Is it legal to stay overnight at rest areas? It’s a question that’s frequently asked, especially by RVers wanting to save money as they travel from one destination to the next.
Short answer? It depends.
Rest areas are operated by the individual states, and the rules vary widely.
Signs at almost all rest areas will say “no camping,” but experienced boondockers are not looking for a camping experience at a rest area. They just want to park in a safe place off the road, have a bite to eat, and get some sleep before heading off on the road again.
So, yes, you can legally boondock at rest areas, but it depends on where you are, what your RV is like, and what you consider “staying overnight.”
Like most travelers, RVers appreciate rest areas for their ease and amenities when traveling on America’s interstate highways. For drivers of large RVs or trucks towing travel trailers or fifth wheels, rest areas are a breeze to enter, exit, and park.
Rest areas usually have facilities such as restrooms, picnic tables and shelters, and dog walking areas. Some have playgrounds, travel information, and vending machines. A few even have charging stations for electric cars.
Bonus: Here'sinfo on how to find clean restrooms as you travel.
But rest areas are not designed for camping. Although several have dump stations, there are no places to hook up to electricity, water, or sewer.
Moreover, the laws in most states specify that it is illegal to pitch a tent or erect any structure for camping. Campfires and outdoor cooking (except in provided picnic areas) are also prohibited.
For travelers in a self-contained RV, these rules pose no obstacles. A more important consideration is: How long will you be staying?
Most rest areas are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but that can vary even within a state, so before planning a stop, it’s important to check individual state information in advance.
Almost all states have strict limits on how long you can stay parked at a rest area. For most states, the limit ranges from two to hours.
Pennsylvania gives travelers only two hours at a rest area. In Florida, the Department of Transportation’s rule states that rest area visitors can stay for only three hours. The same applies for other large travel states such as New York and Illinois.
In a practice, though, few states will aggressively enforce this, especially if the RV has not deployed slides and set up camping chairs or awnings. Rest areas are designed for people to rest, to take a break from the road, to recharge and avoid drowsy – and dangerous – driving.
Stopping for the night at 5 PM and staying until 10 AM the next day is pushing it. Pulling in well after dark and leaving shortly after daylight is very unlikely to get you in trouble.
Other states have clearly generous policies. The state of California considers that the purpose of rest areas is to “reduce drowsy and distracting driving and provide a safe and convenient alternative to unsafe parking along the roadside.”
Apparently, that can include sleeping since California allows parking at rest stops for a full eight hours in any 24-hour period.
Idaho is even more generous, allowing up stays of up to 10 hours.
In a few states, drivers are welcome to stay all night, or else there are no specified time limits.
The Arizona Department of Transportation’s rules for rest areas don’t state how long you can stay, so presumably, as long as you follow the “no camping” rules, you are free to park your RV and get a good night’s sleep.
Other states allow “extended stays” for rest but don’t define how long that might be.
West Virginia is the boondocker’s dream. The state not only allows overnight RV parking along the Turnpike, it welcomes it, providing designated areas for RVs and other large vehicles. So does the state of Ohio on the Ohio Turnpike in several areas.
We all know about overnight places to stop like Walmart and Cracker Barrel…or Harvest Hosts but there are lots of other places where RVers can stop. Watch this video for a place right along the highway where pets are welcome and you can find just about anything you need for an overnight stay.
Before planning a rest stop stay, it’s important to consider your needs and the needs of your RV.
Generally, rest areas require that your vehicle (and any trailer you’re pulling) must fit within the lines of the designated parking space.
Obviously, this means you will not be able to extend slides or awnings. With some RVs, this is no problem. However, the floor design of some campers makes facilities within the RV (stoves, bathrooms, even beds) difficult or impossible to access without the slide out. If you must, try to park at an end space and maneuver the RV so the slide extends away from the next space.
Another question is whether or not to run the generator. It’s more than a matter of comfort.
Some people have special needs for electricity, say for a CPAP machine or other medical device. Keep in mind that generators can be noisy and smelly and can disturb others.
Yet, RV parking for larger rigs is usually combined with parking for tractor trailers, and you may notice big rigs parked for an extended time, diesel engines loudly running. There, your RV generator shouldn't be a problem.
Still, be aware that states often have separate regulations and time limits for truck drivers.
Since rest area policies and facilities vary, it’s a good idea to plan ahead and check the rules for the states where you’ll be traveling.
A few websites and blogs have compiled state-by-state lists, including Campendium, Interstate Rest Areas, and Boondockers Bible. However, keep in mind that states can change their rules at any time or make changes due to construction or road conditions.
Most state departments of transportation have phone numbers for travelers. If you call, don’t ask if you can camp overnight because the answer will be no. Instead ask, “What is the time limit for staying at rest areas, and what other policies do I need to know?”
Want to find other places to stay overnight for free? We have many resources for you including this post. Bookmark it and come back to it when you need it!
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