Free Camping: How & Where To Find It
Over the years we’ve become pros at finding free camping while on the road - it’s the number one money saving strategy we use to afford extended travel!
And whether you’re interested in free camping for budget long-term travel or just getting out for a weekend on the cheap, we’ve got some great tips and resources to help you find your own amazing free camping spots on your next adventure!
What is this free camping you speak of?
Have you ever heard the terms: boondocking, primitive camping, dispersed camping, wild camping, stealth camping, dry camping, etc., etc.? The goal is the same with all these methods: FREE CAMPING!
Another HUGE benefit to utilizing free camping locations is that they require no reservations, allowing you to road trip at your own pace and on your own time frame.
Ever tried to get a last minute site in Zion National Park during peak season? Good luck! Been there, tried that...and found an awesome free camping spot just outside the park on-the-fly instead!
However, these free camping options may not be for everyone.
In most cases camping for free means no hook-ups, no electricity, no plumbed water, no flush toilets, no showers, no trash cans, no on-site laundry, and in some cases little more than a spot to park on overnight. And for those who have not camped primitively before, you may be questioning the safety as well.
But for every problem there is a solution - we’ll soon have a post out all about boondocking - hopefully answering some questions and addressing any hesitations you may have!
In this post today we’ll cover how to find free camping on public lands, overnight parking options, and camping memberships, as well as provide you with a ton of resources for locating free camping on your next adventure!
Free Camping on Public Lands
This is our preferred resource for free camping. There are literally millions of acres of National Forest, Grasslands, BLM, and other public lands scattered throughout the United States, and most of it is accessible to the public for free!
Often, with a little work and research, you can find absolutely incredible camp spots with breathtaking views and significantly fewer “neighbors” than traditional developed campgrounds.
IMPORTANT: All public lands are an incredibly precious resource and should be treated with the greatest respect. As such you should familiarize yourself with the Leave No Trace and Tread Lightly principles while taking advantage of these and other free camping locations.
National Forests and Grasslands
On Google Maps, all National Forest and Grasslands are clearly and conveniently designated in green, making it easy to determine which National Forest you’ll be (or are) traveling near. This also helps determine the National Forest boundaries, so you don’t inadvertently trespass.
Then you can use the National Forest Service’s Interactive Map to get detailed information on specific-use areas of the particular National Forest you’re interested in camping.
We always recommend checking with the local Forest Service Ranger Station or calling the local Forest Service Office to get confirmation on your intended spot and any specific use restrictions, but generally you’re allowed to camp for free as long as you:
Only stay up to 14 days in a given 28 day period (before moving to another location at least 25 miles away)
Camp a minimum of 1 mile from any Developed Recreation Area such as developed forest service pay-for campgrounds, day-use picnic areas, and trailheads
Break camp at least 200ft from any water source or stream
Strictly adhere to current local restrictions on campfires, and manage them safely and properly, using only existing fire rings when possible. Note that permits are sometimes required, so check with the local ranger station
And make yourself aware of current fire conditions (both wild and prescribed) by visiting this interactive map before breaking camp
Although this all sounds rather complicated, it isn’t. Using the resources provided below and some common sense, it is usually easy to stay within the above guidelines and determine where you’re allowed to camp.
BLM (Bureau of Land Management)
The Bureau of Land Management oversees and manages 1 of every 10 acres in the United States! However, the majority of that is west of the Mississippi.
While slightly more difficult to find, and sometimes more restricted, BLM land is generally available for free dispersed camping to the public granted you:
Only stay up to 14 days in a given 28 day period (before moving to another location at least 25 miles away)
Camp at least 1 mile outside of any Developed pay-for BLM Campgrounds and Grazing Areas
Break camp at least 200yrds from any water source or stream
Strictly adhere to current local restrictions on campfires, and manage them properly
Unlike National Forest, BLM land is not indicated on Google Maps and they offer no user-friendly interactive map to help determine boundaries.
Most dispersed camping within BLM lands can be located off secondary roads, and is generally identified by the fact that it looks as though it has been camped in previously (fire ring, cleared flat tent pad, tire tracks, etc.).
In our experience, free camping on BLM land is a bit of a crapshoot. Some have been incredibly secluded, picturesque, and rank among our best camping experiences, while others have been little more than an over-crowded shared dirt parking area.
Pulling up the area on Google Maps satellite view might give you an idea before you arrive. And some of the free camping resources we mention at the bottom of this post will also provide user-reviews that can shed light on camping conditions before you get there.
Other Public Lands
Though National Forest and BLM land is the most prolific source of public lands available for free camping, there are hundreds of thousands of acres of other public lands such as a state Wildlife Management Areas (WMA), state and county parks, conservation areas, trust lands, etc.
The challenge is that each of these will have its own specific regulations, permits, and restrictions as to what, if any, camping is available and when and where you are allowed to camp if so.
The best thing to do is to contact the governing agency of the particular public land you’re looking to camp on, and ask if you’re unsure.
A good place to look for guidance is the particular state’s public lands management agency website, but depending on the state, it may go by a variety of names such as: Department of Natural Resources, Department of Environmental Management, Department of Conservation, etc.
Free Overnight Parking
Overnight parking is exactly what it sounds like. Parking overnight in a parking lot.
Depending on your rig, setup, or vehicle - this free camping option may not be for you (and we use the term “camping” very loosely here).
But if you’re planning to burn through a ton of miles in a short amount of time, or just need a Plan B option for the night, this can save you from having to fork over a camping fee for the night.
And if you’re traveling in a self-contained RV, van, camper, etc. like we have in the past it can even be fun (kinda) when done sparingly!
Most of these options are allowed out of generosity of the business/property owner and should not be taken advantage of for extended lengths of time - no more than 2 nights is generally a good rule of thumb.
At big-box locations always ask the manager beforehand (and note their name once permission is granted to stay overnight) to prevent getting the dreaded window knock at 2 am.
Ideally, if you have shopping to do, or need an easy meal in the morning - you’d be a patron of the establishment that’s hosting you (that’s why they allow it in the first place).
Locations for Overnight Parking:
Probably the most well-known and prolific overnightable stop in the U.S., Walmart generously allows overnight parking at most of their locations.
When we traveled in our old RV, this was a very regular landing pad after a long day’s drive, and saved us countless times from forking over a camping fee at midnight.
Just be sure to check with management to see if it’s allowed, and they’ll generally advise you what area they’d prefer you park in. To make this even easier, call ahead while still on the road.
You can also check out Allstay’s Walmart-no-overnight-parking List here. And we highly recommend downloading their app which we’ll reference in the resources section at the bottom of this post.
Most Cracker Barrel locations encourage overnight parking and even have designated RV spots - just call ahead to verify. Plus you get to wake up to an awesome breakfast before you roll out.
BassPro / Cabela’s
We’ve used this a time or two, it's good in a pinch, and there’s significantly less traffic after hours as compared to rest areas or Walmart. Some have even had RV dump and water fill stations!
This seems to be much less frequented than Walmart in our experience, and is another good Plan B free camping option. Just make sure to check with management before staying.
This is a great free camping stop if you’re pulling in late. They’re generally open 24/7 while offering some seriously good deals on dining, drinks, and buffets.
This is an especially good free camping option for RVers, because there’s generally something you’ll need/want for your rig while you’re there anyways and they offer RV dump and fill stations at most locations.
Rest Areas / Visitors Centers
Rest Areas are generally our very last resort for free “camping,” as most do not technically allow complete overnight stays. One of the most comprehensive resources we’ve found specific to rest area free camping is this awesome post by RV Hive.
A town, city, or state Visitor Center can be a great alternative, as they’re often in less trafficked areas. Plus they provide location specific information that may be helpful if you’re interested in exploring the area.
Not all city parks allow overnight parking - you have to be mindful of local restrictions and make sure that overnight parking is allowed. We recommend checking with a law enforcement officer beforehand.
But this can be a great option for free camping on the road. And because they’re often regularly patrolled by police, security is less of a concern.
Another option for overnight free camping is a truck stop (again we use the term camping here very lightly). Most nationally recognizable truck stops such as Love’s, Pilot, Flying J, and TA allow free overnight parking and provide designated parking areas away from fuel station traffic.
We’ve used this option a time or two in a pinch, and it’s good for a quick rest and convenient to be able to grab a quick cup of coffee before getting back on the road the next morning. Plus most have pay-for showers available if needed.
The downside is that, depending on where you’re parked, there can be a large amount of semi-truck traffic in and out and the noise level can be significant. And depending on the area, safety may also be something you need to consider if using this option.
It’s always best to verify with a manager or employee inside that overnight parking is okay, and to camp at a far corner or edge of the lot to minimize noise and light, and to be out of the way of the truck traffic as much as possible.
Friends and Family
Though this falls a little further outside the definition of free camping - if you’re on the road for any length of time, odds are you’ll be travelling by some old friends (or friends of friends, or friends of family) that you haven’t seen in years, or maybe family members (even distant family) that you can connect with on your adventure.
Odds are they’ll be happy to see you, offer a place to park/stay, and also show you the best of what their area has to offer.
Throughout our travels these stops have been some of the most memorable and rewarding parts of our trips.
While being hosted and reconnecting, we’ve spent time on The Cape, gone deep-sea fishing on a private charter, relaxed on a quiet and secluded 250 acre farm, shared a private ocean-front rental house in Santa Cruz, and eaten some of the best meals we’ve ever had, all while enjoying the company of friends and family that we would have otherwise not had the opportunity to spend time with.
DISCLAIMER: We are not advocating being a mooch. Always offer to pay, or chip-in, or help out around the host’s house with anything that needs to be done. And never exceed your welcome unless a genuine offer to extend your stay has been made by your host.
So leverage your social network - both online and IRL, and don’t be afraid to reach out!
Other Free Overnight Parking Options:
These free camping options are probably better described as “stealth camping” and should only be considered in a pinch, but all are options we’ve used in the past with success.
Just do everything you can to get authorization from someone beforehand, be aware of “no overnight parking” signage and municipal regulations, be respectful, and know that you may still get the 2am-knock-on-your-door with request to move - but this has very rarely happened to us.
Marinas - most marinas have fishermen coming and going throughout the night and there is often plenty of parking space available after hours.
Schools - closed during the summer
Churches - probably not on Wednesday, Saturday, or Sunday
24-hr Gyms - plus if you’re a member of a national chain, you’ll have access to a hot shower and a good workout
Hotel/Motel Parking Lots
Paid Memberships for “Free” Camping (not for tent, car, or truck shell camping)
Though not completely “free camping,” these programs allow you access to camp at hundreds of locations throughout the U.S. by paying a very low annual membership fee.
However, know that these are geared towards self-contained travel vehicles, so if you’re tent, car, or even truck shell camping this option is not for you.
But for RVers or anyone who has a rig with self-contained plumbing, waste-water tanks, and interior cook-space (like a camper van, skoolie build, or full-size truck camper) this is an incredible alternative to the Overnight Parking lot options we discussed previously.
This is a network of hundreds of wineries, distilleries, breweries, farms, museums, (and for a little extra) golf courses and country clubs, that will allow you unlimited free camping on their grounds provided you adhere to their vehicle requirements and code of conduct.
Check out their site here.
This is another network of free camping hosts that offer their private property as a place to stay at no cost, but again there is a low annual membership fee and your travel rig must be completely self-contained.
Also, if taking advantage of on-site electricity and water some payment is expected - and it is generally best-practice to leave your host a gift as thanks for your stay.
Free Camping Resources:
Below is a compilation of some of the best resources we’ve found to help you in your pursuit of free camping!
It also provides pay-for camping locations both private and public, gas-station, rest area, rv dump-site, water-fill locations, and a plethora of other useful information while on the road.
We use this app extensively while traveling, and it has been a real money and time saver over the years.
This site offers a free map-based search engine to help you locate free camping.
It’s data is derived from a community of users’ input and reviews, so you must use your own judgement when pulling into a location to determine if it’s safe and legal for you to camp there.
The free camping locations are primarily located on National Forest Service, BLM, WMA, or county/city parks, though there are pay-for sites listed (but only ones with nominal fees of $12 or less, and the site makes it clear which are pay-for).
This is by far our favorite resource for free camping while on the road, and one we highly recommend.
This site is another great resource for finding campsites, both pay-for and free. Though a little less intuitive, you can use the site’s interactive map, or their downloadable app. The advantage here is that they include Canadian camping options as well!
This site also offers a huge database of camping options and you can filter your search to show only free camping options.
*(This post contains affiliate links. This means we may receive a small commission, at no additional cost to you, if you make a purchase through a link. See our full disclosure.)
Option 1: Buy a Map
Cell service is still not as ubiquitous as we wish it were, and nothing beats a National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map* - they’re tear resistant and waterproof, can be found for most regions in the US, and provide clear National Forest boundaries while outlining areas of dispersed camping, pay-for sites, and amenities, as well as all the awesome forest service roads and hiking trails to explore.
If you’re spending a significant amount of time exploring a given region, we definitely recommend picking one up for that area.
Option 2: Use Free Maps
There’s no need to fork over a bunch of money for maps if you’re only going to be in an area a couple days.
Most Visitors Centers and Ranger Stations have detailed maps of their areas on their walls or out on tables for visitors to reference, and cell phones cameras have come a long way. Just take a picture beforehand if you know you’re headed into an area of questionable cell service.
Good Old Human Interaction (IRL)
This is by far the best free camping resource of all.
By talking to people - whether they be park rangers, visitors center employees, or just some random person at the local gas station, grocery store, or coffee shop - you can get incredible inside information on all kinds of things like local free camping, overnight parking, great places to eat, cool hikes, local attractions, free concerts, farmers markets, etc.!
It’s so much faster and easier than having to research all that information on your own. Plus you just may end up making a real-life friend and host!
Now get out there and find some free camping!
We hope the strategies and resources we’ve used and shared in this post will help you to not only save money, but travel farther and longer!
And PLEASE let us know in the comments section below if you have any other free camping tips or resources you’d like to share - we’re always looking for ways to make our travel budget go further.
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