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This year, for my son’s graduation, we decided to do an epic road trip in the Golden State of California. After a lot of research, we opted for van camping in California to have ease of access to plenty of outdoor recreation. In this guide, we’ll tell you what worked, what didn’t, where we stayed, and why we chose van camping for our California adventure.
We chose California because my son wanted to go someplace with big trees. Since California is home to two of the biggest types of trees on the planet, this was a perfect place to start. Additionally, since those trees are found in the Redwoods and Sequoia National Parks, we knew we needed to have a vehicle to get us from point A to point B. Enter van camping.
We decided that van camping in California was going to work best since we were in it for the great outdoors and National Parks. A rental car nearly cost the same, and this way we had our sleeping arrangements set each night. Plus, by opting for a campervan rental, it took little time to roll into a camping site and be ready for the night.
- Campervan rentals in California
- Why chose Van Camping in California?
- Where Can You go van camping in California?
- California Road Trip Routes
- Van Camping Essentials
Campervan rentals in California
Because we live in Florida, we needed to find a campervan rental company in California for our trip. We opted for a rental company, but some peer-to-peer rentals would be an option as well.
Camping Van or Campervan Rental Companies
If you’re looking for where to rent a camping van in California, I suggest starting with the rental companies. They are going to have larger fleets, 24/7 customer service, and some amenities you might not get with peer-to-peer. I’ve done peer rentals before, but I did find that the campervan selection was hit or miss.
We rented with Escape Campervans, initially for the cost. We found a lot of other great reasons to go with this company as well. they have locations in Los Angeles and San Francisco, as well as 11 other locations across the United States. You can do one-way rentals from city to city, so this would be one of your best options for driving the California coast.
You can read my full review of Escape Campervans here.
I also liked that Escape Campervans had plenty of storage, a camp kitchen, solar panels, and add-on extras where I could pick and choose what I needed.
The beauty of Escape Campervans is the individual hand-painted murals on each of the vans. They were easy to spot as we traveled through California. We saw at least one a day (sometimes it might have been the same travelers.) And we saw a lot of them in the Yosemite area.
We also saw a lot of vans from Travellers Auto Barn. They have rentals available in San Francisco and Los Angeles. The key selling point of Travellers Autobarn is free unlimited miles. They also give you a free 30-day trial of The Dyrt Pro Camping app, which helps find free and discounted campsites.
Travellers Autobarn has three types of vans, from a minivan to a hi-top campervan. Note they are closed on Sundays, so plan your trip accordingly.
While they do offer unlimited miles, the quote I built once I added on the camping chairs, cooking, and bedding kit was comparable to Escape Campervans. My pro list for the Travellers Autobarn is the bed is at the back, so you can have one of those #vanlife pics of looking out over the scenery from bed. However, I’ll still be honest, I liked cooking outside in my Escape Campervan too.
MoTerra is another van camping option in California. Located in San Francisco, it’s the perfect jumping-off point for many California outdoor destinations.
MoTerra has Mercedes-Benz Sprinter vans, a more luxury-style van. If you’ve seen a sprinter van on the road, you know that they have a taller body, allowing you to stand up in the van. Moterra rentals include everything you need to cook, sleep, and enjoy your trip, so no need for extras.
I like their floor plan, but keep in mind, because they are luxury vehicles, they are more expensive than the previous two options. It is still a great choice for those who want a few more amenities, like a portable toilet and shower.
Vintage Surfari Wagons
Want the classic vintage VW bus camper van road trip? Vintage Surfaris is the place to check out. Located in South Los Angeles, these camper vans are perfect for the iconic Malibu surf vacation.
Located in Los Angeles, Roadhouse Travel has free LAX pick-up for their camping vans. They are sleek and modern, and some of them even come with indoor showers and unlimited mileage.
Peer to Peer Campervan Rentals
What is a peer-to-peer RV rental? Think Airbnb for RV, travel trailer, and campervan owners. While most of these types of sites have every type of camper, GoCamp listed below is just for campervans.
Don’t count out looking at a site such as RV Share for renting a camper van in California. They are a nationwide company, and if you want the full van camping experience, you can get it here too. RV Share works much like the Airbnb site you may be familiar with using. Simply start searching for your pick-up destination. From there you can filter the type of vehicle.
Once on the site, you’ll want to search for drivable RVs and choose Class B style. I have a detailed step-by-step rental process for RV Share here.
The benefit of using RV Share is that because it’s a rental from the owner of the vehicle, many extras may be included. It’s important to read the fine print. Some charge for mileage, others don’t. Additionally, some owners will offer delivery for an extra charge. Plus, you can work with the owners to set up more ideal pick-up and drop-off times.
Outdoorsy works similarly to RVShare. You can further limit your search through drivable RVs by selecting a campervan. Because it is peer-to-peer, many owners list on both sites. You may find similar or the exact same rental. Don’t hesitate to compare the benefits of Outdoorsy’s roadside assistance and insurance coverage while you’re on the road.
GoCamp is another peer-to-peer camping rental company, however, they specialize in van camping. with locations in Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco, they have a variety of campervans on site. Prices vary, insurance is extra as is roadside assistance. 125 miles per night is included, which is more than some of the rental companies.
Don’t think you can’t do a one-way rental in these, however. The nice thing about GoCamp is the option to do a one-way for an added fee. They take care of returning the van to the owner.
For more on what types of campervans are available, check out this article.
Why chose Van Camping in California?
Now that you know how to rent a campervan, you might be wondering why you should go van camping in California. Ultimately, it boils down to ease.
Van camping is a great way to see the state. It’s more economical than a larger RV. When we traveled with Escape Campervans, our van got 19 miles per gallon. Current stats on the sprinter vans have them even higher. Now that may not seem great if you’re used to driving a vehicle that is either electric or gets 20 or more mpg. However, it compared with my larger vehicle so the cost was not out of my normal price range. Plus, it’s a LOT better than a Class C travel trailer that gets 12 mpg. Renting or towing anything bigger and you’re looking at even less.
The size of a campervan is another factor to consider, for various reasons. One, the National Parks do have size limits in their campgrounds. For example, Sequoia National Park maxes out at 24 feet long. While many class C’s might be that length or shorter, your average class A is at least that size. Nearby Kings Canyon is even less at 22 feet long.
Two, a van is just easier to drive, especially if you’ve never driven a larger motorhome before. You are driving a van after all and most of us have driven vehicles that large if we have an SUV or even a minivan. I found it much easier driving in terrain that I was unfamiliar with. I am a Florida girl and we just don’t have mountains that big! It was also easier to camp in since I didn’t need to maneuver a larger vehicle into a campsite. I simply parked and we were set.
Finally, if you are set on camping in California, van camping is also easier than tent camping. Imagine parking and not having to set up or break down a campsite. We wanted the ease and swiftness to get from place to place to maximize what we saw. If we wanted to stay put in an area, that may have changed our minds. But for the cost, this was the winner.
Where Can You go van camping in California?
California is a big state to explore. Fortunately, it’s home to over dozens of National Parks, monuments, preserves, and historic sites. Not to mention the countless state parks in California (more than 280). This doesn’t include county parks, and privately owned campgrounds. Additionally, the National Forests and Bureau of Land Management provide even more places to van camp. It’s a natural wonder state full of opportunities.
Pro-Tip: Look at campgrounds that are listed as tent only. Many of these allow a vehicle at the campsite, which your van qualifies. Some tent-only will be walk-in or hike-in tent camping which won’t work. However, don’t hesitate to look. Tent only just means they can’t accommodate the bigger RVs and travel trailers.
Important note: We did not use any first come first served campsites. If we planned to park for the day and hike from the campground that may have worked. However, since we were using our van to travel within or to the national parks, it would have left the campsite empty. Many FCFS don’t have rangers monitoring 24/7 and we could have lost our site when we returned. that is why I opted for reservation-only sites while we traveled.
The National Park Service lists 28 National Parks in California. We’re going to focus on the parks solely, and not the monuments or historic sites. Each national park may have more than one campground. Start off by looking at the name of the campground on the NPS website. For reservations, you will book on Recreation.gov. However, because the Recreation website also lists National Forests, it may be confusing when you search by park name rather than campground name.
- Death Valley National Park – Yes, Death Valley has campgrounds. however, I would not recommend camping in the summer months. In fact, when we rented our Escape Campervan, they warned us not to drive into Death Valley. (It was June and they cannot support vehicle breakdowns there.)
- Joshua Tree National Park – Listed as where two deserts meet, Joshua Tree National Park is one of the best places to see a clear night sky, thanks to the lack of lights, and open landscape. There are over 500 campsites at Joshua Tree, and reservations are encouraged.
- Lassen Volcanic – Located in Northern California, this can be part of your National Parks road trip list, but it is often overlooked. Thus, it’s great to get away from the crowds here. Lassen Volcanic is home to an ancient volcano and you can still see bubbling sulfur pits. There is plenty of campgrounds but they are closed during winter.
- Pinnacles National Park is a smaller park, known for being the home of the California Condor. You can only access their campground from the east side of the park. It is not a big campground and books up fast.
- Redwood National Park – Redwood is both a national and state park. It’s a narrow park hugging part of the Northern California coastline. In fact, the campgrounds are in the California state parks system and need to be reserved through their site.
- Sequoia & Kings Canyon – Home to the other giant trees, Sequoia and Kings Canyon are technically 2 separate parks. Since they border each other, they are often categorized as one. the parks offer a lot of different campgrounds in either park. Many of the campgrounds are open Memorial Day through September or October and reservations don’t always open up until 30 days before. It may be hard to secure a campsite. We opted to go with the National Forest in between the parks.
- Yosemite National Park – Camping in Yosemite is one of the best ways to have access to the park. Imagine waking up and heading out on a hike immediately. Plus, if you have a camp reservation, you do not need a peak-hours reservation. I’d recommend for your first visit to start in the Valley. Here are RV, tent-only, and hike-in camping available.
California has nearly 300 state parks and many have camping sites available. Reserve California is your place to make your reservations for van camping.
The only limitation I found with the California State Parks website is not knowing where each campground is. There is a map view once you search but you have to know the name of a park to start with and it doesn’t recalibrate if you move the map around. I would recommend building out your trip on Roadtrippers, or Roadtrippers Plus, then searching Reserve California for availability.
A few of my favorites:
- Sue Meg outside of Redwoods State and National Parks. This campground is near the ocean, with paths out to rocky overlooks where you can hear and sometimes see the seals.
- Emerald Bay State Park in Lake Tahoe was by far my favorite place we traveled in California. It is along Emerald Bay that juts off the larger Lake Tahoe. We were steps from a hiking trail that took us to the base of the bay where we toured Vikhsholm and kayaked out to an island in the bay. This campground books up and I was lucky to get a single night on short notice. Plan ahead for this one.
I know there are many others that are favorites of van campers in California. It. would be hard to list them all here. However, if my experience at those and the other campsites are any indications, they are well-kept, pleasant campgrounds
National Forest Service offers camping in many different campgrounds throughout the state. While some have a visitors center where you can check in and find last-minute camping, most are on Recreation.gov for reservations. We stayed on national forest service land in Sequoia National Forest and Tahoe National Forest. To get close to Yosemite, we could have found sites in Sierra National Forest as well as Lassen National Forest for Lassen Volcanic National Park. There are over 20 National Forest sites in California.
Most National Forest campgrounds are going to be rustic with no electrical hookups. Which, when you’re van camping is not a big deal for a few nights. Water is available through well faucets and most toilets are pit toilets. Showers are also likely unavailable.
Don’t count out the national forests, however. they are quiet, scenic, and at a reasonable cost for a day or two on your road trip.
The Bureau of Land Management or sometimes referred to as BLM land has free dispersed camping. While BLM does have developed campgrounds, most do not offer amenities such as restrooms and potable water. Fees also vary from $4 to $10 per night.
Most sites are also first come first served. If you are flexible in your travels, this can work out well as the cost is very low for camping on BLM lands.
There are a lot of public lands and recreation areas in California, so finding where you might want to go can also be a bit of a challenge. That’s where a Dyrt Pro Membership comes in. See below.
Before we go into free camping, let’s discuss how you can find not only free campsites, but dispersed BLM camping, to even sites in the National Forests and RV parks. The Dyrt website helps you find campgrounds of all types, including free. While you can use The Dyrt for free searches, it’s helpful to get a Dyrt Pro membership to view the overlaid maps with free BLM and USFS maps. a Dyrt Pro membership also has discounts, offline, and cell service maps. You can try it for free for 7 days to plan your trip ahead of time.
Rest areas and overnight parking truck stops are also options for free camping. These will be harder to find off the interstate.
Privately owned campgrounds and RV parks can offer everything from a place to park to a full-service resort-style developed campground. The price ranges from $20 to $100 a night depending on what you book.
I used Campspot to find a few campgrounds when the above options were unavailable. This allowed me to search in an area and see prices up front without having to call individual campgrounds. Our best bet was right outside Yosemite’s western entrance, about a 20-minute drive into the Valley. Indian Flat RV Park was not fancy, but they did have showers, a wash basin for dishes, and access to a pool at the hotel next door. It was pleasant enough and tent sites (which are perfect for van camping) average $20 a night.
California Road Trip Routes
when you are van camping in California, you have hundreds of options open to you. This state is big, and you cannot see it all in one trip. However, here are a few road trip routes to consider.
US Highway One stretches for 656 miles, with many of those miles of coastline. It is a fantastic scenic trip dotted with unique small towns and major metropolitan areas along the way. You even get a National Park at the Redwoods depending on how far north you want to go.
San Francisco to Los Angeles
The most iconic US 1 route would be between Los Angeles and San Francisco. If you start in San Francisco and head south to Los Angele, the Pacific Ocean views will be on the same side of the road allowing you to stop easily whenever inspiration strikes. Here you’ll cross the scenic Bixby Bridge at Big Sur. Not to mention stopping in Big Sur itself is stunning cliffside ocean views. Monterey Bay Aquarium is another popular spot along this route. Include Santa Cruz, Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo, before ending up in LA. head all the way down to the Santa Monica Pier where US1 meets the end of Route 66. Technically, it’s route 101 and you can learn more history here.
San Francisco to Oregon
I love the idea of taking US 1 from San Francisco to Oregon, stretching through hundreds of miles through Redwood forests and northern California towns. I would suggest hopping off the freeway for the Avenue of Giants, a meandering road through a redwood forest.
Sequoia to Yosemite National Park
If you’re looking for a popular National Park trip through Sequoia and Yosemite, read the full details here, at Sequoia National Park to Yosemite National Park.
Full California National Park Route
Finally, a full California National Park Route is a phenomenal undertaking. You’ll witness all sorts of ecosystems from deserts to wetlands, and granite mountains to the world’s largest trees. I’ll have a full itinerary up soon. Sign up for my newsletter for the updated itinerary.
Van Camping Essentials
When you are van camping in California, or anywhere for that matter, you need some essential items with you. Be sure to check your van rental company to see what is included. I’ve listed some of those rental tips above.
- Bedding, including pillows. Check the nightly temperatures for your destination to stay warm
- Kitchen kit – pots, dishes, and even propane for your camp stove.
- Meal plan – you can have a loose meal plan, but know when and where you need to stock up on groceries. I offer a meal planning grocery lists and more in my travel planning spreadsheets here. Save 50% when you use the code HALFOFFDOT.
- Extra Water
- Interior lights I strung these solar-powered string lights for evenings.
- Solar-powered charger – this one holds a serious charge and is recharged during the day on our dashboard.
- Flashlight – I used this light that also served as a lantern.
- Folding table
- Camp chairs