You’re ready to save a few bucks and try free camping out for yourself.
But once all the gear 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?
Below I break down exactly how to find free campsites anywhere in the United States.
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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. Permits are often required.
- Free Developed Campsites – Camping at a no-fee developed campground. These free campgrounds are usually small and primitive. Amenities are usually limited to picnic tables, fire rings, and vault toilets at best. Often located in National Forests and on BLM land.
Related Post: BLM Land Dispersed Camping Guide
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 (managed by the U.S. Forest Service) 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 14 days.
- Bureau of Land Management – The Bureau of Land Management manages roughly 245 million acres of land in the United States. Most of this land is open for dispersed camping and boondocking. It’s not always true, but you’re typically allowed to camp on BLM land for 14 days at a time.
- National Grasslands – The USFS manages 20 National Grasslands in addition to its 154 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 open 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 in the form of free (or very cheap) developed campgrounds rather than dispersed camping.
- State Forests – Some state-managed lands, including State Forests, offer dispersed camping, although this is on a state-by-state, or 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 best luck finding free (or cheap) city parks with legal camping 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.
Related Post: National Forest Dispersed Camping Guide
What About Stealth Camping for Free?
Stealth camping is another option for those looking to camp for free.
Personally, I only use stealth camping as a backup or for those nights when I’d like to stay in town without forking out for a motel.
Instead of actual stealth camping, I much prefer staying overnight in the parking lot of businesses that welcomes campers and boondockers.
Walmart, Cracker Barrel, and Costco are just a few businesses that often allow free overnight parking for RVs in their parking lots. However, store policies on camping vary from city to city and sometimes even branch to branch.
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?
Then 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”).
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How to Find the Best Free Dispersed Campsites Near You
Start by looking for National Forests, BLM land, and other public lands near you.
Google Maps is your friend here. Use satellite view to scout out USFS and BLM roads for potential dispersed campsites.
Gaia GPS is perhaps an even more useful tool. It allows you to turn on National Forest and BLM boundary maps to help you make absolutely sure any potential campsite you find are on public lands.
FreeRoam is another app that allows you to turn on USFS and BLM boundary overlays.
After a little research of your own, a campsite review app like iOverlander or FreeCampsites.net will help you find user-generated reviews (with GPS locations) for popular boondocking and dispersed campsites.
Although I always recommend you have a basic plan before heading out, my absolute favorite way to find free campsites is simply by wandering around Forest Service roads.
Head to the nearest National Forest, explore the many back roads, and you’ll almost certainly find an excellent dispersed campsite before long.
Finally, word of mouth is a fantastic way to find free campsites. I’ve actually found some of my very favorite dispersed campsites simply by talking to other dispersed campers.
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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.
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Have Fun Free Camping!
Free camping can certainly 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.
And, once you do get a taste of free camping, it will be hard to go back to camping at developed campgrounds again!
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