Camping trips tend to be more budget-friendly than typical vacations, but their costs can still add up. Depending on where you camp, the nightly rate for a campsite can range from $10-$80. Then you need to add the cost of gear, fuel, and supplies. But there’s an easy way to save on those costs: Find a free campsite. Sound too good to be true? Read on for our comprehensive guide to free camping in the USA.
What Is Free Camping?
Free camping is exactly what it sounds like: camping in a location that doesn’t charge a nightly rate. Here are some common types of camping:
Car camping: This is the most common and popular type of camping—and the only type that’s usually not free. When car camping, you typically stay in a campground with amenities and are able to park your vehicle next to or near your campsite. (Don’t be confused by the name. “Car camping” doesn’t mean you sleep in your car—though you could. People who go car camping usually sleep in a tent or a trailer.) Most campgrounds at national and state parks are designed for car camping. Car camping is rarely free but there are some exceptions.
Overlanding: Overlanding is a type of camping that often involves traveling 4WD roads and setting up camp wherever it’s convenient. It can be a great way to reach remote wilderness areas without having to hike or haul your gear. When overlanding, you can bring along a tent or modify your vehicle to be your home on wheels. Overlanding often involves dispersed camping.
Boondocking: Boondocking refers to camping in an RV in a location where sewer, water, and electric hook-ups are not available.
Backcountry camping: If you like camping in wilderness or remote areas, backcountry camping is for you. You’ll usually have to hike or paddle to reach backcountry campsites because they’re not accessible by roads. (You’ll also have to carry all your gear with you.) Depending on the location, there may be specific campsites or simply a designated area where you’re allowed to camp. There are no amenities at backcountry campsites and you’ll usually have to obtain a permit beforehand. Sometimes it’s free and sometimes there’s a fee.
Dispersed camping: Dispersed camping is a type of camping that’s done outside of a campground and within a designated area. National forests and BLM (Bureau of Land Management) lands will often have areas where camping is allowed but there isn’t a campground or amenities. With dispersed camping, you camp at sites or use pull-outs where people have previously camped to reduce impact on the environment. (For instance, if there’s clearly a spot where a previous camper had a campfire, you should use the same location for your fire. And you should never cut down trees or vegetation to create a new campsite.)
Where to Camp for Free
The United States has a lot of publicly owned land that’s managed by various federal and state agencies. Not all have camping opportunities (such as federally managed wildlife refuges) but many do. Camping rules and regulations vary by location, so research your specific destination before you go. Some of these public lands may have fees but there are plenty of free opportunities too.
National forests are publicly owned forested lands that are managed by the federal government. There are 155 national forests in the U.S. National forests tend to have fewer restrictions regarding their use than national parks. (For instance, national parks don’t allow hunting, but national forests do.) The National Park Service website offers a more detailed explanation of the difference between the two.
National forests are great places to find free dispersed camping—but it depends on the forest. Visit the U.S. Forest Service to find information on a specific forest.
State forests are also publicly owned forested lands, but as the name implies, they’re managed by the state rather than the federal government. Many state forests have areas for dispersed camping and sometimes they also have backcountry sites. Check with your state’s DNR (or the state you’re camping in) for more information.
There are 20 national grasslands in the U.S., covering 4 million acres of prairie and most (if not all) allow dispersed camping. Visit the national grasslands website for information about specific grasslands.
National Seashores & National Lakeshores
If you’re looking for a campsite near the water, you might want to visit a national lakeshore or national seashore. There are 10 national seashores along the U.S. coasts and 3 national lakeshores in the Great Lakes region. Find information on national seashores and lakeshores at the National Park Service website.
BLM lands refer to public lands that are managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The U.S. has 250 million acres of BLM lands and most are in the western part of the country. Look for dispersed camping opportunities using this Bureau of Land Management map.
Sometimes property owners (particularly people who own farms or other businesses) will allow campers to stay on their land for free. If you’re camping in an RV, check out Boondockers Welcome to find hosts that allow RVers to camp on their property.
Tips for Free Camping USA
Here are some common issues to consider when free camping.
Fires & Cooking
Don’t depend on a campfire for cooking. Bring along a gas camp stove instead. Many remote or backcountry sites don’t allow fires, especially in the wildfire-prone western U.S.
Whether you’re backcountry camping or dispersed camping, you’ll have to provide your own water. Make sure to bring water containers with enough water to last the whole trip. It’s also a good idea to bring a water filtering system in case of emergencies. (Never drink unfiltered water from a lake or stream. You’re very likely to get sick.)
Most free camping areas don’t have amenities like toilets—which is one of the reasons they’re often free. Follow REI’s tips for how to go to the bathroom in the woods or bring along a DIY camping toilet.
There also won’t be showering facilities. A backpacking shower is a good alternative. Bathing in lakes or rivers isn’t encouraged but if you do, make sure to use biodegradable soap and shampoo so you don’t pollute the water.
Free campsites require you to use the “pack in, pack out” method of trash removal. In most cases, you’ll have to bring all your trash home with you in order to dispose of it. Make sure you pack trash bags for this purpose.
If you plan to camp for free in an RV, you likely won’t have access to sewer, water, and electric hook-ups, so plan accordingly.
Leave No Trace
Camping for free in a pristine or remote area can be an adventure. But keep in mind that these locations depend on campers to keep them clean and undisturbed. Please do your part to keep free camping in the USA possible. Federal agencies like the National Forest Service usually ask campers to follow the Leave No Trace principles when camping on public lands:
- Plan ahead and prepare.
- Travel and camp on durable surfaces.
- Dispose of waste properly.
- Leave what you find.
- Minimize campfire impacts.
- Respect wildlife.
- Be considerate of others.
Ready to hit the trail or paddle to your next (free) campsite? Check out our advice for planning a kayak/canoe camping trip or how to choose a hiking boot.