With millions of acres in the United States available for free camping, it can seem ridiculous to pay for an overnight adventure. Still, recognizing that free camping comes with zero of the amenities and all of the responsibility of “Leave No Trace” policies, it is important to do your research before setting off for your next camping destination.
There are many places that offer free camping in the U.S. including 175 National Forests and Grasslands (monitored by the U.S. Forestry Service), Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land expanding 250 million acres of publicly-owned land, State Forests, National Parks and overnight parking areas.
Of course, each of these may have its own requirements- such as special permits in a State Forest- so it is important to do your research on the specific area you plan to go to before you arrive. And, if you are someone who goes more with the flow than plans ahead, then be sure to make friends with the Park Rangers to get their best tips on free camping spots nearby. Either way, you can find a spot if you are prepared. Let’s take a closer look.
1. National Forests and Grasslands
One of the best parts about the U.S. recreation/camping opportunities is that there are so many different types of lands that will allow you to camp for free. Of course, camping for free means that there will be no access to restrooms, trash, water, or any of the other classic amenities that would be available to you at a campground (for cost).
With this in mind, it is critical to remember that what you pack into the area, you must also take back out. This goes into the “Leave No Trace” policy set up to allow for the best protection of public lands including environmentally conscious efforts to keep the land beautiful, clean, and safe for all.
If you are open to the idea of providing everything for yourself (including water sanitation, food, and camping equipment), then backpacking into one of the 175 National Forests and Grasslands monitored by the U.S. Forestry Service can be a great option. Truly, there are National Forests all over the country, so this makes this option particularly appealing for its accessibility.
To find free camping in national forests and grasslands areas, all you need to do is to search for the national forest or grasslands in the area that you are intending to visit. Then, check with the U.S. Forestry Service in the local area to see any rules or regulations that you will need to follow before you set off on your camping adventure.
For the most part, as long as you are respecting the land (and the wildlife), you should be good to camp for free in most National Forests and Grasslands for up to 14 days. Of course, you will need to follow a few guidelines like camping where others have camped, using pre-existing fire rings (if fires are permitted), and avoiding camping within 100 feet of a water source (all of these as efforts to protect the natural wildlife and plant life).
2. State Forests
Now that we have talked a bit about National Forests and Grasslands, it is important to take a closer look at State Forests, too, as you can sometimes find free camping locations here as well. Notably, though, many State Forests require special permits or small fees to be able to upkeep with the people they permit into the area.
While this might seem frustrating, it actually has a very good rationale. Many State Forests are limited in funds on who is able to manage them. This means that any safety, security, and cleanliness that is monitored by the State could be limited. Thus, special permits and fees may be required to help upkeep the land and to ensure that you are prepared to appropriately take care of the land while you camp on it.
Hopefully, knowing this, you can take heed to be more eager to jump on this opportunity. However, if you prefer to avoid special permits and potential fees, then you can opt for another option- there are plenty to choose from for completely free camping locations in the U.S.
3. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Land
Another great option for publicly-owned land is to search for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land in the area that you are planning to camp. BLM land expands over 250 million acres in the United States- a considerable amount of land that is paid for and kept up by American taxpayer dollars (hence the publicly-owned part). So, why not take advantage of this perk and begin your quest for free camping?
If you plan to camp for free on BLM land, there are just a few things to keep in mind. Often, this land can be searched for based on the area that you intend to camp. You can also take a look at any National Parks and then search for BLM land nearby. This is a great resource if you are interested in hitting up some of the more touristy areas during the day but would prefer to camp freely and quietly- away from the other tourists- at night.
Similar to camping for free in the National Forests or Grasslands, it is imperative that you follow similar “Leave No Trace” policy reminders when you are camping in land owned by the public and managed through the Bureau of Land Management. This means that if you are bringing along your camping cookware, you need to make sure to collect all of the items that are not consumed and tote them away from your campsite (and to the trash) once you are done camping.
You will also want to make sure that you are not backed up onto private property as this can be more common on this type of land than a few other options. To ensure this, you can simply take a look at the maps and make sure that you are camping in an area that is not considered trespassing.
4. National Parks
Yet another type of land that you might be able to camp on for free is land that is managed by the National Parks in the U.S. Interestingly, though, when it comes to National Parks, these tend to draw many more tourists to them, and consequently bring in lots more rules to abide by (and more cost-based campgrounds, too). So, to know how to find free camping at National Parks can take a bit of research.
To find free camping near National Parks, you will likely have to look on the edges away from the attractions (in other words, a decent distance away from the actual park attraction itself). With this in mind, you might actually end up looking for BLM land nearby to a National Park. Taking a closer look at a map and consulting with a local Park Ranger can help to point you in the right direction on this.
Keep in mind, though, that free camping on the outskirts of National Parks areas means you will have to do a bit more trekking either in your vehicle or by foot. This means that you will need to be adequately prepared with high-quality camping gear, nourishment, and the ability to remove your waste so as to not taint the land on which you are camping. Still, this can be a great option if you want to camp for free but still want the added benefits of checking out the attractions at the National Parks.
5. Overnight Parking Areas
Now, if you are hauling across the country in an RV or are participating in the coveted van life, then you might be looking for a free place to park and sleep overnight. When looking for an overnight parking area, you will want to research this ahead of time depending on the area that you are planning to drive.
Fortunately, there are many types of locations that will allow you to park for free overnight (in an RV or another type of closed vehicle). A few overnight parking areas to consider are truck stops, rest stops, Walmart, casinos, and some restaurants.
- Truck stops and rest stops. When it comes to truck stops and rest stops, these will be pretty similar- most are operated by the Department of Transportation in the local area, so you can find out any regulations from there before you arrive. Many offer food, beverages, showers, and the ability to dump your waste. Of course, any amenities will often come with a charge- but the parking spot itself will likely be free.
Keep in mind that not all truck stops and rest stops are open to overnight RV campers, though, so you will want to call ahead. And, since there are many moving vehicles in this location, you will want to keep everything that you own inside of your RV or van. Also, note that this movement can add quite a bit of noise.
- Walmart. Most Walmart stores offer free parking in the rear of their parking lots as long as you keep to yourself and do not create much noise or disturbances. This is a store-by-store regulation, so be sure to check with the manager of the particular retail location that you plan to park at overnight before setting up shop. Then, if you need to restock on your long trip, you can patronize the store before you roll out in the morning.
- Casinos. One location that is often overlooked as a free camping location (or a free overnight parking area) is a casino parking lot. Often, if you check with the manager beforehand, you should be good to go to park in the rear of the facility.
You may find that the casino near the location you are headed even has a field or nearby parking facility designated for this exact purpose. Of course, any casino that is offering this is hoping that you will come inside at some point to patronize their drinks, food, or entertainment.
- Some restaurants. Depending on the area and the type of vehicle that you are driving, you might find that some classic restaurants like Cracker Barrel, Waffle House, or diners will allow you to park your RV or van overnight in the back of their parking lot. Of course, this is highly selective considering the various management that you may run into.
Still, if you are looking to have a great breakfast spot after a night of sleep in the parking lot, then aiming to spend the night in your RV in the parking lot of a restaurant might just work out for you.
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