Free Camping on Public Lands

Free Camping on Public Lands

No reservation? No money? No problem! Dispersed camping is more accessible and fun than you might expect.

Would you believe us if we told you there are literally hundreds of free camping options all across the country? Let’s start this one by saying, we do not condone illegal camping. With the increased attendance to our country’s national parks, illegal camping is becoming a huge issue, inside and outside of parks. Having worked in campgrounds for the National Park Service, we’d like to make legal options accessible and easy to find for all!

So what do you do when you are unable to secure that coveted reservation at a popular campground? Or what about when you’re on that 5 week road trip and don’t want to shell out cash every night for a space to park your van?

Find a Free Campsite

Here in the US, dispersed camping in national forests and on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land is typically free and accessible. “Dispersed camping is the term used for camping anywhere in the National Forest OUTSIDE of a designated campground. Dispersed camping means no services; such as trash removal, and little or no facilities;  such as tables and fire pits, are provided…Typically, dispersed camping is not allowed in the vicinity of developed recreation areas such as campgrounds, picnic areas, or trailheads.”

The best way to clarify local regulations and find out where it is the legal to disperse camp is to check online with US Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, or call/visit your nearest forest service or BLM office/visitor center/ranger station. Rangers are always happy to help.

Check a Map

Generally, public lands are marked in green on maps. Do some research before you go and figure out what public lands are close to your destination.

Keep in mind there are going to be areas that are closed to camping for a variety of reasons. It could be a sensitive ecological habitat, a research area, or simply an area that has been overused. Watch out for posted signs prohibiting camping in these areas. Please respect our public lands to ensure they are available for everyone’s adventures long into the future!

Leave No Trace

Something to keep in mind when disperse camping is to always abide by the Leave No Trace (LNT) Principles. Please visit the Leave No Trace website if you are unfamiliar with LNT ethics. Because these areas lack facilities, it is vital that you leave it exactly, if not better, than you found it. Learn how to find an appropriate location to camp, and always appropriately deal with waste. Yes, even the waste created by your own body! Because there aren’t established fire rings, it is important to check with your local forest service office and obtain the appropriate permits if you wish to have a campfire.

Keep an Open Mind

My boyfriend and I once flew across the country, drove over 10 hours to a dispersed camping spot, only to arrive and find that the road had been washed out by seasonal floods. Dispersed camping doesn’t always go as planned. Popular spots fill up, rivers flood, and seasonal closures affect accessibility. Learn to appreciate the journey and become a better camper and planner because of the obstacles. In our case, we googled the nearest ranger station and managed to grab a ranger who was locking up the building (it was after 5pm). He directed us to another fantastic dispersed camping spot only a couple of miles away. It is still, to this day, our favorite free camping spot, and the only time we’ve ever spotted an elusive ring-tailed cat!

When you wake up to the tranquil sounds of nature, alone and unbothered by crowds that typically come with campgrounds, you will realize that these sites are worth the bit of extra work it takes to find them.

So on your next adventure, travel off the beaten path, sleep under the stars, and this time, do it for free!

Helpful websites:
Free Campsites – Use this site to plan an entire road trip route… it will show you free or low cost campsites all along the way!
Campendium – Compilation of free campsites; organized by state.

Helpful apps:
Free RV Campground and Overnight Parking Lite – O Mecha Online, LLC
ReserveAmerica Camping – Active Network, LLC
RV Parks & Campgrounds – ParkAdvisor, LLC