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The costs of paying for a place to sleep can quickly add up and leave you wondering whether van life is a sustainable option. Fortunately, it just doesn’t have to be that way. You’ll be happy to learn that the US is positively brimming with free camping options — you just have to know where to find them.
In this article, we’ll show you how to find free campsites so you’ll never have to pay camping fees again. We’ll talk about where to look, what tools you can use, and the equipment you’ll need. Consider this the first step in your journey to becoming a free camping expert!
Want to find free campsites? The Dyrt Pro Membership makes it easy, with Map Layers showing you where to find federal lands for boondocking. Click here to get a 30-day free trial of The Dyrt Pro.
Table of Contents
The Lowdown: What Exactly Is Free Camping?
You probably won’t be surprised to hear that free camping involves staying overnight in your camper van without any money changing hands. After all, the word “free” was a dead giveaway, right?!
There’s a wide range of free camping options out there, ranging from incredible, secluded beauty spots to dreary parking lots you’d rather leave as soon as possible. However, most experienced van lifers quickly learn that it’s unreasonable to expect a 5-star free camping spot every time.
For the most part, free camping areas won’t have the amenities you’d expect from a place you’d pay for. That means no picnic tables, trashcans, toilets, or fire rings. There’s usually no potable water on offer, either, so planning ahead when free camping is vital.
There are quite a few terms used to describe free camping, and it’s important to become familiar with them. That way you’ll have more success when searching for the ideal place to spend the night.
- Boondocking. This is one of the most commonly used terms for free camping. Boondocking is a catchall for free camping of all types. Whether you are relaxing at a riverside paradise deep in the forest or roughing it in a noisy casino parking lot, you’re boondocking if it’s free. You’ll see this word pop up regularly on RV and van life blogs, so make sure to remember it!
- Dispersed camping. This is the official term used by the National Forest Service (NFS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to describe free camping areas. Dispersed camping on government agency-managed land can usually be found away from developed campgrounds and there won’t be any amenities. When you’re calling a ranger station to enquire about a place to spend the night, make sure to ask about dispersed camping areas.
- Stealth camping. If you’re new to van life, you may have seen this term on trendy Instagram posts and van life blogs. Stealth camping is as simple as it sounds; you’re staying overnight for free without anyone knowing about it. For the most part, you’ll only need to rely on stealth camping when you need to spend a night or two in an urban area where the legality of what you’re doing is questionable.
- Other free camping terms. Although we’ve covered the most commonly used terms for free camping, you might come across a few others. Dry camping refers to the fact that there aren’t any water hookups and is used interchangeably with boondocking. Primitive camping is sometimes used by the National Forest Service to describe campgrounds, many of which don’t require a fee. Finally, wild camping is a term you’ll run into north of the border. Canadians use this term instead of dispersed camping. Vive la difference!
What’s So Great About Free Camping Anyway?
For a growing number of adventure enthusiasts, the van life dream offers an irresistible opportunity to live a different kind of life. With that comes the freedom to go where you please on your own schedule, untethered from the demands of a conventional lifestyle.
The most obvious reason that free camping is great is that it goes hand in hand with the idea of a rent- or mortgage-free existence. You’ll be able to save loads of money and you’ll feel completely independent. What could be better than that?!
Let’s continue by taking a look at a few other reasons why we think spending time finding free campsites is the way to go.
You Don’t Need Reservations
While it can be great to have the odd reserved camping spot here and there (The Dyrt app is a great way to find campgrounds), staying at free campsites gives you a lot more flexibility. You can show up whenever you want and you won’t feel like you have to meet a check-in deadline.
Best of all, you won’t feel tied down to a set schedule if you’re staying at free camping areas. If you decide to stay on at a particularly fantastic spot for a few extra days, there’s absolutely nothing to stop you!
You Can Find Seclusion
Seeing as a lot of free camping areas are found off the beaten path, you’re more likely to find yourself spending the night in seclusion.
Not only will you get to enjoy peace and quiet in a beautiful natural environment, but you’ll also have the satisfaction of knowing that others are spending the night crowded into the nearby national park. Plus, they paid for the privilege!
Of course, there are tons of popular free camping areas, too, and they can get overcrowded. Still, once you get into the swing of things, finding a quiet, secluded spot gets easier.
You’ll Meet Likeminded People
Not everyone craves solitude and seclusion, at least not all the time. As it happens, free camping spots can be fantastic places to meet fellow van lifers. Don’t be surprised if you start seeing the same folks again and again; after all, great minds think alike when it comes to finding free campsites!
For the most part, you’ll find like-minded people who’ll be eager to share their road experiences. Hanging out with other van dwellers can be a wonderful way to build a sense of community and you’ll learn a lot, too!
You’ll Have Adventures
If you’re new to free camping, the whole concept can seem a little intimidating. That’s perfectly understandable — the idea of setting out with no reservations and only a vague plan of where you’ll be spending the night can be quite scary for a lot of people.
However, there’s a lot to be said for forcing yourself out of your comfort zone and embracing the unknown! Remember those crowds at the national park? They’re all sticking together and doing the predictable stuff while you’re out there exploring the roads less traveled.
Things won’t always be perfect and you’ll likely suffer through the odd sleepless night. Still, once you learn how to find free campsites you’ll have awesome adventures, gain new experiences and see places that few others ever reach.
Reality Check: What To Expect From Free Campsites
At this point, we should point out that there are some potential drawbacks to free campsites. If you’ve become accustomed to all the comforts available in fully developed campgrounds, you should be aware of what free camping entails.
Remember, though — venturing into the unknown is half the fun of dispersed camping and you won’t be paying a dime!
With that said, the following isn’t necessarily a collection of drawbacks. Rather, we wanted to list a few things you should be aware of when camping for free.
- Camping amenities. As we already mentioned, a free campsite rarely includes the amenities you’ll see at a KOA campground. However, it’s not always the case that free camping spots are completely undeveloped; we’ve stayed at BLM-managed places in Wyoming with incredibly clean restrooms! Still, for the most part, you can forget about seeing trashcans, tables, fire rings, or water spigots when camping for free.
- Lack of water. Again, whether or not you’ll find potable water really depends on where you’re staying. In short, don’t ever count on water being available. Planning ahead and traveling with enough water is vital when boondocking off grid, especially if you’re spending time in the desert. Check out these water tanks for a campervan.
- Rough roads. If you’re traveling deep into the forests and mountains in your 4×4 Mercedes Sprinter, you may feel invincible. However, it’s good to be aware that many roads leading to free camping spots are no joke. Whether you’re living in an AWD powerhouse van conversion or a Ford Transit Connect camper, it pays to find out as much as you can about the local roads before trying to find free camping. This is especially important during the winter, when many roads on forest service land aren’t maintained.
- Cell service. The deeper you travel into the backwoods to find free campsites, the spottier cell service becomes. There are ways to combat this, which we’ll talk about later. However, don’t count on being able to use your phone at a free campsite, so make sure to let someone know where you’re going. Also, if you’re relying solely on an app to show you how to find free campsites, consider picking up an actual map. Just in case.
- Fire restrictions. As wonderful as it is to sit around a campfire at night, it’s important to know whether or not it’s actually allowed. You’re unlikely to find fire rings at free camping spots, but boondockers often make their own using rocks. Make sure you’re up to date on local guidelines for fires and also that you know how to safely extinguish a campfire.
- Animals. Depending on where you end up dispersed camping, there could be wild animals in the vicinity. Your biggest concern will be bears, so make sure not to leave food lying around. This won’t just keep you safe, it’ll help prevent bears from coming back to harass the next folks to show up after you’re gone. Make sure to keep all your food safely locked within your rig.
- Garbage facilities. It’s super important to pack out all your trash when camping for free in the backwoods. We’ll take a closer look at the Leave No Trace guidelines a little later, so you’ll be better informed about how to keep dispersed camping areas spick and span.
Where To Find Free Camping Areas
There’s an incredible variety of free camping spots on offer throughout the United States, and no matter where you’re traveling you should be able to secure free overnight parking of one kind or another.
With that said, some areas of the country are better than others for finding fee campsites, especially if you’re west of the Rockies. The more time you spend learning how to find free campsites, the more adept you’ll become at recognizing how to identify the real dream spots.
We’ve found amazing free campsites everywhere from small town parks with picnic tables and electrical hookups to a bird sanctuary with clean bathrooms and free water — it’s often just a case of being persistent and staying positive!
Although the possibilities for finding free campsites are almost endless, let’s take a look at some of the areas that most often come up trumps.
Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Land
The Bureau of Land Management is a US government agency responsible for managing public lands.
Most of this land is located in the Western States and you might be surprised by the actual scope of what’s out there. However, you should be aware that accessing BLM land can often be tricky; not only are the roads sometimes rough and poorly maintained, BLM land is sometimes completely surrounded by private property.
In super popular areas BLM campgrounds often charge a fee, especially during the peak tourist season. Still, for the most part you’re able to camp out on this publicly owned land without paying a penny for up to 14 days. After that, you’ll have to move at least 25 miles away before camping again.
Use common sense when camping on BLM land; it’s always wise to look for spots that have obviously been used for overnight stays. Make sure to follow Leave No Trace principles and ensure your campsite is located at least 200 feet away from water sources.
Check out the BLM interactive map, which has tons of information on how to find free campsites. You’ll also find information on individual field offices in case you want to call ahead of time.
The Dyrt Pro Membership offers downloadable Map Layers for seeing the boundaries of land run by the Bureau of Land Management and National Forest Service. This is a great way to find free campsites and to make sure you’re staying on federal land. Click here for a FREE 30-day trial of The Dyrt Pro.
Forest Service Land
Without a doubt, some of the best free campsites we’ve found have been on Forest Service land. Way fewer people tend to visit national forests, making them ideal for camping. Plus, national forests are often located just outside national park boundaries, so you’ll have easy access to all the greatest hits!
The United States Forest Service (USFS) manages almost 200 million acres of land across the country, and allows dispersed camping in over 175 national forests, grasslands, and seashores nationwide. Not only that, many national forests contain developed campgrounds with basic amenities where you won’t have to pay a fee.
As far as dispersed camping in national forests goes, the range of what you’ll find is staggering. From simple roadside pullouts to incredible mountaintop sites, there’s a bit of everything on offer. Dispersed camping must be outside of developed campgrounds requiring a fee and you’ll need to be set up away from water sources.
There’s usually a 14-day limit on dispersed camping in one spot, but the rules can change depending on which national forest you’re in. You can find the guidelines for national forest dispersed camping on the USFS website.
Other Public Lands
There are plenty of free campsites in smaller State parks, city parks, and county parks although you’ll have to do plenty of research to find out which ones allow overnight parking. In our experience, you’re more likely to find free camping at these kinds of parks in out-of-the-way areas that don’t see much tourist traffic.
That being said, you might be pleasantly surprised at just how nice the facilities can be in a small-town park. As part of your research, it’s probably best to call ahead, because you might need a reservation. Otherwise, keep an eye out for signs that prohibit overnight stays. If in doubt, it’s better to move on and look elsewhere.
Rest Areas and Truck Stops
If your only experience of van life was looking at glamorous Instagram posts, you’d think that every day was perfect. Seasoned van dwellers know different, though. Sure, there are plenty of times when you’ll fall asleep to the sound of crashing waves or wake up to an unspoiled mountain vista.
However, there are quite a few nights when you just need to find a place to catch a few hours of sleep after a long day’s drive.
That’s where truck stops and rest areas come in. Although not ideal, truck stops like Flying J and Love’s are usually safe and well-lit. A truck stop isn’t the best place for a light sleeper — there’ll be lots of noise to contend with — but you will have access to restrooms, showers and other facilities.
Rest areas are a little less reliable for free camping because they often prohibit overnight parking. Plus, depending on which part of the country you’re in, rest areas can be few and far between. Still, at the very least a rest area is ideal for those times when you just need to get off the road for a while. Remember: driving when you’re sleepy is never a good idea!
Business Parking Lots
Again, spending the night sleeping in a parking lot isn’t likely to top anyone’s “best van life experiences” list! However, this is another great option to consider when you’re pushing to get from one cool area to the next.
There are quite a few corporate retailers that don’t have a problem with overnight camping, but it’s always a good idea to call ahead first, as specific businesses often change their policies. Also remember that some cities have enacted laws to prohibit sleeping in a vehicle, so tread carefully. Here are some fairly reliable options:
- Walmart. Until a few years ago, pretty much every Walmart parking lot in the country was seen as fair game for RVers, van dwellers, and those in the mood for a little car camping. However, things have changed and some stores have really clamped down on overnight parking. Although plenty of Walmart stores do still allow overnight stays, it’s best to call ahead first. Make sure to ask for the manager, as many employees won’t know the store’s policy.
- Casinos. Whether or not you enjoy gambling, casino parking lots are actually fantastic free camping spots. Casinos are used to older RVers stopping in, so they’re usually very accomodating when it comes to overnight parking. After all, they want the business! A benefit of camping in a casino parking lot is having 24-hour access to restrooms and restaurants, as well as the opportunity to have a little flutter!
- 24 Hour Fitness. If you’re a full-time van dweller, chances are you already have a 24-hour gym membership to take advantage of the shower facilities. Either way, 24-Hour Fitness and similar businesses allow overnight parking, making them ideal for catching a few hours of sleep.
- Camping World. Again, you’ll need to consider Camping World on a case by case basis. Still, you’ll often find free camping is allowed in Camping World parking lots. It’s even said that sometimes you’ll find free electrical hookups!
- Cracker Barrel. Cracker Barrel is a known haven for overnight free parking. You can spend the night and then go inside for coffee, breakfast and a bathroom.
Stealth Camping Spots
Stealth camping is a great way to stay overnight in an urban area, but the aim is to go completely unnoticed. That’s why this kind of free camping isn’t ideal of your van is decked out with an awning, decals, solar panels, and anything else that’ll make it obvious that people are sleeping inside.
Be really careful parking overnight in residential areas unless you’re outside a friend’s house. Otherwise, you run the risk of concerned neighbors calling the police to report suspicious activity.
A better option for stealth camping in a city is to park in semi-industrial areas with no houses. You’ll likely find quiet places close to freeway ramps on the outskirts of town.
Other places to consider overnight camping include church parking lots, hotel parking lots and streets outside bars. Just remember to always follow the golden rule of stealth camping: arrive late and leave early. For more information, check out our ultimate guide to stealth camping.
The Nitty Gritty: How To Find Free Campsites
As you spend more time trying to find free camping, you’ll start to develop an almost supernatural sense of where to look. Your new free camping superpower will start leading you to ever more fantastic spots and you’ll never consider paying for an overnight stay again.
Okay, that might be a bit of a stretch, but finding free campsites does get easier after a while. Fortunately, there are all kinds of tools you can use to help, ranging from the high-tech to the old school. For the best results, we’ve found that a combination of methods works best.
Phone Apps and Websites
There’s an ever-expanding list of boondocking apps and websites designed to make finding free campsites a breeze. Many of these high-tech solutions share similar features, so feel free to test a few out to see which one works best for your needs.
- Freecampsites.net. This community-driven website is one of our favorite tools for finding free campsites. Although the map function is a little “sticky,” you’ll soon get the hang of it. Simply zoom into the area you’re searching and options will start to appear. Click on an icon and you’ll get loads of information form other users including directions, photos, and detailed cell reception reports.
- iOverlander. This free app is available for iOS or Android devices and it’s one of the most popular tools out there for finding free campsites. You can use tons of filters with the map-based platform, including “wild camping,” which brings up free camping options. You can also search for nearby grocery stores, gas stations, and other amenities which can come in really handy.
- The Dyrt Pro Membership. The Dyrt Pro Membership costs around $35 per year and is available for iOs and Android devices. This popular and powerful app offers numerous map layers to help you identify BLM, NFS, and national park land. You can also access tons of detailed user reviews of campsites plus info on weather, elevation, and more. Best of all, you can download maps for offline use. Click here for a free 30-day trial.
- Allstays. This fantastic boondocking app is only available for iOS, and you’ll have to pay a small fee to download it. However, there’s also a pretty cool website for Android users. Allstays has loads of user-generated information and plenty of filters to help you find free camping. We love that this app provides solid information about road grades and conditions so you’ll know what to expect.
- Free Roam. Another boondocking app, Free Roam sets itself apart by offering a social aspect. You’re able to connect with other van lifers and RVers, as well as access user photos and reviews of dispersed camping spots. Available for iOS or Android, Free Roam allows you to apply loads of filters for things like cell signal, amenities, and site length.
- Campendium. One of our favorite ways to find free camping, Campedium is a website and app with a super user-friendly interface. Featuring high-quality user generated content, you’ll find plenty of detailed photos and reviews of free campgrounds. The map-based interface also offers filters to help narrow down your search. Campendium is free to use, but you can pay $20 for an ad-free membership.
- US Public Lands app. Costing $2.99 and available for iOs and Android, the US Public Lands app is great to have as a companion to other tools for finding free camping. You can view standard or satellite maps with color coded layers to show which government agency manages the land. What’s really awesome is that this app downloads all the map data to your phone, so you can use it without a cell signal.
Check out our detailed article about the 8 best apps for boondocking.
Other Ways to Find Free Campsites
As previously mentioned, you’re better off using multiple tools to help you find the best spots for your free camping adventure. That’s never more apparent than when cell service starts to come in and out. This could be a major bummer if you’re relying on an app or website, so what else can you do?
We’re glad you asked. There are tons of other ways to find free camping that don’t involve the internet. Let’s take look.
- Google Satellite View. Okay, this does involve the internet, but it’s a fantastic additional tool all the same. Google Satellite View comes in especially handy when you want additional information that can’t be found elsewhere. Use the zoom function to get a closeup of the area you’re interested in and you’ll often find undocumented free camping spots.
- Road maps. You may or may not remember the pre-internet days, and if you do you might not care to think about them. Either way, back then folks used real-life paper maps to help them get around. We’ve found Delorme road atlases to be among the best analog ways to find boondocking spots. The maps are color-coded to show BLM land and most forest roads are clearly marked.
- Ask a ranger. You can chat with local rangers by giving them a call or stopping by the ranger station. As you might expect, rangers are fountains of knowledge when it comes to dispersed camping areas, road conditions, and fire restrictions.
- Talk to the locals. Before embarking on your search of a specific area, consider stopping by an adjacent gas station or the nearest small town. In our experience, locals love nothing more than selling you on how wonderful their countryside is. Plus, you’re likely to get a boatload of insider info on everything from the best free campsites to tips on how to catch the local fish!
- Facebook groups. If you’re a member of van life, RVing or boondocking Facebook groups, you can search the archives or pose a question. One good one we’ve found is Boondocking and Free Camping USA.
Free Camping Essentials
Everyone has their own list of van life essentials, and it’s likely your van conversion is kitted out with everything you need.
Still, if you’re setting out on a free camping adventure for the first time you’ll need to be prepared with anything you may have overlooked.
After all, heading deep into the back country brings its own set of challenges and you’ll want to feel safe and secure. Here’s a list of what we consider the essentials for boondocking:
- Extra water. Sure, your van might be equipped with an enormous water tank, but do yourself a favor and bring extra. Even if space is tight inside your vehicle, find a way to squeeze in a couple of additional water jugs. Collapsible jugs are great and easy to store once they’re empty!
- An emergency kit. Accidents happen and you should always be prepared. This is especially important when you’re camping hours from the nearest hospital and your phone has no signal. Although you might never need it, an emergency kit will give you peace of mind.
- Power options. Depending on how long you plan on staying off grid, you’ll need a way to keep the lights on and your van life fridge powered up. Consider bringing along an extra power source as a backup — a small solar generator will do the job nicely.
- A portable heater. Bringing along a small portable propane heater is a great option for those who haven’t installed a permanent diesel heater or propane heater in their van. Remember that it can get cold at night in the mountains, even during the summer months!
- A signal booster. We keep going on about losing cell service, but that’s because we’re all so reliant on our phones! With that said, you might be surprised by how effective a device like the Weboost Drive is at conjuring up a signal seemingly out of nowhere!
- An outdoor shower. As you know by now, it’s unlikely you’ll find showers at any of the free campsites you’ll stay at. Consider bringing a solar van life shower along for the ride; just because you’re boondocking doesn’t mean you can’t stay clean!
- Extra fuel. No matter how well-planned your free camping excursion might be, there’s always the chance that things don’t turn out as planned. You might have to end up driving much deeper into the mountains than you’d imagined and gas stations could be a distant memory. That’s when that extra fuel you brought along will make you feel like the smartest person alive!
Toilet Talk: How To Leave No Trace at Free Campsites
Whenever you’re spending time outdoors in the backcountry it’s super important to minimize the impact of your visit on the natural environment. Whether you’re hitting the hiking trails for the day or planning an extended dispersed camping trip, being aware of the Leave No Trace principles is vital:
- Plan ahead and prepare
- Travel and camp on durable surfaces
- Pack out garbage
- Leave what you find
- Minimize campfire impacts
- Respect wildlife
- Be considerate of others
Although many folks include a van life toilet as part of their camper van conversion, plenty of van dwellers rely on public restrooms. Seeing as you’re unlikely to encounter amenities when you’re backcountry camping, you should know how to do your business without harming the ecosystem you’re staying in.
This is where carrying a small shovel in your van comes in handy. You can use it to dig cat holes, which are the best ways of disposing of solid human waste. Make sure to dig cat holes away from water sources, hiking trails and camping areas. You should also spread cat holes out so you’re not using the same place every time.
Try to find an elevated site that doesn’t experience water runoff and dig inn deep organic soil if you can. It’s best to dig a hole 6-8 inches deep, although if you’re in the desert the cat hole should be shallower. That way the heat and sun will quicken the decomposition process.
Make sure to use plain, unscented toilet paper and bury everything well once you’re done. In certain highly sensitive environments you’ll need to pack everything out, so make sure to check on local requirements if you’re unsure.
Conclusion on How To Find Free Campsites
There are so many options when it comes to finding free camping. In our experience, there’s nothing to match the feeling of waking up in a beautiful setting and knowing we didn’t have to pay penny to be there!
We hope this article has helped inspire you to get out of your comfort zone, especially if you’ve been itching to escape those national park crowds! Don’t forget to share your free camping experiences with others and always follow Leave No Trace guidelines when you’re camping off-grid!
Feel free to share any free camping tips or suggestions by leaving a comment below!