sewing kit is really useful to have) and then replace as necessary. Everything we wear is easy wash, quick dry and definitely non iron! (See our list of must have items here)
As for keeping ourselves clean we have a shower in our motorhome but it isn’t great. The water pressure is practically non existent, the shower cubicle is tiny and it takes a long time to heat up the water so we only really use it when we have to. That space is mostly used to house (our cat) Theodore’s litter tray! You’ll be surprised how long you can go between showers. I don’t mean never wash, I mean wash bits of you instead of having a full shower. We use our sink & a flannel most days for a ‘pits & bits’ wash and also make use of beach showers, lakes & rivers (we don’t use soap in natural water) when we’re hot and sweaty. Or if you’re really lucky thermal pools! When we stop at a campsite/stop we make sure we have a full shower and hair wash even if that means paying a few Euros extra- we have become quite adept at the 5 minute shower routine! I only used to wash my hair about twice a week when we were living in our flat anyway but Callum used to have a full shower and hair wash every morning, mostly to help wake him! If we’re cycling or hiking a lot or it’s really hot then, of course, we’ll need to wash a bit more often. If we’re swimming in water a lot then maybe a bit less. We do keep wet wipes in case we need them. If you are thinking about full time travel life in a van or motorhome & you usually shower every day & are very particular about how you do your laundry, you might need to readjust your expectations. The one thing I do miss though is having a proper, long soak in the bath and whenever we stop at a friend’s house or stay elsewhere it’s something I try to do, but the rest of travel life definitely makes up for it.
Keeping the motorhome clean. It might seem quite an easy task as we have reduced our floorspace quite a lot compared to living in a 2 bedroom flat but as we are always in the same space and constantly in and out of the van all day, every day, keeping it clean isn’t always easy. When we’re wild camping especially, we do joke that it’s only tidy when we’re driving around as everything has to go back in the cupboards before we move. When you live in a small space everything has to have a home, a specific place where it goes. Unfortunately that does often mean that to get to one thing you then have to pull out 3 other things that are in front of it. We have tried to arrange our van so that each cupboard or storage space has an individual purpose (food, clothes, dishes, entertainment, Theodore’s stuff etc) and then within those cupboards the things we use most are at the front and most easily accessible, sitting in front of the things we use less frequently. We’ve moved things around a fair bit as we’ve got into a routine and it usually works quite well now.
We try to clean the dishes, dry and put them away as soon as we’ve used them and do laundry about once a week so we don’t have dirty laundry accumulating- we just don’t have the space for things to be ‘lying around’. Surfaces and sofas are tidied away before we go to bed, especially if we are wild camping and need to be able to drive away in the middle of the night if we are moved on. One of the parts of the van that is more difficult to keep clean is the floor. We are using the same small space all the time, in and out from all sorts of terrain and between the three of us we have a lot of hair! I have a cord free Morphy Richards vacuum cleaner that includes a separate hand held part that has been really useful, especially for Theodore’s fur and the handle folds down too which makes it easier to store. We just charge it up when we’re plugged in on a site and use it when necessary. Now & then we pull out ALL the mats and give the whole van & floor a proper scrub, but that’s hard to do when wild camping and you do get funny looks when you do it on a site!
Cleaning the outside of the motorhome was something that we’d taken for granted before we left Jersey but has been more difficult than expected. As the motorhome is so tall it often doesn’t fit in car washes at garages and many sites have signs to say that the water is ‘not for washing vehicles’ so we’ve had to grab opportunities whilst we could. This sometimes just means grabbing a brush, sponge and some water and cleaning just the front of the van and windscreen so we are safe to drive and at other times means finding somewhere with a water supply so we can do the parts that we can reach. The roof is especially hard to do as we need time, space and water to do it which is not usually whilst we are wild camping. We’ve found that wearing waterproofs works well. It’s a big van and it takes a LOT of water and scrubbing to get it clean. It does feel so good to get back in a freshly cleaned van though, even if it doesn’t last that long!
We hope our experiences help you on your wild camping journey. We still learn new things every day and will continue to learn as we visit new countries and see new places. Here are a few sites that helped us prepare for our adventures: