For most of us, free camping seems a little too good to be true. When we hear something is free it gives us pause. Free services are usually sub-par and there are often hidden fees attached. Or the competition is too high and it’s not worth the lines and wait lists.
But free camping isn’t just a fantasy. 28% of the land in the US is federally owned and free to camp on. Yes, completely free!
It’s a really great option for anyone looking to save some money on their next big adventure. But before you start searching for the closest free camping area, it’s important to know what you’ll be getting into.
The best way to ensure that your free camping experience will be just as good, if not better, than those at traditional sites is to plan ahead and be prepared.
Here at Beyond the Tent we want to encourage everyone to get outside. Money should never stand in the way of camping and enjoying nature. So we have put together a comprehensive guide to get everyone acquainted with and prepared for free camping across the United States.
This guide is for novices and seasoned campers alike. Those who prefer a tent and those with RVs. We’ll cover everything from where to camp and what to avoid to common challenges campers might encounter. Lastly, we’ll give you some great free camping options for your region of the country to get you started!
- Why Free Camping?
- RV v.s. Tent Camping
- Do Some Free Camping Research
- Types of Free Camping Areas
- Work Camping
- Visiting National Parks and Monuments While Camping for Free
- Troubleshooting the Challenges of Free Camping
- Leave No Trace
- Best Free Developed Camping Areas by Region
- Not Free, But A Great Deal
Why Free Camping?
Maybe you’ve been camping for years and you’ve always paid to camp. You love your usual campground, the fees aren’t too bad and it’s nice to have the extra amenities.
Or perhaps you’re brand new to camping and you’re thinking it might be better to play it safe with a private or at least paid camping area.
Here are our top 4 reasons you should give free camping a chance.
Keeping Money in Your Pocket
The obvious attraction to camping for free is that you save money! And depending on where you are used to camping, those fees can be pretty steep.
Many private campgrounds charge upwards of $80/night for a site with full hook-ups. And to add to the fees, some even charge extra if you have more than 2 people at the campsite. That can make it especially hard on families.
Even public campgrounds will charge $15-20 per night for a basic tent site without hookups. While it may not seem like that much, add it up over a week of camping and you’re looking at quite a bit of money. Especially for folks who are traveling long-term or on a road trip. Night after night of paid campsites can get pricey.
Free camping keeps the money in your pocket so you can splurge on other things like food, activities or gas (especially if you’re cruising in an RV or camper).
You’ll Find Solitude
Free camping is still fairly untapped by the general public. And because most people are going to public or private paid campgrounds, the free areas are typically very quiet.
Most people see free camping as a survivalist experience, which deters them from trying. The downside is there are so many people who either don’t know that free camping is an option, or who feel they aren’t up to truly roughing-it. The good news? The rest of us get some serious peace and quiet.
If you’re looking for lots of space between you and the next camper, or even from the nearest town, you’ve hit camping gold. Lots of spaces, especially in the western part of the country are remote areas that aren’t well advertised and are less frequented.
Don’t expect all free camping spaces to offer this much serenity. But know that you can definitely find plenty of places where you will be the only camper around.
It’s More Adventurous
Most people who choose to go camping are looking for some level of adventure. Even if it is to get out of suburbia for a few nights. Free camping areas are often more adventurous than your typical paid campground.
Many no-fee areas are remote, require 4 wheel-drive, are hike-in, or are rarely visited. Most free camping areas lack certain amenities like toilets and hook-ups. Campsites can be undefined and rarely monitored by rangers and other personnel.
While there can be certain challenges to the free camping, there are things that easily make up for them.
If you are at a free remote camping area look up to see the gorgeous array of stars and other celestial bodies. Without light pollution from neighboring towns and cities, your view will be much better.
Go for a hike in the area where you are camping. There is something fun about traveling an area that you know not many others have been before.
Apply all your new survival skills and see how you would match up to a frontiersman. Cook over an open fire, filter your own water and dig your own pit toilet.
Remember to always follow-leave-no-trace principles and basic campsite safety.
It’s Perfect for Free-Spirits
Camping used to mean getting outside in the wilderness and pitching a tent. Now, camping often means sidling up to 100 other campers for a rowdy week(end). Camping has become very popular in recent years as an economical way to vacation.
And while we love getting people outside and enjoying our natural world, it also means a lot of crowds. Typically the more amenities a campground offers, the more crowded it will be. And that always means reservations.
Some private campgrounds start booking up a year even two in advance for summer months! Even public campgrounds are often booked at least several weeks out in peak season.
And forget about popular state or national parks. You won’t be staying at a national park during the regular tourist season without booking 6-12 months in advance.
That is why free campsites suit the spontaneous camper so well. When you have a free weekend and decide to road trip somewhere fun, there’s no need to call ahead for reservations.
And since many of the free camping areas are infrequently used, you don’t have to worry about crowds or arriving early to get a spot.
Generally, you can be as last-minute as you like. But it is always good to do a little online research since there are exceptions to every rule. Some of the smaller and more popular camping areas, are first-come-first-serve and fill up quickly.
RV v.s. Tent Camping
RVing and traditional primitive tent camping are both great ways to travel, get closer to nature and enjoy some time away from the daily grind. They each have pros and cons associated with their style of camping. And those pros and cons are definitely accentuated when you are in a free camping area.
Free Camping in an RV
When you think about long-term travel in your region or even across the country, RVs usually come to mind. You may have a fully-loaded, top of the line cruise ship on wheels, or a small family-friendly camper. Either way, they definitely add some luxury you won’t get when tent camping. But they aren’t without their drawbacks.
One of the obvious advantages of bringing an RV is a bathroom of your very own. And indoors to boot! Some even have showers so you can rinse off the long day of travel.
And the simple luxury of having a commode away from home gives most people a sense of security. The idea of stumbling in the dark at far-off camping areas to find a place to relieve yourself can be a little off-putting.
Sleeping on a Regular Mattress
Anyone with the slightest hint of a back problem knows that a good, supportive mattress is essential every night. It’s frustrating to wake up with a sore back and neck when you are supposed to be enjoying your getaway.
The best you will usually get with a tent is a blow-up air mattress or a foam sleeping pad. With an RV, it is just like buying a mattress for home. You can invest in something that will keep you comfortable this trip and many more in the future.
Less Packing and Unpacking
You may use storage bins, bags or a less organized system of toss-it-and-go. Either way, you have to unpack all of your items at the site and then repack them before leaving if you are tent camping.
This isn’t quite as much of an issue if you are staying at the same campsite for a week. But when you are traveling and trying new free camping areas every night, the time can add up.
If you are traveling by RV all of your essential items are packed away neatly inside your vehicle. No need to reorganize and pack every time you move to the next place.
Hard to Stop Along the Way
One of the major downsides to having an RV, or any camper that you trailer, is making stops along the way. Most places aside from big box store parking lots and truck stops have space for a large trailer to pull into. Maneuvering around areas of interest like cities can be almost impossible.
If you are trailering your camper or bringing a smaller vehicle along on your trip, you at least have the option of venturing out after you have parked at the camping area. But you may end up missing interesting places and local treasures that your tent camping friends will get to see.
Tent camping can be done out of the smallest economy car available, depending on how much or little you bring with you. Unfortunately, campers and RVs require big vehicles with towing capacity and poor gas mileage. Which means you’ll definitely be shelling out some extra gas money.
Renting An RV
If you don’t already own an RV, that doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy the benefits of RV Camping. At sites like Outdoorsy, you can get matched up to RV owners and rent an RV directly from the owner for anywhere from 1 night to as many as you’d like.
While renting an RV will cost you some money, you can make up for this expense with some free RV camping destinations.
Make sure to check out our complete guide to Renting Your First Camper or RV.
Or, if you plan on purchasing an RV, check out our RV Buyer’s Guide.
Free Camping in a Tent
More Rustic and Less Like Home
Some folks would put this on the cons list, but not outdoor enthusiasts. We love when things get rustic and back to nature. The more wilderness, the better.
And while you can still experience plenty of the natural environment when camping with an RV, you get a more earthy experience when you are in a simple tent.
Easier Set Up and Take Down
This really depends on a few factors. If there are no hookups for your vehicle at the free camping area and you are driving a ride-along RV, there likely won’t be too much to do other than pull in and find a space to park.
But many campers take a good amount of set up once you get to the site. Modern tents are incredibly easy to set up. Even the larger ones can often be set up with just one person. And if you opt for a foam roll rather than a blowup mattress you can be set up and ready to sleep within minutes of arriving to your site.
Need Flat Terrain
One downside to tent camping is the ground is notoriously uneven and unmaintained in free camping areas. It can often be a chore to find a site with relatively level ground so you won’t be sleeping on a slope or taking on water in the middle of the night.
One option is to use one of the awesome truck-bed tents that keep you off the ground, making terrain issues a thing of the past.
More Affected by the Elements
Same as anywhere else, you’ll find that tent campers are more affected by the weather and elements than those in a camper or RV. In fact, it is probably one of the main reasons some folks opt for a camper over primitive camping.
Many free camping areas, especially in the western part of the country lack any kind of cover from the sun. That means you, your tent, your car, and your belongings will bake in the middle of the day. You are also less protected from the wind that can knock over tents and spray sand, making for a sleepless night.
Lastly, while you can hold-up in your tent if there is a rainstorm or biting insects (learn our favorite way to keep the mosquitoes away!) in the area, it is quite a bit more comfortable to be in a camper with headroom and a bathroom.
Do Some Free Camping 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.
Camp and Tent by AllStays (Paid)
Camp and Tent is an awesome application for searching for tent campsites only. That means all the options displayed will allow only tents and no RVs. You can search by location, filter for different types of free campsite areas, and get information on their amenities.
Unfortunately, this app is not currently available for Android users and has only been created for iOS. You can download it from the AppStore using any iOS device.
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 (free)
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.
Things to Know About Your Free Campsite
Free campsites come in all shapes and sizes. And some of these areas may not meet your current definition of a typical campsite. You may not always find a quiet hollow in the wilderness, flat ground to pitch a tent, and water flowing nearby. You may need to expand your expectations.
Everyone’s tolerances and interests are different, but in general, here are a few things to look for when researching a free camping area.
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.
Free Camping Terminology
As you start your research on websites and forums you’ll start to notice that free campers tend to have their own jargon. While some words are pretty common, others require a little explanation. Here is some of the terminology you may see when you start looking for your free camping area.
Backcountry – remote wilderness areas, often on public lands like national forests.
Boondocking – Camping anywhere that RV hookups (sewer, water, electric) are not available.
Car Camping – Camping at a tent site located next to your vehicle. This usually entails using equipment you couldn’t carry on your back.
Cat Hole – A hole you dig to relieve yourself in lieu of a toilet.
Cowboy Camping – Sleeping under the stars without a covering like a tent.
Dispersed Camping – Camping where there are no amenities like toilets, firepits, picnic tables or potable water.
Dry Camping – Camping anywhere that RV hookups (sewer, water, electric) are not available.
Dump Station – An area where black water and gray water holding tanks are emptied.
Full Hookup – the ability for RVs to connect to sewer, water and electric
Gray Water – Water and waste from sinks and showers
Pack Out – The practice of leaving nothing behind at your campsite
Potable Water – Water that is safe to drink without treating or filtering
Primitive Campgrounds – Campgrounds with no amenities like bathrooms, electric and water
Pull through – a site where it is possible to pull an RV camper into a site and back out without the need to back it in or out
State Wayside – Rest stops that provide parking areas and restrooms but offer no other recreational opportunities
Types of Free Camping Areas
If you won’t be camping in private and state campgrounds, then where will you be camping? Where are these free camping areas, who owns them, and what will they look like?
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 are public lands that mostly consist of forests and woodlands. They are owned by the federal government, which really means they are owned by us. National forests are managed by the USDA National Forest Service for lumber, grazing, minerals, and recreation.
Check out our Natioal Park and National Forest Camping Guides Here.
They are often confused with national parks, which are also federally owned and managed. But national parks are maintained primarily for preservation of the land and its resources. National forests, while they are being managed and preserved, are more for use.
National forests have the same breathtaking scenery as the national parks. But they are often less popular with tourists because they lack the amenities many people look for when camping or visiting a park.
If you want to camp for free in a national forest it will be dispersed camping. This means that you will need to bring all of your provisions with you. This also typically means no amenities like water, restrooms or trash cans.
Some of the time you won’t be able to park your car near your campsite. The upside is, you will get to enjoy the solitude and primitive nature of being outside a regular campground area. It’s an adventure!
The rules can be a bit different for each forest. It is best to call the ranger station or do some online research on the specific forest you are traveling to.
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.
There are 20 national grasslands and they span from North Dakota to Texas, east of the Rockies totaling 4 million acres. They are flat open prairie lands that are also managed by the US Forest Service.
These sweeping vistas are home to an incredibly diverse ecology with animals like bison, prairie dogs, and burrowing owls. They also offer a glimpse into the rich history of this area and are a common place to find fossils.
Since they are also publicly owned lands, they are also free to camp at.
Check the US Forest Service website for more details about camping or call a ranger.
Bureau of Land Management (BLM)
The Bureau of Land Management is a government agency that is part of the Department of the Interior. It manages close to 250 million acres of land, mostly in the west, for preservation purposes. A lot of the land is permitted to ranchers for grazing livestock, but there is plenty of space out there where you can camp for free. While there, you might get the unique experience of seeing wild horses and burro.
You can search their interactive map here to find a free camping area that suits your needs. Unfortunately, Google Earth does not highlight BLM areas on the map.
Keep in mind, not all BLM campsites are free. Some may charge a small fee for established and maintained camping areas. You should still be looking for dispersed camping if you don’t want to shell out any cash.
Just like national forests and grasslands, the BLM has some simple rules they require dispersed campers to follow:
- 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.
As the name implies, state forests are owned and managed by that state. Don’t get them confused with state parks. Parks often offer multiple recreation opportunities for the community, have general amenities like restrooms, are staffed by park rangers and may charge a fee for entrance.
Check Out Our Picks For The Best Camping In Your State Here.
State forests lack the amenities, are often unstaffed but for a few management personnel and are left untouched for the most part. Like national forests, they may be used for resources like timber and minerals.
Finding state forests that have free camping available is a little bit more difficult but not impossible. Many state forests offer free dispersed camping much like national forests. But you will need to look at each state individually.
The rules for dispersed camping (where allowed) will often be similar to national forests or even a bit more strict. Many state forests have hiking trails, like the Appalachian Trail, where hikers are allowed to camp for free within 200 feet of the trail. This is for backpacking use and wouldn’t be suitable for anyone with a car or RV who isn’t prepared to do a significant hike in.
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 can be anything from local farms that allow campers and RVs to use their land for a few nights, to big box stores that loan out their parking lots.
For RVs, check out BoondockersWelcome.com. It is kind of like couch surfing for RV travelers. The site matches RVers with hosts who have signed up to let other travelers stay on their property for free.
Another great site for RV campers to check out is HarvestHosts.com. After paying a very minimal yearly membership fee you can find hosts all over the country that will let you park overnight for free. Many of these hosts are wineries and farms. A much better alternative to truck stops and shopping center parking lots. The site does require guests to purchase something from the host business.
If you’re looking for a free night while you’re traveling and can’t find other options that won’t take you too out of the way, try a truck stop or big box store parking lot. Walmarts are known for offering free overnight camping, especially for RVs. But always check with local management before you set up for the night as some stores do not participate in this.
Work camping is a growing trend in the country that affords you the ability to travel, camp for free and earn some traveling money as you go.
How does it work? Each organization, park, recreation site and campground may have different rules and contract lengths. But in general, campers (tent or RV) can apply for positions at camping areas around the country where they work for a designated time during their travels. Often this time is seasonal and runs from May to October, but some contracts are much less.
In exchange for your work, you will be paid wages and given a space to camp on the property. Occasionally food and other amenities will be provided.
Jobs range from front desk staff to landscaping or maintenance. Understanding that many times couples are traveling together, camping areas will post jobs specifically for couples.
Work camping is a great option for folks who really like a life on the road and love camping.
Visiting National Parks and Monuments While Camping for Free
Millions of people visit national parks and monuments every year. And it is no wonder. They hold some of the most spectacular scenery in the nation. Families and groups flock to Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, The Great Smoky Mountains, Acadia, Glacier National Park, and many others to see the incredible sites and landscapes.
But if you are thinking of packing up your family and heading out for a getaway next week or even next month, think again. The campgrounds at these parks are heavily trafficked during the peak season when the weather is good and the scenery is at its most brilliant. Campgrounds often book up even a year or more in advance. And the cost to stay at these popular destinations can wreak havoc on your travel budget.
An alternative is to stay in a nearby national forest. Did you know that most national parks are bordered by national forests? They are often only 10-15 minutes away from the most popular parks in the country. This gives these pristine areas a buffer zone from the rest of society and gives campers on a budget the opportunity to stay nearby.
Which national park are you visiting? Here are some great national forests to try some primitive camping while you are there.
Check out All Our National Park Camping Guides Here.
Zion National Park
The red rock formations in Zion bring tons of sightseers, campers, and hikers from around the globe every year. Skip the crowds and head to Dixie National Forest. The rock formations are just as stunning as the nearby parks and you’ll have much more solitude to enjoy the landscape.
Acadia National Park
New England’s Acadia National Park boasts gorgeous seaside hiking trails and excellent opportunities to explore the seashore area and the animals and birds that live there. Since the park is so popular, especially in the summer months and campsites are pricey, you can look to nearby Schoodic Bay, a camping area not far from Acadia that offers 14 free tent campsites. There are restrooms, fire rings and it is hike/boat in-out.
Glacier National Park
Just to the south of the snow-dusted peaks at Glacier National Park in Flathead National Forest. This forest is known for its inhabitants like lynx and grizzly bears as well as its numerous lakes and streams.
Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone is the park that is on most outdoor enthusiast’s bucket list. But it is also one of the pricier parks to visit. Try some dispersed camping at nearby Gallatin National Forest, located just north of the north entrance to Yellowstone. You’ll see much of the same landscapes and wildlife as you would at its famous neighbor. Check out our Complete Visitor’s Guide To Yellowstone National Park here.
Check out our guide to Camping At Yellowstone National Park.
Grand Teton National Park
Considered the park with the most stunning vistas, Grand Teton is Wyoming’s other great wonder. A short drive away is Shoshone National Forest, that hosts gorgeous views of its own and an abundance of wildlife like bighorn sheep, wolves, elk, and grizzlies.
Check out our guide to Camping At Grand Teton National Park.
Grand Canyon National Park
Likely the most popular destination in the whole nation, people from around the world travel to see the incredible views of Grand Canyon National Park. But skip the crowds and overpriced camping areas and head to Kaibab National Forest that has incredible views of its own.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Known for its gorgeous hills and valleys, Great Smokey Mountain National Park is an emblem of the eastern portion of the US. If you’re looking for a less expensive overnight option while exploring the area, try some primitive camping at Pisgah National Forest. Especially in fall the hills come alive with colors.
Check out our guide to Camping At Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Troubleshooting the Challenges of Free Camping
Free camping comes with its own issues and challenges. And despite its many benefits, many people avoid free camping areas. But overcoming problems is often part of the fun of a camping trip. And both being prepared and knowing what to expect can significantly decrease difficulties when free camping.
Let’s take a look at the most common problems or challenges that you may encounter when you decide to give free camping a try.
Cooking and Eating
If you’re used to front-country sites where you have a camp stove or a grill available, you may find cooking at a primitive site more difficult. There is an added level of difficulty when fires are not allowed in the area where you are camping.
One easy solution would be to bring along some dehydrated meals. You can heat water on a backpacking stove like this one and you’ll have a hot meal in minutes. An alternative is to go old school with jerky, baked goods, canned beans, trail mix, granola bars and other options that don’t need to be cooked. Look over our Complete Camping Food List to get even more ideas.
We all tend to get dirty, especially if we are spending a lot of time outside. But if no public or private shower options are available, what can you do?
- Invest in a solar shower – Solar showers are large bladders (usually black) that heat up in the sun. They have a spigot on one end that releases a spray of water. Fill it with water from a local source, hang it up in a sunny area, and once it is hot you can shower using biodegradable soap.
- Trail bath – If you don’t have a solar shower, no problem. As long as you have a container that you can fill with a few liters of water you can strip down and wash off using biodegradable soap.
- Sponge bath – Sometimes it is too cold to fully bathe yourself out in the elements. In this case, use a towel or sponge, some water and a bit of biodegradable soap to wipe down.
*Remember to always use soap far away from any local water sources.
A lack of toilets in primitive camping areas is what gives people the most anxiety when it comes to free camping. But seasoned campers will tell you that once you’ve used a cat hole for the first time, the anxiety does go away. The whole process is nowhere near as bad as it seems.
Make sure to bring a good strong shovel especially if you will be digging in a particularly rocky area. Make your hole at least six inches deep and ensure that it is at least 200 feet from a water source to avoid contamination.
If the idea of digging a hole to defecate is something you truly can’t stomach, they do sell portable travel toilets that you can keep in your vehicle.
Or, Check Out Our Guide on Pooping In The Woods here.
In most of the popular free camping areas, there are designated dispersed campsites that are often cleared and flat. However, in other less visited sites, the terrain may not be quite so friendly to tent campers.
If you are primitive camping where there are no designated areas, look for sites have been used by other campers in the past. Not only are they usually more accommodating to tents but you will have much less impact on the environment.
Beyond The Tent’s Tent Buying Guide
If there are no previously used sites that you can find available, look for an area that is generally clear and free of rocks and stumps. Remember to clear away any other debris so you don’t rip your tent or get poked in your sleep. The goal is to disturb the area as little as possible.
Remember, you don’t need a wide open area like you may find at a paid campground. You only need enough space for your tent’s footprint.
Unruly neighbors are unfortunately just a part of life. Whether you’re at home, on vacation or at a campground, there is always a chance you will end up with neighbors you don’t see eye to eye with. And dispersed camping is no different.
You have two things on your side.
- Most people who are backcountry or primitive camping, typically desire the same things as you: fresh air, a connection to nature and some solitude.
- Free camping areas aren’t usually as well known as paid camping areas and therefore there is often some distance between you and others. You may not see anyone else at all.
But there is still the chance you’ll encounter a group who is rowdy, messy, or rude. The best thing to do is move to another area if at all possible. If it is not possible that evening, try and find another area to camp the next day.
If the people near you are causing a danger to you or the environment, you always have the option of calling the rangers or the managing office of the area you are staying. If neither of those options is available, phoning the police to report the behavior may be the next option.
We’ve talked a lot about the need to bring your own supplies to free camping areas since most amenities will not be available at the site. But another important part of dispersed camping is cleaning up your area.
We know many (not all) free camping areas do not have restrooms or showers available. But most do not offer trash cans either. This means that any waste you carry in, or create while you are at your campsite, will need to be carried back out.
This is not as challenging as you may think. The rule of thumb should be to bring as little packaging as possible. Remove outer wrappers and cartons and use reusable containers when possible to cut down on the waste you have to haul out of free camping areas.
Remember to bring a trash bag with you and another bag for recyclables. Keep in mind that while you are at your campsite it is important to store food, garbage and anything that has a fragrance, where animals cannot reach them. Use a bear canister or hang a bag containing these items between two trees.
Most paid campgrounds offer potable water or at least a camp store where you can purchase packaged water. And they also may have pumps so you can collect water to use for washing dishes. But at dispersed campgrounds, neither of these is typically available.
Count yourself lucky if your camping area has a nearby stream or other water sources that you can use. If you know for certain that the area has an ample water supply, you can choose to bring a water filter to remove any bacteria, viruses or parasites before drinking it. There are also tablets you can use to treat the water to remove these germs. One of our favorite water filters is the Katadyn Water Filter, read the full review here.
Remember, just because there is a stream or river on a map, does not mean that there is water flowing at that time. Although a river may appear on the map for that area, the riverbed may be dry when you arrive. Especially in a warm, desert location, this could be very dangerous.
The other option is to bring your own water. Do an estimate of the amount you will need for the time you will be staying. Always overestimate to be safe. You can purchase packs of individual water bottles, gallon jugs, or large 2.5 gallon jugs with spigots. It’s always good to scout the nearest store where you could get more water if necessary.
*If you are unable to get to water (car breaks down, etc) you can always call the ranger station or the local authorities for help. Dehydration is very dangerous and should be taken seriously.
Even well maintained public and private paid campgrounds can have some very rough terrain and pothole-pocked roads. A lot of dispersed camping areas are notoriously rough on vehicles, RVs, and cars alike.
Many roads are made of compacted dirt that has suffered from years of erosion. And when it rains you’ll end up with muddy conditions that will bog down a lot of cars.
This is where research really pays off. An online search, a few questions in boondocking forums, and a call to a rangers office could save you from hours of struggle and irritation. Find out if the roads are passable with any vehicle, or if you will need a car with 4WD. Ask about local weather conditions and if they have affected the road conditions.
Cell Service and Data
We keep hearing in the media that smartphone use is an epidemic and people are spending way too much time scrolling on their screens. Hey! It’s part of the reason we advocate getting kids outside camping and away from television, video games and other devices.
But smartphones and the internet have become a major part of our world. We use them for communication with others (including emergency communication), for directions and maps, for knowledge and research, for documenting and even for things like clocks and flashlights.
Unfortunately, given the remote nature of many free camping areas, cell phone service and cell data are almost non-existent. While the good news is that you will have no choice but to commune with friends, family and nature, the flipside is you need to be more prepared.
Bring maps. Lots of maps. You can get them online (and print them at home), you can get them from local rest areas and welcome centers, and from the rangers office.
Either write down or print out your research on the local area, especially phone numbers for the rangers and local authorities.
Bring a wireless power station and keep it charged. Cell phones tend to run low on battery when they are constantly trying to connect to the nearest cell tower. If you know that the area has poor service, you can either turn your phone off or put it on airplane mode to save the battery until you need it.
Leave No Trace
If you have ever camped, hiked, or spent any reasonable amount of time in the great outdoors, you have heard the phrase “leave no trace”. And nobody takes this more seriously than boondockers and backcountry campers.
While public and private paid campgrounds usually have ample staff to clean up the areas regularly, most dispersed camping areas aren’t that lucky. These preserved lands require great care to keep them pristine and beautiful.
As the phrase implies, we want our natural areas to look as though we had never been there. And while this is important anywhere we go, we need to be especially careful in areas like national forests, grasslands and other conservation areas. Here are the 7 ways you can practice the “leave no trace” principles.
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
- 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
Find the right free camping area for you can be a daunting task when you are just starting out. Especially if you are used to going to paid campgrounds. But it can be well worth the time and energy you spend doing some research.
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.
Not Free – But A Great Deal
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Another great option is Boondockers Welcome. Boondockers Welcome hooks you up with landowners around the country who allow you to stay on their property for free. It’s not wineries and breweries, but some of the properties are really nice!
To many, free camping sounds like an overnight in your car, an illegal foray into the woods, or an option reserved for survivalists. In truth, it is none of those things. By camping for free in designated areas around our country you will cut down on travel and accommodation costs, allowing you to do and see more.
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.
Saturday 17th of December 2022
One great way to get some awesome free camping is to join a gold mining club like the gpaa I did that and I get to camp and dig gold all over the the US now I am paying for the membership but it's 125 a year witch isn't much in hindsight considering I'm allowed to take up the four people with me on one membership card plus I have already paid myself back tenfold so you should look into it
Sunday 26th of June 2022
This was very helpful and jam packed with information! I appreciate you touching on some of the issues or challenges one might face with free camping. I know on more than one occasion we didn't plan accordingly and the paths had been washed out pretty badly from a bad storm season so we had to come back later to the areas with a truck.
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.
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! ;)
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!