FREE CAMPING 101 – How to Find Free Camping on Public Land

Camping is one of the most popular pastimes in America. But campsites are expensive. And, with the high demand for limited campsites, it can be difficult to get a reservation. Luckily for us, there are thousands of campsites on public lands where you can park for free!

Free camping is a wonderful way to get out and enjoy the great outdoors. It offers an escape from day-to-day life, as well as a chance to explore nature and learn more about it. Luckily for us, there are many public land campsites in the United States that are free for use by anyone.

The best part about these sites is that many of them are located in beautiful locations and provide a wide variety of activities to enjoy, such as swimming, hiking, fishing, boating, and more.

Dispersed camping is the term for a type of camping where you’re not limited to designated campgrounds. For those who love the outdoors, this may be the perfect opportunity to set up camp wherever you can find a spot. There are many benefits to free dispersed camping, so read on to find out more.

For Information on how to boondock: RV Boondocking Tips: What You Need to Know When RV Camping Off-Grid

Free Camping-Is This a Thing?

It’s definitely a thing! This type of camping is not as common as traditional RV campgrounds, but it’s a great way to get closer to nature and experience all that the wilderness offers.

  • Dispersed free camping can be found primarily in National Forests and in the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land. The best part is that you can (usually) stay for up to 14 days in one spot. Just make sure you are aware of the rules and regulations for the area before you set up camp.
  • There are some things to keep in mind when dispersed camping: first and foremost, there are no water, sewer or electrical hookups at dispersed campsites. Second, access to showers and toilets may be limited, but more than likely, no facilities are available at all.

Despite these few drawbacks, dispersed camping remains a popular choice for RVers looking for a more rustic experience. With its many pros-including privacy and independence, dispersed camping is definitely worth considering if you’re looking for free RV camping on public land.

Note: Be sure to check ahead of time to see where camping is allowed before you go – most public lands have its own set of regulations.

Boondocking with Starlink in Wyoming
Boondocking with Starlink in Wyoming (Photo: D. Saparow)

The Benefits of Free Camping

For people who travel and camp for extended periods of time, free camping is one of the best options.

  • Obviously, the big draw with free camping is the cost: you don’t have to pay any money to do it.
  • Dispersed camping can be a good option if you’re planning on exploring or passing through an area with a lot of dispersed campsites.
  • Dispersed camping offers true seclusion and peace. You usually won’t find many (if any) other people at these campsites, so it’s the perfect opportunity to get away from it all. So, next time you’re out exploring new places, keep your eyes peeled for suitable sites–you might be pleasantly surprised.
  • There are many ways to find free dispersed camping sites on public land. The easiest way is to contact your local or state authorities and ask them where the best dispersed camping locations are. They will be able to help you with maps and directions, as well as any permits you may need.

Where Is It Legal to Camp for Free?

On Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Land*

Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is a one type of public land that allows you to camp with no fee. BLM lands are found primarily in the western United States. The important thing to remember is that BLM lands can be found on all kinds of land, from mountains to desert topography, and it may also cover a wide range of private land activities, such as cattle grazing rights and mining operations. If you’re looking to camp for free, be sure to call or visit a nearby BLM office to check out the specific regulations for the area you’re interested in visiting before heading out.

It’s also important to note that the BLM land is not marked on Google Maps, so it might be helpful to print out a map from the BLM website ahead of time. When setting up your campsite, always practice Leave No Trace camping principles by keeping your site clean and minimizing your impact on the environment.

Note: *Be sure to check ahead of time to see where free camping is allowed before you go – most public lands have its own set of regulations.

BLM Links:

FREEROAM WEBSITE: Home Page (Recommended)

BLM: Find a BLM Camp Site

BLM Office: Find a BLM Field Office

BLM Website: Home Page

On National Forest Land*

National Forests offer plenty of free camping opportunities to be found, but it’s important to check ahead of time to see where dispersed camping is allowed before you go.

Camping outside of established recreation areas and developed campgrounds is generally legal in National Forests, but it will be completely self-sufficient (off-grid) without amenities like trash or toilets.

You can use a search engine like Campendium or FreeRoam to find free camping in US National Forests and Grasslands. Another great resource is the National Forest Service website. Here, you can locate detailed information about specific National Forests and Grasslands, including maps of vehicle use roads and campgrounds. You can also find out about any restrictions that may apply-such as fire bans-before heading out on your trip.

Note: *Be sure to check ahead of time to see where free camping is allowed before you go – most public lands has its own set of regulations.

National Forest Links:

FREEROAM WEBSITE: Home Page (Recommended)

NATIONAL FOREST WEBSITE: Home Page

NATIONAL FOREST: Find a National Forest

NATIONAL FOREST: Motor Vehicle Use Maps (MVUM)

On National Grasslands Land (Limited)*

National Grasslands are public land managed by the US Forest Service and free camping is allowed with certain restrictions. National grasslands are typically smaller than National Forests and have fewer amenities (if any), but they offer a great opportunity to get away from it all.

Note: Be sure to check ahead of time to see where free camping is allowed before you go – most public lands have its own set of regulations.

National Grasslands Links:

FREEROAM WEBSITE: Home Page (Recommended)

National Grasslands (Home Page)

On National Conservation Areas Land (Limited)*

The National Conservation Areas (NCA) are a system of public lands in the United States managed by the Bureau of Land Management. These areas offer opportunities for camping, hiking, fishing, and other recreational activities.

Dispersed camping is permitted on these lands. This means that you are allowed to camp anywhere within the boundaries of the NCA except in developed areas, such as campgrounds and trailheads.

These lands are managed almost exactly the same as open land, with the exception of National Monuments which can be found in some states but not others. For example, while there is no fee for camping at most National Conservation Areas, fees may be charged at certain times of year or for certain activities at some locations.

NOTE: *Only a few National Conservation Area allow primitive dispersed free camping. Check with your local BLM office before you go to make sure you understand all the rules and regulations governing camping on these lands.

National Conservation Links:

National Conservation: Home Page

On National Wildlife Refuges Land (Limited)*

Free camping is allowed on National Wildlife Refuges with a permit.* To camp legally, you must obtain a permit from the refuge manager. The only exception to this rule is during the off-season, when camping is legal almost everywhere without a permit. However, during peak seasons (generally May through September), camping requires a permit, which can be obtained from State and National Park Systems.

NOTE: * Only a few National Wildlife Refuges allow free dispersed camping. Check with your local BLM office before you go to make sure you understand all the rules and regulations governing camping on these lands.

BLM Links:

FREEROAM WEBSITE: Home Page (Recommended)

National Wildlife Refuges: Home Page

How Can I Find These Campsites?

There are many apps, and websites out there that can help you find the best free camping spots. For example, if you have a particular location in mind, then Google Maps will show you camping sites near your current location (type: ‘Campsites near me’).

If you want to find parks and free camping, then we recommend using the website FreeRoam.

FreeRoam

FreeRoam is an app that has just about everything you could ask for in a travel app. On this app/website, you can filter results from public land and campgrounds, to truck stops, dumps, and Walmarts. It will even show nearby hazards such as wildfires and smoke. Once you have settled on a destination, you can get directions and or save it for offline use when you know you won’t have a cell signal. Highly recommended!

FreeRoam Links: | iPhone | Android | Website |

IOverlander

The iOverlander app is very popular for finding free camping spots near you. iOverlander is full of user-submitted campsites and other traveler friendly information like dump sites and water fills. The app relies on users to add and update content, so it’s not 100% accurate. However, it can be a great starting point for finding free campsites in your area.

IOverlander Links: | iPhone | Android | Website |

Campendium

Campendium is a great resource for finding free camping across the US. This website has reviews, photos, and cell coverage information for campgrounds in every state.

Campendium Links: | iPhone | Android | Website |

The Dyrt

Another option is The Dyrt PRO website has a number of helpful features for finding camping, including a map of National Forest land that shows which areas are suitable for boondocking (camping without hookups). You can also see if an area has cell coverage before deciding to stay there.

The Dyrt Links: | iPhone | Android | Website |

US Public Lands

The US Public Lands phone app is great for easily finding where Public lands are in the US.

US Public Lands Links: | liPhone | Android | Website |

What Activities Are Allowed on Public Use Land?

Rules and Regulations for Public Use Land

When visiting public land, it is important to be aware of the rules and regulations in order to minimize the impact on the environment. For example:

  • Check with your local authorities and the ranger station before heading into the forest to search for a suitable dispersed camping site.
  • Individuals may camp on BLM land for no more than 14 days, but must move their campsite 25 miles to avoid exceeding this limit. In other words, you can’t stay in one spot for too long!
  • Camping has a shelf life, as prolonged use can damage the natural habitat and resources. So if you’re planning on spending an extended period of time in nature, find another place to do so.
  • It is illegal to leave any garbage or pollution on public land. This includes cigarette butts, food packaging, and anything else you might not think about. (As a side note, we pick up trash whenever we find it).

Be sure to familiarize yourself with the specific rules and regulations for public use land in your state before heading to the beach or forest.

boondocking
Stock Photo

Leave No Trace

Leaving no trace is important when camping, hiking, and enjoying other outdoor activities. The leave no trace principles are in place for a reason-to protect the environment and keep it pristine for everyone to enjoy. Camp only where legal and safe, and don’t create new paths with vehicles. Your goal should be to leave the place without any evidence of your visit.

  • Free camping responsibly means following Leave No Trace principles: minimizing impact on plants and animals; staying 200 yards from lakeshores, streams and other water sources; and camp at least 200 feet from trails or campsites; packing out trash without damaging the natural landscape or wildlife habitat.
  • Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics has many resources to help campers be responsible and leave the area better than they found it. Before camping, scout the area you’re planning to camp in and make sure it’s a place you can enjoy responsibly. You may detach your trailer before committing to a campsite or checking out an area on foot. Make sure the terrain is acceptable for your vehicle and consider the weather when looking for free camping in National Forests. Paper maps are still a good idea-they highlight public areas and wildlife, as well as smaller state roads.

Public lands are a shared resource, so it’s important that we all do our part to minimize our impact when visiting. The environment is impacted by camping, but only when it is done poorly and carelessly.

Final Thoughts

Yes, there is plenty of free camping across the US. In fact, many campers choose to forgo designated campgrounds altogether and do free dispersed camping instead. Dispersed camping can be a great option when you are looking to avoid crowds or want more privacy.

Happy Trails,

SIG DoraKSaparow 1

HOW TO FIND AMAZING CAMPSITES: Campgrounds vs Dispersed Camping (free camping!)

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