Finding free camping an adventure in of itself, with the reward of experiencing more raw terrain and fitting to a small budget as well. Believe it or not, you can find free camping in every state throughout the US. Your options will vary depending on your comfort level and camping style. The term free camping can mean different things depending on which websites you use and who you talk to.
In general, when searching online you will come across some common terms: boondocking, dry camping, dispersed camping, primitive camping, and ‘stealth camping’. These all sound the similar and people tend to use them interchangeably, but for our purposes we will break them down a bit.
The Types of Free Camping
Boondocking or Dispersed Camping
Boondocking and dispersed camping can be used interchangeably. They mean camping without hookups and often without bathroom amenities. Most times boondocking means staying in completely undeveloped public land. Occasionally you can find boondocking campsites with vault toilets or fire pits. Usually there are no officially labeled sites.
This term is commonly used to indicate that there are no amenities such as water or electricity at a campsite. Places like Wal-Mart or Cabellas sometimes allow dry camping in their parking lot and many National Forest areas of high traffic will have specific dry camping sites developed. Pay-for campgrounds commonly use this term for sites without electricity or site specific water.
Primitive or Backcountry Camping
Primitive camping blurs the line with dry camping a bit, but we find that it typically means tent-camping only. Usually you are walking in your gear away from your car to get to a fire pit and picnic table. If you come across a website that says, ‘primitive camping along trail X’ what this means is you are allowed to hike a tent in, stay for the night, and hike a tent out. Sometimes primitive camping is close enough to a parking spot that it’s a good option if you have a tent with you. Backcountry camping typically indicates more than a short walk. Usually it is synonymous with backpacking and is a adventure all of its own rather than just a place to crash.
If you are researching campgrounds, primitive camping can either mean no hookups available, or pack-in-pack-out your tent. You will have to call ahead of time to see if drive-in options are accessible.
Stealth camping refers to camping in populated areas that are not intended for sleeping in. It can be a legal gray area in that if someone is bothered by you, they can have the police ask you to leave. The idea is that if no one is aware of or bothered by you parking overnight then sleeping is fair game! This is a subject in itself that we will not cover in this article.
Dry Camping Sites
Bureau of Land Management (BLM)
BLM land is one of the best ways to camp if you are looking to have the place to yourself. The bureau of land management has over 400 sites that cover almost 250 million acres of land across the US. In most areas of BLM land you are allowed to camp freely anywhere you decide to park your car. Do not expect to find any amenities, fire rings, bathrooms or water. Camping in BLM land has the potential to really put you in the middle of nowhere, so know your limits and be sure to bring extra supplies. Rough roads are common in these parts.
That being said, you get the chance to really spread out. BLM land can range from being nearby a city or miles from anyone. As always remember to pack it in and pack it out. This is especially true on BLM lands as you will not find any waste receptacles. Although BLM lands have very few regulations, there are a few including length of stay limits. Typically you are not allowed to camp in the same area for more than 14 days in a row. You can find regulations and locations of BLM land on the blm.gov website. The favorite BLM camping that we have found is in the Bisiti Bandlands of northern New Mexico. We highly recommend checking it out if you get the chance!
Many National Forests allow dispersed camping. You will have to check with each National Forest individually online as they all have their own rules and regulations. Some will require a permit, but it is especially common for states in the western US to allow you to camp here for free. Most have a 14 day stay limit per site and have variations on rules like not camping too close to lakes or roads. When we are traveling in the west this is one of our favorite ways to camp.
The availability to camp in state forests varies wildly. Some states, such as Pennsylvania, have similar regulations as National Forests, meaning there is quite a bit of available camping. Permits may be required in certain areas; however, they can often be obtained either for free or at a very low cost. It all depends on the state. Some of the nicest campsites we have been to were free permit sites in state forests.
Army Corps of Engineers
You may have heard of the Army Corps of Engineers as they are responsible for building dams and controlling rivers among other things. As part of this public service, they also offer free camping at many of their locations. You can check out the full list of campsites. These campsites range from primitive, to offering amenities like picnic tables, restrooms and even showers. They are generally well maintained and a great place to stay on your road trip.
Wildlife Management Areas
A number of wildlife management areas offer free camping. As with any area, rules and regulations are going to differ dramatically depending on the location. It will be necessary to research each place before planning to spend the night. We have had success staying at many wildlife management areas and this can be a great way to travel.
Alright, this is only going to be free if you have a Interagency Annual Access pass. But believe it or not, some US National Parks have free camping on-site. A few that we’ve come across are the famous Badlands National Park in South Dakota, New River Gorge in West Virginia and something. Check each National Park website before visiting. Oftentimes these sites will come with free vault toilets. You may need to check-in with the park office first. This is the best way to get up close with the park and stay nearby!
Free Camping Resources
Free campsites are abundant if you know where to look. Some states are going to be more difficult than others (I’m looking at you Ohio!). But it is possible to find some form of free camping in every state. Here are our top resources for finding free camping:
Freecampsites.net is our go-to website for free camping. All types kinds of camping are listed here including dry, primitive, and stealth camping. The site looks dated, does not have an app and is not mobile friendly. However, this is the most comprehensive list of free campsites that we have found. Free-campsites.net content is completely user-submitted.
Being that anyone can submit content, it includes many gems and many duds. Fortunately there is a comment for each location for you to determine if it is going to be a suitable place for you to stay. If it’s late and you just need a parking spot for the night you might be less picky than if you’re looking for a home base for a week. If you want to be completely sure that a campsite is valid, pick a place that has multiple recent reviews.
This resource is similar to Freecampsites.net. In most cases it’s not quite as populated with options, but it does have unique spots and has a big benefit of partially working offline with the app. You won’t get photos, but it saves the locations in an offline mode which is something that freecampsites.net doesn’t do. These first two options pair really well together to have a large quiver of options to chose from.
App: US Public Lands (Android and iPhone)
This app is great for finding your own campsites. It is a simple but effective color-coded map of all of the different types of public lands. It is especially useful for the western states because there is so much BLM, National Forest, and WMA areas.
It has a built in satellite terrain view along with a standard one. Our process for using this app is to locate a general area where we would like to stay for the night. Then we look for BLM or National Forest colored areas because these usually have the fewest camping restrictions. Then, using the sattelite view, we will zoom in and trace dirt roads along until we see a clearing that looks like a van will fit.
This takes some experimenting. BLM land is commonly used for grazing livestock and small areas can be privately owned (usually they will be marked or fenced off). Sometimes a train will be parked on the entrance road you were planning on using. Surprisingly often we find campfire rings in areas that aren’t marked on any of the campsite resources.
RVcamping.org is an excellent resource for finding state specific information on BLM land, state and national forests as well as general free campsites. Not all of the camping listed on this website are free, but there is a ton of information allowing you to sort through the main information. It also goes into a lot of detail about each area including facilities and amenities, trail maps, and weather.
Campendium.com allows you to search for free camping by state. This has slightly fewer locations than freecampsites.net however they are a little more vetted. The campsites listed here come with images, reviews and plenty of information to help you decide where to stay.
Allstays.com has both free and paid campsites sorted by state and also comes as an app for iOS. Not only does it list campgrounds with reviews, but it also marks out parks, public lands, KOAs and casinos. It does not have the most user friendly interface in our opinion, but it does do a good job of listing sites.
Couchsurfing.com is a website that lets you find a host willing to spend the night on their ‘couch’ for free. This is a volunteer community with the idea being that you will volunteer your couch to someone in the future. We have had success on couchsurfing.com finding people willing to lend us a driveway for the night. This is a fun way to meet new people, learn about the area, and chances are you’ll probably get a free shower out of it as well.
Similar to couchsufring.com, boondockerswelcome.com is a directory of people willing to let you park overnight on their property. This site does charge a small fee to belong, but if you get three good reviews they will waive the yearly cost. This can be a fun way to meet new people and pay it forward in the future.
Hipcamp.com is a newer website that acts kind of like an Airbnb for campers. It allows you to stay on someone’s property for a low price. If you search for a location and play with the filters however, you can find free campsites listed. Simply click the pricing option, select ‘Under $25’ and search. This is a community driven website and many members have listed free campsites they have used successfully.
City Camping Sites
As stated earlier, stealth camping generally refers to overnight parking in a way that no one knows you are there. These city locations would not be considered stealth camping by definition.
These parking lots are not going to feel like you’re living in nature, and no you can’t build a fire. Expect some noise, and lots of lighting (this can be a good thing). However, if you find yourself somewhere with no forest nearby, these places can be just the spot for you. In any of these locations we highly recommend speaking with the appropriate management first. Not all locations of the sites listed are open to free overnight parking. Better to be safe than sorry!
Most Walmart locations will allow free overnight parking in their parking lot. This makes for one of the best last-minute sleeping opportunities. Many Walmarts are open 24/7 as well so you will have free bathrooms and shopping items at your fingertips. Be aware that not all Walmarts offer this. We highly suggest going inside and asking the store manager if it is OK to spend the night first. In a few locations it is illegal to park there overnight so to avoid any late-night run-ins with security be sure to check ahead.
Many Cabella’s stores work the same as Walmart, although usually catering to more of the RV and trucker crowd. They sometimes have a separate parking location behind the store! Frequently they will have a security guard on location. Be aware that Cabella’s is not open overnight so you will have to find somewhere else to use the restroom. We have successfully stayed the night at Cabella’s and the experience is about what you would expect from any parking lot. If you do not see a sign indicating truck or RV parking, be sure to check with the store first. In fact, it’s best to do this regardless.
Numerous cracker barrel restaurants have free overnight camping in their parking lots. These are very abundant in the eastern two-thirds of the US. Overnight cracker barrel parking spaces are generally in the back and marked with a sign indicating they are for buses and RVs. Speak with the manager before pulling into these as some people have reported the manager wanting smaller vans to move to other parts of the lot overnight, or keeping certain sections open for early deliveries. Nonetheless, this is a safe place to stay overnight.
Often home depot stores will allow you to spend the night in their parking lot. This is also a great place to do some quick fixes on your vehicle. Be sure to speak with management ahead of time as this is not offered at all locations.
Casinos can be a great place to spend the night because they are often open all night to use the bathroom, have cheap food and you can even have some fun. Not every casino is going to be open to overnight parking so be sure to check inside first. If you want to get an idea of what is available, here is a list of proven RV friendly casinos.
Truck Stops & Rest Areas
This is a controversial one as some truckers will tell you overnight parking is reserved for the workforce only. You don’t want to get in the way of someone working, or leave them with nowhere to park. Sometimes law enforcement will prevent anyone who is not a trucker from staying overnight at a rest stop. That being said, we have come across a few rest stops that do have free overnight parking or camping. These are generally the larger ones and sometimes have picnic tables or pavilions as well. It will be up to you to assess each rest stop and determine if it is a legal option or not.
Camping that is fun, but not free.
This one is not free, but I found it while researching and it did sound pretty fun! Harvesthosts.com allows you to pay a yearly fee of $44 and park overnight at one of over 570 wineries, breweries, distilleries or farms. Founded by a couple of travel lovers, Kim and Don Greene have found a way to bring the RV community together by allowing hosts to join and offer up parking spots at their sites. Harvest hosts does require a ‘self-contained’ vehicle, so do not expect to find bathrooms or hookups. No tent camping is allowed, and be courteous to the property owners. If you are not in an RV, be sure to check ahead and make sure your vehicle is welcome.
Give it a shot! The first time is the hardest.
Camping in ways you’re not used to is usually more intimidating than it needs to be. Usually people expect to be nervous, but it only takes a few times before it becomes second nature. If you’ve come across more free camping we’d love to hear it and add to the list!