A Brief Introduction to Camping in Europe
While Europe is way smaller than, say, the US or Australia, it consists of many different countries instead of one big one.
While many belong to the EU and that brings some consistency to the rules which apply, this mostly doesn’t cover anything related to camping etiquette, overnight parking or campgrounds in general. There are five main options to choose if you’re living or traveling through Europe in a van or camper. And while the first one is the same for the whole continent, everything regarding wild camping and overnight parking differs widely.
The classic, traditional way is to go to a paid campground, staying with dozens of others in a specially marked area. Prices differ, but you can expect to pay between 15 to 50 Euros depending on the country, the size of your vehicle and the amount of people in your group. The plus sides include access to electricity, bathrooms and WiFi. Most people that stay in campgrounds drive a big motorhome (you won’t see that many vans around), and very often it’s
the way people–especially from northern Europe, such as Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, the UK etc.–spend their entire holidays.
Therefore, the atmosphere is often very family holiday orientated and has little to do with that free life most of us who travel in a van are looking
for. Many are also booked way in advance and are more of a destination itself than just a stop on the road, including waterparks, restaurants…some even have their own lake.
If you’re looking for the feeling of complete freedom and wilderness, the chances that you want to wild camping are pretty high. With that said, some countries in Europe allow it under certain circumstances, while other ban it completely. And if you do it anyway? You can get fined or the dreaded police knock in the middle of the night. In general, most Central European countries have banned camping, if not on a campground, due to the waste problem and people not taking care of the environment.
Tips For Wild Camping in Europe:
- There are apps that show you spots where you can stay without a hassle, but it’s always at your own risk.
- It should be clear, but please always take your trash, don’t put all your stuff out, and be respectful to the locals.
- Arriving late and leaving early is often a good idea.
- In some countries like France, Italy, Austria or Switzerland you can park at farms if you ask nicely and maybe buy something from the farmer – which is totally legal.
Even though it’s generally not allowed in many places, if there is no sign that prohibits overnight parking, there is a little trick that can get you out of a tight situation, which we will cover that a bit later.
Most of us need to fill up on water from time to time. You can do this at most rest stops on highways or many cemeteries got drinking water close to the parking where you can fill up. Also please keep in mind that while in northern Europe tap water is usually drinking water, this isn’t the case in very much of the southern ones next to the Mediterranean. If you ask nicely, restaurants will let you fill up if you buy something. Especially in touristic areas, the chances of their being a chemical toilet somewhere close to the parking lot, or even a normal toilet is pretty high. If you have your own chemical toilet, this is also where you can dump it.
Countries Which Allow Wild Camping
Some countries that allow wild camping are Scotland and the whole Scandinavian region, which have a “right of free access,” especially Sweden. While this actually only applies to tents, it’s pretty stretched and it’s one of the best places to kinda legally wild camp wherever you like.
I can just say it one more time, please always, always leave the place like you find it to keep it that way. And if there are several other vans / campers, maybe go somewhere else to not accidentally create an illegal campsite.
These countries officially allow wild camping:
- Sweden. Officially only for hikers, cyclists, horse riders and canoeing, but they are very relaxed. Max. of two nights and only outside of towns!
- Norway. Same as Sweden, very relaxed if people behave.
- Spain. You’re allowed on public land, but most is privately owned. There are designated free sites where you can camp.
Countries which tolerate wild camping under certain circumstances:
- Romania. There are no laws regarding wild camping and people are generally very friendly to campers.
- France. It’s allowed on private land with the consent of the owner.
- Denmark. There are high fees if you get caught, but in over 40 forests you are officially allowed to camp.
- Poland. Wild camping is not allowed, but they are very loose and there hasn’t been a conviction in over 20 years.
- Germany. It’s forbidden to camp wherever you want, but one night is allowed to regain your ability to drive.
- Switzerland. Allowed on private land, but hefty fees if you get caught anywhere else!
- Slovenia. Offers designated free camping sites, but if caught elsewhere the police are really strict!
Countries in which wild camping is forbidden:
- Czech Republic
Apps for Finding Wild Camping in Europe
There are several apps and books to find free camping spots. Some are better than others; some are used by many so the spots can be pretty crowded, especially during summer, so always have a few backups in the area you wanna go!
- Park4Night is the most popular one with all kinds of campsites and parking spots. You can choose what you wanna see and users can post pictures or reviews of each place.
- iOverlander is another one. It has some unique spots but can also a bit glitchy from time to time. It also includes hostels in cities!
- StayFree is a young start up that combines wild camping with taking care of the environment and encourages its users to collect trash.
Especially in France, Slovenia and Italy there is another pretty cool option. As those countries have banned wild camping and are pretty strict, they offer free campsites all over the country.
Sometimes it’s just a parking lot where you’re allowed to camp or park overnight, many have a toilet and some even have water, electricity or free WiFi! It’s a bit of a hit or miss: you can end up with many other RVs on a boring spot or get really lucky and find a small one next to a lake or the sea. You can find them on the apps I will mention a bit later, or just ask locals if they know about one.
In France they are called “Air de service” and can be free or demand a small fee. They are mainly for one or two nights and not for staying a whole week.
Another option that is also very popular in France and Austria is parking at a farmer’s property who allows you to stay overnight for free or with the requirement to buy something from him. Some offer huge areas, others a small parking area, and some hold incredibly pretty camping spots in nature with loads of space around you.
Again, those can be a hit or miss, but imagine camping in a vineyard; it rarely gets better than enjoying a gorgeous view with a fresh glass of wine that was made of the grapes you’re overlooking from your backdoor. Most countries offer guides where farms are listed that you can approach–sadly they only exist in physical form and not online yet. However, more and more countries are adapting the idea, so checking every year if the place you want to go has
released a booklet yet is recommendable. You can also just show up and ask the farmer if they offer a place to camp, though many will have signs posting whether they do or not.
The last option is to just park overnight in a normal parking spot.
While this can be prohibited in some places (always look out for signs!), there is a law that can save you from doing something illegal. If someone asks you, you’re never camping but restoring your ability to drive, that’s also the answer you should give the police if they knock on your door. The law is based on the fact that you shouldn’t continue driving if you’re overtired or intoxicated. So sleeping in your car to restore your ability is allowed for your own and other’s safety.
If you do sleep in a parking lot, please always be respectful to the residents around, never put your camping gear like table or chairs out. I find this
especially practical to visit cities: there are always free or cheap parking spots around a city that are well connected to the public transport system, where you can park your car all day and night while visiting or living the city life. Another good tip are churches and cemeteries, as they often have free parking.
Always check the rules for inner-city parking too, as many of the normal parking spots on side streets are free on weekends and nights.
Overall, living and traveling in a van in Europe requires some preparation and it highly depends on your preferences. There are options for everyone and it’s totally doable on a budget, for bigger RVs or smaller vans. Research is key, especially if you plan to travel all over the continent. It’s important to check the laws before entering a new country. I
t’s also a great way to experience very different ways of camping and the vanlife, so I would highly recommend trying out all of the various options!