Where can I Find Free Campsites? (Anywhere in the U.S.)

where can i find free campsites

Camping is a great way to enjoy time outdoors. But, paying for a campsite can be a drag. Thankfully, there are thousands of free campsites scattered around the United States, just waiting for you to come and spend the night.

You can find free campsites on BLM, National Forest, National Park, and State Park land all over the United States. Crowd-sourced apps are some of the best ways to find free campsites and there are plenty of resources out there to get you started.

However, finding a good free campsite can be tricky in some areas and camping illegally can get you in a whole lot of trouble. So, here’s our ultimate guide to finding free campsites, anywhere in the US!

What Exactly Is “Free” Camping?

Free camping, as the name suggests, is when you sleep outdoors for free. Generally speaking, when you camp for free, you won’t have access to many of the amenities that we often get at campgrounds, like picnic tables, fire rings, toilets, and running water. This is because your campground fees pay for these amenities. When you don’t pay a fee, you generally don’t get these added bonuses.

In reality, most free camping takes place on the side of the road, in a parking lot, or deep in the backcountry. While free camping can certainly save you money, it won’t involve many of the creature comforts that you can expect at a paid campground.

How Does Free Camping In The U.S. Work?

Many people love the idea of a cross-country road trip, but few realize that paying for a hotel or a campsite each night can really eat away at your budget. That’s where free camping comes into the picture.

When you camp for free, you can easily save $12-$35 a night that you otherwise would’ve spent on a paid campsite. But how exactly does free camping in the US work?

Well, the important thing to remember the vast majority of free camping is on land that’s publicly owned, like National Forest and BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land. So, while you don’t have to pay a fee to spend the night in a free campsite, you’re usually already paying for it with your taxes.

However, just because a piece of land is publicly owned doesn’t mean you have the right to spend the night there. Depending on where you are in the United States, publicly-owned land is highly regulated.

So, it’s important that you know the laws and regulations surrounding where you want to camp for the night. If you’re caught illegally on public land, you can face substantial fines and, potentially a short jail sentence (but this isn’t likely for a first offence). Get caught on private land, though, and you’re potentially looking at some serious trespassing charges.

But, if you know where and how to camp for free, you can have a fantastic experience in the great outdoors. The trick is to be a responsible camper that knows where they can spend the night.

three colorful tents on a ridge with snow covered mountains in the background

The Different Types Of Free Camping

Free camping is free camping, right? Well, it turns out that “free camping” goes by many different names, each of which has a slightly different meaning. It’s important to know these terms, particularly if you’re going to search for free campsites or call a park ranger to ask for advice on good places to stay. So, here are the different types of free camping:

Dispersed Camping

Dispersed camping is the official phrase used to describe “free camping” by the National Park Service, the National Forest Service, and the BLM. Most of the time, if you’re scrolling through a National Forest website, you’ll read something about “dispersed camping.”

If dispersed camping is allowed in an area, then people are allowed to camp there without paying a fee. Most dispersed camping is close to the road, but you’ll sometimes hear this phrase used to refer to free and unmaintained backcountry campsites.

Dry Camping

This phrase is used by both vanlifers/RVers and backpackers. When you talk about “dry camping” on the road, it means that you’re camping somewhere without hookups or water. In the world of backpacking, it means that you’re at a campsite that doesn’t have water nearby.

The reality of free camping is that you’ll rarely get to camp somewhere that has water. So, unless you get to camp for free by a river or a lake, you shouldn’t expect to have any water available for the night. Unfortunately, water is a perk of paid campsites that you just won’t find when camping for free.

Boondocking

“Boondocking” is most commonly used by RVers and vanlifers. Basically, it refers to anywhere that you can camp for free. In general, anywhere that you boondock will not have running water, hookups, or amenities of any kind. You’ll hear this phrase used a lot by experienced RVers that are heading out on a longer trip to more remote places.

Stealth Camping

Stealth camping was popularized by the vanlife community as a way to camp for free in populated areas without getting caught. Before vanlife got really popular, the occasional converted van could somewhat easily blend in, even in an urban area, just by looking like a parked vehicle.

But, with more and more vans on the road today, stealth camping is becoming more difficult. The police know how to identify a camper van and aren’t afraid to knock on your windows and tell you to get moving at 3 in the morning.

Wild Camping

The term “wild camping” isn’t used much in the United States. But, if you travel to other English-speaking countries, you’ll find it’s a pretty common phrase.

In the UK, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, “wild camping” is just free dispersed camping. In the UK, in particular, it refers to free camping in the backcountry, so away from roads and mountain huts.

Where Exactly Can I Camp For Free Overnight?

In the United States, pretty much all of your free camping options will be on public land, with the exception of some parking lots, which we’ll discuss later. But, in the US, there are many different kinds of public land, each with their own unique regulations that govern where and how you can camp for free. Here’s what you need to know before camping for free on public land:

BLM Free Camping

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is one of the major federal land managers in the US and is part of the Department of the Interior. If you’re from the East Coast, it’s possible that you’ve never heard of the BLM before.

This is because the vast majority of BLM land is west of the Mississippi, though there is some BLM land in the east, too. In fact, the BLM manages 12% of all the land in the United States.

For the most part, BLM land is free to camp on, unless it’s being leased out for ranching, logging, or mining purposes. Camping on BLM land is super popular in the western US, but we recommend doing a bit of research on the best places to camp before you commit to a spot for the night.

If you camp on BLM land, you shouldn’t expect to find any amenities or conveniences. You can usually park your car on a pullover and sleep for the night or you can hike in a short distance for a bit of extra seclusion. In some of the more popular areas out west (particularly southern Utah), you’ll find some semi-established unofficial camping spots on BLM land.

How To Find Free BLM Campsites

In general, you will not find BLM land marked on Google Maps or popular mapping software, like Caltopo. This is because BLM land is not named and promoted for recreational use like National Forest and National Park lands are. Rather, BLM land is often managed for commercial purposes like mining and logging.

This makes camping on BLM land harder to navigate, but it’s certainly possible to find campsites with a bit of practice. Good options for finding free sites include the FreeRoam App and the BLM Interactive map.

The Red Tape

When camping for free on BLM land, always remember:

  • You must camp outside of developed campgrounds
  • You must camp at least 200 feet from water (including lakes and streams)
  • There is a 14 day limit on most campsites

white tent with starry sky

Related articles:

Can You Camp Anywhere on the PCT?

Where Do You Park Your School Bus Conversion?

National Forest Free Camping

Besides BLM land, National Forest lands (part of the Department of Agriculture) are your best bet for finding free campsites. Most National Forests and Grasslands allow some form of free camping, but the most popular locations do have some restrictions, particularly for backcountry access. So, we always recommend doing some research, or even calling the local Forest rangers to get their advice on places to stay.

When you camp on Forest Service land, you have quite a few options. If you’re looking to car camp, there are usually plenty of pullovers on the side of the road. Additionally, most Forest Service lands are free for backpacking, but you may have to get a permit to do so.

How To Find Free National Forest Campsites

For the most part, National Forests are well marked both on Google Maps and most maps you’d use for navigation. You can also search for a particular National Forest on their interactive map. The Forest Service has free-to-download motorist maps available on their website, which can be helpful for finding established camping areas.

However, we can’t stress enough that some of the more popular National Forests are managed quite similarly to National Parks and thus have some very strict rules regarding camping. So, to avoid any misunderstandings, you can always call the local ranger station to get their advice on where to camp.

The Red Tape

When camping on National Forest land, always remember:

  • You must camp outside of developed campgrounds
  • You must camp at least 200 feet from water (including lakes and streams)
  • There is a 14 day limit on most campsites
  • There are usually group size limits for backcountry camping
  • You may be on National Forest land that is adjacent to National Park lands. Regulations in some National Parks are very strict, so be sure you are definitely within the National Forest boundary when you camp.

National Parks Free Camping

When most people talk about free camping, few ever mention camping in National Parks. To be fair, many National Parks require you to pay a fee, either for a backcountry permit or to camp in a campground. Additionally, most National Parks do not allow people to camp on the side of the road.

However, depending on your location, it is sometimes possible to camp for free in a National Park. If you’re looking to camp in Yosemite or the Grand Canyon for free, you’re out of luck. But, some of the more remote national parks (including most in Alaska) allow free dispersed camping. Some of these parks require you to get a free permit, so be sure to check the website before you camp.

But, even fairly popular National Parks, like Mount Rainier and Death Valley, offer free camping options. Although most of these options are first-come-first-served and are quite limited, it’s always worth checking the National Park’s website to see what your options are.

Worst case scenario, you waste 5 minutes on the internet, only to find that you have to pay to camp in a specific park. Best case scenario, you get to spend the night at a sweet free campsite in a National Park.

How To Find Free National Park Campsites

It’s pretty easy to find the US National Parks on a map, but finding free campsites in the parks can be tricky. Honestly, your best bet is generally to google a phrase like “Kenai Fjords National Park free camping.” If you can camp for free in that park, you’ll generally find out pretty quickly with a google search.

Should your search come up empty, your next best option is to check both the “Camping” and “Backpacking” or “Backcountry” sections of a park’s website. If you can’t find any information there about where to camp for free in a National Park, it’s best to find somewhere else to camp for the night.

Breaking National Park regulations is potentially a criminal offense, so you really want to be sure that you’re playing by the rules here.

The Red Tape

When camping on National Park land, always remember:

  • You might need a permit. Always check before you head to the park.
  • You must camp at least 200 feet from water (including lakes and streams), but sometimes more based on local regulations.
  • There are usually group size limits for backcountry camping in National Parks.
  • There are usually limits on how many nights you can camp in a specific location.
  • You may need to pay a park entrance fee. If you love camping, we highly recommend the annual pass, which can also often get you free entrance to other federal lands.

RV with starry sky in background

State/Regional Parks Free Camping

State and regional parks often get overshadowed by their federally-managed cousins. But, state and regional parks are just as amazing as federal land and often have a lot to offer in terms of free camping.

However, keep in mind that some state and regional parks are incredibly popular, especially on the East Coast and in places like Big Sur. So, you definitely need to check in on local regulations before you start boondocking in a state park.

How To Find Free State/Regional Park Campsites

There are thousands of state parks in the US, so we couldn’t possibly give you specific advice about free camping in all of them. So, your best resource is going to be each state park’s website, where you can usually get information about where to camp. These websites will also let you know if you need a permit for backcountry camping.

If that doesn’t work, apps and websites like “FreeCampsites.net” and “Campendium” are usually a good resource. Otherwise, it’s important to remember that many state parks in the west are also bordered by BLM land, which is generally free to camp on.

The Red Tape

When camping on State/Regional Park land, always remember:

  • You might need a permit. Always check before you head to the park.
  • You generally must camp at least 200 feet from water
  • There are usually group size limits for backcountry camping
  • There are usually limits on how many nights you can camp in a specific location.
  • You may need to pay a park entrance fee. Some states will have an annual pass for their state parks that’s usually a good deal if you’re a frequent camper.

Free Beach Camping

Camping on the beach is pretty darn awesome. Unfortunately, beachfront property is prime real estate, so it’s unlikely that you’ll find a lot of free beach camping. This is especially true in places like California, where even a beachside campsite will often cost you $20-$30 for the night.

How To Find Free Beach Campsites

If you’re looking to camp on the beach in the Lower 48, your best option is going to be along a maintained backpacking trail like the Lost Coast Trail in Oregon or on National Seashore land. If you’re in Alaska, you might be able to find a beachside campsite if you’re somewhere really, really remote. But, even then, most of the prime ocean-side real estate is accounted for and isn’t free to use.

That being said, if you’re happy with lakefront beach camping, you have plenty of options. While most lakes won’t have the same sandy shores you find on a lot of ocean beaches, they’re still beautiful.

There are some free lake-side campsites on National Forest and BLM land. A lot of these sites are backpacking locations, though, so they’re not suitable for RVers and vanlifers.

When searching for free beach campsites, apps and websites like “FreeCampsites.net” and “Campendium” are usually your best option. These apps and sites can usually point you toward hidden gems that can be a great place to camp for a night.

The Red Tape

When camping on beaches, always remember:

  • You might need a permit
  • You should check local tide tables to ensure you don’t get caught out by the tide or soaked in the middle of the night
  • There are usually group size limits for backcountry camping
  • There are usually limits on how many nights you can camp in a specific location.
  • You may need to pay an entrance fee to get to the beach
  • Most free beach camping is remote and is only suitable for backpacking

Crown Land (Canada)

Okay, we know Canada and the US are separate countries, but if you ever felt like adventuring north of the border, it’s good to know where you can find some free camping. Canada is a huge and incredibly beautiful country and a whole lot of the land is publically owned (a.k.a “Crown Land”).

In fact, Crown Land accounts for a large portion of Canada, including 87% of Ontario and 50% of New Brunswick. However, most of the land in Canada’s territories (the Yukon, the Northwestern Territories, and Nunavut) is managed by Crown Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada and is not the same as Crown Land.

Why is Crown Land so awesome, you might ask? Well, it is completely free to camp on for Canadian residents. If you’re not a resident of Canada, you can get a permit to camp on Crown Lands, which is generally quite cheap, especially compared to your other options. So, we thought it was worth mentioning here.

How To Find Crown Land Campsites

Some Crown Land in Canada is federally owned and other Crown Land is managed by the provinces themselves. If you’re looking to camp on the cheap in Canada, it’s best to search for crown lands in a specific province and then go from there. You can also find some Crown Land information on the following websites:

You can also check out apps and websites like “FreeCampsites.net” and “Campendium,” which can point you toward free places to camp in Canada, especially if you’re trying to stay near a more populated area.

The Red Tape

When camping on Crown Land, always remember:

  • You might need a permit
  • There may be group size limits for backcountry camping
  • You are limited to 21 days in a given location

bright yellow tent illuminated against the black night sky

Best Apps/Websites To Help You Find Free Campsites

If you want a one-stop-shop to find free campsites, a website or app is usually a good resource. These days, there are quite a few platforms out there that show you all of the free camping locations in an area.

Many of these platforms are crowd-sourced, so they often provide up-to-date information about a campsite. Plus, you can usually see photos of the campsite, so you know what to expect.

However, we wouldn’t rely solely on these apps and websites, especially if you’re camping near State or National Parks. It’s your responsibility to ensure that you’re camping legally, so do your research before you head out.

FreeCampsites.net

FreeCampsites.net is one of the original resources for free campsites. the site provides GPS coordinates and directions for different camping areas. On the site, you can also read reviews from other campers and find out more about the land management agency so you can check in on regulations.

Campendium

Campendium is a newer camping app that has a huge directory of free campsites, organized by state or province (if you’re looking for places in Canada). On the app, you can see photos of a site, read reviews, and even get info on the site’s cellphone coverage. They also have a website, so you can browse on your computer from home.

Boondocking

Boondocking is an iOS app that shows free campsites for RV campers and vanlifers. They have over 800 different listed sites, so it’s not a huge database. But, it is a good back-up app if you’ve exhausted all of your other options.

The Dyrt

The Dyrt is an iOS and Android app where you can search for campsites. Some of the campsites on the app are paid sites, but you can also find some free options if you dig around a bit. The app offers reviews and rankings for over 40,000 different camping areas around the US, so it’s great for people who love road trips.

AllStays

AllStays is a chain of apps that provide information about different places to stay while road tripping. Although you have to pay to download the app, with AllStays, you can search for sites offline, which is useful if you’re in a remote area. Most of the sites on the app are places like rest stops and Walmart parking lots, so this app is most useful for vanlifers and RVers.

FreeRoam

FreeRoam is a desktop and mobile app that allows you to find campsites around the United States. The platform lets you switch between both National Forest, BLM, and Motor Vehicle Use maps, so it’s good for discovering those lesser-known sites. You can even change the map layers to show you cell phone coverage if you want to stay connected on-the-go.

Other Creative Ways To Find Free Campsites

If you’re traveling in a more developed area, you may not have the luxury of a secluded free campsite off of a quiet dirt road. So, finding good places to camp in urban areas is quite important. Here are some good options.

Walmart

Walmart is a fan favorite for free camping in urban areas. The chain has a long-standing policy that people can camp in their parking lots for a night if they keep a low profile and stay mostly within their vehicles. You won’t have any amenities unless you’re camping at a 24-hour store, in which case, you might be able to use their restrooms.

Truck Stops

If you’re driving on the interstate, you’ll pass by quite a few truck stops on your way. Many of them will have showers, as well as food, and some allow overnight parking. If you’re not sure that they’ll let you spend the night, call ahead and ask the particular location. Good national truck stop chains include Flying J, Pilot, and Travel Centers of America (TA).

Rest Stops

There are hundreds of rest stops in the United States, particularly along the interstates. They are pretty attractive locations for free campsites, due to their proximity to the road. However, it’s generally not legal to camp at these rest stops and you’ll probably get asked to leave by security if you do.

Casinos

Many casinos allow overnight camping in their parking lots, just like Walmart does. Usually, you just need to be quiet and respectful and no one will bother you. If you’re looking for a good site, you can check out CasinoCamper.com.

Cracker Barrel

Most Cracker Barrels will let you camp out for one night. The obvious benefit here, besides the free camping, is that you can get a hot meal just a few steps from your campsite.

truck with built-on camper driving on the road

My Favorite Ways To Find Free Campsites

I’ve spent a whole lot of time looking for free campsites, both on road trips and quick forays into the mountains. If you’re new to free camping, finding a site might seem like a daunting task. So, here are some of my top tips for simplifying the process and finding a free campsite:

  • Have A Plan. If you don’t know where you want to camp for the night, you might find yourself driving around for hours looking for a good spot. You should try and plan ahead as much as possible, so you can ensure that you’re not camping illegally. I’ve personally made this mistake before, and it’s resulted in quite a few uncomfortable nights in my car on sketchy pullouts on the side of the road.
  • Try To Arrive In Daylight. While arriving under the cover of darkness is ideal for stealth camping in an urban area, if you’re looking for a campsite in a rural location, you can easily zoom past it in the dark. Arriving in daylight gives you a chance to suss out the campsite to ensure it’s a safe place for you to spend the night.
  • Consider Your Safety. I’ve camped in a lot of pullouts on the side of the road. Sometimes, this is a safe and convenient option for camping, but other times, this can be quite dangerous. If you’re driving down a road like the Alaska Highway, boondocking or car camping on a pullout is pretty darn common. So, you can find some strength in numbers when you sleep in a pullout with 4 or 5 other campers. In other places, though, free campsites can be downright dangerous, so you should always be ready to move on if things don’t feel right.
  • Check BLM Lands First. BLM lands are, by far, my favorite places to get free campsites, especially in the Rocky Mountain region. On BLM land, you’ll usually find a lot of peace and quiet with some fantastic views. It’s unlikely that anyone will bother you, especially if you’re off on a dirt road. However, make sure you’re not blocking an access road and that you’re not camping in a mining area or on someone’s grazing lands.
  • Take Advantage Of Crowdsourcing. Apps like Campendium are my favorite because they let you read reviews from other campers. This can help alleviate any anxiety you have about finding a free campsite, especially if you’re new to the process.

Free Camping FAQs

Here are our answers to some of your top questions about free camping:

Can You Camp In State Parks For Free?

Rules and regulations about camping vary from park to park. While some state parks will offer free camping for backpackers or a handful of free campsites, this is not the norm. When in doubt, call a state park ranger to get their advice.

What Does Boondocking Mean?

Boondocking is a type of RV or van camping where you camp in an undesignated site. Usually, these sites don’t have hookups or other amenities, but they’re free to use.

Where Can I Get Free Water When Camping?

Getting water is the trickiest part of free camping. While most paid campgrounds will have water available, free campsites rarely do. Our advice is to pack large water containers for your travels.

If you have water bottles with you, you can often fill them in a rest area bathroom, park visitor’s center, or dump station without getting in trouble. Then, just keep topping off your water container as you go. Your other option is to pack a water filtration kit just in case you’re camping near a river or stream.

What Happens If You Camp Illegally?

Camping illegally can get you in big trouble. If you camp illegally on public land, you’ll probably get issued a citation and a fine. But, you can face bigger consequences in National Parks and other highly protected areas.

Private landowners are also fully within their rights to prosecute you for trespassing, which is a felony in some states. Some private landowners can get very aggressive toward trespassers, which can turn a nice night of camping into a scary situation.

Our advice? Always check local regulations to ensure that you’re camping legally. Never camp on private land unless you have express permission from the landowner.

 

Read more:

How Do You Poop While Camping? (The Complete Guide)

How do People Make a Living on the Road?

Camping Games: 21 Ways To Stay Entertained In The Wild

Camping Alone: What Every Woman Needs to Know

Share this article!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*