Everything You Need to Know About Free Camping Across the USA
Likely one of the biggest perks of road tripping and exploring the USA is the fact that you get the opportunity to stay in some absolutely beautiful landscapes. From the red rock desert of Utah to the dense redwood groves of California, there are thousands of places to spend the night.
And even better, many of those amazing spots can be stayed at for free.
Free camping is not just an economical way to explore the USA, it is also a great way to spend a decent amount of time in nature. By opting for a dispersed campsite instead of one in an established campground, you are setting yourself up for a more exciting and adventurous outdoor experience.
We started free camping in college for three reasons: first, because we wanted to save money; secondly, because we wanted to escape the crowded campgrounds that we had found ourselves in too many times before and finally because we were really looking to get off the beaten path and have more exciting adventure.
Since then we have spent almost every night while road tripping and traveling free camping out in nature. Sometimes with our van Terra, sometimes on a motorcycle and sometimes just in a tent. And while we will be the first to say it isn’t always easy, we 100% believe the amazing opportunities it has afforded us far outweigh any of the negatives.
If you are curious about free camping in the USA yourself but don’t know where to start then this adventure guide is for you. Below we cover everything from what free camping actually is to some of our most trusted resources for finding top-notch free campsites around the country. We also share some of our favorite free camping gear and even a few of our favorite campsites (many of which are located near the country’s numerous national parks).
So without further ado, here is everything you need to know about free camping in the USA.
\\ What is Free Camping Anyway?
As the name suggests, free camping is anytime you camp — either in a tent or a vehicle (like a van) — without paying. This process can also be called boondocking, dry camping and stealth camping. Though, in some regards, there are a few minor differences between the three.
Boondocking is most likely the image that comes to mind when you think of free camping: a vehicle, likely a van, camped out in the woods somewhere remote. While this is true, even more specifically, boondocking actually consists of two separate components: the how and the where.
The how part is the way in which you camp. We would say, overall, boondocking usually means staying somewhere that has no amenities or services like running water, bathrooms, dump stations, or tables and firepits. It is just you, your vehicle or tent and a piece of land. The where part is also pretty simple: boondocking means dispersed camping (aka not in a campground) on public lands. This usually means land managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the National Forest Service (NFS).
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: dispersed camping is another popular term for free camping. For all intents and purposes dispersed camping and boondocking are the same thing, though the latter is often used on maps or in guidebooks. If searching online for free campsites on websites run by the BLM or NFS you will want to search for “dispersed camping” and not boondocking.
The few other terms used to describe free camping — dry camping and stealth camping — are also quite similar to boondocking. Dry camping is the term used to describe camping somewhere that doesn’t have any amenities like water or electricity. Stealth camping on the other hand, is often associated with free camping in urban centers, like major cities such as San Francisco, California and Seattle, Washington. This type of free camping is a bit more challenging as you are more likely to run into regulations and rules on camping in the city.
One other term sometimes used to describe free camping is wild camping. While this might sound like boondocking or dispersed camping, in fact, in many countries around the world wild camping is considered the same as backcountry camping or the act of camping out along a trail while backpacking.
Overall, the term free camping is used to describe the process of camping either in a vehicle (like a van or RV) or in a tent on public land that does not have any amenities or services.
\\ The Pros and Cons of Free Camping in the USA
While we absolutely love free camping, especially in the western part of the USA, we understand that it is not always for everyone. Below are a few of the positives of free camping as well as a couple of the most common drawbacks.
There are a lot of positives of free camping in the USA. For starters, free camping often means camping out in the wilderness away from people. By escaping the established campgrounds — which can often be quite compact and overwhelmingly busy — you instead get to experience nature and all of its beauty. By choosing to free camp, you are more likely setting yourself up for some absolutely gorgeous and memorable camping locations, and even better, you will likely have these amazing sites all to yourself. Now that is a win-win.
Besides the opportunity for adventure that free camping in the wild gives you, it also allows you to be more flexible with your planning. We cannot tell you how many times we have found ourselves searching out places to camp along our driving route after failing to plan ahead. If you are anything like us (somewhat bad at planning) then you will also likely find yourself in a similar position. Luckily, there are a ton of free camping sites scattered all over the USA that don’t require a reservation.
Finally, and this likely should go without saying, one of the biggest perks of free camping is that it is FREE! By getting rid of the cost of lodging you can instead spend that money on more exciting things, like adventures and excursions (or maybe just more coffee).
While we absolutely love free camping in the USA, especially in our van Terra, we also don’t want to give you the idea that it is always easy and comfortable. Actually, there have been many times while free camping that we have found ourselves missing (even longing) for some of the amenities that can be found at established campgrounds.
A few of the main drawbacks of free camping revolve around the fact that you are out camping on your own with no services like bathrooms or running water. Even for the hardiest of people, this can sometimes weigh on you. If you are thinking of heading out to boondock for the first time, just know that you will need to do a bit more pre-planning and organizing before heading out. This includes making sure you have enough water and a proper bathroom setup (review Leave No Trace Principles for more information on this).
Other common downsides of boondocking are that the sites can sometimes be much tougher to reach, especially if you are free camping in the off-season, that the campsites often do not have any cell service (this can be a big downside for digital nomads) and that they, unfortunately, are more likely to have garbage and other gross stuff lying around.
💬 INSIDER TIP: we have had the unfortunate experience of pulling up to a free campsite only to find it full of garbage left over from the previous campers. While we will never understand why people think it is okay to leave their garbage in the great outdoors, we want to really inspire people to not do the same. As the childhood saying goes, always leave it better than you found it.
Overall, we would say that the positives of free camping far outweigh the negatives. If you are willing to do a bit of organizing ahead of time (mostly making sure you have enough water with you) then you should find free camping to be an absolutely amazing experience and adventure.
You can find some of our favorite free campsites below.
\\ The Top Places to Find Free Camping in the USA
There are a ton of places to free camp across the USA, from wide-open vistas in the desert to tight forested pull-offs in the mountains, there are free campsites for every type of traveler and adventurer. Below are some of the best places to find free camping.
BUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT (BLM)
By far one of the best places to find free camping sites is on public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management or BLM. In many western states, the BLM oversees huge swaths of land — most of which is completely empty of any form of infrastructure. In fact, the BLM oversees 1 out of every 10 acres in the entire USA, meaning you can find all types of camping sites; including, sites in the mountains, desert, open plains, dense forests and along the coast.
But with that being said, it is important to point out that while most of the BLM land is totally open for dispersed camping, they do still have a few regulations that must be followed. This includes packing out all waste with you when you leave, following all fire ordinances and bans, only camping on durable services — or better yet, camping in sites that are already established, and only camping for a max period of 14 days.
➳ You can explore all of the BLM’s managed land in this interactive map.
NATIONAL FOREST SERVICE (NFS)
Besides being able to free camp on BLM-managed land, you also have the opportunity to camp on land overseen by the National Forest Service (NFS). National forests are also incredibly common in the USA, especially in the western half of the states (the forest service actually oversees 193 million acres of land). For the most part, any land that is not overseen by a national or state park and is not privately owned is likely to fall into either being run by the BLM or by the NFS.
The same regulations apply to camping in the national forest: pack out all of your waste, follow fire regulations and keep a close eye on all campfires if they are allowed, only camp on solid ground and/or in already established dispersed sites (a good tell-tale sign is a fire ring), and only camp for the max period of time (for the NFS that is 16 days).
Furthermore, make sure you are being a safe and sustainable camper. This means following all Leave No Trace Principles (there are 7, read about them here), making sure you are disposing of your waste properly (including human waste), making sure you are not damaging the ecosystem you are free camping in, and being aware of wildlife, especially wildlife that has a tendency to get into human food (bears, birds and rodents).
➳ This interactive map shows all NFS land available for free camping.
Now for the less glamorous and way less adventurous places that allow free camping in the USA.
While it might seem like a bit of a bummer to spend the night in a business parking lot, in truth, it is actually a super nice and convenient option, especially if you are out on a long road trip and don’t like driving at night.
The most common public businesses that allow free overnight camping are Walmart, Cracker Barrel, Cabela’s, Bass Pro Shops and Costco. Other possible options are Lowe’s and Home Depots, though these tend to be more off-limits overall.
Of course, you should still make sure the business you are thinking of camping at does indeed allow overnight camping (some of these businesses are based in cities with no camping ordinances). A good rule of thumb is to check whether there are any No Camping signs placed around the parking lot before tucking in for the night. If you don’t see any signs but are still worried you can also go inside and ask the employees whether it is okay for you to camp there.
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: when free camping in a business parking lot you should make sure you are as stealthy and as unobtrusive as possible. This means you are respectful of the business's customers, you keep all of your stuff inside your vehicle and you clean up after yourself when you leave.
REST AREAS AND TRUCK STOPS
Another slightly less glamorous option (but another very convenient one) are rest areas and truck stops. This is an especially good option if you are looking to simply find a safe place to sleep for the night while road tripping, since rest areas and truck stops are usually located along major interstates and highways.
While rest areas are quite common along the large interstates that cross the USA, it is important to be aware that depending on the state you are in, there might be regulations in place for how long you can actually park there (though how much they enforce these rules is questionable). On the other hand, truck stops are usually a very safe bet for allowing boondockers to spend the night. The most common truck stops that allow you to camp in your vehicle are Flying J, Loves, and Pilot. Plus, many truck stops also offer showers and decent (and free) Wi-Fi.
We have spent a couple of nights camping in truck stops in our van, and while it might not be the prettiest of places it definitely does the job. One thing we do recommend having though are good window coverings since almost all truck stops have super bright street lights (also large semi-trucks will be coming and going all night long).
💬 INSIDER TIP: if you are someone who has a hard time sleeping when there are a lot of noises, then maybe a rest area or truck stop is not a good option. In our experience, there are loud noises (especially the sounds of engines) throughout the night.
Another spot that wouldn’t necessarily fall under the banner of “beautiful” are casinos, though just like rest areas and truck stops, they do do the job nicely.
While it might come as a bit of a surprise, camping in casinos is actually pretty common and popular. IN fact, this side of free camping in the USA actually has a specific name, “casino camping.” A few important things to keep in mind when it comes to free camping in casinos are that they usually have designated spots for boondockers (usually in the far corners or edges of the parking lot), that they only allow self-contained vehicles like RVs, trailers and vans to stay overnight (sorry no tent camping) and finally, that they often require you to have your own bathroom.
Camping in a casino parking lot likely doesn’t seem that exciting or glamorous, but it does come with its own set of perks. Namely it is safe, it is somewhat comfortable (the parking lots are nice and flat, plus they are almost always open 24/7 so you have a bathroom and running water available whenever you need it) and they are easily accessible and relatively common around the USA.
RESIDENTIAL AREAS AND APARTMENT COMPLEXES
Consider this type of free camping spot to be a last resort. While we have spent a fair amount of nights ourselves free camping in front of apartment complexes (this was mostly during our stint vanlifing it in San Francisco) we wouldn’t recommend it unless you absolutely have to.
This is mostly because it just feels awkward and a bit uncomfortable, and frankly even a bit illegal (even if there are no signs saying it is). If you do find yourself looking to free camp in a city or town somewhere in the USA, then we recommend seeking out areas that have a lot of apartment complexes and not neighborhoods with just single-family homes. This is because in an apartment complex there is less chance someone will notice a new van parked overnight since there are so many cars around. Whereas in a single-family neighborhood, where people usually know everyone’s vehicle, you are more likely to be noticed (and often more likely to get the police called on you).
\\ Tips for Finding Free Camping Near Me
There are a couple of ways to find good free campsites near you. Below e have split some of the best research tools into two categories: digital and in person.
There are numerous apps available (for both Apple and Android) that can help you find some pretty sweet free campsites. Two of our favorite ones are iOverlander and FreeRoam.
iOverlander: this is usually the first app we open when we are in a pinch. The app — which consists mostly of just an interactive map and reviews — easily marks campsites and popular services for overlanders (like free water, dump stations and propane fill-ups). The campsites are split into two categories: informal campsites (like gas stations and truck stops) and wild campsites (this can be pretty much anything, they are usually free). This app is free to use.
FreeRoam: this app is geared more toward people who need to know specific things about the free campsites; including, information on cell services (this is especially important for remote workers), the upcoming weather forecast, and seasonal info (like average level of fullness). This app also shows useful information on things like the amount of noise, overall safety, and even how clean the sites usually are. Finally, like iOverlander, FreeRoam has an interactive map with info on the closest services like water, propane refills and dump stations. This app is also free to use.
One of the first things we do while planning our next big adventure is to first scout out the area we are looking to head to. And for the most part, that means scouring Google Maps to get an idea of the geography, topography and nearby sites. We also like to use Google Maps to help search for possible free campsites.
Our process for finding possible free campsites on Google Maps usually goes like this: first, we search for public land that might allow free camping (namely BLM and NFS managed lands), then we zoom in to find forest roads that might have good pull-offs or parking places big enough to fit our van. Then once we find a couple of sites that might be good for camping, we pin them (with a star and a note) and then start to map out how to get there. This process has allowed us to not only find some amazing sites, but it also gives a really good idea of the area we are hoping to explore — including finding hidden gems and random off-the-beaten-path destinations nearby.
These days, you can pretty much find everything you need online. This includes some pretty sick free campsites. While we like to use the two apps above while out road tripping, we do often spend some time searching on our computers before setting out on any big adventure. A few great sites to check out are the BLM and NFS websites and maps and other road trip blog posts and travel guides (like this one we wrote on The Best Campsites Near Estes Park, Colorado).
This might be an obvious one, but in all actuality, one of the easiest ways to find a good free campsite is to simply drive around and look for one that piques your fancy. Some great places to start are on BLM and NFS-managed lands — especially off forest roads.
We actually tend to find some of our best free campsites this way. Also, a big perk of doing this is that by searching for sites in person, you will already have a better idea of the road conditions to the site and its overall safety. Plus, whether it has a killer view.
💬 INSIDER TIP: we will sometimes look at paper maps and road atlases first in order to get a good idea of possible forest roads to head down when out searching. Our favorite type of road to camp off of usually includes some sort of water feature (usually a river or stream) as well as easy access to trails or other roads to explore (we really enjoy morning bike rides and runs while free camping).
ASK THE LOCALS
While it can sometimes be a bit scary to ask locals for recommendations, overall we would say this is one of the best ways to find those awesome off-the-beaten-path destinations and free campsites. For who knows the area you are in better than the people who actually live there?
We tend to ask around in coffee shops for recommendations on places to camp, as well as recommendations for places to hike, restaurants to eat at and any other useful and insightful tips on the area.
\\ What to Bring Free Camping
Before heading out to camp in the wild you will want to make sure you have all of the necessary gear with you. This is especially true if you are planning to dry camp and/or spend a decent amount of time off-grid.
One of the best investments you can make when it comes to your free camping setup is a nice warm sleeping bag (because waking up cold is not fun). This two-person sleeping bag by Stoic is great for car camping — especially if you are planning to free camp with someone else.
While having a two-person sleeping bag is great, what makes it even better is if you have a two-person sleeping pad underneath. We currently have a two-person sleeping pad in our van and we couldn’t be happier with how comfortable and warm it is. If you are looking for a good option, we recommend this one also from Stoic.
A handy headlamp is a true necessity — not just for camping but for all adventures. We tend to have about 5 headlamps scattered around our van just in case we lose one or the batteries die (which somehow happens quite often…). This one by Petzl is a personal favorite because it is affordable and it has a long-lasting battery.
One of the biggest downsides of free camping, especially if doing dispersed camping, is that you don’t get a nice big camping table to use for cooking and eating. Luckily, there are some solid camping tables on the market — including this one by ALPS Mountaineering. This table fits two people and is sturdy enough to use for meal prep, cooking and eating (and probably playing cards on too). Plus, it packs down enough to not be intrusive when not in use.
In our books, nothing beats ending the day sitting next to a warm campfire with a drink in hand and a plate of steaming hot food next to you. These camping chairs by Stoic are the perfect free camping companion because they are not only comfortable to sit in, but they also have a nice side table to hold your beer (or wine).
This 4-person adventure cooking set by Stanley is the perfect free camping accompaniment, especially if you are camping with a large group or family. The set comes with a heavy-duty stainless steel pot and pan as well as a cutting board, spatula, serving spoon, dish drying rack, a hot pad, four plates, four bowls, and four sporks.
We absolutely love our two-burner Coleman propane stove. It packs down easily, it is super easy to use and it is incredibly durable. We have used our two-burner stove to make everything from blueberry pancakes in the morning to our favorite vegan pad thai. If you are looking for a long-lasting camp stove, then this one is it.
If you are planning to spend an extended amount of time out in nature you will likely need a spot to store your perishable food (unless of course, you are planning to live off ramen, which honestly, no judgment). This 50-quart rolling cooler can definitely store a couple of days worth of food, plus some of your favorite alcoholic beverages. And the best part? It also works great as a campfire chair.
Finding potable water isn’t always the easiest task, and even when you do find a spot that supposedly has “good” water sometimes you can question the accuracy (and the safety). That is where having a good water filter comes in handy. This one by Katadyn easily packs down and only weighs 15 oz., plus it is easy to clean and it is super efficient at purifying water. We bring our water filter on all sorts of adventures, from backpacking in the alpine to car camping down in the desert.
We are big fans of having a pair of comfortable shoes to put on right when you get back to camp. This is especially true after coming back from a big, full-day adventure. These Teva sandals are comfortable, lightweight, and fashionable.
You will be glad you have a cozy jacket handy once the sun starts to dip below the horizon. This one by Cotopaxi is fun and functional.
Finish off your cozy campfire look with a nice warm beanie, like this one from Backcountry.
OTHER NICE TO HAVES WHILE FREE CAMPING
AN INSULATED THERMOS
This classic one by Stanley will keep your coffee hot all day. Plus, it also works as a cup.
While headlamps will do a lot, having a strong lantern to hang up at camp is super helpful when you need the whole camping area lit up (like when you are cooking). This lantern by Black Diamond should do nicely.
BIODEGRADABLE CAMP SOAP
This handy little bottle of soap is eco-friendly and super-concentrated, meaning you only need a little to get all of your camp dishes squeaky clean.
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: even though the soap is eco-friendly, you should still not use it directly in natural water like rivers, streams and lakes. A good rule of thumb when doing dishes is to use a bucket to bring the fresh water away from the stream (200 feet is a safe distance), do your dishes and then dump the water the same distance from the flowing water.
A 5-GALLON WATER JUG
This is an absolute must when out free camping. A 5-gallon jug should last you at least 2 days, even longer if you are using water sparingly (sorry no showers). We recommend getting a water jug that is highly durable and will last a long time. This one by NRS is not only hardy enough to be thrown around while camping, but its shape (tall and thin) makes it easier to pack up.
You can find even more useful free camping gear at Backcountry.com.
\\ 3 Extra Tips for Free Camping in the USA
Below are three things we have learned from our many adventures (and misadventures) road tripping and free camping across the USA in our van.
1 | If planning to stealth camp, especially in places where it may or may not be allowed, we recommend arriving to the site late in the evening (after dark) and then leaving early in the morning. We have found that as long as you aren’t in the way and you don’t stay too long, for the most part people (and law enforcement) will leave you alone.
2 | Another useful tip, especially if stealth camping, is to try to be as inconspicuous and quiet as possible. This includes making sure you aren’t playing any loud music or using any bright lights (this is where having blackout curtains comes in really handy). Similarly, if possible, try to keep everything you own inside your vehicle or tent, including chairs, tables and outdoor equipment like bikes. This tip is especially important if you are planning to free camp in a business parking lot or a residential area.
3 | While free camping can take you to some absolutely incredible places in the USA, you need to make sure your vehicle can actually handle the journey. For example, we know that our van is so low to the ground that getting over any real bump or rock is usually not possible. Therefore we often stick to flat roads and campsites that don’t require much off-road driving. You will want to know your vehicle's limits because getting stuck or worse, damaging your vehicle, can quickly ruin even the best free campsite and camping experience.
We had this happen to us while road tripping around the Olympic Peninsula. In short, we thought we had found an amazing free camping spot near a river. And even better, it looked like the road there was totally passable in our van. Turns out, our van couldn’t make it and we ended up getting stuck there for a couple of hours (in the dark) waiting for a tow truck to come help us out.
\\ Some of Our Favorite Free Campsites in the USA
There are thousands of places to camp for free across the USA, especially in the western states. From sites overlooking desert canyons to small pull-offs in dense evergreen groves, below are a few of our absolute favorite free campsites (plus information on how you can free camp there yourself).
TETON NATIONAL FOREST | WYOMING
This free campsite near the town of Jackson has an absolutely beautiful view of the Teton Range (and Grand Teton itself). Plus, it is really close to a nice big river (the Buffalo Fork). To reach the free campsite, turn right onto Buffalo Valley Road from Highway 287 just before you get to the small town of Moran. Head down Buffalo Valley Road until you see a few dirt roads heading off into the aspen groves (all are good for camping). Just be aware that this camping area does get quite busy, especially during the summer and on weekends. Find the exact location here.
MILL CREEK | MONTANA
We randomly decided to check out this forest road while road tripping up to Washington. And we were so glad we did because we not only found an awesome free campsite, but we also got to bike up to an old ghost town. The dirt road up is called Mill Creek Road and it eventually leads to an established national forest campground (called Mill Creek Campground) and then on to two lakes (and another seasonal campground).
While there are two established campgrounds along Mill Creek Road, we instead chose to camp at one of the numerous pull-offs in the forest. Find the free campsites location here.
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: the Mill Creek Campground does have seasonal water available as well as bathrooms. While it is an established campground, there is no fee to camp.
UPPER HOH ROAD | WASHINGTON
If you are planning to head to Olympic National Park in Washington, and more specifically the famous Hoh Rainforest, then we highly suggest spending a night free camping out along the Upper Hoh Road (the main road into that part of the national park).
There are a couple of campsites along the main paved road, including numerous sites off of old logging roads. We found that as long as you were off the main road and not parked in a place with an obvious No Camping sign, you were free to camp anywhere (within reason). This is a great area to stay because it is so close to the national park, close to towns with services (like the town of Forks), and it also has access to numerous outdoor adventures, like fishing, hiking and backpacking. Find the free camp location here.
HOLE IN THE ROCK ROAD | UTAH
This is not a specific free campsite but more of a general free camping area. The Hole in the Rock Road is located in the heart of Utah canyon country near the town of Escalante and within the massive Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. There are a ton of possible free campsites along the road, including some big enough to fit a couple of vehicles or a sizable RV.
We have camped along this road numerous times and always enjoyed it. Plus, its location within the national monument is tough to beat, especially if you are interested in hiking and canyoneering. You can find directions to Hole in the Rock Road here.
► Curious to learn more about Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (including all of the best hikes and can’t-miss spots)? Then consider checking out our in-depth adventure guide on the monument.
TAYLOR PARK | COLORADO
While Colorado has a whole lot of awesome free camping spots, this area near the beautiful town of Crested Butte might just be one of our favorites. For starters, you have access to hiking, mountain biking and ATV trails right from camp. Secondly, there are a ton of areas to camp so you can be as close or as far away from people as you want. And finally, there are a lot of amazing places to explore nearby; including, the town of Crested Butte, the ghost towns of Tincup and Gothic, and the nearby mountains (including a couple of 14-ers). If you want a free campsite that is beautiful and full of adventure, then we highly recommend heading here for a weekend. Here is a great place to start.
💬 INSIDER TIP: while Crested Butte is an awesome spot to explore year-round, in the late springtime (between May and June) it explodes in colorful wildflowers. If you can, plan your trip to coincide with the wildflower season. You can find more information on Crested Butte in this article: 8 Things We Learned After Living in Crested Butte for 8 Months.
Is there anything better than waking up in the great outdoors? Just listening to the birds sing as the sun starts to rise in the sky. Luckily, there are thousands of amazing places to do just that in the USA, and better yet, most of those places are totally free.
Free camping is not only an economical way to explore the country, but it is also a great way to spend the night surrounded by nature instead of surrounded by other people. By choosing to free camp (or boondock) you are likely setting yourself up for an exciting and memorable experience. Or at the very least an adventurous one.
Hopefully, this guide on free camping in the USA should help you find the best free campsites near you and also help you pack and plan for your own free camping adventure. If you need any more help or insight into free camping, then please feel free to leave a comment below. Also, if you are looking for more adventure travel information and inspiration, consider checking out www.backroadpackers.com.