Camping allows people to indulge themselves in the natural wonders of the world, catch sunsets and sunrises with ease, and hit the reset button on life. Even though camping can get expensive, it doesn’t have to be. And finding places that allow for free camping is just the first step in your journey to an amazing trip!
You’d be surprised at the free campsites and campgrounds you can find while asking the simple question of “where can I find free camping near me?”
Over the past few years, camping has become a lifestyle for millions of people around the world. Whether you’ve invested in an RV for short- or long-term travels, are living the van life to see the world or schlepping it out by car camping or tent camping like myself, you don’t need to spend $15 to $30 per night on an established campground.
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Heck, if I paid that much per night to camp under the stars (something that shouldn’t cost a penny in the first place), my trip around the United States would’ve ended before it began.
Instead, I only pay for campsites when I absolutely have to or when it makes sense. For instance, campsites in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are about 50 miles closer than free campgrounds and only $20 per night. Since I’m staying for six nights, that would add an extra 600 miles of driving on my car (and countless hours taken away from exploring).
The same can be said about many National Parks on the East Coast and the major parks like Yellowstone. But the West Coast, especially, offers many places for free camping that you could stay at one campsite per night for an entire year and still not scratch the surface of visiting them all.
The trick for free camping near me is knowing where to look. Let me teach you everything you need to know about finding free campsites — for RVers, van lifers and car campers like me!
Perks of Free Camping
It’s FREE!! You simply can’t beat free. Staying for free allows you to save money and allocate money to amazing experiences, such as renting a UTV in the Rocky Mountains, rafting down the Colorado River outside of Moab, Utah or just buying better camping gear and hiking gear!
Get away from the crowds: Established campgrounds are crowded, especially if you go during the summer high season. Instead of being stacked one on top of the other and dealing with light pollution from your neighbor’s floodlights, free camping gives you an opportunity to get away from civilization, make your own coffee and enjoy it without interruption and experience some solitude without screens and gadgets.
Flexibility: While you’ve probably done ample research before your camping trip, sometimes there may simply not be any available spots at established campgrounds where you want to go. Why let that spoil your trip? Free camping provides an alternative. Plus, since you don’t have to book them in advance, it doesn’t tie you down to a particular spot for a designated number of nights.
What to Expect at Free Campsites & Campgrounds
While free camping is amazing and will save you a ton of money — and provide some pretty spectacular experiences along the way — it’s not all peaches and cream. Unless you’ve outfitted your van or RV with the necessary amenities, you’ll experience the following (which can be fun as well):
- Rough and unmaintained roads
- Poor cell service (most of the time)
- No showers
- No running water
- No potable toilets
- No dump stations
- No picnic tables
- No fire rings (learn how to properly start a campfire and put out a campfire)
- No trash containers (always practice Leave No Trace)
Where Can I Camp for Free?
You can camp for free on land maintained by the U.S. Forest Service (National Forests, National Grasslands and National Seashores), Bureau of Land Management (BLM) property, rest areas and some parking lots like Walmart, grocery stores and truck stops.
1. National Forests, Grasslands and Seashores
While there are usually dedicated pay-to-stay campgrounds in National Forests, National Grasslands and some National Seashores, you can also indulge in free camping as long as you’re outside of an established campground, more than 100 feet away from water sources and within 150 feet of the nearest road.
These lands are public and protected, meaning everyone can stay for free for a designated number of days each month. Free camping in these areas is called dispersed camping and can be done in a tent, RV, van or car.
While National Forest camping in the U.S. is free at non-established campgrounds, camping inside National Grasslands and National Seashores are more strict, so you should consult with the rangers at the designated area beforehand.
- Maximum Length of Stay: Usually 14 days in a row (or a month) and a designated number of days in a year at each place. (You can move from National Forest to National Forest every 14 days and stay for free forever if you want.)
- Pro Tips: While you can set up a tent in these areas, you may be more comfortable with car camping instead. Many National Forests border National Parks, which makes camping in National Forests the perfect place!
2. Bureau of Land Management (BLM)
Bureau of Land Management, more commonly known as BLM, lands are publicly managed and mostly found in the Western U.S. (think Colorado, Utah, Washington, Arizona, etc.). You’ll find a ton of free BLM camping by pulling into established BLM campgrounds (like the amazing free campsites in Moab, Utah), stopping at pull-offs on the side of the road or hiking a short distance to find a spot of your own.
BLM campsites will typically have absolutely no amenities, but you can find some in places like Silverton, Colorado and Moab, Utah that do have porta-potties or vault toilets. You’ll never find showers or dump stations and you’ll hardly find picnic tables. But they’re free and you can’t beat free!
- Maximum Length of Stay: Usually 14 days in a row (or a month) and a designated number of days in a year at each place. (You can move from BLM land to BLM land every 14 days and stay for free forever if you want.)
- Pro Tips: Use the interactive map hosted online by the BLM to find a spot or simply search on Campendium (my all-time favorite place to find campsites).
3. Parking Lots (Rest Areas, Walmart, Stores, Truck Stops)
This is where things can start to get a little hairy. I’m sure you’ve seen RVs and stealth vans parked in the parking lots of Walmart, grocery stores and truck stops. It’s likely they’ve stayed the night or are resting for a few days before hitting the road again.
After all, you never want to drive while you’re tired or exhausted. That’s a recipe for disaster. While camping (really just sleeping in your vehicle because you can’t pitch a tent in these parking lots) in these parking lots is a super grey area,
You can find rest areas on the side of the highway every 100 miles or so and they typically have reserved areas for big-rig campers, vans and car campers. I’ve stayed the night at my fair share of rest areas through the years and I’ve never had a problem.
However, you always want to be super careful when doing this. Try to park close to a light so it prevents people from trying to break into your vehicle and you may want to consider stealth parking near the building.
Walmart officially allows overnight parking at many of its stores, but grocery stores and other areas like large chain stores such as Cracker Barrel and small businesses may not be as nice.
Walmarts near heavily visited areas, like the ones near Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, typically don’t allow overnight parking. If a store employee asks you to leave, it’s easier to just leave and find another spot nearby.
If a truck stop is full and you try to stay there, you may run into some trouble with the store owners and other truckers. A good rule of thumb is to always give truckers first dibs on spots at truck stops. They drive all day for a living and these are their designated areas to get some rest.
Be courteous and don’t take the final spots. Keep in mind that truckers may arrive in the early morning (1 a.m., to 5 a.m.), so don’t take one of their spots.
- Maximum Length of Stay: Typically one night is all you’ll want to stay, but you may be able to stay in a Walmart parking lot for multiple days before being asked to move on.
- Pro Tips: Be careful! You must sleep in your vehicle, create your own window coverings with sheets if you have a car without tinted windows, and always try to sleep in your clothes in case you must leave quickly.
Best Free Camping Apps & Websites
Campendium is my all-time favorite camping app and website! It’s completely free to use and they have the largest collection of campsites and the best ease of use. You can sort by public lands, private campgrounds, price and so much more. They do have a paid version (which I happily participate in) that allows you to sort by cell reception, length of vehicle, elevation and much more.
The Dyrt is a close second place because it’s free and there are a ton of campsites available! However, the thing I don’t like is that I haven’t found a way to sort the campsites by price, which is a huge downfall when you’re looking for free campsites.
Freecampsites.net is another great website to look at when searching for free camping near me. However, the user experience is a little outdated and it doesn’t show pay-to-stay campsites. Like I said, sometimes it makes more sense to pay for campsites instead of having to drive 100 miles to and from the National Park each day.
Different Kinds of Free Camping
1. Dispersed Camping
Dispersed camping is a term coined for camping in lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the National Forest Service. So if you’re participating in free camping on BLM lands or inside National Forests, you’re participating in dispersed camping. Dispersed camping is simply camping for free in non-developed areas of public property.
2. Backcountry Camping
Backcountry camping typically involves hiking or trekking away from civilization to a designated or undesignated campsite with absolutely no amenities and typically no cell service whatsoever. You can participate in backcountry camping on any public lands, but backcountry camping in National Parks typically requires a permit and a nightly fee.
If you’re going to be backcountry camping, you’ll need to bring your 10 hiking essentials and make sure you have enough food and water to last the duration of your trip. Since there won’t be any amenities, make sure you practice the 7 Leave No Trace Principles.
3. Boondocking/Dry Camping
Boondocking is the far more common term, but it can also be called dry camping. You’ll hear these terms more commonly with RVers and van lifers, but car campers will throw it around occasionally. It simply refers to the style of camping when there aren’t any amenities like running water or dump stations. Boondocking can be done on BLM land, inside lands managed by the National Forest Service and even parking lots like Walmart or truck stops.
4. Stealth Camping
Stealth camping is similar to boondocking in that you don’t have dump stations or water, but it’s reserved for car campers and van lifers. Stealth camping is when you park overnight in a regular looking vehicle in places that typically don’t allow camping.
I’ve seen stealth campers at the trailhead of hiking trails, inside parking areas at National Parks like Arches and parked on the side of the streets in downtown areas like Moab and Copper Mountain. Stealth camping is mostly done in prohibited camping areas, so you must be careful and ready to deal with the consequences of having your vehicle towed or ticketed.