How to Find Free Campsites & Campgrounds Near You

Rilor Staff
Update: August 12, 2022
Table of Contents

Established campsites have fees. And depending on where you want to camp, the amount that you are going to pay might be big.

Hence, it pays that you know how to find free campsites in the United States. It helps you save budget and experience convenience at the same time. Free camping also gives you opportunities to enjoy the scenery without having to deal with many people. 

Interestingly, you can try several ways to find these free camping sites. But it can get overwhelming at times. Read on so that you will be able to travel and explore places without spending a dime on campsite fees. 

Why Should You Search For Free Campsites In The United States?

As mentioned, many of the established campgrounds in the United States will charge people fees should they decide to camp within their territory. Of course, the rates aren't standard. Some are more expensive than others because of their location, amenities, and other provisions and services. 

Of course, being able to camp on these campgrounds is a great thing. After all, they may come with all the things that we need for our trip. It is an extra convenience that we are paying for here that counts. But if you have spent on other important things, then camping fees are the last thing that you want to deal with. 

How Do You Define Free Camping?

Before anything else, let us define first what free camping is. It is essential that we can establish a common understanding of this concept. 

Essentially, free camping is when you can camp without fees in your car, van, motorhome, RVs, and tents. So as long as you are not paying anything for the location, it can be considered free camping. 

In the United States, free camping can go on many terms. Here are some of them. 

  • Dispersed camping - This term is used by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the National Forest Service (NFS). Both of these agencies have a list of free camping sites that you can search on their website. There, you simply search for the term "dispersed camping," and you will find several areas where you can camp for free. It would be best if you could call the local rangers of the area to know more about dispersed camping. 
  • Backcountry camping - When you are doing a backcountry adventure, you tend to go to places that aren't subjected to local or state parks. You bring all your equipment and clothing to explore and settle in the wilderness. Most of the time, backcountry trips last for several days. However, people also prefer to pack light when doing this pursuit. 
  • Boondocking - Boondocking is downright synonymous with free camping. In fact, it can refer to the various forms of free camping. Furthermore, you can see many online camping forums using this term. 
  • Dry camping - Dry camping is just free camping, but without the reliance on electrical connections or water supply. That's where it got its name. 
  • Stealth camping - Stealth camping sounds cool. But it is a calculated, non-obtrusive way of going to a location without being detected. When doing stealth camping, people try their best to blend with their environment. 

What Benefits Can You Get From Free Camping?

Surely enough, many people think that free camping is just about saving money. You only do it because you don't want to spend on camping fees. While that notion is entirely true, free camping actually goes beyond that. 

There are other benefits that free camping can offer to you. They are the following:

  • You can enjoy solitude - Isolated areas are often the venue of free camping. Hence, it is a perfect choice for campers who want to avoid the crowd. Paid campgrounds tend to get crowded, especially during peak camping seasons. When boondocking, you won't have to deal with such a fuss. 
  • You don't have to deal with reservations - You should also try free camping if you don't like making online reservations. Most of the time, people are required to make reservations months before the day of their trip. It is a tough thing to do if you are to camp during the peak season, as you have to compete with other campers.
  • Added convenience - Free camping gives you the opportunity to camp anytime you want. There's no such thing as late arrivals or early departures. You are free to go anytime you want without the fear that you are going to miss a day on your reservations. It is also suitable for spontaneous camping. You don't have to follow any schedules. Free camping is also suitable for emergencies. For instance, if your tire gets flat, you can find a nearby destination where you can settle for the night. 

What Disadvantages Should You Expect In Free Camping?

Free camping has several benefits, which we discussed in the prior section. But at the same time, it is not all rainbows and roses. If you are going to proceed to a camping location that doesn't have any fees, there are several inconveniences that you could encounter. Among them are the things below: 

  • Underdeveloped areas - Needless to say, free campsites aren't developed because of the fact that they are free. Hence, you should expect that the ground isn't paved and that there are no amenities, such as electricity, water, bathroom, and the like. 
  • Bad road conditions - You should also anticipate that the road leading to these free destinations isn't developed. More or less, you will not stumble on any paved roads. In fact, some locations might even require you to do some hikes. Because of these possibilities, you need to make sure that your vehicle is rugged enough to tackle any road conditions. You may also want to check the weather. 
  • Poor cellular/internet services - It is also plausible that free campsites are in areas that are far from internet and cellular services. Your phone signal might become choppy. You should inform any trusted family member or friend about your trip. In this way, even if the signal gets lost, there are people who know where you are heading. 
  • Fire restrictions - Fire rings are among the most important amenities in established campsites. Unfortunately, these things aren't present on free campsites. Hence, it would be best if you first check the current fire restrictions within the area. If you are allowed to make campfires, make sure that you do it properly. 
  • Dump facilities - Of course, free campsites don't have facilities for your waste. Therefore, you should implement proper garbage and waste disposal. If possible, follow the Leave No Trace principles when doing this. 

How To Find Free Campsites In The United States?

Notably, there are various ways you can find free campsites in the United States. Let's discuss these methods below:

United States Forest Service (USFS)

One of the first destinations should be the United States Forest Service. This is an agency that is under the Department of Agriculture of America. It is one that supervises more than 190 million acres of land throughout the country. 

Interestingly, the United States Forest Service has a list of areas where you can do dispersed camping or free campsites. But at the same time, there are things that you need to mind before you head to these locations. You can check these regulations on the website of the agency. But the important ones are as follows:

  • There are no camping amenities available on these free campsites
  • The agency only allows dispersed camping for a maximum of 16 days
  • At the same time, it is imperative that you practice the Leave No Trace Principles
  • You can only camp in areas that have been designated for dispersed camping
  • There are fire rings that you can use for building campfires. You are not allowed to build a fire anywhere else. 

Bureau of Land Management (BLM)

Another method that you should try is going to the Bureau of Land Management. The latter is the one that manages public lands. This is different from the lands being managed by the United States Forest Service.

The lands supervised by the Bureau of Land Management are utilized for various applications, such as recreation, livestock, and energy production. They are also used for the preservation of cultural and natural resources. 

Some of these lands are turned into established campgrounds. Hence, you need to register and pay fees if you want to enter them. Fortunately, there are still areas where you can do dispersed camping. 

These campsites are mostly suitable for tent campers. However, there are areas where vehicles, such as RVs and motorhomes, are highly welcomed. Similar to the lands managed by the United States Forest Service, there are several rules that you need to follow on these free campsites offered by the Bureau of Land Management. Here are they: 

  • You can do dispersed camping on these free campsites for a maximum of 14 days. 
  • These dispersed campsites are situated alongside various secondary roads. Because of this, these areas aren't marked, making them difficult to locate. Hence, it is essential that you have a map to track the location of these areas. 
  • Proper waste disposal is essential. Here, it is imperative that you follow the waste disposal methods indicated by the Leave No Trace Principles.
  • For human waste, a cat hole is necessary. It should be deep and have a considerable distance from bodies of water. 
  • The Bureau of Land Management also recommends that campers should be prepared for the trip. After all, there are no amenities on these free campsites. A fire permit should be acquired in advance for areas that have no fire restrictions. 
  • If there's a body of water nearby, make sure that you pitch your tent 200 feet away.

Commercial Parking Lots

Business parking lots can become free campsites. Numerous establishments in the United States actually allow people to camp in their private parking spaces without any fee. But at the same time, you need to seek the permission of their managers first. 

Here are some businesses that may offer a free campsite to you:

  • Home improvement chains - Lowes and Home Depot are among the notable home improvement stores that allow people to do overnight parking or camping.
  • Casinos - Believe it or not, some casinos also offer free space for overnight camping or parking. Go to CasinoCamper to see where these camping-free casinos are located.
  • Camping World - The Camping World is a great destination for people who are searching for free campsites. They may even offer some amenities, such as water and electricity. 
  • Fitness facilities - Gyms and fitness centers like Anytime Fitness allow overnight parking. Because of this, you are also allowed to camp on them. But make sure that you are bonafide members of these facilities. In this way, you can enter their parking spaces and utilize their amenities. 

However, keep in mind that some states and cities have strict regulations when it comes to sleeping inside cars. Hence, it pays that you do your research first to see whether or not you can camp overnight on these commercial parking lots. 

Public Lands 

Going to public lands is an excellent idea if you are searching for free campsites. Many of these public lands in the United States may offer you designated locations where you camp without any fee. These public lands include the following:

  • State parks
  • County parks
  • City parks

But since these are public lands, some of them might require you to make reservations in advance. At the same time, others would require you to have some fees. At this point, you need to make sure that the location you want to camp is indeed free.

Where You Not Should Camp For Free?

While it is true that there are numerous places where you can camp without paying any fees, there are still places in the United States where you shouldn't venture for free camping. 

Essentially, free camping is banned on the premises and surrounding perimeters of the following areas:

  • Military bases
  • Power plants
  • Universities and school grounds
  • Parks with playgrounds
  • Airports
  • Private properties (unless you have permission from the owner)
  • Business parking lots that don't allow overnight parking
Other readings you may enjoy
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram