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The Complete Guide To Free Camping In The US

Free camping might sound too good to be true, right? But guess what? It’s not all a fantasy! Did you know that 28% of land in the US is federally owned and free to camp on? Yes, completely free!

It’s a fantastic option if you’re looking to save some cash on your next adventure. But before you go hunting for the nearest free camping spot, it’s important to know what you’re getting into. The key to making your free camping experience just as good, if not better, than those at traditional sites is to plan ahead and be prepared. We’ve put together a comprehensive guide to help you get ready for free camping across the United States.

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Why Free Camping?

If you’ve always paid for camping but want to try something new, consider free camping for these four reasons:

  1. Cost Savings: Free camping saves you money compared to expensive paid campgrounds, which can charge upwards of $80/night. This allows you to spend more on other travel expenses like food and activities.
  2. Solitude: Free camping areas are often quiet and less crowded than paid campgrounds, offering a peaceful experience with plenty of space between you and other campers.
  3. Adventure: Free camping areas are more adventurous, often remote or requiring 4-wheel drive. They lack amenities like toilets and hook-ups, but offer unique experiences like stargazing and hiking in untouched areas.
  4. Flexibility: Free campsites are perfect for spontaneous trips, as you don’t need reservations and can often find a spot even at the last minute. They’re ideal for free-spirited campers looking to escape crowded campgrounds.

Do Your Research

When you’re heading out into the unknown it is always best to be prepared. Especially when it comes to free campsites. It pays to do some research, know what you are getting into and prepare for what you may need.

Apps and Websites to Find the Best Free Camping

There are numerous websites and applications you can use to find free campsites all over the country and in Canada. They will give you options such as location, amenities (if any), the type of area, and whether the site needs to be tent or RV friendly.

  • Google Earth (Free): This app and website are available on any device you use. Pull it up from your computer, iPhone, or Android and start searching. It is the most comprehensive database of… well basically everything.
  • The downside is you can’t search directly for campsites. However, you can identify areas where you know it is free to camp. National forests and grasslands, as well as other types of public land, are marked clearly by green areas on Google maps. If you aren’t afraid of a little screen time and some research, this could be a great option.
  • This is for all the men and women who put their lives on the line and make unrelenting sacrifices for this country and its people. Tents for Troops is a program where campgrounds and RV parks around the country offer a minimum of 2 free nights to all our service members. Their website is easy to navigate and you can find great options for a getaway with family and friends.
  • Campendium is another useful resource to find free campsites all over the country. It has an incredibly easy search option and plenty of filters to narrow down exactly what you are looking for. Plus they offer thumbnail pictures in the display so you can get an idea of the type of area you are looking at. And the reviews from other users are very helpful when you’re looking for more details.
  • (free): This is a barebones, user-friendly website. You add your filters like “free camping” or “RV camping” and then you move the map around until you find an area you are interested in. There isn’t always a lot of detailed info or pictures of the camping areas on their site. It looks a little old-school but couldn’t be simpler. And great when you need a campsite last minute.
  • US Forest Service Website and the National Forest Campground Guide: Both of these websites are excellent sources for finding out about national forests and public lands and researching the campground options there. It is as easy as choosing your state and browsing the forest that you are interested in. Both give ample information to get you started.
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Types of Free Camping Areas

There are a variety of places that you can camp for free. They are owned by a number of different entities, have wildly different environments, and exist almost everywhere in the country. Let’s take a look at a few types of free camping areas that you’ll come across as you start looking for the best place for your next trip.

National Forests

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National forests are federally owned public lands managed by the USDA National Forest Service for various purposes like lumber, grazing, minerals, and recreation. Unlike national parks, which are preserved primarily for conservation, national forests are more for public use. While they offer stunning scenery similar to national parks, they are often less crowded and lack amenities. Camping in a national forest usually means dispersed camping without amenities like water or restrooms, offering a more primitive and adventurous experience. Rules can vary, so it’s wise to check with the specific forest’s ranger station or do some online research before your trip.

Here are a few general rules you will need to follow in most national forests:

  • Pack In/Out – Garbage cans likely won’t be offered. Make sure to bring everything you need and take everything back out with you when you leave.
  • Marked Areas – Certain areas may be designated for dispersed camping. Others may be marked to keep campers out of delicate ecological or hazardous areas. Make sure to follow the signs as they are posted.
  • Stay Limits – Most forests have limits on the number of days you can stay in one site. They will often encourage campers who want to stay longer to move a certain mileage from their original campsite. You can find these limits on the forest’s website.
  • People Limits – Forests often restrict the number of people you can have at a campsite or occasionally require a permit for a large group (usually over 75 people).
  • Fire – Fires may be limited or prohibited. Check to see if there are current local fire bans and if the forest allows dispersed camping fires. Usually, they encourage you to use available fire rings or spaces where previous campers have had fires. Check with the local ranger’s office to see if fire permits are required.
  • Firewood – Never cut down existing trees or foliage. If allowed, use downed trees and other resources like pine cones for your backcountry fire.
  • Pets – Unlike national parks, national forests often allow pets to join you on your camping trip. Check to see if there are limitations for where they can go in the forest area.
  • Sanitation – Follow the guidelines on the forest website to dispose of human waste and gray water. Always make sure you are far away from water sources so you do not risk contaminating them.
  • Parking – Make sure to follow the signs and postings to find the designated parking areas. Sometimes you can find a pull-off along a service road or in a secluded area not too far from where you plan to set up camp.

If you have any questions the rangers at national forests are the most knowledgeable folks on the subject. Give them a ring before you go so you are sure you are prepared.

National Grasslands

The 20 national grasslands, spanning from North Dakota to Texas east of the Rockies, cover 4 million acres of flat open prairie lands managed by the US Forest Service. These areas boast diverse ecology and rich history, home to animals like bison and prairie dogs, and offering fossil exploration opportunities. As publicly owned lands, camping is free, but it’s advisable to check the US Forest Service website or contact a ranger for camping details.

Bureau of Land Management (BLM)

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The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), part of the Department of the Interior, oversees nearly 250 million acres of land, primarily in the western US, for preservation. While much of it is used for ranching, there are vast areas available for free camping, offering the chance to see wild horses and burros. Use their interactive map to find suitable camping spots. Note that not all BLM campsites are free; some may charge a fee for established areas, so look for dispersed camping if you prefer not to pay.

  • Stay Limit – There is a 14-day stay limit. After 14 days campers are required to move at least 25 miles from their original campsite if they wish to stay longer. And you are not allowed to return to that area for 28 days.
  • Existing Sites – They ask that you choose sites and fire rings that have already been established to minimize the impact on the environment.
  • Water Sources – It is required that you camp at least 200 feet away from any water sources.
  • Human Waste – Dispose of human waste according to best practices: away from water and in a hole 6-8″ or deeper.

Once you choose the BLM area you want to stay at, give their office a call to check on fire bans and other local information before you head out. Especially check to see if there are local fire bans or if you will need a fire permit since many of the BLM lands are in areas that are at higher risk for forest/brush fires.

State Forests

State forests, owned and managed by individual states, differ from state parks which offer amenities and charge fees. State forests lack amenities, are often unstaffed, and are primarily untouched. They may be used for resources like timber and minerals. While finding state forests with free camping can be challenging, many offer dispersed camping similar to national forests. Rules for dispersed camping are usually similar to national forests or stricter. Some state forests, like those along the Appalachian Trail, allow free camping within 200 feet of the trail for backpackers.

Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs)

Wildlife Management Areas are tracts of land set aside for the conservation of wildlife, preservation of local habitats, and for related recreational activities like hunting and fishing. WMAs can be owned and managed by national, state or local authorities.

Every WMA’s rules are different when it comes to dispersed or primitive camping on the land. Do some online research or call the local office to speak to someone about the rules and if fees apply. Sometimes they will not charge fees for camping but will require that you purchase a season permit to use the area, whether that is for dispersed camping or hunting and fishing.

Private Properties

Private properties, ranging from local farms to big box stores, can offer camping opportunities for RVs and campers. connects RVers with hosts who allow free stays on their property, similar to couch surfing. offers RVers access to hosts like wineries and farms for overnight stays after a minimal yearly membership fee. While traveling, truck stops and big box store parking lots, like Walmart, can also be options for free overnight camping, but always check with local management beforehand.

Important Considerations

Be Prepared and Plan Ahead

  • Bring a map so you don’t need to mark the area to find your way.
  • Know the special ecological concerns of the area you will be traveling in.
  • Travel in a small group when possible to reduce impact.
  • Minimize waste as much as possible.

Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

  • Walk where others have walked before and stay in single file
  • Keep campsites small
    • Avoid areas where you can see human impact just beginning
  • Always camp at least 200 feet from lakes and streams

Dispose of Waste Properly

  • Always pack in and pack out
  • Human waste should be buried 6-8 inches deep in a cat hole at least 200 feet from any water source
  • Pack out toilet paper and hygiene products
  • Use biodegradable soaps and wash at least 200 feet from water sources

Leave What You Find

  • Avoid bringing non-native species to the area by firewood and other sources
  • Leave natural objects where/as you find them
  • Do not build structures or dig trenches

Minimize Campfire Impacts

  • Use established fire rings
  • Bring a small burner stove to cook on
  • Keep fires small and burn all wood and coal to ash

Respect Wildlife

  • Observe wildlife from a distance
  • Never feed wild animals
  • Store trash and food securely

Be Considerate of Other Visitors

  • Camp away from trails other visitors
  • Be courteous
  • Avoid loud noises and let nature’s sounds prevail

For more information on what you can do to minimize you and your group’s environmental impact while camping visit the Leave No Trace website.

Best Free Camping Areas By Region

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Find the right free camping area for you can be a daunting task when you are just starting out. To get you started, we’ve got a list of the best established free camping sites in your region. Unfortunately, areas like the northeast, southeast, and midwest do not offer as many options as the western portion of the country.


  • Gale River Loop Road, in White Mountain National Forest – A great way to stay for free and visit the White Mountains.  Campsites are in a lush wood forest. There are no facilities and no cell service in this area.
  • Laurel Run Road, in Delaware State Forest, PA – This area offers spacious, quiet campsites close to a number of ponds, rivers, and streams for fishing. It also boasts picnic tables, fire pits, and a local swimming hole if you can find it.
  • Alleghany National Forest, near Erie, PA – This lush deciduous forest in Pennsylvania’s only national forest offers beautiful views rolling hills and shimmering lakes and streams. If you’re up for a little hike in, try the Alleghany Islands Wilderness where you can dispersed camp on 7 islands
  • Green Mountain National Forest, southwestern, VT – This New England/Acadian forest has spectacular foliage in the autumn and plenty of opportunities to view wildlife throughout the year. Expect to see lots of granite escarpments and crystal clear lakes from designated dispersed camping areas.


  • Bayside Campground, near Pensacola, FL – The campground has space for both tent campers and RVs. It is located right on the water. Permits and reservations are usually required.
  • Magazine Branch Lake Access, in Nantahala National Forest, NC – Gorgeous mountain and lakeside landscapes. The sites all have grills and fire pits and are very quiet and well maintained. Cell phone service may give you trouble.
  • Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest, near Alpharetta, GA – Home to the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail and is a great place for history buffs. This forest offers designated dispersed camping areas, so be sure to check their website.
  • Monongahela National Forest, near the border of VA and WV – This forest has views that rival the vistas of the American West. Take the Highland Scenic Highway on the way to your dispersed site to see the sweeping hills across the area.


  • French Farm Lake, near Mackinaw City, MI – Explore the city and stay in a semi-private campground with fire rings and a lake for fishing.
  • Nomad View Dispersed, in Buffalo Gap National Grassland, SD – This grassland camping area is located adjacent to Badlands National Park. You can park right on the canyon rim and see breathtaking views in all directions. Be careful, this area is notoriously windy.
  • Shawnee National Forest, in southern IL – This is the only national forest in Illinois and offers countless recreational activities. It is filled with interesting historic sites, canyons, natural bridges and clear rocky streams. While there you have to see the Garden of the Gods that features ancient sandstone cliffs and rock formations.


  • Forest Road 248, near Grand Canyon National Park, AZ – This campsite is great for both rigs and tent campers. It offers a nice dry area with good cell service and is located near the north rim of the Grand Canyon. Look for great views from nearby Point Sublime.
  • Walnut Canyon, near Flagstaff, AZ – Beautiful views of San Francisco peaks and close to the national monument. Plenty of great RV sites.
  • Volcanic Tablelands, near Death Valley National Park, CA – Good for tent campers and smaller rigs. Beautiful, expansive, snow-capped mountain views.
  • Whirlpool Dispersed Camping Area, near Abiquiu, NM – Located directly on the Rio Chama, offers gorgeous views of this untouched landscape. Good for tents and RVs but watch out for mud during rainy times.
  • Boca Chica Beach, near Brownsville, TX – Why not camp on the beach in Texas. There are not many free beach camping areas left. Here you can drive right onto the beach and it is quiet and private. There are no services or amenities at these sites.
  • Valley of the Gods, near Mexican Hat, UT – If the name doesn’t entice you the formations and landscapes will. True to Utah’s red rocks this area is breathtaking. Truly secluded and off the beaten path. It has decent cell service and easy access.
  • Arapaho National Forest, near Denver, CO – If you’re looking to explore the high Rockies this is a great area to dispersed camp for free. It is managed in conjunction with other national forests and grasslands. It is home to the highest paved road in North America reaching 14,625 feet up Mount Evans.


  • Castle Lake Campground, near Mount Shasta, CA – Great for both tents and RVs. Only 5 sites that are first come first serve, but offer incredible views of the local landscape.
  • Lake Creek Road, in Sawtooth National Forest, ID – Gorgeous views, lots of wildlife and incredibly easy access. This site is great for tenters and RVs and has excellent cell service.
  • Saddlecreek Campground, in Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, OR- This site is walk-in, but the stunning mountain views make it worth it. You’ll get great cell service here. Keep an eye out for the mountain goat herds.
  • Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, near Seattle, WA – This spectacularly untouched area is perfect for hikers and dispersed campers. The snow-capped mountain scenery and crystal clear lakes can be viewed from a number of hiking trails, including part of the Pacific Crest Trail.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do they allow RV or tent camping?

Probably the most important question is whether your preferred type of camping is permitted in that area. If you can’t bring your RV to a campsite when you are on an RV road trip, it kind of defeats the purpose.

Is there potable water? 

Not “portable” water, “potable” water. Potable water is a fancy term for water that is safe to drink. And you’ll want to know if you need to bring your own. Some of the most beautiful free camping options in the country are rustic enough that they have no water options. Everything has to be carried in.

What are the terrain, flora, and fauna like?

It’s important to know if the area is not suited for a tent because it is a steep slope or rocky terrain. It’s just as important to know if there will be shade for you to escape hot summer sun. And if you will need to worry about critters like bears and coyotes.

Do you need to hike in?

Not all free camping areas allow you to drive your car right up to the site where you will be staying. Many require you to hike in away from a general parking area.

What are the available amenities?

Some free camping areas offer fire rings, picnic tables, even toilets. Others offer nothing but fresh air. It’s good to have an idea of what you will need to bring along with you and what will already be supplied.

Are there any restrictions?

It’s good to know if you will need a fire permit ahead of time or if only 4WD cars will be able to make it down the access road. If you are planning to camp in a big box store parking lot, it is a good idea to call the manager ahead and make sure that the store in that city allows camping.

Does it get crowded?

Although a lot of dispersed camping areas are empty, some can actually get crowded, especially during certain seasons (like hunting).

If you are camping on public lands, its a great idea to give a ranger a call ahead of time. They can often give you up-to-date information on the area like flooding, fire bans, and crowding.

Time to Go Free Camping!

As long as you are prepared, do your research and plan ahead, free camping is no more difficult than the paid variety. And once you’ve stepped off that beaten path, we bet you won’t be going back anytime soon.


Sunday 7th of February 2021

This was one of the most detailed and helpful articles I’ve come across yet! Thank you for taking the time to put this together!


Monday 24th of August 2020

I'm confused about federal lands being free to camp in. Almost everywhere I've been, there are signs saying the places are only open from dawn to dusk.

Jake Walnut

Tuesday 25th of August 2020

Hi Kate - What are some of the places you've been with these signs? Almost all BLM land and National Forests are open for free camping, especially to dispersed camping in undeveloped areas, although sometimes free developed (albeit primitive) campsites are available.

Arne from Norway

Wednesday 15th of January 2020

Whenever I am out in nature, I feel that I HAVE TO be away from other people. I agree about what you mention about "neighbors" though: they can be super annoying, especially the ones who want to "borrow something from you".

I will go to the US for the first time in April and will be doing some hiking and potentially also free camping in Utah. Your website is bookmarked! ;)

Jake Walnut

Wednesday 15th of January 2020

Utah is one of the best places in the US for free camping. Let us know if you need any help finding good dispersed campsites!

The Burro Hermit

Saturday 7th of September 2019

This was fantastic reading. SOooo much information. As a lifetime camper, backpacker and former hiker on the east coast, and a former camp host at Cataloochie and Balsam Mountain, GSMNP for four Augusts in a row, I'm preparing for a long term, maybe permanent, plan for boondocking out west starting next Spring. The information here, added links, and other presented ideas have given me a great heads up on what to expect, where to camp, who to ask, what to see and so much more. Thank god for bookmarking! I couldn't read it all in one sitting and will be coming back often as I prepare for my sojourn.


Monday 13th of August 2018

Thanks so much for the information on where to go for free camping and knowing the best places around the states. All the little things to know and do to make it a great adventure is helpful also. I liked the part about the National Parks and where to camp, it was very informative. Thanks