Van Life in California: A Comprehensive Guide

Van Life in California: A Comprehensive Guide

Van Life in California: A Comprehensive GuideWhen it comes to van life destinations, California undoubtedly takes the top spot on the list of every aspiring van lifer. With its diverse landscapes, abundant recreational activities, and vibrant cities, California offers a van life experience like no other. In this guide, we will delve into everything you need to know about embarking on a van life adventure in the Golden State.

The first question that often crosses the minds of those considering van life in California is its legality. Like many states, California has a mixed approach to living in a van. While it is generally not illegal to live in a van, some cities within the state have specific ordinances and laws that restrict overnight sleeping in vehicles within city limits. Notable cities with such regulations include San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Santa Barbara, Berkeley, Ventura, and Encinitas.

Risks of Stealth Parking Overnight

Despite these regulations, many van lifers continue to sleep in their vans in these cities without encountering issues. The key is to assess the risks you’re willing to take. In practice, getting a ticket for overnight parking violations is relatively rare, especially if you arrive late and depart early. You are more likely to attract the attention of local authorities if you park in prohibited areas.

Safe Parking Programs

Some cities have established safe parking programs primarily aimed at providing safe parking spaces for the homeless population. These programs often involve a check-in/check-out procedure and are not recommended for van lifers seeking overnight parking for leisure.

Rest Stops

Rest stops in California are another option for a quick rest or a break during a long drive. However, they often have restrictions on the maximum stay duration, typically around eight hours. Some rest stops do not permit overnight sleeping in vehicles, and others have limited hours, often as short as four hours.

Nearby Public Lands

For van lifers looking to explore cities with strict parking regulations, several cities in California have public lands nearby. Los Angeles, for example, is surrounded by the Santa Monica Mountains and Angeles National Forest, both of which allow dispersed camping.

San Diego offers proximity to the San Bernardino National Forest, approximately two hours away, and numerous campgrounds in and around the city. While restrictions within certain cities exist, van life in California remains viable with some research and compliance with local laws.

Where Can You Sleep in Your Van in California?

To find suitable places to sleep in your van in California, consider using helpful resources like mobile apps. Apps like iOverlander and Sēkr provide information about locations where other van lifers have stayed, along with reviews and warnings about specific areas.

However, it’s essential to remember that local ordinances and laws may change, so it’s crucial to verify the regulations in the area you plan to park, regardless of positive reviews and recommendations. Sometimes, individuals may have had a positive experience at a location but were fortunate not to encounter enforcement by local authorities.

For those seeking a van life experience amidst California’s wilderness, public land offers the best options. California boasts an impressive 52% of its land as public, ranking eighth in the United States in terms of public land. While not all of this land is accessible by van, it provides ample opportunities for van life enthusiasts.

Most public land allows for free dispersed camping for up to 14 days, with common categories including Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and National Forest land. Checking with local visitor centers or contacting the public land management office directly is a prudent approach, as not all public lands permit dispersed camping. Seek information about dispersed camping regulations and guidelines for each specific area.

Van Life on California’s Beaches

California’s extensive coastline offers an array of opportunities for beach-loving van lifers. Whether you’re looking to catch some waves or simply relax in the sun and sand, California’s beaches have something for everyone. To make the most of your beachfront van life experience, consider your needs and amenities when selecting a beach to visit.

You can also explore California’s coastline by taking a scenic drive along the Pacific Coast Highway, offering plenty of boondocking spots along the way. Mobile apps like iOverlander can help you locate suitable places for overnight stays. Alternatively, you can plan your trip strategically by reserving campsites at one of the many campgrounds along the coast, often requiring advance booking.

Challenges of Van Life in California

While van life in California offers incredible experiences, it comes with its fair share of challenges. Being aware of these challenges and planning accordingly is essential for a successful and enjoyable van life journey in the state.

1. Gas Prices

California is known for having some of the highest gas prices in the United States. This can be a significant consideration for van lifers, especially those operating on a tight budget or with vehicles that have lower gas mileage. Planning your routes and budgeting for fuel costs is advisable.

2. Parking

Parking options in California can be limited, especially for van lifers. Beachfront parking spots are often in high demand and short supply. Stealth parking in hotel lots or other urban areas may not be a viable option due to strict regulations. Even many rest stops do not allow overnight vehicle parking. Adequate pre-planning is essential to secure parking spaces.

3. Rugged Terrain

Exploring public lands and remote areas in California often involves navigating rugged and unpredictable terrain. Access roads may be rough, and cell service can be unreliable or nonexistent in remote regions. To prepare for such situations, always carry additional traction equipment, inform someone about your plans, and consider carrying a GPS SOS device for emergency communication in areas with no cell signal.

Van Life Rentals in California

If you’re intrigued by van life but not ready to commit to purchasing a camper van, consider renting one to experience the lifestyle without the long-term investment. California offers numerous rental options to suit various preferences.

Several reputable rental companies cater to van lifers, and each offers a unique selection of vehicles for rent. These companies provide a range of camper van types, from vintage Airstreams to Class A, B, and C RVs, trailers, and camper vans. Some popular rental options include:


Outdoorsy is a peer-to-peer camper van and RV rental platform with a broad range of vehicle options across the United States. Their offerings include vintage Airstreams, toy haulers, fifth-wheelers, and more.


RVezy is a leading rental platform with a growing presence in the van and RV markets. It offers a wide variety of rental options for both vehicle owners and renters. is a new peer-to-peer campervan rental marketplace that focuses on van rentals. It offers features like low service fees, an Owner Dashboard with e-sign capabilities, and a rapidly expanding network of rental fleets.

California Van Build Companies

For those who have experienced van life in California and are ready to fully embrace it by purchasing a camper van, there is a wealth of van build companies to choose from. California’s popularity for van life has led to the emergence of numerous van build specialists, each with its unique offerings.

Here is a list of some noteworthy van build companies in California:

Adrenaline Vans LLC

Adrenaline Vans LLC specializes in Sprinter performance upgrades and accessory installations, making it an excellent choice for those seeking enhanced performance and functionality in their camper van.

All Weird Days

Whether you need a van update, a complete interior rebuild, or are new to van life, All Weird Days can assist you in getting your van road-ready.

Baker Mercedes-Benz Van Center

Baker Mercedes-Benz Van Center is a reputable dealership specializing in Sprinter Vans. It is known for its top-notch facilities and services related to Sprinter Vans.

Coastal Conversions

Coastal Conversions is a go-to source for high-quality custom campervans and mobile businesses. Contact them for a consultation to explore your customization options.

Exploration Vans

Exploration Vans is an American Boat and Yacht Council Accredited Business that focuses on creating high-end adventure solutions using the Mercedes Sprinter platform.


FreedomVanGo is a premier builder in the southeast that caters to adventure enthusiasts. They specialize in assisting DIY builders and offer all-in-one electrical systems and essential parts for van conversions.

Hanco Design and Fabrication

HANCO, with over 20 years of experience in the automotive industry, specializes in custom fabrication, including ladders, tanks, safari racks, paddleboard hoops, and full van build-outs. They also troubleshoot electrical and mechanical issues and offer Ford E-Series van conversions.

Master Overland

Master Overland prides itself on being the nation’s premier fully custom camper van builder. They focus on creating luxurious, fully off-grid, and comfortable camper vans. They also provide support to DIY builders by offering high-quality parts and accessories.

New Life Conversions

New Life Conversions specializes in building custom homes on wheels, including tiny homes, campervans, and travel trailers. Their homes are designed for comfortable off-grid living and feature amenities like climate control, hot water, comfortable beds, and fully equipped kitchens.

Off the Grid Vanworks

Off The Grid Vanworks offers comprehensive van conversion services, including modifications and up-fitting for those who prefer to build out their vans independently.


Rigwell focuses on designing, engineering, and manufacturing high-quality Pro DIY Kits and Van Builds. Their Pro DIY Kits are constructed from lightweight and durable aluminum, laser-cut, CNC formed, and powder-coated for precision.

Titan Vans

Titan Vans specializes in rugged, durable, and serviceable van builds. They prioritize reliability and longevity in their camper van designs, making them suitable for extended off-road adventures.

California Van Life Events & Festivals

For van lifers seeking safe and vibrant communities in California, attending van life events and festivals can be an excellent choice. These events provide opportunities to meet like-minded individuals, learn more about van life, and share experiences. Here are a few notable van life events in California:

Descend on Lost Sierra, Lost Sierra, CA

Secret Solo Female Van Life Event, Palm Springs, CA

Adventure Van Expo, Big Bear, CA

Adventure Van Expo NorCal, Sonoma, CA

TinyFest, San Diego, CA

BuenaVantura, Ventura, CA

These events offer a fantastic chance to connect with fellow van lifers, exchange tips and advice, and immerse yourself in the van life community. For more information on van life events in and around California, refer to our comprehensive van life event blog post.

5 Best California National Parks to Visit

Exploring California’s natural beauty is a must for van lifers, and the state boasts an impressive array of National Parks. With nine National Parks—more than any other state in the U.S.—California offers an abundance of opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts and National Park enthusiasts alike.

Here are five must-visit California National Parks that should be on every van lifer’s list:

1. Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park is a breathtaking sanctuary known for its stunning valleys, granite formations, glaciers, and the serenity of the High Sierra. Its awe-inspiring natural beauty is sure to leave a lasting impression on visitors.

2. Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park is a surreal wonderland characterized by dark night skies, a rich cultural history, and unique geologic features. The park’s distinctive landscape offers a magical and otherworldly experience.

3. Death Valley National Park

As the “land of extremes,” Death Valley National Park is an extraordinary destination. Be prepared for extreme conditions and plan your visit accordingly to fully appreciate the park’s unique beauty and challenges.

4. Sequoia National Park

Sequoia National Park is home to the largest trees on the planet—the giant sequoias. Visitors will be left in awe by the “Land of Giants” and the towering trees that define this remarkable park.

5. Redwood National Park

Redwood National Park boasts the world’s tallest trees, adding yet another dimension to California’s natural wonders. With 40 miles of coastline, the park offers a diverse range of scenery to explore.

To make the most of your visit to these National Parks, consider planning your trip well in advance. Some parks have implemented reservation systems during peak visitation periods, underscoring the importance of early planning for a seamless and enjoyable experience.

Ready to Van Life in California?

Now that you have a comprehensive understanding of van life in California, it’s time for you to embark on your own adventure. California offers a wealth of opportunities for van lifers, from its diverse landscapes to its vibrant communities. Whether you’re seeking pristine beaches, awe-inspiring National Parks, or the camaraderie of van life events, California has it all.

Feel free to share your plans, experiences, and tips for van life in California in the comments below. Your insights can be invaluable to fellow van lifers looking to make the most of their journey in the Golden State. Happy travels and safe adventures!

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Written by doc cotton

Meet Doc Cotton, your go-to founder of NowShack and a goto for all things adventurous and outdoorsy. With an unwavering passion for van life and a deep connection to the great outdoors, Doc is your trusted guide to exploring the world off the beaten path.

Doc's journey began with a fascination for the freedom and simplicity that van life offers. From there, it was a natural progression to spend countless hours prepping and converting vans into cozy, mobile homes on wheels. Whether it's turning an old van into a comfortable living space or sharing tips on the best gear for outdoor adventures, Doc has you covered.

But Doc Cotton is not just about life on the road; he's also a dedicated student of survival skills. Always eager to learn and share, Doc's insights into wilderness survival and bushcraft are invaluable for anyone looking to connect with nature on a deeper level.