One of the most frustrating experiences I’ve had while planning a trip was trying to find a place to go camping for free. I’m not kidding! The government-owned websites do not help. They’re often so vague that it’s not clear if the campsite is actually open or if there’s a fee to camp there. By the end of your research, I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re confused as to whether or not there’s even a campsite in that location! Hopefully this post will help. This is everything I know about how to find a free campsite.
If you’re coming to this post after searching the internet and getting confused as heck, I feel you. I’ve been there. Austin and I tried to find a place where we could go winter camping for free this past winter and the task was not easy – especially because we were going in off season. We saw statements like “this campsite will be closed when the roads are no longer plowed” and “this campsite may charge a fee if amenities are running, but if not, it’ll be free”.
For an avid planner like me, those statements are so frustrating! How am I supposed to know when the roads are no longer being plowed or if the amentities will still be on in certain areas?
–> Read more: Everything You Need to Know About Winter Camping <–
We ended up winging it (my least favorite thing to do). We drove to a campsite in the Bridger-Teton National Forest which ended up being closed. However, we knew that most areas in National Forests are fair game to camp for free. So, we knew there would be backup options.
Let’s start by talking about what kind of land you can camp on for free.
Where to Find Free Camping
Camping on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) Land
BLM land is generally located in Western US. The states with BLM land are Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. This is government-owned land that you can camp on unless there’s a sign saying you can’t. That’s true of most of the areas mentioned here – if there’s a “no camping” sign, just don’t camp there!
Now, within BLM land, there are some campgrounds which do typically require a fee to stay. However, dispersed camping on BLM land is free. If campgrounds are more your style, some of them even take reservations!
Pretty much any land that isn’t an established campsite and doesn’t have a “no camping” sign is fair game for dispersed camping. The main rule is just that you can’t stay for more than 14 days in a 28-day period. That said, after 14 days, if you really want to camp more, you can move 25 miles away from your original campsite and camp for free for 14 more days!
Free Camping in National Forests
National Forests are also public lands that are protected and maintained by the US government. Finding free campsites in National Forests is very similar to BLM land. As long as there’s no “no camping” signs around, it’s generally safe to assume it’s fair game. Just like BLM land, there are campgrounds within National Forests that may charge a fee. However, dispersed camping (usually 100-200ft from a road) is free!
Austin and I have camped in two National Forests now – the Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming and the Gallatin National Forest in Montana. Both times, we simply drove around and found a place to camp. Luckily, both places we landed on had fire rings and we could tell that someone had camped there before. If you’re not into “just driving around” to find a spot, I got you! I have a section below about tools and apps that will help you find a good spot or at least an area to look for before you go!
–> Read More: Everything You Need to Know About Truck Camping <–
Camping in National Parks
I hesitated adding this section because camping in National Parks is rarely free, but it can be cheap. Most of the time, campgrounds in National Parks fill up very quickly. However, if you want to try dispersed or backcountry camping, you can get a relatively inexpensive backcountry permit to do so.
I suggest looking at the official website for the specific National Park you’re going to to see how to obtain these permits. Oftentimes, you can just get them from the Park Ranger office on the day you arrive, but some parks require you to apply ahead of time.
Walmart Parking Lots
Of course, Walmart parking lots are always a backup if you’re desparate for a place to sleep for the night. Typically, they won’t allow you to pitch a tent in their parking lot. However, you can sleep in your car or park your RV for the night.
It’s also important to note that not all Walmarts allow this. I’ve found that Walmarts near big attractions or big tourist areas don’t allow camping. I assume this is because people tend to take advantage of it.
Camp Addict has a great article about how to be safe and legal camping in a Walmart parking lot!
How to Choose a Free Campsite
Most of the agencies that handle the public lands mentioned above will recommend choosing a campsite that looks like it has already been camped on. Some of these will have fire rings or the remains of a fire. You’ll also notice matted down grass. Choosing a site that has already been used helps preserve the rest of the area so these lands will remain beautiful for years to come!
Tools and Apps to Help Find Free Camping Land
Governement Maintained Maps
You might be thinking “great, now I know I can go camping for free on BLM land and in National Forests, but where exactly is that land?” There are quite a few resources on the governement websites for both of these. This BLM Map will give you the general outline of BLM land and recreation sites.
Likewise, this map is great for outlining exactly where the National Forests are. It’ll also give you exact spots where you can camp. These are likely all campgrounds that charge a fee. However, you can go camping for free in any other spot within the National Forrest (as long as it doesn’t say “no camping”).
The government-maintained maps are great for planning stages at home with a good wi-fi connection. However, what happens when you’re already on your way and you don’t have service? That’s where apps like The Dyrt can be super helpful. They also have maps of BLM land and National Forests, but they can be downloaded and used offline with their premium membership.
There are other apps like this out there, but the Dyrt has been very helpful in helping us learn how find a free campsite both with their maps and with their blog!
When’s your next camping adventure?
I really hope this post helped clear up some of the confustion about how to find a free campsite in the US! I wish I had a resource like this when we were first starting to camp, so I was more than happy to put everything I know into this post. Where are you planning to camp next? Let me know in the comments below!