Where to camp for free in the U.S.
Road trips are rarely unplanned or spontaneous. After driving hundreds of miles, you generally want to ensure you have a safe place to park overnight and an area with some amenities such as wifi, toilets, showers, fire rings, etc.
But if you don’t want to pay ever-increasing campsite fees, or if you don’t manage to get a National Park reservation due to the competition, consider free camping, otherwise known as dispersed camping. This rougher camping style takes you to remote locations that you would never otherwise see if you had just stayed at designated camping areas. So, where are these free places? They are either associated with the National and State Parks Systems or are on BLM (Burea of Land Management) lands.
The BLM has 400 listed locations which encompass 245 million acres of land. Most all of which is fair game for free camping. According to an article from thedyrt.com,
“Statistically, BLM land sees 75% fewer visitors than the National Forest System and 80% fewer visitors than the National Park Service. Yet, the 245 million acres are begging to be explored.”
If you can drive there, you can camp there is the first rule. Another common regulation is that you can only stay in any place for a maximum of 14 days. There may be some more specific rules depending on your location, which you will want to check out.
National Parks, National Forest, State Parks, and National Wilderness Areas
National parks work the same way as BLM land does, though some might require a permit to camp.
Once you arrive at your free campsite, be sure to follow these guidelines for dispersed camping. This principle, also known as Leave No Trace, mainly applies to camping on BLM land and non-campsite areas of National parks.
- If you packed it and brought it in. You must pack it and take it out.
- Travel only on durable, more challenging surfaces such as gravel, rock, and dry grasslands
- Leave things the way you found them. Don’t take natural elements home as souvenirs.
- Keep fires contained; use a fire ring if you find one, but you probably won’t. Let the fire burn out entirely and disperse cold ashes. Destroy any signs of a fire or campsite before you leave. In California, fires may not even be allowed depending on conditions; it’s critical to know the current policy once you get to your campsite.
- Stay 200 feet from the shore of rivers or streams.
- Dig 6-8 inch holes for human feces and cover them, of course. Never go near a source of water.
Be prepared to lose cell service in these areas, so if possible, try to have a backup way to navigate, such as an atlas or GPS.
Boondocking is another type of free camping that entails parking in a business lot.
Walmart and the Cracker Barrel restaurant chain are most famous for allowing overnight parking to campers. However, recently, Walmart has changed things, allowing each store to set its policy about overnight parking, so call ahead.
Cracker Barrels have a one-night-only policy which is probably as much time as you’d ever want to spend there anyway.
Rest Areas often allow overnight parking but not all.
Truck stops offer showers and waste dumping plus restaurants, gas, and hot coffee.
Converted Mercedes Sprinters give you the freedom to camp comfortably and safely where most people cannot. These remote sites aren’t necessarily easy to get to without a 4×4 vehicle. Showers, toilets, a comfy place to sleep, plus a source of electric power make a converted Mercedes Sprinter 4×4 the ultimate vehicle for dispersed camping.
freecamping.net is a great tool to help find free campsites or paid ones too. They offer information about each site, including advice on getting in, regulations, permits, and any available amenities.
https://www.fs.usda.gov is how to find designated areas in National Forest areas
https://www.blm.gov this is the Bureau of Land Management’s site.