Knowing how to camp for free… it’s pretty much the ultimate road trip hack. Between gas, food, and admission to attractions along the way, travel isn’t cheap. Finding ways to make your money go further means your trip can go a little further, too. Free camping might not be the most glamorous option, but it’s got a certain “romance of the open road” appeal to it. Here’s our advice on how to camp for free… anytime, anywhere.
How to find free campsites
Knowing which public lands allow free camping makes finding a free campsite a heck of a lot easier. The website freecampsites.net has some really great guidelines on which public lands allow dispersed camping (camping anywhere on public lands, outside of a campsite). Bureau of Land Management lands and Forest Service lands, for the most part, allow dispersed camping for up to 14 days. Wildlife Management Areas also often allow it, but check and make sure that you don’t need a permit/there are no restrictions. Remember to keep an eye out for “no camping signs”, too. National Parks are often too crowded to allow dispersed camping, but some (like Congaree National Park) allow backcountry/dispersed camping– check whether or not you need to obtain a free permit. You might luck out and find out that the park where you’re staying has a free, developed campsite. Check the BLM and Forest Service websites to find those. You might need to do some hiking, but it’s well worth it.
You also might be able to find a city/county park with free camping; often, these places will advertise this. Wherever you plan to stay, do as much research online in advance as you can. You can get tips on what amenities a site may or may not have, how crowded it might be, etc. And if you’re planning on tent camping, double and triple check that you have everything you need. Often these free campsites are pretty far off the grid, and finding a place with supplies might be a pain.
Some free campsites might not come with bathrooms… and if it does, they might not be bathrooms that you want to use. It’s not hard to find a McDonald’s or a slightly more clean gas station to use, but showering is a whole other ballgame. Truck stops are one option, or you might want to splurge on a nicer campsite if you start to feel kind of funky. Or, there’s the old-school option: Go for a swim! Lots of van-lifers take a dip in a lake, river, or even in the ocean each morning to freshen up.
A lot of these campsites have zero amenities. Not even a picnic table or a trash can. Plan to bring your own water, a trash bag for your garbage, and maybe some picnic chairs. Don’t plan on being able to have a campfire; research restrictions, permits, and advanced fire safety skills. You might not have cell service, so don’t expect to rely on your phone’s GPS. Paper maps are good to have, just in case.
All of that being said... here are a few of our favorite free campsites.
Free camping is available at this first come, first serve campground from mid-May until early September. Campers won't find water or electric or sewer hookups, but there is a dump station available. It also has picnic tables and fire pits/grills at all sites as well as flush toilets and a boat launch.
Take Forest Road 6370 to the east end of Round Lake to find this lightly-used campground with six sites and two pit toilets. It's in a great location a short drive from Bagby Hot Springs and the Opal Creek Trail.
Glass Creek Campground in Inyo National Forest has 66 free first-come, first-serve campsites. They're all large and can accommodate RVs up to 45 feet, although there's no water or hookups here.
Next to the iconic Crystal Forest Museum & Gifts are two campgrounds. One is free, the other across the street has electric (20 amp), which costs an extra $10. This is a particularly lucky find, as there's no camping inside nearby Petrified Forest National Park. Make sure to arrive while the gift shop is still open... and bonus, it sells bottle water.
Since Diablo Canyon is a BLM site, you know the odds of it having free camping are high. It has 4 walk-in tent sites and 4 car camping sites, but little else; you won't find restrooms or trash cans, so remember to pack out your garbage.
Just north of Yellowstone in Custer-Gallatin National Forest is the free Palisades Campground. It can get crowded on weekends and holidays, so get here plenty early, as there are no reservations. Bring bear-proof canisters in case your site doesn't come equipped with them.
On the Custer side of Custer-Gallatin National Forest in South Dakota is Reva Gap Campground. It has restrooms and 8 sites, and is generally less crowded than Palisades.
The northwest corner of Wind Cave National Park allows off-trail hiking as well as backcountry camping; you just need to pick up a free permit at the visitor center. No fires or pets are allowed, so remember to bring in water and self-contained fuel stoves if you want to cook. Note that all backcountry campsites must be at least 1/4 mile from and out of sight of any road. Campsites also must be 100 feet (33 meters) away from any trail or water source.
Technically Prewitt Reservoir is only free if you have a Colorado fishing or hunting license, but considering that the reservoir is stocked with walleye, saugeye, channel catfish, wipers and black crappie, it's worth picking up a fishing license to stay here and enjoy a day on the water.
If you're traveling through west Texas in an RV, Muleshoe's Ray & Donna West Free RV Park will be a welcome stop. RVers can get access to water, sewer and electric (50 amp breakers) hookups for three free days here. You can stay longer with a permit, which will cost 25 extra bucks a day.
Missouri's Mark Twain National Forest allows free dispersed camping in areas all across the forest. Dispersed camping means you don't necessarily need to hike to where you want to set up (as long as you're 100 feet away from roads, trails, buildings, etc.) so it's a bit easier. But, you're still camping without any amenities. The Forest Service highly suggests you really educate yourself before trying out dispersed camping, especially if you've never done it before.
Rocky Springs is an absolute gem of a find. Not only is it free, it's just off the gorgeous (and popular) Natchez Trace AND it's alongside a real, live ghost town. And there's a trail to a waterfall nearby as well. The campground, which is located at mile marker 54, is primitive, with restrooms that are open seasonally and limited cell service, but it's not a bad little place to spend the night. As for Rocky Springs itself, it was settled in 1790 and in the 1860s, it had a population of about 2,626. It was eventually abandoned due to a number of factors; There was the Civil War, Yellow Fever, destructive crop insects and poor land management, among others.
There are two other free campgrounds along the Trace as well, making it ideal for those looking to road trip an iconic route on the cheap.
Another National Forest, another great place for dispersed camping. Ocala National Forest has three areas that allow free dispersed camping: Davenport Landing, Trout Lake and Little Lake Bryant. Check to make sure the sites are open and if there are any fire restrictions ongoing before you plan to camp out.
Congaree is another National Park that allows for free backcountry camping. You just have to grab a permit from the Harry Hampton Visitor Center. For a unique backcountry camping experience, try canoeing to a site; you just have to remember to set up 100 feet away from any sources of water.
Some State Forest sites allow free camping as well. Pennsylvania's Tiagahton State Forest has a site with restrooms, drinking water, and trash cans that campers can state at for the low, low cost of absolutely nothing. Call ahead to make sure that permits aren't needed and that there are no restrictions; parts of the forest are a fragile ecosystem and require management.
Green Mountain National Forest has the free dispersed/backcountry camping (they require campers to set up 200 feet away from sources of water and remind everyone to not camp in areas with trees that are 8 feet or less) but hikers will find tent platforms and established shelters they can use as well. You may have to share them, but there are a few along the Appalachian and Long Trails here.
Michigan is a downright incredible destination for outdoor recreation, and the free, no-permit-required dispersed camping at Huron-Manistee National Forests sweetens the deal. Just keep 400 feet away from the lakeshores and 200 feet away from any other bodies of water, and obey all "No Camping" signs.
Hoosier National Forest's dispersed camping is quite similar to other National Forests. Hoosier is a lovely little spot located along the way to and from tons of destinations: Louisville, Indy, Cincinnati, St. Louis, and even Chicago are within a about a four hour drive (or less.)
Mammoth Cave is more than just the massive subterranean cavern for which it is named. The land above the cave is just as beautiful, and contains 13 lovely backcountry campsites. You just need to pick up a permit from the visitor center (no less than 15 minutes before it closes!) in order to stay the night.
Banner Photo Credit: Photo by Tim Foster on Unsplash