Ah, van life. The freedom to park and set up camp wherever you like. The cosy comfort of a custom-built sleeping nook. The self-satisfaction that comes with picturesque in-bed views you don’t have to share with another soul.
The reality though – as is usually the case with hashtag-led experiences – is not quite so easy-breezy. Depending on where you are, it may not be legal to camp spontaneously by the side of the road or sleep in your vehicle at your preferred spot in Victoria. Some local councils have introduced laws to prevent it, and the more popular the region is with tourists, the stricter those laws tend to be. But while plenty of travellers risk it, stealth camping could land you with an early morning wake up call from a ranger and a significant fine.
Whether you’ve got your own van or you’re renting one (we borrowed ours from Let’s Go Motorhomes), your safest bet is to find a designated campground or a “dispersed camping” area, where camping is allowed outside of campgrounds but tends to be more remote and low on facilities – ideal for van travellers.
Hutchessons campground, Lower Glenelg National Park
Almost five hours’ drive west of Melbourne, this magical little campground sits right along the Glenelg River, so it’s a great spot to launch a canoe or kayak – or just sit back among the eucalypts and watch the water roll on by. It has just two sites (bookable in advance), both unpowered and accommodating up to six people. There are toilets, fireplaces, picnic tables and a jetty for those keen to get some fishing in. Explore the rest of the park for limestone cliffs, towering gums, multi-day hikes and a decent chance of a koala encounter.
Notley campground, Greater Bendigo National Park
After the final stretch of a two-hour drive from Melbourne along an unsealed road, this free site has plenty of green, grassy spots to park and set up camp, as well as toilets, fireplaces and picnic tables. Various easy loop tracks and some longer hikes through the surrounding bushland start here, some with panoramic sunset views. The national park is part of the traditional lands of the Dja Dja Wurrung people, and contains artefacts such as scarred trees, mounds and wells. It’s also home to swift parrots, echidnas, kangaroos and wallabies.
Kennett River Caravan Park, Kennett River
This park is located between the coastal towns of Lorne and Apollo Bay, about two-and-a-half-hours’ drive from Melbourne along the Great Ocean Road. One of the draws here is the beach just over the road, as well as the native wildlife – look out for koalas, king parrots, rosellas, kookaburras and the occasional goanna. It’s also right by the Great Otway National Park, so you’re close to rainforest walks, waterfalls and even more critters. The campground is fairly well-equipped with hot showers, toilets, a camp kitchen and a tennis court. It’s not walking distance to town, but a general store nearby sells pies, quiches and fruit-filled pastries. There are powered and unpowered sites available for a fee, which you’ll need to book and pay for in advance.
Lake Crosbie campground, Murray-Sunset National Park
A mammoth six-and-a-half-hour drive from Melbourne, this remote spot is worth it for its spectacular scenery of the famous Pink Lakes. Of the 11 campgrounds in the park, almost all are accessible only by 4WD, but Lake Crosbie is the exception. It’s a photographer’s paradise with deep, dreamy sunsets; vast starry skies; and wildlife including parrots, goannas and emus. There are firepits, toilets and picnic tables, and you’ll likely have no phone reception. It’s also free – no bookings required.
Cooks Mill camping area, Cathedral Range State Park
The Cathedral Ranges offer some of the most spectacular hikes in Victoria, and this campsite is an excellent place to set up base camp. There are family-friendly walks, punishing-but-short steep hikes, and longer, more challenging walks not for the height-averse. Shaded by gum trees, you’ll be camping on the former site of a 1940s timber mill and might be lucky enough to wake up to kangaroos against a spectacularly rugged mountain backdrop. Not all spots are suited to vans though, and you’ll need to book and pay in advance. Facilities include toilets, picnic tables and shared fireplaces.
Dispersed camping, Murray River Reserve
There are dozens of free campsites dotted along the Victorian edge of the Murray, many that’ll have you feeling like you’ve truly escaped the crowds though that means limited facilities, if any. Allow enough time and you’ve got a good chance of nabbing a park right on the water, but keep an eye out for snakes. You can fish for golden perch and Murray cod, or sit back and spot kangaroos and kookaburras. Popular sites include Christies Beach, just outside of Echuca, and Scotts Beach, close to Cobram.
Tidal River campground, Wilsons Promontory National Park
About three-and-a-half-hours’ drive from Melbourne, this is one of the state’s most popular campgrounds, with the river on one side and Norman Beach on the other. The river is family-friendly, so find a spot among the tea trees closest to the surf beach if you want to steer clear of littlies. Facilities include gas barbeques and hot showers. Head out on a hike and you’re likely to see wallabies and wombats. There are both powered and unpowered sites available.
Jerusalem Creek campground, Lake Eildon
The facilities here are more basic than at the nearby Fraser Block campgrounds, but this is a quieter alternative with just eight unpowered sites. You’re right by the water so bring a canoe or kayak and set off to discover swimming holes and fishing spots nearby, or go on a four-hour hike to the top of the Pinnacle. Back at camp there are toilets and fireplaces but no showers. Dogs are allowed on leads.
Johanna Beach campground, Johanna
Another top spot along the Great Ocean Road, this tiny-but-popular campground used to be free but now charges a fee. It has 25 sites, set among sand dunes just beside the surf beach. If surfing’s not your bag, get some fishing in or head out on a hike to Triplet Falls, just over half an hour’s drive away, which traverses ancient rainforest to a lookout with views of impressive waterfalls. The site is dog friendly, but the amenities are minimal – that means drop toilets, no showers, and BYO drinking water.
Lerderderg campground, Lerderderg State Park
An easy hour-and-a-bit from Melbourne, this free campground is set among woodland and along a creek, so still feels fairly remote. There’s only one toilet but each site has its own firepit. Head out on a bushwalk and spot koalas, kangaroos, wallabies, echidnas, cockatoos and crimson rosellas by day, while at night if you’re lucky you might see gliders, brushtail possums and owls. It’s the only drive-in campsite in the park but doesn’t accept bookings – first come, first served.
Halls Gap Lakeside Tourist Park, Halls Gap
For a relatively luxurious van-camping experience, check out this campground and caravan park near the Grampians National Park. It’s been open since 1975 and has two heated pools, a camp kitchen, modern bathrooms, an ice-cream cart and coffee shop, trampolines and other activities for kids, and a communal lounge and bar for parents. Emus and kangaroos have been known to wander the grounds, and there are both powered and unpowered sites. Ask for a more secluded spot at the back if you don’t want to be too close to the action.
Find more info here.
The natural environment can be unpredictable, and changed conditions can mean closures, bushfires and floods that may affect your trip. Check the Parks Victoria website for information before you travel.