Enjoying the Florida Keys can be a costly endeavor since tourism is the main income source for businesses located in the Keys. There are still ways however to enjoy the beauty of the islands without the big price tag. Although it is widely published that stealth camping is not allowed in the Florida Keys, we learned that there are still many options for free overnight parking. See the difference in wording: Stealth camping versus overnight parking? The trick is making yourself invisible when sleeping inside your parked vehicle.
Instead of staying at a nice hotel in Kew West we decided to give it a try and we turned our Chevy Tahoe into a super stealth truck camper and left for a great adventure filled with sun, fun and island vibes. Stealth camping in a car or truck definitely has its pros and cons. Cons: lack of privacy, space, air flow and luxury. Pros: low cost, more freedom and spontaneity. We love to be able to park pretty much anywhere and to be spontaneous during our travel, changing the route without having to plan ahead. Having the freedom to live in the moment and to decide to stay somewhere or move on at your heart’s desire is definitely a great feeling!
For this trip, we made a simple construction of a bed platform with underneath storage, black window covers for the inside and a black curtain behind the driver and passenger seats, so no one could see inside the vehicle at night, even when using a flash-light. We put a bike-rack on the hitch-receiver and off we went in our little adventure-mobil.
The temperatures had been between the low 70’s during nights and high 80’s during the days, perfect weather for outdoor living. Since being invisible in your car means that windows can’t stay open except for a small gap which is not quite sufficient for good airflow, we decided to bring a small rechargeable USB-fan that made it more comfortable to sleep inside the truck. This and a few other items we brought made it a successful adventure despite the minimal space that we had available. We brought our full-sized mattress which fitted perfectly in on the platform and it was super comfy. Where did we shower you may ask? We used solely free outdoor showers that we found at various beaches and parks. And on a couple days we just freshened up at a rest stop. Bathrooms are easy to find all over, and then there’s always the “peeing into a bottle option” for urgent matters.
Here’s our gear list, tips and tricks and places we visited and parked at overnight:
Recommended Truck Camping Gear:
- Suaoki Portable Solar Power Generator (it’s a portable power battery chargeable via solar panels, 9V or 12V outlet and an essential item for a digital nomad. We bring our Suaoki even to cafes etc that have no outlets so we can work on our laptops and charge up).
- Fan USB Rechargeable (to keep air circulating while sleeping).
- Blackout curtains and window covers made with black thick fabric
- Camping stove
- Box with a pan and pot, stainless steel plates, bowl, cups, bamboo utensils, cookware, spices, olive oil etc.
- Shee Wee and an old detergent bottle for urine collection during desperate times
- Dude Wipes (biodegradeable, eco-friendly hygiene towletts)
- Water bladder and day pack
- Bicycle and bike rack
- Luci Lights
- Biodegradeable conditioning shampoo
- Biodegradeable soap (for hands, body and washing dishes)
- Small biodegradeable trash bags
- Towels, Swim Suits, clothing, sun protection, coral-safe sunscreen, toiletries etc
- Insect Repellent (a must have for the Keys, this one is eco-friendly and effective)
- Eco-friendly hand sanitizer
- Food, snacks
- Inflatable Kayak and Paddles
Our Travel Route and Recommended Places:
Day 1: Ocala – Dunedin
We started our journey in Ocala, FL where we left our travel trailer and from there had 7 days to travel to Key West and back. We made our way to downtown Dunedin where we found plenty of free parking, and after a stroll through town enjoyed a couple pizza slices at Tony’s Pizza. We found a quiet parking lot for our free overnight stay: See GPS coordinates here..
Dunedin is a cute town with many dining options. Since we eat mostly vegetarian and vegan, it can be challenging in some locations to find good options. Depending on your budget, we recommend the following restaurants in Dunedin for some yummy vegetarian and vegan meals:
Day 2: Dunedin – Clearwater – Sunshine Skyway Bridge Manatee County Rest Area
We got up early and after a refueling breakfast at Serendipity Cafe then parked at the downtown parking lot, grabbed our bikes and enjoyed a great day bicycling the beautiful Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail. The 49.8 mile long urban multi-use trail reaches from St. Petersburg to Tarpon Springs and is built on former railroad tracks.
We were super excited to have come across this awesome trail and truly enjoyed our ride. At some point however I got a flat tire and Damian’s gears broke pretty much at the same time. It was the weirdest thing. Several friendly bikers stopped and were so kind to help with the tire-repair. I was in awe about the kindness of those strangers that just stopped on their way and helped out!!
The joined effort made my tire work at least for a few miles and we rode back into town, excited to find a great bike shop called Kafe Racer and the staff were able to fix our bikes within only 30 min!
Happily we made our way along the Pinellas Trail again and then headed over the bridge to Honeymoon Beach at Honeymoon Island State Park for a great swim at the beautiful beach. After biking back to the downtown area where we left the truck, we decided to drive to Clearwater where we knew to find free outdoor showers and restrooms at the beach with parking available only a couple blocks from the beach. After a stroll and a simple vegan falafel dinner at King’s Pizza and Grill we brought our hammock to the white sandy beach where tall palm trees invited us to hang our hammock for a few hours of romantic relaxation. We were unable to find overnight parking in Clearwater (except for a couple overpriced parking garages that we did not want to stay at). So we made our way late at night to the most beautiful rest stop I have ever seen: The Manatee County Rest Area located at the The Sunshine Skyway Bridge at the Tampa Bay with added features of armed security, clean restrooms and picnic pavilions. We parked, got a good night sleep and woke up to a gorgeous view onto the water.
While there, we realized that another overnight parking option next to this rest stop would be the beautiful Sunshine Skyway Fishing Pier which is a Florida State Park that is open 24h. It is a fishing pier, but one can also just park and enjoy the lookout. We saw a few vans that stayed there overnight. Note: Recreational vehicles, large trucks and trailers are not allowed on the fishing piers.
Day 3: Sunshine Skyway Bridge Manatee County Rest Area – Clearwater – Big Cypress National Preserve
After cooking a hearty breakfast at the picnic pavilion at the rest stop, we packed up and drove into Clearwater to visit the great Dali Museum. From there we made our way South, stopped near Sarasota where we found Tandoor Fine Indian Cuisine, a great Indian restaurant with many delicious vegetarian and vegan dishes. After continuing on our route for another few hours we parked for the night in the Big Cypress National Preserve at Collier County Rest Area. It was pretty quiet at night and we had a good night sleep.
Day 4: Big Cypress National Preserve – Islamorada – Tavernier Key
After cooking a filling breakfast at the picnic table at the rest stop, we continued our journey towards the South-East and grabbed a few fresh items at a supermarket and enjoyed our lunch in their parking lot. Since we needed to catch up with some work, we drove to Florida City which is the gateway to the Florida Keys, found a Starbucks with plenty of open seating and fast wifi and bunkered down for a few hours of work on our laptops.
Finally it was time for some island fun and we made our way to Islamorada where we found a lovely small beach at Founders Park. There is a $8 entry fee for the park with beach access, cold showers, bathrooms, picnic tables, a playground, and for an additional fee one can use the pool as well. We went for a swim at the beach and had a long awaited refreshing shower, then cooked a yummy dinner at one of the picnic tables and enjoyed the beautiful sunset before the park closed and we had to move on.
We decided to work for another few hours and found free wifi at McDonalds on Tavernier Key. Winn Dixie was located just across the plaza and we asked the manager if we would be able to stay in their parking lot overnight and he instantly said “sure, no problem, what does your vehicle look like?”. Wow, that was easy! We used their restrooms and bought a late night snack and off we went to our sleeping quarters aka our Chevy Tahoe. Another quiet night sound asleep and all for free!
Day 5: Tavernier Key – Marathon Key – Key West
We made our way South through the Keys and enjoyed the beautiful view of the turquoise water. Sadly, there was still quite a bit devastation from the big hurricane Irma that hit last year. Especially around Marathon Key the cleanup and build-up was still in process. For us, it was time for some more computer work and we found free wifi at McDonalds on Marathon Key.
In the afternoon it was time for ocean swimming and we found a gem of a beach on Marathon Key called Sombrero Beach. Free access, free parking, toilets, picnic pavilion, playground. Gorgeous Ocean water and palm trees to hang a hammock! Perfect!
We spent our afternoon swimming and relaxing at the beach and then finally made our way to Key West! After driving into town, we found lots of empty parking space (it was a weekday) with plenty of space available for free street parking along Flagler Avenue, Casa Marina Ct and side streets like Grinnell St, Walton St etc. We decided to park on Reynolds Street, just a few feet from Higgs Beach, located next to the parking lot of the Casa Maria Waldorf Astoria Resort. We parked our truck there for 2 days without being bothered by anyone. It was super quiet at night and only a few steps to the beach!
Higgs beach has restrooms (closed during night time), free cold outdoor showers, a historic fort and lots of recreational space and there’s a restaurant next to the beach as well. What else could you wish for! We arrived just in time for sunset and enjoyed the beautiful evening sky at Higgs beach. Then after a refreshing shower at the beach we went for a walk through town and had a fantastic vegan dinner at The Cafe. After another walk through town and a visit to zero mile point we headed back to Higgs beach and listened to the waves before going to sleep in our truck.
Other great vegetarian/vegan friendly restaurants we found in Key West, Marathon Key:
For those who do prefer to stay at a hotel room in Key West, we can recommend the following hotels:
Hotel Ocean Key Resort & Spa, Florida Keys – FL
Hotel Key Lime Inn, Florida Keys – FL
Hotel Doubletree Grand Key Resort , Florida Keys – FL
Day 6: Key West – Marathon Key
We got up early to watch the sunrise at Higgs beach, then took our bikes and rode around town, and went for breakfast at the lovely Key Coffee Co. After we filled our tummies we biked to Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park and spent a few hours in the clear water at the beautiful beach. Tip: bring water-shoes as the rocky pebbles at the beach are hurting your feet for sure. After another refreshing shower we went back into town and had lunch again at Le Cafe (yes, it was just that delicious), biked back to our truck and off we drove back to Sombrero beach on Marathon Key where we cooked dinner at the picnic table and relaxed in a hammock at the lonely beach after sunset. We didn’t want to spend much money, so back to McDonald’s it was for a cup of coffee and free wifi. We checked-in with the manager at Publix across the mall-parking lot and got his approval for overnight parking in the Publix parking lot. The night was pretty quiet and we slept until the morning hours without interruption.
Day 7: Marathon Key – Key Largo – Silver Springs
After a super early rise to watch the sunrise at Sombrero Beach (tip: bring bug spray and watch out for super aggressive Mosquitos during dusk and dawn) we had a quick breakfast at the parking lot and made our way to Key Largo where we found a small park with public boat launch at Sunset Point Park. It was the perfect place to launch our kayak and we had a great couple of hours on the beautiful clear water along Key Largo.
During our paddle we discovered a small empty hidden beach only a short walk from Sunset Point Park and after we finished our kayak trip we walked over and enjoyed a nice dip in the shallow refreshing water at the beach. After the mandatory Key Lime Pie on Tavernier Key it was sadly time to say goodbye to the Florida Keys.
We headed up north back to Ocala and are looking forward to return some day for more great adventures for sure.
Other free overnight parking options that we found along the way:
There are a multitude of options throughout the keys and along Overseas Highway, just look for public space that does not have a sign for “no camping” or “no overnight parking”.
Tips on stealth Camping in the Keys:
Other Great Info:
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