How to Camp for Free in the United States
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On a tight budget? You’ll definitely want to learn the ins and outs of free camping—including where to find the perfect destination near you!
Camping is one of the best ways to enjoy nature, and during the pandemic, it’s an especially great idea if you want to get away—and get away from everyone else. But social distancing isn’t the only reason people are flocking to camping. It’s also a budget-friendly vacation option that’s even easier on your wallet if you find a destination that doesn’t charge a fee. Yes, you read that right—you can camp for free in many places throughout the United States. You just need to know where to look. Get started by finding out exactly what qualifies as free camping and learning a few important guidelines, and then check out the most scenic campsites near you. Bonus: Save some money here and you’ll be able to spend it on these cool camping gadgets.
What is free camping?
Free camping is, essentially, just what the name suggests: camping for free, without having to pay any money. It can take several forms and be part of a car- or RV-based road trip or part of an extended backpacking or bike-packing trip. There’s also dry camping and boondocking, which typically refer to RV, van, or motor-home camping without an electricity or water hookup.
Free camping should not be confused with more wild forms of camping, such as dispersed camping and primitive camping, which center around being in off-the-grid wilderness areas that are away from the services and amenities found at more developed campgrounds and RV parks. Free camping is not necessarily the same as dispersed camping, but in some cases, it could fall into that category. If you’re camping in an area that’s not being supported by admissions or permit fees, the campsite may not have access to the water, electricity, and bathrooms that camping fees help pay for, so you’ll want to be clear about that before taking your trip so you can plan accordingly. For travel inspiration, check out these 55 best road trips in America.
How to find free camping
Two great resources for finding free RV parks and campsites are the Ultimate Public Campgrounds app and Campendium, where you can search by location and price. Public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is another good source, as are the websites of local tourism boards and state departments of natural resources and departments of environmental conservation.
No online resources exist that show whether a free campsite has been claimed yet, unfortunately, but you could call the local tourism board or park/forest information center and ask if they could recommend campsites that tend to be less popular. Weekends and holidays tend to be the busiest, so you’ll have the best luck finding a free campsite mid-week. You should also keep in mind that national parks are very popular with campers, so it’s a good idea to plan in advance and have a backup plan in case nothing is available. Ready to get started? These are the best places to camp in national parks.
Where can I set up a tent for free?
According to Mary Monroe Brown, director of the Wisconsin Office of Outdoor Recreation, different sites have different rules about where you can camp. Some areas allow free camping anywhere other than where a sign prohibits it. Other areas, like the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest in northern Wisconsin, specify exactly where you cannot camp and require campers to be 200 feet from the water and 150 feet from any trail or service road.
Note that some sites limit how long you can camp there, as well. Most Bureau of Land Management sites cap free camping to 30 days, though the amount of time can vary by location. Most national forests allow dispersed camping up to 14 days, though some areas are limited to one day, while others allow up to 30 days. Check the local regulations by stopping by the ranger station or calling ahead of your stay.
What to know before you go camping
Free campsites can be very hard to come by during peak summer months because many operate on a first-come, first-served basis. Plan to arrive early in the day to get a good spot, but know that you run the risk of getting there and not finding any free campsites left. Before you hit the road, make a list of several other camping and accommodations options in the area if your ideal spot is not available.
The free campsites that tend to go quickest are those that are the most easily accessible, right off the main road or parking lot. Harder-to-reach, backcountry campsites tend to receive fewer visitors, but they may require a significant hike to access. If all the available campsites are taken, you must find a different site. Do not attempt to camp in an area that is not designated for camping, as it’s both damaging to the environment and illegal. Avoid these other camping mistakes that most first-timers make.
Can you camp for free anywhere?
No, you cannot. While many national and state parks and forest areas do set aside areas for free camping, many also require campers to pay a nominal fee that helps support maintenance of the area. Some campgrounds may also require a reservation, so confirm whether that’s the case before heading out on your trip.
Camping on private land is also prohibited, so just because a chunk of land looks wide open and free, it doesn’t mean that it actually is. Somebody (an individual, corporation, or government entity) may own that land, and they might not want you camping on it. If setting up camp near an ocean or lake sounds heavenly to you, try these 25 great spots for beach camping.
What to pack for your free camping trip
Since most free campgrounds are located in fairly remote areas, you may not find food, water, and first aid supplies, so you’ll want to bring all of that with you. If there’s a freshwater source, you can bring a water-filtration device; otherwise, you’ll need to bring any water you’ll need for drinking and washing. You’ll also need to bring toilet paper, a shovel, garbage bags, and containers to store food. Because most free campsites have no amenities, if you’d like to have camp chairs and a table, you’ll need to bring those with you, as well. It’s also a good idea to learn a few of these brilliant yet simple vintage camping hacks.
According to Benjamin Brosseau, director of communications for the Adirondack Mountain Club in Upstate New York, if you’ll be camping in an area that has bear activity, all food must be left in your car. If you’ll be camping away from your car, it’s essential to bring a bear canister to store your food. Note that in areas where bears are especially curious (like the Adirondacks, which is full of free campsites—and bears!), anything with a scent must be stored in the car or bear canister, including toiletries and personal-care items.
How to camp for free responsibly
Some free campsites, particularly those in backcountry wilderness areas, have restrictions regarding campfires, and some prohibit fires altogether. Many also specify how far a campsite must be from roads and water and whether or not pets are allowed.
Regardless of when, where, or how you plan your free camping trip, be prepared to leave nature as good as—or better than—it was when you found it. Collect all of your trash (and any trash another careless camper may have left behind) and take it out with you. If you plan to do any hiking, bring a small, resealable plastic bag with you for any trash you may accumulate along the hike, such as apple cores, granola bar wrappers, used toilet paper, and the like. Those are just a few of the things you need to keep in mind when visiting a national park or other campsite. Overall, remember: Following the rules is essential, and it helps protect the pristine status of natural spaces and the animals that inhabit them.
For more on where to go and what to see around the country, check out our Ultimate American Road Trip Guide.