Whether you’re in a van, a car, a tent, or a hammock, and whether you’re planning a road trip or want a spontaneous outdoor getaway, paying for campsites can add up fast – and let’s be honest, paying for a place to sleep is no fun. This guide is all about how to find free camping, with tips, advice, where to go, and some of the best dispersed camping apps to try out for your next adventure!
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What is Free & Dispersed Camping?
Before we get into how to find free camping, let’s talk about some of the words you might hear! Of course, free camping means you don’t have to pay to stay there – but there are also words like dispersed camping, boondocking, and more that you might hear.
Dispersed Camping – dispersed camping means camping outside of a designated campground, usually out in nature – campers are dispersed, as opposed to close together at an established campsite. This is the term most often used by the NFS (National Forest Service) and BLM (Bureau of Land Management), so you’ll see this on their websites!
Boondocking – boondocking is most often used by RV folks and van lifers, but it can refer to any kind of camping. It means free camping, but it can refer to spots outdoors, city street parking, or Walmart parking lots – basically anywhere that you can camp for free!
Dry Camping – many campsites will provide amenities like water or electricity, so dry camping refers to any site that doesn’t have those. Literally, a campsite with no access to potable water. Usually this refers to free ones, but there are also some paid campsites that offer dry camping.
Wild Camping – this refers to free campsites that are in “the wild.” This term is used pretty loosely though – it can be a site that’s in the backcountry, or a pull out on the side of a forest road. Basically, any kind of free camping that isn’t in a parking lot or city street!
Benefits of Free Camping
While paid campsites usually offer a convenient option for those who want a bathroom, water, and maybe electricity, I think free camping is much better! This definitely depends on the person and what kind of traveler you are, but here are some perks of free camping.
Free Camping is Free!
Of course, one of the biggest benefits is that you don’t have to pay!
Dispersed & Private
When I camp, it’s to get away from the noise – I want to be alone (or with a friend) in nature. Paid campsites are more popular and close together, and you can almost guarantee that you’ll have neighbors. Dispersed camping gives you much more privacy!
Views & Adventures
Paid campsites tend to be easier to get to, with well maintained, easy roads. This can definitely be a perk, but I like the adventures that free camping offers! Free campsites often require some bumpy drives (don’t worry – my van is two wheel drive and there are still plenty of awesome spots that I can get to), but you’re rewarded with great views and beautiful places. As any outdoor adventurer knows, the best places are the one that take some work to get to!
No Planning or Reservations
Paid campsites in national or state parks usually require reservations, and they can be busy. Finding free camping allows you to take a spontaneous adventure, and you don’t need to worry about reserving a site! For example, campsites in Joshua Tree National Park often need to be reserved months in advance – but you can easily find a free place to camp outside of the park today.
Dispersed Camping is More Dog Friendly
If you’re bringing a pup along for your camping trip, another perk of free camping is that it tends to be more dog friendly! At paid sites, you need to keep your dog leashed, and there are likely going to be people and dogs around. With dispersed camping, your dog can have a little more room to explore. Of course, be smart with whether or not your dog will be safe off leash – but free camping gives both you and your pup more freedom!
How to Find Free Camping & Dispersed Sites
Once you’re ready to find your free campsite, here are some places to look!
Free Camping in National Forests
National parks are the ones that have an entrance fee, don’t allow dogs, and are well developed with bathrooms, overlooks, and paved roads. They usually have paid campsites available, but most national parks border a national forest – which offers less developed, dispersed, free options for camping!
In national forests, you’re allowed to camp anywhere – unless there’s a sign that specifically prohibits parking or overnight camping, but these aren’t too common, and if you go off the main road, you can usually camp for free. You can find great spots by just driving around and exploring! But, be sure to only camp in places that have already been camped in – this helps protect the environment, so don’t forge your own path through shrubs and plant life. Look for flat areas off dirt roads, rocky or gravel spots (as opposed to grass), and small clearings!
Google Maps will show you national forests in the US, but the boundaries aren’t always clear, so I recommend using The Dyrt to see maps of all the national forests!
Free Camping on BLM Land
Another type of public land here in the US is BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land. These lands usually have dispersed camping and awesome scenery! Like national forests, most BLM land allows free camping unless there are signs specifically prohibiting it – but be sure to protect the environment by camping in places that have already been established as dispersed camping sites, and don’t trample any plant life.
BLM land is a little harder to find – you won’t see it on Google Maps, and it tends to be more spotty (with squares of private property that you definitely shouldn’t camp on). The best way to find free campsites on BLM land is to use The Dyrt Pro – which will show you where the public lands are! You can get a free trial of The Dyrt here.
Free Camping in Cities
While epic outdoor campsites with mountain views and sounds of the forest are usually the ideal free camping situation, sometimes it’s not possible! Whether you need a quick place to snooze on a road trip, you need good cell service for a night, or there aren’t any wild campsites close by, there are options for free camping in the city. These don’t work well for tent camping, but if you’re in a car, van, or RV, here are some options!
I want to mention one really important thing to keep in mind about free camping in cities. If you’re able to, please make sure that the places you sleep allow overnight camping! Especially for fellow van lifers, don’t park in places where you are not allowed to be. And always keep things clean, quiet, and respectful. A huge problem that can come from too many vans or RVs is that cities have started to make it illegal to sleep in your car – and while this is inconvenient for those of us who live in a van by choice, it’s downright devastating for people who are experiencing homelessness, or who have no choice but to sleep in a car in the city. Don’t encourage anti-homeless legislature in cities – stay away from private property, and only camp where you’re allowed to!
Neighborhood streets – I definitely don’t recommend this for suburbs or rural areas, because it’s undeniably a little creepy to park right in front of someone’s house (and this contributes to criminalizing sleeping in cars). But, in big cities, you can often park in neighborhood streets overnight. Still, be careful to avoid houses – it’s just more respectful, in my opinion. If I need to spend a night in a city, I look for parks with free street parking, or areas where there are more apartment buildings or businesses, and where there are a lot of cars on the street already, so I won’t stand out or be annoying.
Walmart – Walmart is a popular place for free camping and boondocking. Most stores will allow you to stay overnight, but there are exceptions, so call the store and ask ahead of time!
Cracker Barrel – another business that usually allows overnight parking. Plus, you can get a yummy breakfast in the morning!
Cabela’s – most allow car camping or van/RV parking for one night, but again, be sure to ask – there are exceptions.
Rest Stops – along highways, there are usually rest stops every few dozen miles, and these can make a convenient, easy place to sleep overnight while you’re traveling. They often have an 8 hour limit, so don’t overstay your welcome by too long!
Best Dispersed Camping Apps to Find Free Campsites
It can be a lot of fun to drive around dirt roads until you find a place to sleep – but sometimes I’m not in the mood for endless exploring, and when you’re looking for free camping, these apps can come in really handy! These are the best dispersed camping apps, and apps for finding free campsites – whether you’re looking for wild campsites, city boondocking, or anything in between.
One of the best dispersed camping apps is The Dyrt. With the free version, you can see both free and paid campsites, and read about them before you go – but these are established campsites, not dispersed ones! However, with the Pro version, you also have access to some great features, like maps of BLM and national forest land to find amazing wild camping sites. There’s also a road trip planner, offline maps, an option to see if your campsite has service, and more with The Dyrt Pro – and you can try it for free! My favorite thing to do is open a map of a national forest or BLM land and just drive until I find something good.
One of the best dispersed camping apps is iOverlander – a free app that allows users to contribute campsites. You’ll find everything from Walmart parking lots to amazing wilderness camp spots!
I mainly use AllStays in the city – it’s great for confirming that the Walmart in town allows overnight parking, and has some good options for places to park in town. It’s great in a pinch!
Things to Keep in Mind for Free Campsites
Free camping and dispersed campsites have tons of benefits, but there are a few challenges as well! Here are some things you need to know before you hit the dirt roads.
Roads to Dispersed Campsites Can be Rough
Some of the dirt roads to get to free campsites are bumpy, others are washed out, and some are impossible without a lifted 4×4. But, don’t let this discourage you – there are tons of roads that are totally doable in any car. With good tires, you can make it to some amazing locations. Just be prepared! This is where using a dispersed camping app can come in handy, so that you can read reviews and see if the road is doable for you. Keep in mind seasons as well – some roads that are dry in the summer can get impossibly muddy after it rains.
I recommend carrying some Max Trax in your car – these are amazing and will get you out if you get stuck in mud, snow, or sand! A shovel comes in really handy too, and so do snow chains if you do any winter adventuring – snow can surprise you in the mountains!
Cell Service at Free Campsites
A lot of free and dispersed campsites are farther from civilization, which is what makes them great! But, this can also mean you may not always have cell reception. Using dispersed camping apps to read reviews can help you prepare for this, and if you need service for work, there are lots of campsites that still have reception!
Be safe – download offline maps, tell someone where you’re going, and turn around if the road gets too rough for your vehicle. The possibility of losing service means those recovery tools above are extra important!
For extra security, you can get a Garmin GPS – this device allows you to communicate through satellite networks, so in an emergency, someone can find your location and you can send a text. The Garmin Montana 700i includes a GPS, while the Garmin inReach Mini is a smaller option!
Keep it Clean!
It’s always really disappointing to pull up to a gorgeous dispersed camping site, only to find it covered in trash. Do your part – pack out anything you bring in, and keep these places beautiful!
How to Find Free Camping
Have you used any of these dispersed camping apps, or have any tips for finding free campsites? Let me know in a comment below – or tell me about your next adventure!
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