THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO FINDING FREE CAMPSITES IN THE US
If you are planning a road trip or are a new van-lifer, you might be surprised how much camping fees can add up over time, especially if you end up staying at national parks or privately owned campgrounds. I realized this when I first got my Sprinter Van, and I quickly learned that paying $15-20 every night for camping was not going to be an option if I wanted to be on the road long-term. Since then, I’ve been using a variety of tools to find free campsites, also referred to as dispersed camping. Whether you are looking for an off-the-beaten-path place to set up your tent away from crowds or are trying to stick to a budget, this blog post on how to find free camping will help you find great campsites during your road trip.
We’ve created this blog post to show you how to find dispersed free campsites across the US, so you can get outside and enjoy a quiet night under the stars without breaking your piggy bank!
So what exactly is dispersed camping?
Dispersed camping means you’ll most likely be without services and amenities such as water, picnic tables, trash cans, showers, and toilets. That means you need to come fully prepared with everything you need, and you’ll need to pack everything out according to Leave No Trace principles. The trade-off is these dispersed campsites are generally FREE, offer a lot more solitude than traditional campsites, and sometimes you’ll even have better views!
Learn all about Leave No Trace
5 Important Things to Consider Before Choosing a Dispersed Campsite
- Fire Regulations: Are there fire restrictions? Will I need a fire permit? Dispersed free campsites rarely have a fire pit so it is important you come prepared with basic backcountry fire safety skills. Don’t forget Principle #5 of Leave No Trace principles is to minimize campfire impacts.
- Road Conditions: Are there any road closures? What are the road conditions? Do I need 4-wheel drive?
- Water Availability: Will there be any water sources nearby? What is the current water status for these sources? Generally if you are dispersed camping on protected land you’ll need to be 200 feet away from any stream or water source, so make sure to check rules and regulations before heading out. Always carry plenty of water in your vehicle and/or a way to filter water if there are any water sources at the site.
- Campsite Amenities: Generally there are no amenities such as picnic tables, trash receptacles or restrooms. Bring a trash bag, and be prepared to pack out your trash.
- Cell Service: A lot of dispersed free campsites are in remote areas where you may not have cell service to access maps on your phone. We highly recommend carrying paper maps with you in your car which are also helpful for identifying nearby hiking trails and other recreation opportunities.
Photo Cred: Alan English
Type of Land where Free Camping is Usually Found
BLM Land is mostly found out west, and dispersed camping is allowed on most BLM land for up to 14 days. The exception is areas close to population centers and areas used for grazing. For example, in Moab, Utah, there is a ton of BLM camping available, but because it is so popular, many of the sites are more developed and cost a small fee for overnight stays. Unfortunately the BLM doesn’t have a comprehensive map on their website showing where all of the free BLM campsites are, but you can get a feel for whats available in your region by browsing their regional maps found here. Some states have pretty handy guides, like Idaho, and you also contact the local BLM office to get more info on where you can camp for free. The tools we talk about in the next section will also help you identify where free BLM camping is.
Similar to BLM lands, dispersed camping is allowed in over 175 national forests and grasslands in the United States. For information on camping on USFS locations across the country you have to check with each ranger district directly. On the USFS website you can search by state and select a specific forest to grassland to learn more about.
Not necessarily what you had in mind for your next great adventure, but if you find yourself caught in town “refueling” on supplies it’s important to note that Walmart, Camping World, Cracker Barrel, casinos and truck stops often provide areas for free overnight parking. When crashing in these types of parking lots, you have to stay (meaning sleeping, cooking, and hanging out) inside your vehicle for the evening, but if you’re in a bind, it can be a good option. Some truck stops even offer laundry services and coin operated showers. Make sure to check with management if you are unsure or have any questions–not all locations in all states allow overnight parking. The #1 app I recommend below allows you to filter by Walmart “Parking Allowed”. For casinos with overnight parking, use the map locator on casinocamper.com to see which casinos allow overnight parking.
Photo Cred: Corey Taratuta
Best Apps for Finding Free Campsites
There are more tools available than we list here, but after three years of road tripping in my van, these are our favorite online resources and apps for finding free campsites. If you are looking for additional resources or free camping in Canada (which I don’t have experience with yet), make sure to check out Fresh Off the Grid’s Guide to Free Camping which covers some tools I don’t include here.
Ultimate US Public Campgrounds App
In 2019, the Ultimate Campgrounds App comes in first as the most comprehensive user-friendly phone app for finding low-cost or free campsites on the go. Ultimate Campgrounds has over 41,000 public campsites (updated monthly), and it’s very easy to distinguish between Forest Service, National Park, and other types of campsites on the app. For each campsite, the app share details about amenities, road conditions, price, and more. I’ve been really surprised that this app even shows pull-offs on the side of the road, as well as isolated campsites on dirt roads, where it is legal to camp. This app does not include privately owned campgrounds or RV parks. This app costs $3.99.
iOverlander is a FREE website and app that you download to your phone. You can find nearby places on a map and pull up a full description, list of amenities and even see photos, comments and reviews from others who have stayed there. You can even search by required amenities, let’s say you need Wifi to get some work done or need a location with showers or even a pet-friendly location, you can narrow your search down using all types of parameters. You can mark where you have stayed to help share your travels with others you meet on the road. You can even use the app offline without the map. And it’s not just for the United States!
All Stays Camp & RV
All Stays Camp & Rv is a $9.99 app that you download to your phone. Unlike the two previously mentioned, All Stays Camp and RV has paid campsites, parking lots, and other places you can stay. In addition, you can find places to fill up water, RV dumps, and other services that you often need on the road. Once you find a campsite, there is a button that links to Google Images, and you can automatically open up directions in Apple or Google maps. The basic functions of the app even sort-of work when you are off-the-grid and have no cell service.
If you don’t want to download a pay-for app, Freecampsites.net allows you to zoom in on a map to locate campsites or search by zip code. Additionally it also has a trip planning option that will allow you to create a route using free dispersed camping options. You can even search by the type of access road to the sites. When you select a site, you’ll be given the GPS coordinates, elevation and the local weather so you can pack accordingly.
Other Tools for Finding Free Campsites
Benchmark Road Atlas
These are my go-to paper maps. If I’m going to be spending any extended amount of time in one state, I will invest in a Benchmark Road Atlas. Each state has it’s own atlas they generally run about $20. All maps show recreation activities, have categorized listings and also show public land ownership lines. Of course these maps have all the little backroads that you’ll want to know about for finding the perfect dispersed campsites. My method for finding free, dispersed campsites in a new area is to find a Forest Service road that appears to be well-maintained on the map, and then take a drive.
National Geographic Maps
These topographic maps are great for backpacking as they are waterproof and tear-resistant. They come location specific; for example Big Sur & the Ventana Wilderness. The maps provide detailed information about specific lands and ranger districts while also showing all National Forest boundaries. They also often point out roads for dispersed camping, hiking trails, potential water sources, dump stations and campgrounds that offer showers. You can generally find a great selection of National Geographic Maps at REI.
Don’t want to fork over the money for paper maps? Stop by the rangers office when you arrive at your destination. Many of them provide free public maps that you can take with you. If not, almost all of them have a big map on the wall of their jurisdiction. Use your phone to take a picture of the area you are interested in.
One Final Word on Dispersed Camping
One of the reasons you’ll enjoy dispersed camping so much is because of its lack of human presence. In reality, dispersed camping is camping at its finest -stunning backdrops and the brilliant night sky without the common distractions of our bustling world. Please use Leave No Trace principles to ensure your favorite rugged locations stay wild for years to come. And make sure you leave your plans with someone. Tell a friend or family member where you plan to camp and when you plan to return. Happy adventures!
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