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Free Camping: How to Find It… Guaranteed!

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In the camping world, many people often think you have to pay $10, $20 or maybe even $35+ per night to pitch a tent or even park an RV.

While this is true to an extent at most campgrounds, did you know that there are thousands of campsites out there that don’t charge a penny?

You may be thinking these places are a dump or not even worth your time, but I promise you it isn’t the case.  It isn’t a scam, either.  It’s simply set up your RV or tent as you normally would and enjoy the evening for a good night’s rest.

In today’s post, I wanted to talk about the many ways you can find free camping, no matter where you plan on staying as well as the benefits it can offer.  I can almost assure you there will be a campsite nearby.  You will just have to use the resources below to find what you’re looking for.

The next time you plan on taking a camping trip, put your cash away for the site and use it toward something else.  I will show you how it’s done below.

First, let’s talk about what free camping is all about

Free camping, as the name implies, is 100% free, either for your RV or tent.   Most of these sites that you find are often not your “traditional” campsites, wherein you will find a camp store, campfire ring, hookups and camp host.  It will be as bare-bones as it comes.

Sometimes referred to as boondocking, dry camping or dispersed camping, these campsites can range anywhere from the middle of the forest with very limited resources to a Walmart parking lot.

No matter what free option you find, be prepared to have very limited resources.  Also, be prepared to show up early as many are on a first-come, first-serve basis since you won’t be able to make a reservation.

Whether you just need a layover for the night on your road trip or you want to escape humanity for a few days, it is possible, but just let it be known that you will get what you pay for.



So, what’s so great about free camping?

Believe it or not, but there’s a lot going for free camping.

For one, it saves you money.  I know it’s obvious, but $30 a night can add up fast, and that money can go elsewhere, such as extra gas or a nice dinner for the evening.  One week is an easy $200+ saved!

Secondly, most of your free campsites are in the middle of nowhere.  This means no traffic, people or even the noise of the city.  You will truly be connected with nature most of the time.  How great is that?

And, lastly, be prepared for the beauty these sites often offer.  Since you’re miles away from the nearest town, you can find just about any type of scenery imaginable.  Whether it’s a lake, mountain or the middle of the desert, it can be done.

Yes, there are downfalls

Of course, everything has its downfalls, including free camping options.

For one, be prepared for very rocky roads to get to these campsites.  I’m talking rocks, no guard rails, potholes and in some cases, roadblocks like snow and/or fallen trees.  In some areas, the roads can even be washed away by a flood.  These roads are rarely maintained, so be prepared.  To be safe, call the nearest ranger station to inquire about the current road condition.

Also, don’t expect your camping experience to be like your traditional campground.  There will be nothing 99% of the time.  You will be responsible for your water, flushing toilets and even making a campfire ring.  Be prepared to do everything to remain comfortable.

And, lastly, be prepared.  This bring me to the next topic…

Be prepared!

Almost 99.9% of the free campgrounds you find will not have any amenities, so you will have to be prepared.

If you plan on camping in a remote area, such as BLM lands or the National Forest, then it’s ideal to bring the following:

  • camping chairs
  • foldable camp table
  • paper map (most spots don’t have cell service)
  • chargers
  • drinking water
  • food storage containers
  • garbage bags
  • toilet paper and a shovel (remember, no amenities)
  • emergency kit
  • meal prep tools
  • warm clothes
  • firewood (if allowed)
  • permits (if needed)

These are just the basics, but be prepared to bring just about anything that you would need to survive.  For a full list, refer to this very detailed REI camping checklist.

No matter where you camp, be sure to clean up after you leave, almost as if you never were there.

How to Find Free Camping Sites in the USA

In the United States and Canada, there are a ton of ways to find free camping.  As long as you feel you’re prepared, it’s not too hard to find a free campsite, no matter where you’re looking.  After all, there are thousands of these campsites available.

From parking in a Walmart parking lot to camping in the middle of the woods, there’s quite the selection, some of which will blow you away in beauty.

Listed below are some of the best free resources to help you find free camping in the United States righ tnow.

Campendium

In my research, Campendium is one of the best search engines to find free camping in the United States.

To use, all you need to do is let them know where you want to camp, and with these results, you can scan the many sites in the area that cost you nothing.  Just make sure that you use the price filter so that it only shows the free camping options.

For example, I live in the Phoenix, Arizona, area, so I figured I would see what kind of campsites were nearby.  This is what my results looked like…

You can use either the mobile app or the desktop version to see what’s available in your area.  To find more information, click on the campground description and will usually tell you more about it as well as what other’s thought about their stay.

FreeCampsites.net

As the name implies, the FreeCampsites.net website focuses on free campsites only.

To use, all you need to do is enter a city or zip code to display the results on the map.  You can also use the “Trip Planner” tool, wherein you enter your starting and end location to see what free campsites are available along the way.

With these results, you can click on one to read reviews, see what the campsite offers as well as photos if any submitted any.  As long as the icon is green, as shown in the screenshot above, the campsite will be 100% free.  Again, like all of the options I mentioned, just make sure that you follow the rules to ensure you stay out of trouble.

ParkAdvisor App

The ParkAdvisor app is one of my favorites.  It’s one I currently have installed on my phone.  I would only recommend it if you’re on the go and need to find a camping spot nearby, but it could be used for research purposes as well.

While it isn’t as user friendly on the desktop version, the mobile app is probably one of the best, hence, the higher rating.  View by your location or you can scroll throughout the United States to see what’s available.

The only thing I didn’t like was that you would have to weed through the results to find free sites, but they were there.  Generally, your state forest campgrounds, parking lots and BLM land were usually free.  To find them, look for the dollar signs to see what the campground may cost in your results.  The more dollar signs you see, the more it will cost you.

Once you find a site of interest, you can read the reviews, look at pictures if any were submitted as well as get contact/campground information.  The app is 100% free to download.



U.S. National Forests

The U.S. National Forests are owned and operated by the U.S. Forest Service or a government agency.  It’s paid for by American tax dollars but cared for by the government.

These forests exist in almost every state, and many, primarily in the western United States, allow you to camp at no cost.  Not all are free, however. While most camping situations are suited for an RV/van, you can tent in many areas if it’s suitable.

What you’re going to find is that you will need to be at least one mile from a designated campsite to camp for free.  Usually, you will have to use a forest service road to find free camping areas.  In this case, you can find these spots by looking for pre-made fire circles, small pullouts or even clearings.

If you plan on camping in a National Forest, they do offer an official app to find a campsite, but you can also use the websites mentioned prior to filter your results as well.  I will link it below.  You can also open up Google Maps and look for the large green areas.

If you’re able to find a campsite, be sure to know of the rules as almost all National Forest campsites have some sort of restriction as to how long you can stay as well as what you can do.

Out of all options I list, the U.S. National Forests are some of the best places to camp due to the beauty it offers as well as the seclusion.  Oftentimes, you’re surrounded by national parks and very few people, making for an incredible getaway for the day.

Bureau of Land Management (BLM)

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is also owned and managed by the government, primarily found on the western side of the United States, usually in the desert.  It all began in 1946, but since then, they have encouraged camping, mining and homesteading, to name a few.

Depending on the location, you can camp for up to 30 days, but like the National Forests, it will depend on your location.  From my experience, most of your BLM land is suitable for an RV, vans, and in some situations, a tent.  Generally, you can view the pictures online as well as read a description to at least get an idea as to what to expect.

The official website, linked below, let’s you search the many BLM campsites, some of which are free.  I would at least start there.   To know for certain that the campground is free, however, refer to the campground’s official website to know what kind of fees are expected.  Again, not all BLM campsites are free.  In the case you do have to pay a fee, your paid sites will often have a restroom, potable water, picnic areas, garbage cans and even electrical hookups.

It can be hard to filter out the free websites on the BLM website, so I do recommend you use the Campendium website mentioned prior for an easy experience.  Use the filter to select only BLM land as well as a free price.  And, if you’re in the area already, consider asking a ranger for their suggestions.  You will be amazed at how much they are willing to help you.

Selecting a site is usually on a first come, first serve basis, but some do take reservations via the official Recreation.gov website.  In this case, the campground often charges a fee.

National Parks

Some national parks will offer free camping options, but in the case you can even find an option, you will soon find out that it’s extremely popular during the peak summer months.  You will have to arrive early if at all possible.

While most of your free camping is in the national forests, as mentioned prior, surrounding your national parks, some national parks offer free camping right inside the park boundaries.

To find these options, you can often find them directly on the national park websites, but the best way to get information is right inside the visitor center.  Talk with a ranger to learn about the many options in the area.  Even if they don’t offer free camping, they should be able to point you in the right direction.

Boondocking.org

Boondocking often refers to camping in remote areas with no amenities.  The great thing about this option is that boondocking won’t cost you a cent.

The Boondocking.org app and website will help you find free boondocking camping options at your current location or you can search the latitude/longitude to see what’s around.

In your results, you can get information about each location, see reviews and even cache the location for future use.

The website can be tricky to use and sometimes won’t show the results, even with the latitude/longitude put in, but hey, it’s at least free to use to see what’s around.

Ultimate Campgrounds

The Ultimate Campgrounds app offers information on more than 40,000+ campground options in the United States and Canada.

While you do have to sort through the paid options, it can at least offer an idea as to what’s available in your area of choice.  To make it easy, look for the green icons with the term “dispersed” in it.  As mentioned prior, free camping is also referred to as “dispersed” camping.

In the results, just click on the campground of interest and read the description to see how much it costs as well as more important information you should know about before showing up.  It’s a very easy app to use and offers a ton of camping options.

ForestCamping.com

This website lists the many national forest campgrounds and is operated by the couple, Fred and Suzi Dow.

Similar to that of the national forest websites I mentioned earlier, this website lists all of the national forests, each visited by the website owner.  In each section, you can find out more information such as the fees, directions, general comments, the number of campsites and much more.

You can’t filter the free sites, unfortunately, but it can at least give you an idea as to which forests are in your area.

iOverlander

iOverlander is another camping search tool that makes it easy to find free camping sites anywhere in the world.

The thing I liked about this website is that there were a lot of reviews for these campsites as well as pictures and tips.   It seemed to be quite active.

Aside from camping options, you can also find other amenities nearby, such as propane stations, fuel stations, a dump station and so much more.  100% free to use.

FreeRoam

The FreeRoam app makes it easy to find free campgrounds as all you need to do is use the filter to show only the free options.  Out of all the apps/websites I mentioned, I would have to say this was one of the easier apps to use.

Aside from being able to search for free campsites, the app also lets you filter by cell signal, safety, crowdedness and weather, making it very easy to find a campground that suits your needs.  You can also search for nearby fresh water, propane, dump sites and more.

The app has a lot to offer, making it extremely easy to find free camping options as well as more amenities to make your stay as comfortable as possible.  Best of all, it’s 100% free to download.

Overnight Parking

Many of your Walmart locations (not all participate), casinos, truck stops and rest areas allow you to park overnight.  This won’t work for tents, but it can be a great option for your RV/camper van.

While you won’t be able to open up your RV, start a fire and hook up your TV, it’s moreso a place where you can stay for the night.  Consider it as a quick stop while on your road trip.

If you do find a location similar to this, be sure to know the rules and limitations.  At a Walmart, for instance, you will want to talk with the manager on duty to know where you should park.  The same could be said about a truck stop.  If you were to park at a rest area overnight, look for a rules board to see what you can and can’t do.

As long as you play it safe, this is a great way to stay the night at no cost.

Some County and City Parks

In some counties and cities, you may be able to spend the night, much like you can at a truck stop or Walmart.

It won’t be a location where you can set up shop for the week, but it could make for a great place to stay over for the night.

As all counties vary, it’s hard to tell you which parks to look at, so for now, I would search for a city you may be visiting to see what their rules and regulations are when it comes to camping in the parks.  A quick search can usually get you the answers you’re looking for.



Wildlife Management Areas

The Wildlife Management Areas (WMA) is a protected area set aside for the conservation of wildlife and recreational activities involving wildlife.

The cool thing about these areas is that many states offer designated camping sites, most of which are free.

If your area offers free camping, there’s a good chance you will need a free permit before you can camp.

Refer to your state’s official WMA website to see what you need to do to reserve a campsite as well as which campsites are available in the state.  You can find the official site with a quick search using the terms, “(your state) + wildlife management areas.”

Just Search

As there are thousands of places you can camp for in the United States, sometimes a simple search can yield some awesome results.

For example, if you wanted to camp in Northern Arizona for a few days, pick out a few cities or even search for “free camping in Northern Arizona.”  This is what popped up when I did so…

In doing this with any city or region, you should be able to find a blog post and/or campgrounds that pop up in your search.  Just make sure you research the campgrounds mentioned as rules can change.  When in doubt, call the campground ranger to confirm the campsite is, indeed, free.

Final Thoughts

If you don’t mind “roughing it,” then, as you can see, there are thousands of campsites out there that won’t cost you a penny.  In using these tools, it’s not hard to find a site, no matter where you plan on visiting.

The next time you go out camping, consider one of the many options to help you save $20+ a night.  These costs can add up and will offer the same experience your traditional campground can offer, sometimes better.  Remember, if you do go out, always follow the seven basic principals of leave no trace.  It’s important to protect and enjoy our world responsibly.

As always, if you have any tips you want to mention or even want to comment on what I already mentioned, then you’re more than welcome to add your thoughts to the comments below.

For now, I encourage you to at least bookmark these websites as well as download the apps for later use when it comes time to book your next camping trip.  I can promise you that you will be able to find hundreds of campgrounds that won’t cost you a dime.

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Tom Nathaniel

Hi! My name is Tom Nathaniel, and I created LushDollar to help share my honest thoughts on everything money. It's the Internet's most honest money site after all. Working in the finance industry for more than a decade, allow me to share my thoughts! If you ever have questions, feel free to contact me via the contact page.

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