Beginners guide to free camping in Europe with kids

Free camping with two little kids? No way!

That was our first opinion about wild camping but this changed radically when we came to the south of Portugal. The Algarve is filled with beautiful little beaches and there are RV’s everywhere. On every beach, there are several campervans staying for the night.

Our first night boondocking was on a beach called Praia do Boca do Rio. We thought, let’s try and see how it goes.

We had to experiment and improvise a bit, but after that night, we didn’t want to go to campsites anymore. Why pay for crowded campsites if you can stay for free on stunning beaches?!

Free camping with kids in Portugal

Our very first wild camping experience was at Praia da Boca do Rio in Portugal

Do you want to know more about boondocking in Europe? Then you’ve come to the right place! In this post, I’ll share with you what we’ve learned about free camping in Europe, so you can enjoy this great experience to the fullest.

What is free camping?

Free camping – or boondocking – is staying the night with your RV on places that are not campsites. You can free camp in the middle of nature, at beaches or on parking places in cities. The possibilities are endless!

By some, free camping is also called dry camping. Dry camping is camping without any facilities such as water and toilet. Although it is not entirely the same, in practice, it mostly is as you don’t have any facilities when free camping.

Why do free RV camping?

There are a few very distinctive benefits about free camping:

  • It’s free (obviously)
  • Less crowded (if you pick your spot carefully because there are also very crowded free camping spots)
  • Flexible (you don’t have to check out before a certain time)

However, there are also a few downsides to consider:

  • No facilities (but if you come prepared and with a full prepped RV, this won’t be a downside)
  • Can be difficult to find a nice spot (but there is a great app that helps you with this)
  • It is sometimes unclear if the spot is legal (more about this in the next paragraph)

Is it legal?

Free camping is not legal. However, it is tolerated in most European countries. Especially during low season, and in areas with only a few campsites, the police would drive by at night and don’t say a word.

As we travel full time, I’ll continue updating this information as our experience grows 🙂

Country Tolerated?
Spain It is tolerated at a lot of places.
Portugal Yes, Portugal is free camping heaven! Especially along the coast.
France It depends on the region you visit, so take a good look at the reviews in the Park4Night app. Also, when in doubt, you can also make use of the France Passion Network to find nice free spots.

Although it’s tolerated, you should always be cautious. When in doubt, ask other RV’ers if they have encountered any problems.

Is it safe?

When wild camping with your family, safety is even more important. However, there is no such thing as ‘safe’. People regard us as crazy, going boondocking with two little kids, others think we’re doing a marvelous job.

When you find a new free RV parking spot, there are a few things to consider:

  • Check the reviews on the Park4Night app.
  • Are there other RV’s? Although you might prefer the lonely spots, it’s regarded safer to group together with other motorhomes.
  • Most importantly; listen to your gut feeling.

If you don’t like the spot, just move on. There’s probably a great place very close by!

How to prepare for free camping?

If you want to stay on free campgrounds, you need an RV with a few amenities, like a water tank, cooking facilities, and a toilet. Before you venture out to a wild camping spot, check the following:

  • Make sure you have enough water.
  • Empty your gray and black water tanks.
  • Make sure your battery is fully charged, or install solar panels.
  • Check the weather forecast: is it getting cold at night? If so, do you have the capacity to keep the heater on at night? Using a diesel heater can make living in an RV very comfortable!

What to look for when selecting the right RV spot?

There are endless free camping spots, but they are not all suitable for staying the night with kids. We came to realize we are picky when choosing where to stay, but that is not without reason: we want to sleep ánd wake up the next morning comfortably with our little kids.

After RVing through Europe for several months, we know exactly what to look for when we select our next sleepover spot.

The number one tip: download the Park4Night app!

This is our step by step process for choosing a free motorhome place to stay the night:

  1. In the Park4Night app, we tend to go to places that are marked with a little tree. These are mostly places in nature. The spots marked with a P are not necessarily bad places to stay the night, but we prefer the quiet spots.
  2. I read the reviews carefully, look at the picture and its location. I sometimes double check the location on Google Maps satellite view. If there are signs saying that parking for the night is not allowed, we ask around if it is tolerated or not.
  3. Once arrived, the very first thing we check is the internet connection. We need a decent connection for working so if it’s bad, we move on. This only happens approximately once in three weeks.
  4. If there is 4G (or LTE), we check the surroundings:
    • Are there other RV’s? We like places with only one or two others. Quiet, but not alone.
    • Are there any steep cliffs? Our kids play outside all day long, so no cliffs are for obvious safety reasons.
    • Is there a lot of waste? Our children pick up everything they find.
    • Is there red clay? This might surprise you, but in some areas, there’s a lot of red clay and once in your RV, it’s difficult to get rid of.
    • Where’s the sun coming up and going down? We always want to park with the opening door towards the upcoming sun. When we get up in the morning, we open the door and can instantly enjoy the beautiful sunny warmth.
    • Is the sandy beach nearby? Our 3yo calls the beach ‘sandbox’ and it’s perfect if we can park directly next to the beach.
Free camping Europe with kids - At Playa De Quitapellejos drinking coffe in the morning while the kids play on the beach

This is how we like to spend our mornings: drinking coffee in the morning sun while the kids play on the beach.

Unspoken rules of free camping

There are no official rules for free camping, but unofficially, there are some (although mostly common sense) agreements that you need to take into account:

  • Respect the environment: don’t make a mess, take your garbage to a bin, use your toilet and not nature.
  • Don’t put out your awning or engage in any ‘camping activities’.
  • If you stay in a rural area, be extra quiet and don’t disturb the environment.
  • Be nice to locals. Once they report misbehavior to the police, it’s bye bye free camping spot.

See you out there?!

Do you plan on going free in the near future? If you have any questions about RVing and free camping in Europe, please feel free to leave a comment.

Happy RVing!

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