Tired of driving dirt roads into oblivion with no luck finding a camping spot? Or ‘camping’ in a parking lot? Consider joining Harvest Hosts.
I love most things about van life. But something I’ve come to dread about living on the road is the endless driving along rocky Forest Service roads in search of a campsite, only to come up short and seek out the nearest flood-lit Walmart parking lot for the night instead.
Some might call that adventure, but for me, it means dinner is late and bedtime is even later.
Planning Our Trip
When my husband, Steve, and I set off in our converted ProMaster van in June, we wanted to have more than one camping backup plan. We knew that finding a spot each night would be even more uncertain with campgrounds and national parks closed during the pandemic.
Along with downloading and bookmarking all the dispersed camping apps and websites, we paid $79 to join Harvest Hosts, an annual membership program that connects RVers and van lifers with more than 1,200 breweries, wineries, farms, museums, and other businesses around the country.
The deal is you can stay overnight in the businesses’ parking lots for free, and you’re strongly encouraged to make a purchase — fresh veggies, wine tastings, etc. — to show your appreciation. That way, it’s mutually beneficial.
“The heart of our program is to support small businesses,” reads the June member newsletter. “Many businesses took hard hits economically because of being closed during the pandemic. Please consider the camping fees you saved by parking at a Host location.” Just imagine waking up in a field of lavender or to the cluck of an alpaca. That’s what Harvest Hosts is all about.
The Harvest Hosts Program
The program has been around since 2010, but the company started reporting record numbers in its monthly newsletters this summer. In June, the program added a record of 110 new Hosts. In July, it added 100 more. The Hosts we stayed with said that the program has helped buoy business, especially during the pandemic.
“It brings in people that wouldn’t otherwise be coming here,” said Max Vogelman, the master distiller at Stoneyard Distillery off I-70 in Dotsero, Colorado. We spent a night there and sampled beet sugar spirits, which we’d never tried before. Vogelman even shared a pre-market chocolate product. His business has been a Host for three summers, and he says that each year keeps getting busier.
“People aren’t going out as much locally, so it’s been great to have [Harvest Hosts members] to keep us going and keep us in business,” he said.
Our Harvest Hosts Experience
Dark Star Cellars
Our first stay and first real night on the road were spent at Dark Star Cellars in Paso Robles, California, on June 6. It’s notoriously challenging to camp along the California coast unless you’ve made a $100 beach-side reservation a year in advance.
So, rather than take our chances, we ventured 2 miles off Highway 101 into wine country for a restful night. At the vineyard, we were greeted by a gaggle of chickens and one of the owners, who directed us to a flat and quiet parking spot behind their barn with a view of the grapevines.
Before tucking in for the night, we tasted the winery’s best red wines on the patio with only one other couple nearby, and we even bought a $30 bottle — much less than the price of a campground along the bluff. When the phone rang, the owner said before answering, “It feels like we’re more of an Airbnb than a winery these days.” It was another Harvest Hosts member.
Idaho & Lindsay Creek Vineyards
In July, we made arrangements to stay at a Host on our way from Coeur d’Alene to Boise, Idaho. The night before, we drove up a dirt road for 2 hours until we decided to turn around. It was almost dark, the trees were thickening, and the path narrowed.
We made the 10-point turn over bushes and rock outcroppings to go back the way we came and pay $22 to sleep in a parking lot at a campground. So much for waking up to a meadow of wildflowers glistening in the morning sun. Instead, we slid open our door to a man filling his water jugs and a whiff of the outhouse. Ah, van life.
The owner of Lindsay Creek Vineyards in Lewiston, Idaho, was happy to have us. The business was closed for the day, but the owner gave us an exclusive tour of the facility, a full tasting, and a history of the area. We spent the evening reading on the patio and caught a vibrant pink-to-orange-to-purple sunset over the vineyard and blonde hills. That alone was worth all the money we spent on the membership.
It may not be the rugged camping we expected when we got into van life, but it’s certainly better than parking in a chain store parking lot, with speakers blaring pop music all night and the hustle of city traffic greeting us in the morning.