Monday, January 9, 2012

Car-Camping on the Florida Keys

By Glenn Campbell (revised 1/28/14)

THE FLORIDA KEYS are an easy way to visit the tropics at minimal cost--provided you are comfortable sleeping in a rental car, because lodging is expensive. Flying to MIA or FLL is usually cheap and so are car rentals there. The Keys aren't nearly as exciting as they appear on the map, but they have exactly the same environment as Caribbean islands like Jamaica and Cuba. Here are my notes on car camping on the keys.
  • "No Overnight Parking" signs are plentiful on the keys. Free RV parking seems nearly impossible, but overnight car parking is relatively easy--as long as you are not obvious about it.
  • Sleeping in a car is an acquired skill. It takes practice to get used to it and understand your body's own needs. Don't expect it to work for you right away. See How to Sleep in a Car
  • The main issue on the Keys is heat. Nights are usually in the 70s, which I find is the limit of the temperature in which you can comfortably sleep in a car. You need to leave the windows open at least part way to let out your own body heat.
  • There isn't a lot of difference between summer and winter temperatures on the Keys, but summer could heat things up to the point where sleeping in a car isn't comfortable.
  • Rain can be awkward, since is forces you to roll up the windows. Fortunately, I have rarely experienced rain at night on the Keys.
  • Bugs aren't usually a problem on the Keys. I have never needed mosquito netting on the windows.
  • Of the 15 or so nights I have slept in a car on the keys, I have been woken by police only once. They asked me to move my car 20 feet so I wasn't on private property; otherwise they let me stay.
  • In Key West, I usually sleep in the Truman Annex, which part of former military base. Pretend you are going to Ft. Zachery Taylor and you will pass through a big open area. (You also pass a small guard house that waves cars through.) RVs cannot park here overnight without a special permit, but there are always cars parked here overnight. From the Truman Annex, you can walk to Duval St (the main tourist drag).
  • Elsewhere on the Overseas Highway, there are usually parking areas for fishermen at the ends of bridges. These are often good places to park overnight. 
  • There is a hostel in Florida City at the entry point to the keys: Everglades International Hostel. I have also seen a hostel in Key West: Seashell Motel & Hostel. I know nothing about either place, but the Everglades hostel is listed on HostelWorld, while the Seashell Motel isn't (which makes evaluation difficult).
  • Plenty of fast food and groceries in Key West, Marathon, Key Largo and elsewhere. Gas is not much more expensive than on the mainland. K-Mart in Key West, but the last Walmart is back on the mainland in Florida City.
  • There are state campgrounds on the keys, including Bahia Honda, but they appear to be heavily booked well in advance.
  • The ocean here is perfect for swimming year round. Almost bath water temperature. Buying a mask and snorkel at Walmart (Florida City) will greatly enhance the experience.
  • In Key West, Ft. Zachary Tailor is a nice place to hang out during the day. Admission is $4.50+, but you can return as often as you want through the day.
My photos: Key West and Rest of the Keys