You’re ready to save a few bucks and try free camping out for yourself.
But once all the gear (check out my favorite camping gear here) is packed and you’ve read up on the 7 leave no trace principles – how do you actually find free campsites? And how do you know that camping at them is legal?
Here’s exactly how to find free camping anywhere in the United States.
Types of Free Camping
Although there is some overlap between types, your main free camping options include:
- Dispersed Camping – Camping outside of a designated or developed campground or campsite, usually on public land like a National Forest.
- Boondocking – Camping in an RV, camper van, or other vehicle without any hookups or utilities. Often called dry camping. Can be done at dispersed campsites as well as parking lots and other off-the-grid locations.
- Stealth Camping – Camping under the radar without anyone knowing you’re there. Can be done in wilderness areas, although most often done in towns and cities. Sometimes legal, sometimes illegal. Popular with van campers parking overnight in residential, commercial, and industrial neighborhoods as well as at scenic overlooks and trailheads.
- Backcountry Camping – Camping in the wilderness away from services, facilities, amenities, and even roads. Often requires you to hike, bike, snowshoe, horseback ride, or paddle in. Popular with backpackers. Not always free (permits often required).
- Free Developed Campsites – Camping at a no-fee developed campground. These free campgrounds are usually small and primitive. Amenities usually include no more than picnic tables, fire rings, and vault toilets at best. Often located in National Forests and on BLM land.
Where to Find Free Camping
Here’s a quick list of the best places to find free campsites (not including parking lots or stealth camping):
- National Forests – 154 National Forests spanning nearly 190 million acres are located in the United States. Most offer free dispersed camping for RVs, tents, vans, and other campers. Many, although not all, allow free camping for up to 16 days.
- Bureau of Land Management – The Bureau of Land Management manages roughly 1/8th of the land in the United States. Most BLM land is open to recreation opportunities, including dispersed camping and boondocking. Camping on BLM land is great because these areas receive far fewer visitors than most national forests, giving you plenty of room to spread out. It’s not always the case but you can usually camp for free for up to 14 days before moving.
- National Grasslands – The National Forest Service manages 20 National Grasslands in addition to National Forests. Dispersed camping in National Grasslands is a great way to enjoy these wide-open vistas without paying a dime in campground fees.
- Wildlife Management Areas – Most Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) welcome dispersed camping and boondocking, although exact rules vary from state to state.
- Bureau of Reclamation – The Bureau of Reclamation manages around 6.5 million acres of water and water related resources. Much of this land, especially associated National Recreation Areas and National Wildlife Refuges, is available for dispersed camping and other outdoor activities.
- Army Corps of Engineers – Much of the land managed by the Army Corps of Engineers offers free camping. Unlike other public lands, this is usually free (or very cheap) developed campgrounds rather than dispersed camping. Often these are located near lakes and rivers. COE camping (sometimes called ACE camping) is particularly popular in the RV boondocking community.
- State Forests – Some state-managed lands, including State Forests, offer dispersed camping, although this is on a state-by-state and even forest-by-forest basis. Often this land is managed by the state’s Department of Natural Resources. Sometimes it’s managed by a state conservation group.
- City and County Parks – Some city parks and county parks offer free camping. Some even offer free RV hookups! I’ve had the most luck finding free (or cheap) city parks to camp at in small towns in the Midwest, although I’ve found some in almost every state.
- Free Winter Camping – Many developed campgrounds, including some in National Parks, waive fees in the off-season. Although winter camping comes with its own set of challenges, it’s one of the best ways to experience the great outdoors for free with very few other campers around.
What About Stealth Camping for Free?
Stealth camping is another option for those looking to camp for free.
Personally, I prefer to use stealth camping as a backup and for those nights when I’d like to stay in town without forking out for a motel.
Walmart, Cracker Barrel, and Costco are just a few businesses that permit free overnight camping for RVs, trailers, and vans in their parking lots.
Unfortunately, many locations are moving away from allowing overnight parking in their parking lots. Just know these policies vary from city to city and store to store.
Truck stops, rest areas, and travel centers also sometimes welcome overnight campers, although this depends largely on the state.
Casino parking lots are another option. They’re actually one of my favorite places to catch some sleep on a road trip. Like store parking lots, camping policies vary from casino to casino.
Can’t find a parking lot that offers free overnight parking?
Now, it’s time to head into a residential, commercial, or industrial neighborhood that offers free street parking.
Look for a street without any “no parking,” “no trespassing,” or “private property” signs. Make sure to respect any additional signage, such as parking length limits and paid parking requirements.
Stealth camping is also possible in parking lots that don’t explicitly allow overnight parking such as churches, hospitals, and grocery stores as well as scenic overlooks and trailheads.
It’s essential to keep a low profile while stealth camping. It’s important no one know you’re sleeping inside your vehicle, especially if you’re street parking in a neighborhood. Arrive after dark, leave before first light, and spend as little time outside of your vehicle as possible.
It’s possible to stealth camp in pretty much any vehicle (including RVs), although it’s easiest in a plain, unassuming vehicle (like a cargo van) that no one would consider anyone is sleeping inside.
Stealth camping can be a great way to camp for free, although it comes with the risk of getting woken up and kicked out by the police (referred to as the dreaded “knock”).
How to Find the Best Free Dispersed Campsites Near You
Start by looking for the free camping locations mentioned above. Chances are you have National Forests, BLM land, Wildlife Management Areas, and other public land located near you.
Google Maps is also your friend here. Search for National Forests near you and then explore the results with satellite view. Follow forest service roads past campgrounds and to hiking trailheads. Even in areas with dense tree cover, you’ll usually discover pullouts alongside forest service roads that are likely dispersed campsites.
Gaia GPS is another incredibly useful tool. It makes finding public lands even easier than Google Maps thanks to its National Forest boundary maps and Motor Vehicle Use maps. Map layering makes finding forest service roads and potential dispersed campsites incredibly simple.
You can’t talk about free camping apps without mentioning iOverlander. This incredibly useful tool provides maps with user-submitted free camping and stealth camping locations (as well as locations for mechanics, potable water, propane filling, and other relevant services).
Although iOverlander has become the go-to for many boondockers and overlanders, I still prefer FreeCampsites.net, even though it’s glitchy, somewhat difficult to navigate, and not available as an actual app.
FreeCampsites also compiles user-submitted free campsites. I’ve found some of my favorite free campsites ever thanks to the community over there.
It’s always good to have a basic idea of where you’re camping before heading out. But my absolute favorite way to find free camping is by just driving around forest service roads. Head to the nearest National Forest, wander the forest service roads, and you’ll almost certainly find an excellent dispersed campsite or pullout before long.
Another trick I use to find free campsites is to look near horse or equestrian camps, rock climbing or bouldering areas, hunting camps, boat launches, fishing access areas, trailheads, snow parks, and other spots that cater to outdoor recreation. Dispersed campsites are usually close at hand.
And, definitely don’t forget about word of mouth while you’re at it. I’ve found some of my favorite dispersed campsites simply by talking to other dispersed campers. Most people are happy to share their favorite free campsites with you.
Is Free Camping Legal?
It’s easy to find free legal camping.
Dispersed camping on public lands, like National Forests and BLM land, is almost always free and legal, although you must follow all posted rules and regulations.
Camping in parking lots, city parks, trailheads, and outdoor recreation areas is also legal in certain areas.
The same goes for free stealth camping. You can certainly find plenty of places to stealth camp legally without breaking a single rule.
That said, it’s certainly possible to free camp illegally. For example, camping at a paid developed campground with no hosts or rangers and leaving in the morning without paying is illegal.
Stealth camping in areas where overnight parking isn’t allowed is also possible without getting caught if you make absolutely sure to fly under the radar.
With that said, the sheer number of legal free camping opportunities means that there’s little if any reason to camp somewhere it’s not allowed.
Free camping can be a little intimidating at first.
Many newbies shy away from it in favor of camping at a developed campground. But with just a little know-how, it’s actually quite easy to find free camping near you, pretty much anywhere in the United States.