Free camping solves one of the most difficult and expensive travel decisions you’ll make: lodging accommodations. Right behind air and ground travel, finding a place to sleep is the biggest piece of the puzzle when determining a trip budget.
Even if you skip the pricey hotels and lodges and jump straight into frontcountry campgrounds, your daily and weekly costs can still add up. While I’m certainly not discouraging campgrounds, I’m just going to share with you one of the ways to save a little bit of money when traveling on a budget: free camping!
One of the absolute best ways to prune trip costs is to take advantage of free campsites that are conveniently sprinkled across the USA! Free campsites are usually a bit more “off the grid,” or remote, might require some off-roading or wilderness hiking, and tend to boast unmatched views of wild terrain.
So if camping under the stars with no cell signal, no neighbors, and a plethora of wild views interests you, this blog post will give you everything you need to know to find free campsites across the USA.
Whether you want to plan your trip around these mapped locations or you want to be able to pull out your phone and scroll through a list of campsites that are around you when you’re ready to call it a night, these free camping tips involving apps, websites, etiquette, packing, locations, and safety will help you enjoy a smooth, affordable, and memorable road trip!
Exactly How to Find Free Campsites Across the USA
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What is Free Camping?
Free camping is camping for free overnight in your tent, van, RV, or car. Free campsites are usually unestablished and offer little to no amenities.
⛺️ FREE CAMPING TERMS
- Dispersed camping. Dispersed camping is the official term that the National Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management use. If you are searching online on one of these government websites or picking the brain of a local ranger, you’ll want to ask about dispersed campsites.
- Boondocking. Boondocking is the overarching term for free camping used commonly by RVers, road-trippers, and long-term travelers.
- Dry camping. Dry camping is camping at a campground with no potable water or electrical hook-ups.
- Stealth camping. Stealth camping is the act of blending into surroundings by sleeping overnight at atypical places such as parking lots or neighborhoods.
- Backcountry camping. Backcountry camping isn’t always free, but since wilderness permits tend to be close to free, if not completely free, I’ve added it to this list. Backcountry camping – or wilderness camping, primitive camping, or wild camping – involves packing all of your gear into a backpack and hiking on a trail until you reach your unestablished campsite.
Advantages of Free Camping
Below are the common reasons why so many road-trippers, long-term travelers, backpackers, and RVers choose to camp for free.
You will be saving a ton of money especially if you are going to be on the road for a while. Those $30 nightly rates at campgrounds can add up on a month-long or even just a weeklong trip.
→ READ NEXT: 9 Reasons Why Camping Is Better Than a Hotel
Plenty of Solitude
Chances are high that you won’t have neighbors unless you purposely go out of your way to make that happen. I find that campers are super considerate of each other and don’t intrude on privacy.
No Noise Pollution
Since you’ll probably be in the middle of nowhere – unless you’re stealth camping – you will get to relish in the quiet atmosphere. Common sounds to hear while free camping are leaves rustling, birds chirping, insects buzzing, and wildlife rustling.
Backpackers have to hike into their campsites, which, depending on the length and terrain, could entail a pretty wild adventure.
All other free campers, aside from stealth campers stopping at a parking lot or residential area for the night, might get to experience a bumpy dirt road or another unestablished path on the way to the campsite.
Since there are no reservations involved with free campsites, you can have last-minute plans or change your plans at any time.
Many road-trippers might choose to plan their trip around particular campsites, but if you’re on the road and decide you’re ready to call it a night, you can alter your plans and find a new campsite. You can decide on a whim to hit the road or stay at a particular campsite – even some backcountry permits can be issued online or at a ranger station on the same day.
Disadvantages of Free Camping
While people chose free camping in spite of the reasons on this list, I feel that it would be biased of me to just list the advantages so below are some of the typical reasons that people opt out of free camping.
Zero or Limited Amenities
You probably won’t have access to bathrooms, potable water, fire rings, or picnic tables when free camping. You’ll need to bring everything you’ll need for your adventure with you and not rely on the campsites to provide them for you.
No Cell Signal
To be fair, you might not have a cell signal at a traditional frontcountry campground either, but it’s worth mentioning.
Traveling to a free campsite typically involves a long hike or a drive down some unmaintained, potentially dicey roads. Sleeping in your car in a parking lot might be a better option for those who want to free camp but don’t have a 4×4 vehicle or backpacking gear.
You will be away from civilization and devoid of neighbors when free camping. Most free campers carry satellite devices like a Garmin inReach to contact loved ones or emergency services. But if you get lonely easily, I’d suggest bringing a companion.
Exactly What to Expect When Free Camping
Free camping is glamorous in its own right. Those who choose to free camp should know that it’s going to be a different experience than traditional camping.
While the lack of amenities, human connection, and cell service might deter the average camper, boondockers are aware of the circumstances and choose to free camp for those very reasons.
While each location is different, these are generally the things you can expect when free camping.
Limited to No Amenities or Facilities
Free campers won’t typically have access to potable water, restrooms, picnic tables, dump stations, or fire rings, all of which are common in established campgrounds.
Boondockers will need to bring their own water. For a weekend trip, I’d recommend at least a 3-gallon jug for car campers and a few bottles for backpackers. If you’ll be gone longer than 2-3 days, car campers should carry more water or plan to take a trip into town where you can fill up your jugs for free, and backpackers should carry a water filter. The water map app is super helpful for finding places to refill your water jugs for free.
Since there are no restrooms, make sure you follow local guidelines on human waste. For helpful information on peeing and pooping outdoors, along with general hiking and camping hygiene tips, read my outdoor hygiene guide.
Since there are no dump stations, you must pack out your trash. Car campers, carry a trash bag in your vehicle. Always keep your trash in your car; don’t leave it outdoors, unattended as wildlife can ravage your campsite. Backpackers, carry a resealable, reusable bag to pack out your trash. Click here to read about how to set up your campsite in bear country. 🐻
If you want to assemble your own fire ring and start your own fire, make sure you are following local fire regulations. Read all about campfire safety here. 🔥
Rough, Unestablished Roads and Grounds
Free campsites are often complimentary because they aren’t regularly maintained, or maintained at all. The roads leading to the car campsites are almost always unpaved, rough dirt roads that require 4×4 to access. And the trails leading to backcountry campsites are often unmaintained and primitive.
The campsites themselves might only be somewhat “established” if dozens of other campers have camped on the same grounds before you. Otherwise, you can expect rough grounds, uncut grass, and loose debris.
Unfortunately, not everyone respects the lands, and since they aren’t regularly maintained like National Parks and state parks, they might be littered with trash. If you see this, please pick it up and pack it out, even if it’s not yours. This is so the spaces can stay clean for future campers.
No Cell Service
While many campgrounds, even established, traditional ones tucked inside National Parks, may lack cell service, it’s almost guaranteed that you won’t have cell service when free camping. (Unless you’re in a city parking lot, of course!)
Since the campsites are usually remote, it’s important to be sure you have all of the resources you need and have a way to contact loved ones or emergency services should anything happen to you out there.
📲 My favorite way to contact loved ones and emergency services anywhere – even without any cell service – is the Garmin inReach Mini.
Where Can You Camp for Free in the USA?
Each agency of public land has its own rules and regulations that campers need to strictly adhere to. I’m going to list the different designations that commonly boast plenty of free campsites.
Bureau of Land Management (BLM)
The Bureau of Land Management maintains land mostly in Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington, Utah, and Wyoming but also has some land sprinkled in the Eastern United States as well.
Since these 245 million acres are more remote than National Forest Service land and National Park Service land, these landscapes don’t usually see as much traffic.
While the bureau offers some paid campgrounds, BLM land is commonly utilized for its free campsites.
Here are the rules campers must follow when dispersed camping on BLM land, as stated on their website:
- Dispersed camping is allowed on public land for a period of no more than 14 days within a 28-consecutive-day period.
- Dispersed campsites are often located off secondary roads, meaning they may not be marked and could be difficult to find. Use a map to help you find your location and look for telltale campsite signs: flat or cleared ground, tire tracks, and/or fire ring. It’s important to use existing sites when possible to avoid creating new disturbances.
- Always dispose of all trash and follow leave no trace when camping.
- When disposing of human waste, make sure that you are at least 200 feet from any water source (stream, creek, river, lake, etc.). Dig a cathole that is at least 6-8 inches deep and fill it with dirt, sand, or rocks when you’re finished. Pack out all toilet paper; never throw it in a cathole or anywhere else outdoors.
- Set up camp at least 200 feet from any water source.
- Bring all of your own resources because there will be no amenities and facilities such as restrooms, water, picnic tables, dump stations, and fire rings. Bring enough water and food for at least an extra day or two more than you plan to be out there.
- Obtain a fire permit in areas where fires are permitted. Never leave a fire unattended and always make sure it is completely put out before leaving the campsite. This will prevent the spread of wildfires.
Forest Service Land (USFS)
The United States Forest Service, an agency that belongs to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, maintains over 193 acres of land across the states, many of which are available for free campers to utilize.
Here are some of the things you need to know and follow when dispersed camping on USFS land, all of which are stated on their website:
- There are no amenities like water, restrooms, and trash cans.
- You can camp for up to 16 days during any 30-day period. After 16 days, you must move at least 5 road miles to camp in another dispersed area.
- Camp at least 100 feet from any water source, at least one mile from any campground, and within 150 feet from a roadway.
- Pack out all of your trash.
- Contact the local forest service office before lighting a campfire.
- To find dispersed camping, first, contact a ranger. Then search for a clearing off a Forest Service road. Do not drive on meadows and try to stay on existing roads.
- If possible, pick a site that has been used before. Signs that campsites may have been used before your arrival would be things like cleared ground, tire tracks, and fire rings. If you can’t camp at an existing site, make sure that you are camping on bare soil, staying at least 100 feet away from water, avoiding meadows, and selecting land that is level.
- When disposing of human waste, make sure that you are at least 100 feet from any water source (stream, creek, river, lake, etc.). Dig a cathole that is at least 6-8 inches deep and fill it with dirt, sand, or rocks when you’re finished. Pack out your toilet paper.
- Treat your water before drinking from any natural source.
Other Public Lands
BLM land and Forest Service land are the most common spaces for free camping, but occasionally, campers can get lucky and camp for free at certain National Parks, state parks, state forests, city/ metro parks, and recreation areas.
Keep in mind that many of these areas might require advance reservations, a small fee, or stricter guidelines. Always adhere to local regulations and never camp where illegal! Never camp at reserved sites without a permit, never avoid fees in a paid zone, and never stay overnight in places where such an act is prohibited.
When you’re on a road trip and need a quick spot to pull over and stay the night, business parking lots are a great option. While they can be conveniently located, they might deter campers with their bright security lights and noisy customers entering or exiting the business.
There is also a chance that you could get asked to leave or have the police called on you; this has happened to many long-term travelers but usually only when they don’t clear their stay with a staff member or manager beforehand.
Since local regulations all tend to differ from city to city and state to state, I’d recommend calling the manager of the business ahead of time to get approval before shutting your eyes for the night.
Rules For Sleeping in Parking Lots
- Consider purchasing something from the business before using their restroom and staying the night.
- Don’t overstay your welcome. Arrive after dusk and leave before dawn.
- Park far away from the building; leave the closer spots for the customers.
- Don’t blare music or talk loudly.
Parking Lots You Can (Usually) Sleep In
- Costco, Sam’s Club, and Walmart. Call the store manager to verify that you can stay overnight.
- Menard’s, Lowe’s, and Home Depot. Call the store manager before boondocking.
- Cracker Barrel. Cracker Barrel is famous among the long-term traveler, RV, and road-tripper community for being a reliable overnight parking spot; some even have designated spots for overnighters. Just keep in mind that Cracker Barrel crowds are heavy in the morning because they are known for their early morning breakfast, so make sure that you are out before that time.
- Casinos. Casinos are known for their nightlife, so as long as the parking area is big enough that you wouldn’t be blocking a critical spot for a potential customer, you are usually fine to sleep there overnight.
- Camping World and Cabela’s. Most Camping World locations permit free overnight parking, and some even offer free electrical and water hookups for RVs as well. Cabela’s is also known to allow free overnight parking.
- 24-Hour Fitness Centers. Planet Fitness, 24-Hour Fitness, and Anytime Fitness are other businesses that are known to provide free overnight parking. If you have a membership, you can even use their restroom and shower facilities! Many long-term travelers purchase the Planet Fitness membership for this very reason.
Rest Stops and Truck Stops
Just as long-haul drivers park at truck stops in the midst of their drive, boondockers are also welcome to do the same. These truck and rest stops are almost always right off the highway or perched in a convenient location, so this stop is ideal to accommodate those last-minute plans.
Most truck and rest stops offer amenities like food, water, fuel, restrooms, and even showers. Love’s and Pilot are two popular truck stops that road trippers like to stop at.
Just like each of the businesses and stops listed above, you need to make sure the particular rest or truck stop that you’re parking at allows overnight parking. Not all of them do.
Residential areas are a trickier method of stealth camping. It’s not always easy to blend into your surroundings and remain inconspicuous when you’re parked beside someone’s house or nestled in someone’s neighborhood.
When it comes to parking in a neighborhood, you need to respect the signage. If there are signs that specifically state no parking, reduced-hour parking, or no overnight parking, you need to find a different spot.
The easiest way to park in a residential area would be if you knew someone in the area or if you found an ad online or on an app that advertises free parking in front of a particular house. The app and website, Boondockers Welcome, is a common way for travelers to connect with local citizens and use their driveways or yards for an overnight stay.
This would be a last resort option and shouldn’t be sought after because neighbors are likely to call the police if they see a van, RV, or unfamiliar vehicle parked at or near their house.
Where Not to Free Camp
- Private property (unless you have prior permission)
- Military bases
- Schools or universities
- Playground parking lots
- Construction sites
- Any businesses or other locations that state no overnight parking
Best Tools for Finding Free Campsites
- Free Roam. Free – iPhone and Android.
- FreeCampsites.net. Free – Android only.
- iOverlander. Free – iPhone and Android.
- Campendium. Free – iPhone only.
- The Dyrt. Free and paid versions – iPhone and Android.
- US Public Lands. $2.99 – iPhone and Android.
Rangers are filled with a wealth of information, and oftentimes a ranger station might be near the place you’re camping!
Stop by a ranger station and receive insider tips on some of those hidden locations that boondockers can only dream of finding.
Google Earth and Google Maps
Use Google Earth and Google Maps to find hidden campsites and analyze terrain by utilizing the satellite feature. While these features are handy, be aware that satellite images aren’t updated very often.
Just as rangers are passionate about their parks, travel bloggers have a plethora of passion for topics like these that they go through a copious amount of research to come up with content for their sites.
While not all travel bloggers, hikers, and social media influencers will share their exact locations, you don’t know what you might find until you start scrolling through their work!
Basic Packing List for Car Campers
While each person will want different things when they’re out camping, these are some of the common items car campers should consider bringing:
- The 10 Essentials
- Portable water jug
- Solar shower
- Backpacking table and chairs
- Car kit: jumper cables, tire inflator, and extra fluids like oil and windshield washer
- Bathroom kit: trowel, hand sanitizer, and toilet paper
- Trash bags
- Hygiene essentials and toiletries
- Camp kitchen items: fuel, cookpot, mug, and utensils
- Sleeping bag and pad
How to Stay Safe When Free Camping
Always Trust Your Instincts
If you get a bad vibe from a place or person near you, move to a new location. That’s the beauty of free camping; you aren’t tied down to a reservation, and you can always change your location. This is true whether you’ve paid for a campsite or not, but at least you won’t lose any money in the process!
We’ve had a couple of different backpacking wilderness permits that we ended up not using for one reason or another. Since those overnight permits were free or very cheap, we felt like we had a lot more flexibility and freedom to change our plans on a whim.
Find Your Campsite in the Daylight
Scouting your location in the dark is a lot more difficult, especially if you are hunting for sites in National Forest or BLM land. With daylight, you’ll be able to gauge your surroundings and avoid getting lost. This applies to tent campers, backpackers, and vehicle sleepers.
Make sure you have an app on your phone that allows you to download maps offline. This will help you from getting lost or stranded. Always keep a loaded power bank in your car or backpack so you can charge your phone.
Bringing paper topographical maps is always handy to have; you can find these online (to be printed) or at nearby ranger stations and visitor centers.
Do Your Research
Read reviews from past campers and do your research on the campsite before you stay the night. Not only will the reviews give a glimpse into what the campsite is like and what amenities it may or may not have, but you’ll also get insider tips on the current conditions, threat levels, noise, etc.
Cover Windows and Lock Doors
If you are camping in your vehicle, it’s important that you lock your doors and give yourself privacy with window covers. Have an exit plan should anything dicey happen in the middle of the night.
If you are sleeping in a tent, keep bear spray and/or a knife by your side to protect yourself from wild animals or humans. Have your car keys either under your pillow or near you somewhere so you can access them easily. Use a carabiner to secure your tent zippers together. While technically anyone can rip through the nylon, the carabiner will provide you with that extra layer of protection and give you the added time you need to make an escape.
Don’t Share Your Location With Strangers
Let someone know where you’ll be, but never share your location on social media until you’ve left the campsite.
It’s important to follow Leave No Trace anytime you’re outdoors. Here are some specific things you can do while you’re free camping to ensure you are following Leave No Trace principles.
Pack It In and Pack It Out
Since free campsites, whether in the backcountry, in a parking lot, or in a forested area, probably won’t have dumpsters, you’ll need to bring your own trash bags and pack all of your garbage out. Dispose of it properly. Never leave trash behind!
Throw Other Camper’s Trash Away
While it may irk you to see other camper’s trash littering the ground of a beautiful campsite, the best thing you can do is pick it up to make it pristine for you and the next camper. If you witness someone littering, educate them on Leave No Trace. (Only do this if you feel comfortable and safe doing so. Don’t put yourself in a dangerous or hostile situation).
Dig a Hole For Human Waste
Make sure you know the local guidelines on pooping outdoors, but as a general rule of thumb, you’ll need to stay at least 200 feet away from water sources and dig a hole that is 6-8 inches deep before covering it again. Never leave your toilet paper in the hole; always pack it out!
If you are in an area that does not allow human waste burial, or you’re in a rocky or sandy area that doesn’t have good places to dig, you’ll need to pack the waste and the toilet paper out.
→ READ NEXT: Outdoor Hygiene Tips for Hikers and Campers
Try Not to Create New Campsites
While not always possible, do your best to use campsites that have been previously inhabited by fellow campers. While they might not be regularly maintained by rangers, campers usually leave behind signs that indicate a campsite has been used: flat/cleared ground, crude fire ring, tire tracks, etc. Always camp on durable surfaces.
Have I encouraged you to give free camping a try? While it’s not always the most glamorous, you’re guaranteed to have an adventure.
Over the years, I have experienced every type of camping. I’ve slept in a vehicle in the parking lots of hotels and casinos, tent camped at state parks and National Parks, and backpacked to remote places where the stars shone so bright, that it was hard to believe I was still in the same state.
While I used to be hesitant when it came to free camping, I am happy that I gave it a try. And while camping at established campgrounds and backpacking to remote campsites are still my favorite means of camping, it’s nice to know I have the option of roughing it in an occasional parking lot or venturing onto a fire service road to find a patch of grass to sleep on for the night should I want to pinch costs off my trip or change my plans last minute.
No matter which method of camping you choose to try, stay safe, leave no trace, and enjoy nature!