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.
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!
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!
••• 6 Important Things to Consider Before Choosing a Dispersed Campsite •••
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.
Are there any road closures? What are the road conditions? Do I need 4-wheel drive?
Does the land I’ll be camping on or any adjoining land offer “open hunting seasons?” If so, you may want to consider going elsewhere.
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.
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.
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 Websites & Apps for Finding Free Campsites •••
There are more tools available than we list here, but after trying a bunch of them out, 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.
All Stays Camp & Rv is a $9.99 app that you download to your phone, and has been my #1 tool for finding free campsites when I’m already on the road. I assure the price tag is worth the information you’ll get. You can search your local area and filter by federal agency (such as BLM or Forest Service). You can also search for Truck Stops and Walmarts that allow overnight parking or public dumps and potable water sources. Recently I was in Moab, and I used the app to find out where in town I could fill up my water tanks, a search function I find myself using often. Once you find a free 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 I could recommend 1 single resource, this would be it.
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.
A strong competitor and slightly cheaper than All Stays Camp & RV, this awesome website and app lists all public campgrounds in the US, as well as Canada – an advantage over the current version of All Stays. It is updated monthly and has over 30,000 campsites listed and you can filter by price (choose FREE!).
••• Best Hard-Copy Maps & Atlases for Finding Free Campsites •••
These atlases come state by state and are generally $20 per state. 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.
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!
Bearfoot Theory is a big proponent of Leave No Trace. Learn how to reduce your impact on the environment so we can save these special places for future generations of adventurers.
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