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Free Camping in the United States

Did you know there are public lands available in the United States where you can camp for free?  Free camping, known as dispersed camping, has a lot to offer.  Besides the benefit of saving money on travel, free camping locations are often more secluded than traditional campgrounds, allowing you to get away from the crowds and connect more deeply with nature.

As a tent camper and RV’er, free camping has provided me with the ability to both spend essential time in nature as well as explore local and regional history and culture.  During my travels, I have soaked it up in hot springs and played with my dog on sand dunes in Nevada, explored old boom towns in Colorado while enjoying riverside views through my windows, witnessed the US/Mexico border issues first hand while simultaneously enjoying the hospitality of Texas, enjoyed soothing views of the ocean from my bedroom window, and walked straight out of the front door and into a slot canyon in Utah.

The only way to know if dispersed camping is for you is to give it a try.  Here are a few tips I can offer from my years of exploring the United States through free camping opportunities.

Where You Can Camp for Free on Public Lands

The regulations for dispersed camping vary depending upon the public land’s regulatory agency.  Most dispersed camping is offered on United State Forest Service (USFS), National Forests and Grasslands as well as Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands.  Other federal and state public land options include Army Corps of Engineers locations, State Forests, and state Wildlife Management Areas.

Though most cities and counties do not offer dispersed camping, I have seen them create free overnight camping spots in local parks with hopes that instead of driving straight through their town, travelers will stop, explore and enjoy the local offerings.

Wherever you decide to set up camp, it is important that you do the proper research to ensure that you set up camp where allowed and follow proper rules and regulations.

How to Find Free Camping

There are websites and apps where fellow travelers have compiled databases of free campsite locations which also provide helpful details such as cell phone coverage, road conditions and vehicle type accessibility.  The websites and apps I find myself using the most include: www.freecampsites.net,  www.campendium.com and iOverlander.  Additionally, if you search on Youtube for the location that you are interested in visiting along with “dispersed camping” or “boondocking”, the search results will surely unearth dozens of videos showing a variety of camping options.

Don’t overlook printed resources, especially the Atlas and Gazetteer.  Available state by state, the topographic maps provide quick reference for public land ownership.  Printed maps become particularly useful when you travel outside of cell phone coverage.

You can research your desired camping spots through Google Maps satellite view.  I check to see if there are vehicles that have parked there before, if there any gates along the road blocking access, what do the general surroundings look like, etc.  Keep in mind that just because you see a tent or RV parked somewhere on the satellite view does not mean they are allowed to camp there.   It is your responsibility to inform yourself as to where you are allowed to camp.

Once you find a general area or specific location for dispersed camping, I highly recommend you visit the website for the agency that oversees the land or call the local office to educate yourself on the rules and regulations as well as the boundaries.  It can save you the trouble of having to pack up your camp unexpectedly.

For the more intrepid camper, you can also utilize topographic maps or mapping apps that display federal land boundaries to find your own unique dispersed camping site.  Gaia is a great app for this purpose.

What You Need to Know Before You Free Camp

One of the reasons you need to visit the agency’s website or call the local office before you disperse camp, is to determine how long you can camp in your desired camping spot.  Keep in mind there is a stay limit imposed on dispersed camping opportunities.  Most BLM and USFS campgrounds have 14 day stay limits and then you must travel at least 30 miles away before setting up camp again. These stay limits vary by agency, location and season.  Areas may also require you to obtain a free permit before camping on the land.

Most dispersed camping is primitive camping meaning there will be no amenities available.  No toilets, no water spigots, no garbage, and no picnic table. Be prepared to be self-sufficient bringing drinking water, toiletry supplies, trash bags, outdoor table and chairs, firewood, and any other camping creature comforts you enjoy.

Practice Leave No Trace principles to preserve and protect our shared public lands.  These include packing out your garbage, using existing sites, camping at least 200′ away from water sources, packing out your toilet paper and burying your waste, traveling on established roads, using existing fire rings and buying local firewood to burn.

Keep in mind that many public lands, especially BLM, are shared use.  I remember waking up one morning while camping on a canyon floor in Oregon to the sound of an automatic weapon in the distance.  My husband and I have never packed our tent so fast. Another time, our camp was continually invaded by grazing sheep, leaving less than desirable excrement throughout our campsite on a daily basis.  What I am saying is be ready to be flexible to the conditions.

I hope these tips and tricks on how to free camp provide you with many adventures on the road ahead!

Melissa
Guide & Yoga In The Wild Program Director
Get In The Wild

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