Monday, January 9, 2012

Car-Camping on the Florida Keys

By Glenn Campbell (revised 1/28/14 & 1/7/19 & 1/19/21) 

UPDATE (Jan. 2021): See my Car Camping Advice in a Tweet Thread.

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. Below are my notes on car camping on the keys.

See the Florida Keys soon! Like Venice, they will soon be reclaimed by rising sea levels. It will take only one or two big storms to knock out the Keys forever.
  • Free RV parking is difficult, but overnight car parking is relatively easyas long as you are not obvious about it.
  • "No Overnight Parking" signs are plentiful on the keys, and I try not to park overnight where a sign tells me explicitly not to. (You can often get away with it, but it's bad form.)
  • 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
  • You can park anywhere that I car would normally be parked overnight. Avoid places where you car would stick out, like a vacant lot or along the side of a remote road. You don't want the cops to come by and say, "What's that car doing here?"
  • 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. Summer night 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, which may affect the places where you can comfortably park. (If the windows are nearly closed, you can park anywhere a car would normally be parked overnight, but if you have to open the windows, you are more vulnerable and have to choose you location more carefully.)
  • In the "winter", nights can get chilly—that is, into the 60s, so you need a blanket or sleeping bags. All the supplies you need can be found at Walmart's in Florida City and Homestead.
  • 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. The only time bugs have been a problem is when I was parked directly beside the ocean (at Higgs Beach in Key West or Geiger Beach on Boca Chica Key). At dusk, the sand flies come out and start biting. I have not had a problem farther inland.
  • Of the 100+ 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 (in the vacant lot across from Bud n Mary's); otherwise they let me stay. I would expect less leniency in Key West.
  • As of Jan. 2021, my most comfortable overnight sleeping spot on the Keys is about in the middle, in the long rest area across from the Amara Cay Hotel. Lots of space, no one to bother you and restroom facilities in the bushes.
  • THEY PAVED PARADISE, PUT UP A PARKING LOT. - In the many times I have visited Key West in a rental car, I could always count on the Truman Annex for overnight parking. This was essentially a big vacant lot within walking distance of downtown Key West. I last used this facility for my sleeping needs about 3 years ago. Now I've returned to the same location and find it has been PAVED OVER and replaced by expensive paid parking. 😢
  • In Key West, overnight parking is not allowed in most public and private parking lots. If you try to park in a supermarket lot or beach lot, someone will wake you up in the middle of the night to kick you out. The only place left are residential streets. Fortunately, there is plenty of parking there.
  • 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. I like the vacant lot across from Bud n' Mary's Marina, in Islamorada, but you have to park on the highway side of the lot.
  • There is a hostel in Florida City at the entry point to the keys: Everglades International Hostel. There are also two hostels in Key West, including Seashell Motel & Hostel, but they are up to $75/night for a bunk in a shared motel room. (Seems pointless if you can sleep in your car.) Both hostels are listed on HostelWorld.
  • I don't see crime as an issue in the Keys, because you have to be rich to afford to stay here, but you don't want to make things easy. Don't park with valuables in sight.
  • Plenty of fast food and groceries in Key West, Marathon, Key Largo and elsewhere. There are several Dollar Tree stores for cheap supplies, including one in Key West. 
  • Walmart is back on the mainland. Stop her for camping supplies and snorkel gear. The closest one is Florida City, but it is a little ratty, and when I was there last they had run out of masks and flippers. I prefer other Walmarts.
  • Gas is the same price as the mainland from Key Largo to Marathon, but it rises by about 60 cents south of Marathon, including Key West.
  • 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 (on the mainland) 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+, and you can return as often as you want through the day.
  • Sunset is the big draw in Key West. Best place to experience it is along the waterfront from Mallory Square to the Truman Annex. Paid parking in this area is expensive. An alternative is to park in a residential area to the south and walk to the waterfront.
  • Being the tropics, you can expect the sun to rise and set rapidly. There is very little dusk or dawn like you find in the northern climes.
  • Key West is rich in free-roaming chickens. The roosters start crowing around 4:30am.
My photos: Key West and Rest of the Keys

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