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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.