Using iOverlander To Find Free And Unique Camping In Iowa

IOverlander is a free, crowd-sourced app designed for roadtrippers, RVers and Car campers. I have recently started to use it to plan out my weekend adventures in Iowa, and find free places to stay overnight. Lately I have been camping solo almost every weekend. While campgrounds are much cheaper than hotels, I have been starting to wonder if I can illuminate the cost and hassle of staying at the more popular campgrounds. (If you want to learn more about ultra low budget travel, read this!) Plus, in the busy summer season, sometimes the popular campgrounds, like Makokita cave and Backbone State Parks are completely booked. iOverlander helps provide some great options to explore a little differently. 

The iOverlander app

How the iOverlander app works 

iOverlander is a crowd-sourced app. That means that anybody can log a pin in the app and leave notes on the quality and type of location. People who visit a place later can also add check-ins with pictures and notes to help future travelers. If you are following a particular route, you can also see check-in history by user, buy selecting the username. (iOverlander calls this check-in feed a blog, ala tumblr.)

iOverlander is most famous as a tool for campers to find free and paid camping and overnight parking. However, it has a lot of other types of markers that are helpful for all roadtrippers. This includes potable water, showers, security checkpoints, dumpstations, dog parks, and more. You can also leave warnings if you find a location that is unsafe for travelers, and make corrections if information is inaccurate. It is not uncommon to find a free camping location marked by one user, that has been marked closed by another. 

As a side note, usually the closure happened during the 2020-2021 time period when more people than usual were traveling. A lot of littering and other leave-no-trace violations lead to natural areas being closed to the public. If you plan on camping, especially wild camping where there are no waste or bathroom facilities, please make sure you know leave-no-trace policy. 

My initial experience using iOverlander

My camping spot on the Mississippi, which I found on iOverlander
My camping spot on the Mississippi, found through iOverlander. It came with a great sunrise.

When I first opened this app, I was disoriented for a second. This app is rather bare-bones, by design. Unlike The Dyrt, this is a free app with a very minimal development budget. The home screen is not flashy, but highly functional for quickly navigating to where you need to go. 

I use the map view the most. Navigating to the area you plan to explore is easy. My first overnight trip using the app, I chose to stay at a quiet boat ramp on the Missisppi River. It was marked as quiet and safe, and best of all, it had vault toilets. The app noted that there was a railway nearby that could be loud during the day, but was mostly quiet at night.

I found the assessment to be pretty accurate. I felt safe, especially given the DNR station nearby, and I slept just fine in my Rav4 camper set up. Plus, the location was perfect for watching the sunrise over the river. It was my first time getting that true nomad, instagram-worthy view from the vehicle window. There were some fishermen that came to launch a boat at 5:30 am, which is to be expected. It’s best practice to leave pretty early in the morning if you are doing improvised camping. 

The limits of iOverlander’s crowdsourcing

Keep in mind that since the app is crowd sourced, which means it doesn't list every good spot. I found that the campground I loved in Yellow River State Forest wasn’t even listed, nor were the other campgrounds and waypoints. I have found that the more popular an area is with travelers, the more thorough the listings will be. For Iowa especially, markers lie along highway routes rather than near attractions. (I guess people see Iowa as a flyover state, which isn’t entirely fair.) 

I would like to note here that iOverlander differentiates between wild camping (a campsite without any facilities, such as a national forest with dispersed camping on BLM land) and an improvised campsite (a campsite designed for another purpose, such as overnighting at a truck stop, public park or Cracker Barrel). That doesn't mean that the person who created the marker notated the category correctly. Make sure you read the full description to make sure you know what you are getting into. Otherwise, you might find yourself in a parking lot when you wanted a forest, or you might not have access to a bathroom when you aren't prepared. iOverlander listed my campsite on the river as wild camping, when improvised camping was far more accurate. 

I can’t find a place near me to stay the night on IOverlander! What now?

Like I mentioned above, iOverlander is crowd-sourced- thus, not an exhaustive source. You have a few options you can try if you need a place to sleep on your trip. 

  • Search for rest areas along your route. If you find something promising, also check if the state operating the rest stop allows overnight stays. For example, Iowa allows you to sleep overnight, but you must leave after a certain number of hours, and you can’t usually set up a tent or similar equipment. 
  • Check  if the state you are in allows for dispersed camping at state forests or wildlife management areas. In Iowa, so long as you don’t park off of the designated areas, and so long as there is no signage posted prohibiting camping, you can stay for up to 14 nights at WMA. I find that these are not usually listed as thoroughly as popular paid camping or quick pull-offs in cities. 
  • Check for nearby Walmarts, truck stops, Cracker Barrels, Bass Pro Shops, Cabelas, and other camper friendly business chains. If you find something promising, call ahead or check with management to make sure you have permission. Courteous campers buy something if they stay at a business’s parking lot, and never stay longer than one night in a row. 

Conclusion

I would highly recommend that if you car camp or travel by RV, to give iOverlander a shot! I found it to be a helpful addition to my usual tools and knowledge. As much as I love supporting the local parks and campgrounds, I enjoy alternative options when I’m feeling thrifty or adventurous.

Have you tried the iOverlander App? Let me know what you thought about it! (Especially if you have used it in northern or eastern Iowa.)

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