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THIS ADVENTURE GUIDE COVERS EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT FREE CAMPING IN THE USA; INCLUDING TIPS ON WHERE TO GO, RESOURCES FOR FINDING AWESOME FREE CAMPSITES AND EVEN WHAT TO BRING WITH YOU.
Likely one of the biggest perks of road tripping and exploring the USA is the fact that you get the opportunity to stay in some absolutely beautiful landscapes. From the red rock desert of Utah to the dense redwood groves of California, there are thousands of places to spend the night.
And even better, many of those amazing spots can be stayed at for free.
Free camping is not just an economical way to explore the USA, it is also a great way to spend a decent amount of time in nature. By opting for a dispersed campsite instead of one in an established campground, you are setting yourself up for a more exciting and adventurous outdoor experience.
We started free camping in college for three reasons: first, because we wanted to save money; secondly, because we wanted to escape the crowded campgrounds that we had found ourselves in too many times before and finally, because we were really looking to get off the beaten path and have more exciting adventure.
Since then we have spent almost every night while road tripping and traveling free camping out in nature. Sometimes with our van Terra, sometimes on a motorcycle and sometimes just in a tent. And while we will be the first to say it isn't always easy, we 100% believe the amazing opportunities it has afforded us far outweigh any of the negatives.
If you are curious about free camping in the USA yourself but don't know where to start then this adventure guide is for you. Below we cover everything from what free camping actually is to some of our most trusted resources for finding top-notch free campsites around the country. We also share some of our favorite free camping gear and even a few of our favorite campsites (many of which are located near the country's numerous national parks).
So without further ado, here is everything you need to know about free camping in the USA.
THE ULTMATE GUIDE TO FREE CAMPING IN THE USA
\\ What is Free Camping Anyway?
As the name suggests, free camping is anytime you camp - either in a tent or a vehicle (like a van) - without paying. This process can also be called boondocking, dry camping and stealth camping. Though, in some regards, there are a few minor differences between the three.
Boondocking is most likely the image that comes to mind when you think of free camping: a vehicle, likely a van, camped out in the woods somewhere remote. While this is true, even more specifically, boondocking actually consists of two separate components: the how and the where.
The how part is the way in which you camp. We would say, overall, boondocking usually means staying somewhere that has no amenities or services like running water, bathrooms, dump stations or tables and firepits. It is just you, your vehicle or tent and a piece of land. The where part is also pretty simple: boondocking means dispersed camping (aka not in a campground) on public lands. This usually means land managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the National Forest Service (NFS).
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: dispersed camping is another popular term for free camping. For all intents and purposes dispersed camping and boondocking are the same thing, though the latter is often used on maps or in guidebooks. If searching online for free campsites on websites run by the BLM or NFS you will want to search for "dispersed camping" and not boondocking.
The few other terms used to describe free camping - dry camping and stealth camping - are also quite similar to boondocking. Dry camping is the term used to describe camping somewhere that doesn't have any amenities like water or electricity. Stealth camping on the other hand, is often associated with free camping in urban centers, like major cities such as San Francisco, California and Seattle, Washington. This type of free camping is a bit more challenging as you are more likely to run into regulations and rules on camping in the city.
One other term sometimes used to describe free camping is wild camping. While this might sound like boondocking or dispersed camping, in fact, in many countries around the world wild camping is considered the same as backcountry camping or the act of camping out along a trail while backpacking.
Overall, the term free camping is used to describe the process of camping either in a vehicle (like a van or RV) or in a tent on public land that does not have any amenities or services.
\\ The Pros and Cons of Free Camping in the USA
While we absolutely love free camping, especially in the western part of the USA, we understand that it is not always for everyone. Below are a few of the positives of free camping as well as a couple of the most common drawbacks.
There are a lot of positives of free camping in the USA. For starters, free camping often means camping out in the wilderness away from people. By escaping the established campgrounds - which can often be quite compact and overwhelmingly busy - you instead get to experience nature and all of its beauty. By choosing to free camp, you are more likely setting yourself up for some absolutely gorgeous and memorable camping locations, and even better, you will likely have these amazing sites all to yourself. Now that is a win-win.
Besides the opportunity for adventure that free camping in the wild gives you, it also allows you to be more flexible with your planning. We cannot tell you how many times we have found ourselves searching out places to camp along our driving route after failing to plan ahead. If you are anything like us (somewhat bad at planning) then you will also likely find yourself in a similar position. Luckily, there are a ton of free camping sites scattered all over the USA that don't require a reservation.
Finally, and this likely should go without saying, one of the biggest perks of free camping is that it is FREE! By getting rid of the cost of lodging you can instead spend that money on more exciting things, like adventures and excursions (or maybe just more coffee).
While we absolutely love free camping in the USA, especially in our van Terra, we also don't want to give you the idea that it is always easy and comfortable. Actually, there have been many times while free camping that we have found ourselves missing (even longing) for some of the amenities that can be found at established campgrounds.
A few of the main drawbacks of free camping revolve around the fact that you are out camping on your own with no services like bathrooms or running water. Even for the hardiest of people, this can sometimes weigh on you. If you are thinking of heading out to boondock for the first time, just know that you will need to do a bit more pre-planning and organizing before heading out. This includes making sure you have enough water and a proper bathroom setup (review Leave No Trace Principles for more information on this).
Other common downsides of boondocking are that the sites can sometimes be much tougher to reach, especially if you are free camping in the off-season, that the campsites often do not have any cell service (this can be a big downside for digital nomads) and that they, unfortunately, are more likely to have garbage and other gross stuff lying around.
💬 INSIDER TIP: we have had the unfortunate experience of pulling up to a free campsite only to find it full of garbage left over from the previous campers. While we will never understand why people think it is okay to leave their garbage in the great outdoors, we want to really inspire people to not do the same. As the childhood saying goes, always leave it better than you found it.
Overall, we would say that the positives of free camping far outweigh the negatives. If you are willing to do a bit of organizing ahead of time (mostly making sure you have enough water with you) then you should find free camping to be an absolutely amazing experience and adventure.
You can find some of our favorite free campsites below.
\\ The Top Places to Find Free Camping in the USA
There are a ton of places to free camp across the USA, from wide-open vistas in the desert to tight forested pull-offs in the mountains, there are free campsites for every type of traveler and adventurer. Below are some of the best places to find free camping.
BUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT (BLM)
By far one of the best places to find free camping sites is on public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management or BLM. In many western states, the BLM oversees huge swaths of land - most of which is completely empty of any form of infrastructure. In fact, the BLM oversees 1 out of every 10 acres in the entire USA, meaning you can find all types of camping sites; including, sites in the mountains, desert, open plains, dense forests and along the coast.
But with that being said, it is important to point out that while most of the BLM land is totally open for dispersed camping, they do still have a few regulations that must be followed. This includes packing out all waste with you when you leave, following all fire ordinances and bans, only camping on durable services - or better yet, camping in sites that are already established, and only camping for a max period of 14 days.
➳ You can explore all of the BLM's managed land in this interactive map.
NATIONAL FOREST SERVICE (NFS)
Besides being able to free camp on BLM managed land, you also have the opportunity to camp on land overseen by the National Forest Service (NFS). National forests are also incredibly common in the USA, especially in the western half of the states (the forest service actually oversees 193 million acres of land). For the most part, any land that is not overseen by a national or state park and is not privately owned is likely to fall into either being run by the BLM or by the NFS.
The same regulations apply to camping in the national forest: pack out all of your waste, follow fire regulations and keep a close eye on all campfires if they are allowed, only camp on solid ground and/or in already established dispersed sites (a good tell-tale sign is a fire ring), and only camp for the max period of time (for the NFS that is 16 days).
Furthermore, make sure you are being a safe and sustainable camper. This means following all Leave No Trace Principles (there are 7, read about them here), making sure you are disposing of your waste properly (including human waste), making sure you are not damaging the ecosystem you are free camping in, and being aware of wildlife, especially wildlife that has a tendency to get into human food (bears, birds and rodents).
➳ This interactive map shows all NFS land available for free camping.
Now for the less glamorous and way less adventurous places that allow free camping in the USA.
While it might seem like a bit of a bummer to spend the night in a business parking lot, in truth, it is actually a super nice and convenient option, especially if you are out on a long road trip and don't like driving at night.
The most common public businesses that allow free overnight camping are Walmart, Cracker Barrel, Cabela's, Bass Pro Shops and Costco. Other possible options are Lowe's and Home Depots, though these tend to be more off-limits overall.
Of course, you should still make sure the business you are thinking of camping at does indeed allow overnight camping (some of these businesses are based in cities with no camping ordinances). A good rule of thumb is to check whether there are any No Camping signs placed around the parking lot before tucking in for the night. If you don't see any signs but are still worried you can also go inside and ask the employees whether it is okay for you to camp there.
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: when free camping in a business parking lot you should make sure you are as stealthy and as unobtrusive as possible. This means you are respectful of the business's customers, you keep all of your stuff inside your vehicle and you clean up after yourself when you leave.
REST AREAS AND TRUCK STOPS
Another slightly less glamorous option (but another very convenient one) are rest areas and truck stops. This is an especially good option if you are looking to simply find a safe place to sleep for the night while road tripping, since rest areas and truck stops are usually located along major interstates and highways.
While rest areas are quite common along the large interstates that cross the USA, it is important to be aware that depending on the state you are in, there might be regulations in place for how long you can actually park there (though how much they enforce these rules is questionable). On the other hand, truck stops are usually a very safe bet for allowing boondockers to spend the night. The most common truck stops that allow you to camp in your vehicle are Flying J, Loves, and Pilot. Plus, many truck stops also offer showers and decent (and free) Wi-Fi.
We have spent a couple of nights camping in truck stops in our van, and while it might not be the prettiest of places it definitely does the job. One thing we do recommend having though are good window coverings since almost all truck stops have super bright street lights (also large semi-trucks will be coming and going all night long).
💬 INSIDER TIP: if you are someone who has a hard time sleeping when there are a lot of noises, then maybe a rest area or truck stop is not a good option. In our experience, there are loud noises (especially the sounds of engines) throughout the night.
Another spot that wouldn't necessarily fall under the banner of "beautiful" are casinos, though just like rest areas and truck stops, they do do the job nicely.
While it might come as a bit of a surprise, camping in casinos is actually pretty common and popular. IN fact, this side of free camping in the USA actually has a specific name, "casino camping." A few important things to keep in mind when it comes to free camping in casinos are that they usually have designated spots for boondockers (usually in the far corners or edges of the parking lot), that they only allow self-contained vehicles like RVs, trailers and vans to stay overnight (sorry no tent camping) and finally, that they often require you to have your own bathroom.
Camping in a casino parking lot likely doesn't seem that exciting or glamorous, but it does come with its own set of perks. Namely it is safe, it is somewhat comfortable (the parking lots are nice and flat, plus they are almost always open 24/7 so you have a bathroom and running water available whenever you need it) and they are easily accessible and relatively common around the USA.
RESIDENTIAL AREAS AND APARTMENT COMPLEXES
Consider this type of free camping spot to be a last resort. While we have spent a fair amount of nights ourselves free camping in front of apartment complexes (this was mostly during our stint vanlifing it in San Francisco) we wouldn't recommend it unless you absolutely have to.
This is mostly because it just feels awkward and a bit uncomfortable, and frankly even a bit illegal (even if there are no signs saying it is). If you do find yourself looking to free camp in a city or town somewhere in the USA, then we recommend seeking out areas that have a lot of apartment complexes and not neighborhoods with just single-family homes. This is because in an apartment complex there is less chance someone will notice a new van parked overnight since there are so many cars around. Whereas in a single family neighborhood, where people usually know everyone's vehicle, you are more likely to be noticed (and often more likely to get the police called on you).
\\ Tips for Finding Free Camping Near Me
There are a couple of ways to find good free campsites near you. Below e have split some of the best research tools into two categories: digital and in person.
There are numerous apps available (for both Apple and Android) that can help you find some pretty sweet free campsites. Two of our favorite ones are iOverlander and FreeRoam.
iOverlander: this is usually the first app we open when we are in a pinch. The app - which consists mostly of just an interactive map and reviews - easily marks campsites and popular services for overlanders (like free water, dump stations and propane fill-ups). The campsites are split into two categories: informal campsites (like gas stations and truck stops) and wild campsites (this can be pretty much anything, they are usually free). This app is free to use.
FreeRoam: this app is geared more toward people who need to know specific things about the free campsites; including, information on cell services (this is especially important for remote workers), the upcoming weather forecast, and seasonal info (like average level of fullness). This app also shows useful information on things like the amount of noise, overall safety, and even how clean the sites usually are. Finally, like iOverlander, FreeRoam has an interactive map with info on the closest services like water, propane refills and dump stations. This app is also free to use.
One of the first things we do while planning our next big adventure is to first scout out the area we are looking to head to. And for the most part, that means scouring Google Maps to get an idea of the geography, topography and nearby sites. We also like to use Google Maps to help search for possible free campsites.
Our process for finding possible free campsites on Google Maps usually goes like this: first, we search for public land that might allow free camping (namely BLM and NFS managed lands), then we zoom in to find forest roads that might have good pull-offs or parking places big enough to fit our van. Then once we find a couple of sites that might be good for camping, we pin them (with a star and a note) and then start to map out how to get there. This process has allowed us to not only find some amazing sites, but it also gives a really good idea of the area we are hoping to explore - including finding hidden gems and random off the beaten path destinations nearby.
These days, you can pretty much find everything you need online. This includes some pretty sick free campsites. While we like to use the two apps above while out road tripping, we do often spend some time searching on our computers before setting out on any big adventure. A few great sites to check out are the BLM and NFS websites and maps and other road trip blog posts and travel guides (like this one we wrote on The Best Campsites Near Estes Park, Colorado).
This might be an obvious one, but in all actuality, one of the easiest ways to find a good free campsite is to simply drive around and look for one that piques your fancy. Some great places to start are on BLM and NFS managed lands - especially off forest roads.
We actually tend to find some of our best free campsites this way. Also, a big perk of doing this is that by searching for sites in person, you will already have a better idea of the road conditions to the site and its overall safety. Plus, whether it has a killer view.
💬 INSIDER TIP: we will sometimes look at paper maps and road atlases first in order to get a good idea of possible forest roads to head down when out searching. Our favorite type of road to camp off of usually includes some sort of water feature (usually a river or stream) as well as easy access to trails or other roads to explore (we really enjoy morning bike rides and runs while free camping).
ASK THE LOCALS
While it can sometimes be a bit scary to ask locals for recommendations, overall we would say this is one of the best ways to find those awesome off the beaten path destinations and free campsites. For who knows the area you are in better than the people who actually live there?
We tend to ask around in coffee shops for recommendations on places to camp, as well as recommendations for places to hike, restaurants to eat at and any other useful and insightful tips on the area.
\\ What to Bring Free Camping
Before heading out to camp in the wild you will want to make sure you have all of the necessary gear with you. This is especially true if you are planning to dry camp and/or spend a decent amount of time off-grid.
One of the best investments you can make when it comes to your free camping set up is a nice warm sleeping bag (because waking up cold is not fun). This two person sleeping bag by Stoic is great for car camping - especially if you are planning to free camp with someone else.
While having a two person sleeping bag is great, what makes it even better is if you have a two person sleeping pad underneath. We currently have a two person sleeping pad in our van and we couldn't be happier with how comfortable and warm it is. If you are looking for a good option, we recommend this one also from Stoic.
A handy headlamp is a true necessity - not just for camping but for all adventures. We tend to have about 5 headlamps scattered around our van just in case we lose one or the batteries die (which somehow happens quite often...). This one by Petzl is a personal favorite because it is affordable and it has a long-lasting battery.