It costs about $30 a night to stay in an established campground in the United States. That doesn’t include the cost of gear, food, gas, and attractions. But what if you didn’t have to pay for your campsite? By cutting lodging our of your camping budget, you get to spend less and see more.
Most folks aren’t aware that there are many ways to avoid the expense of paying for a campground. You just have to be open-minded and creative to take advantage of the multitude of free camping options available to you.
Where to Camp for Free on Public Land
Camping on public land is commonly referred to as “dispersed camping.” It means you’re camping outside of a specified campground and won’t have access to amenities, such as picnic tables, grills, showers, and fire pits. Dispersed camping is more private and secluded, and truly lets you experience the wilderness as Mother Nature intended.
Forest Service Land
The U.S. Forest Service manages hundreds of the country’s national forests and grasslands, many of which have designated areas for free camping. Unless specifically prohibited, these spaces are first-come, first-served for dispersed camping.
National forests are great places to camp if you plan to visit our country’s magnificent national parks. National parks are more protected than other federal lands, so it can be difficult or impossible to camp for free. Plus, campgrounds at national parks can be crowded and fill up quickly. However, most national parks are adjacent to national forests, so you can camp nearby and still see the parks.
Most national forest campsites are available at no cost, and some just have parking fees, which go directly toward maintaining the forests. Visit Wand’rly.com for a complete list of national forests where you can camp for free.
The Bureau of Land Management oversees a large amount of open landscapes in the US that are used for logging, grazing, and recreation. Some BLM lands offer free camping with no strings attached, while others simply require a permit.
Some of the most iconic BLM campsites are found near Moab, UT, Joshua Tree National Park, CA, Black Rock Desert, NV, and much of the state of Alaska.
Unlike other public lands, Wildlife Management Areas are smaller, state-run lands with ample free camping opportunities. These lands are managed for fishing, hunting, and conservation purposes, so you may require a permit even if you’re just camping. One great benefit of staying at a WMA is the availability of regular staff to help you if you’re in need of assistance.
There’s no complete guide to free camping on WMAs in the country, but a quick search for “free camping (YOUR STATE) WMA” should generate good results.
Where to Camp for Free on Private Property
If you prefer to stay closer to civilization, or would like to explore the city while you camp, consider free camping on private property.
Thanks to the internet, it’s easy to find people who will allow you to set up camp on their property for free. These properties can be some of the most scenic places on your trip, from waterfront retreats to rustic farms.
RVers can look no further than Boondockers Welcome to find their next free camping oasis. While there’s no equivalent web site (yet) for tent campers, head over to HipCamp and sort your search results from lowest to highest price for an abundance of $5 campsites.
Wineries, Farms, Breweries
Can you think of anything better than parking your RV outside of a local vineyard or brewery, or waking up to the smell of fresh farmed produce in the morning?
The folks at Harvest Hosts certainly couldn’t, so they created a resource to pair brewery, winery, and farm owners with RVers looking for a place to stay the night. There is a small annual fee to join the collective, and as a token of appreciation, you’re asked to support the host’s business. While not totally free, this is a great way to stock up on gifts and souvenirs from your trip.
Work camping is for travelers who spend lot of time on the road and can commit to staying in one place for a few months or an entire season. Work campers do just that – they work at a campsite in exchange for a place to park, hookups, and often an hourly wage.
Many work campers follow the seasons. They stay south for the winter and head north or west for the summers. Again, thanks to the internet, it’s never been easier to find work camping opportunities.
Workamping Jobs lets you search all job openings by state and whether you’re looking for full hookups, salary, or both. Recreation Resource Management offers a list of 175 campgrounds that offer work camping positions in the most beautiful outdoor locations. Even KOA has developed a Work Kamping Program to help pair travelers with job opportunities at their favorite KOA campgrounds.
Parking lot camping isn’t really considered camping, but it’s worth mentioning as a free option for RVers looking for a quick overnight stay.
Sometimes you have no option to but to set up camp in a parking lot after a along day of driving. It’s really not a bad option, as long as safety is your first priority. Stick to well-lit, populated areas, and always ask for permission to make sure campers are welcome.
Some businesses are very receptive to parking lot campers, and appreciate the business they bring. The most notable ones are big box retail stores (Walmart), truck stops (TA, Flying J, Love’s), casinos, RV dealers (Camping World), restaurants (Cracker Barrel), and outdoor stores (Gander Outdoors). It’s good camping etiquette to make a small food, gas, or supply purchase to show the business your appreciation.
Whether you’re tent camping or RVing, there are a few additional things you should consider before embarking on your next free camping adventure.
Safety is a much larger consideration when camping for free than when staying in an established campground. From animals to weather, you have to cover all grounds to stay safe.
Most free camping areas are more remote, which means no or low cell phone service if something goes wrong. Bring a map with you if you get lost or need to hike out, and carry enough supplies to get you to the nearest phone or ranger station.
Be mindful of animals. Snakes and insects are more prevalent on public lands, and there won’t be a ranger to help you if you encounter something venomous. Keep all food containers sealed to avoid attracting bears, and have an escape plan if you have an unexpected encounter.
If you prefer to take the road less traveled, free camping on public lands is for you. These camping areas are more secluded from the general public. They are more remote and offer a great opportunity to stargaze along the open sky. Free camping is truly an escape, allowing you to become one with nature and appreciate the undisturbed landscape of the open country.
Free camping areas are not as well-maintained as paid campgrounds, so it may be challenging to find flat terrain to pitch a tent or park your RV. Consider investing in a truck bed or a roof top tent to maximize your comfort and safety when camping for free.
You’re more exposed to the elements in most free camping situations. There might not be any shelter nearby if the weather gets sketchy, and you might be in a place that’s more susceptible to washouts and flooding. Set up camp at least one football field’s length away from lakes and rivers, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the lands.
Paid campgrounds usually feature some nice amenities: bathrooms, showers, picnic tables, fire pits, and country stores. Camping for free means giving up these creature comforts. With a little preparation, even the most secluded campsite can feel like home:
- Make sure to bring in plenty of food and water for everyone in your group.
- Be ready to take a swim in a lake or creek in lieu of a shower.
- Understand that you’ll have to bury your human waste.
- Learn how to build a fire (and remember to put it out).
- Pack trash bags and leave no trace.
Have you ever camped for free? How do you find places to camp for free?
Leave a comment below, sharing your favorite free or cheap camping destinations with other readers.