In cash-strapped times it simply isn’t true that we can’t pack up our families and head off on an epic overseas adventure. All you need is a campervan. We’ve been on the road for three weeks now, and haven’t had to cough up a single Euro for accommodation. The only time we did pay to park up was at a beach car park by day, where a self-proclaimed attendant demanded €2.
Unlike the UK, in France, Spain and Portugal there are plenty of places where you can pull up in a campervan and enjoy the wonders of the beaches and the forests for free. And when you’ve forked out a fair packet to acquire a campervan in the first place, it only seems fair to save on some accommodation costs once you’re on your merry way.
I’m not claiming that these free camping spots are decked out with toilets, showers, drinking water and electric hook-ups: when you forego the campsite fee, so too do you forego some camping luxuries. Plush vans might have a loo and shower onboard, but we’ve done with washing in the sea and lakes, wee-ing in the wild and buying/ filling up with water as we go.
Having so far trucked from north to south Spain along its central spine, we’re now making our way back up the west coast of Portugal, and the free camping options only seem to be getting better. Most spots are more suited to vans, but there are tents pitched in many of them too. Of course we’re going to keep the best and most secret spots to ourselves, but for adventure-seeking folk on a budget, here are a few of the prime free camping sites we’ve come across so far. I’ll add to the list in a free-camping Europe guide as I go along.
Santander to Tarifa, SPAIN
Playa Tagle, Suances, Cantabria
Just 30 minutes’ from Santander, this wild little cove is neighbour of the vibrant, more sophisticated Suances. Before reaching the beach car park, plenty of farm tracks fork off to great cliff-top vantage points where you can hunker down and take in the stupendous coastal views. Drinking water is available in the picnic area by the beach and there are toilets at the beach café.
Las Rozas, nr Reinosa, Cantabria
Just outside this tiny village on the banks of a mighty reservoir backed by mountain peaks, a small track leads under the railway bridge to a grassy field that juts into the glassy waters. Seething temperatures see to it that you spend much of your time in the lake, where you can swim to a partly submerged church and take in the mountain views from the top of the steeple.
Playa Valdevaqueros, Tarifa, Andalucia
Tarifa isn’t the most obvious spot for free camping: as you approach the town from the east, the beachside road boasts a plethora of accommodation from campsites to boutique hotels and surf lodges. However, close to Punta Paloma, about 10km out of town, a piece of land near the ‘Spin Out’ kitesurfing school is home to a campervanning community for much of the year. Most of the folk that stop here are keen for the windsports on offer, but it’s also perfect for beach lovers who want to throw open the van doors to the sea and the stars, and spend sunny days lazing on the sand. Downsides are that it’s a breezy spot, even when it’s scorching, and there’s no water source available nearby.
Praia de Mareta, Sagres
Rock up in Sagres and there are plenty of free van-camping spots to choose from between the town and Cabo de Sao Vicente. Most of them are clifftop, and those that don’t welcome campervans are clearly marked. Our favourite turned out to be the car park above Praia de Mareta, where a combination of stunning coastal views, a short walk to the beach and a little shelter from the prevailing westerly winds, won us over. There’s even free wifi in the beach café/restaurant here too.
Praia Amado, Carrapateira
Still in this corner of Portugal after nearly two weeks, I can honestly say that we’ve found the most beautiful, sheltered and wild free camping spots here. Most of which will remain a secret – it’s up to you to follow every rutted, dusty track to come across your own gems. One of the more well-known places we stopped at was Praia Amado, where the surfers and campervanning community flock for the waves, the sunset and the beach-top vantage point. There’s plenty of surfside cafés and bars here too, so you can have a break from building the campfire and rest assured there’s always a loo nearby.