Monday, January 9, 2012

Car-Camping on the Florida Keys


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

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.
  • "No Overnight Parking" signs are plentiful on the keys. Free RV parking seems nearly impossible, but overnight car parking is relatively easyas 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
  • 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). At dusk, the sand flies come out and start biting. I have not had a problem farther inland.
  • Of the 30 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 (in the vacant lot across from Bud n Mary's); otherwise they let me stay. I would expect less leniency in Key West.
  • 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

Short link for this post: http://bit.ly/KeysCarCamping

8 comments:

  1. Bookmarked this so that if you do post more I will see them, also I've been wondering about the car camping on the keys and was told that you can't car camp so it's good to see someone proving them wrong. I'm going to subscribe to this.
    Thanks
    Lynn

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  2. I just did this trip...spent 7 nights in the FL Keys and spent zero dollars on lodging! There are plenty of places to park and sleep in your car all throughout the keys. Thanks for your suggestions! The Truman annex in Key West was too creepy for me, being a young woman, alone. I slept along White St down near the dog park. It was perfect and there were bathrooms and showers not too far down at Southernmost Beach. If you hang out at the less touristy bars and make friends with the locals, many people will let you park by their house, and many offered me a couch. Email me if you want more info!

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  3. April 5 2013, old mansion has a chain locked on old gate and realtor sign

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  4. Believe it or not I lived in the Keys for 15 years in a class c van and I always switched spots every couple of nights guess my favorite place was behind the pool room at the shopping center in Key West. I had times when all the spots would be taken up so I just parked anywhere on the streets and at times I would take my tent and walk off into the mangroves and make my living quarters there guess I would still be living there if I hadn't of inherited a fortune from my parents. I live in California now but oh how I miss the fishing in the Fla. Keys theres nothing like it as far as I am concerned. I have returned on fishing trips a couple of times but now I stay at the Hilton and guess what I actually enjoyed my life as a hobo much better. It was my younger years and to me it was an adventure in paradise.

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  5. Just returned from a trip to the Keys. Found the abandoned mansion mentioned above and went to check it out. (http://goo.gl/maps/mw3lr) It has a locked metal gate, but you can easily go around the southern end of the white concrete wall, walk through about 25 feet of woods and you will be beyond the gate. Looks like construction work was stopped on the mansion about 5 to 8 years ago, there is a catamaran sitting inside the mansion with a license sticker from 2003. There is evidence of previous campers as I saw a fire ring and someone had placed a ladder against a palm tree presumably to get coconuts. Although I didn't, it might be possible to camp here, but if you had a vehicle, there is no good place to park except on the side of the road and any cop passing by would certainly know exactly what you were up to and come to investigate, I'm sure. There are dozens of large iguanas on the island, which appears to be man-made, and lots of sandspurs so be aware of that. The partially built concrete mansion is very solid and all holes in the slabs still have railings around them, the roof appears to be solid, so you could probably spend the night there with no problems. There are some tables and chairs but they have been chained to columns so they aren't really usable. If you do decide to camp there please keep a low profile and don't litter.
    Another site we found is the former Caribbean Village Motel which was wiped out by Hurricane Wilma in 2005, and has been sitting vacant since. Map: http://goo.gl/maps/GL5ab
    Coordinates: 24.600269, -81.650419
    10 miles north of Key West on Big Coppett Key, near mile marker 10.7
    Although this place is abandoned, the maintenance crew does check it occasionally but they didn't give me a hassle, they just warned me to be careful and that the neighbors may call the cops on me. We stayed on the second floor outdoor porch of the northernmost building. It has a great breeze 24/7 which keeps all the bugs away and low visibility from the road so hopefully no one will hassle you. This complex is in very decayed shape and there are lots of ways you could injure yourself if you aren't careful, beware of damaged/rotting stairways,porches and docks. They are all very dangerous. Not a good place for kids. If you do visit, please leave the place in better shape than you found it and be a respectful person to anyone you encounter. No facilites/restrooms/water or electricity, but there is a Circle K within walking distance. A hose bib is available next to a tennis court at a condo complex across the street from the Circle K (near a small maintenance hut), but I'd recommend only using it late at night.

    Good luck and have fun.

    JIM

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  6. Well the Google photo from March 2013 clearly shows a fence with a sign on it. (Probably one of those "This is a construction site & it's a Felony to trespass here...") in front of the drive leading into the torn down hotel, so I would be surprised that it would not be there in November 2013. I'm all about hassle free , bothering no one , overnight parking in my van, but I sure don't need some ass wipe rookie cop making his Captain proud of him for making the big Felony trespass arrest on me. It's one thing to be moved along out of some public parking lot like a Food Lion or WalMart or whatever. But this one sounds like trouble to me. Just my opinion. Sometimes it's hard to tell unless you are there.....

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  7. Oh, If you don't mind me asking...What second floor of what building did you stay in?
    All I see is a vacant lot. No building, Not that I could get past the chain link gate in front of the entrance But?????

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  8. Last year I camped in my car from December 27 to January 2. I slept along smathers the first two nights. It was a bit nerve racking having cars fly by me at 2 in the morning. The rest of the time I parked and slept in the double tree parking lot. Leaving again on the 26th this year but we are camping at Boyds campground on stock island.

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