Curious how we find FREE camping in the USA? We’re sharing everything you need to know to find free campsites, including the tools we use, things to consider beforehand, and what types of places you can camp at.
We have been living in our self-converted Sprinter van for almost 3 years and one of the reasons we are able to travel full time is FREE camping!
At $20-$40 per night (and sometimes even higher), paid campgrounds add up FAST and if we were to pay to camp every night, we would definitely not be able to sustain this lifestyle long term. While we do have to pay every once in a while if we need power or are in an area where free camping isn’t possible, we try to free camp as much as we can.
And we are lucky that the USA has lots of great free camping options, with many having incredible backdrops, which is definitely one of the best things about van life.
As we have shared our adventures on YouTube, Instagram, and on this blog, we often get asked how we find these campsites. So in this blog post we’re sharing all of the knowledge we have gained as full time campers, the tools we use, things to consider, the proper etiquette, and more, in order to help you find free camping in the USA!
What is free camping?
Before we dive into how to find free camping in the USA, here’s a quick rundown of what free camping is, as it can go by many names and include a variety of different types of places.
Types of free camping
Free camping usually refers to a few different types of camping, including boondocking, dispersed camping, or dry camping. These names are often used interchangeably and usually mean the same thing: camping that does not offer any electric hookups, water hookups, flushing toilets or showers, and generally has few amenities.
The one big difference between the terms is that dispersed camping refers to camping outside of a campground with actual designated sites, while boondocking and dry camping can either be in a campground with designated sites or out on open land.
Dispersed campsites tend to always be free, however, boondocking and dry campsites may not always be free. We have been to many campgrounds that we pay a fee for and they have no hookups of any kind. We have also been to free campgrounds that feel like paid campgrounds and offer metal fire rings and picnic tables. It really varies!
But for the most part, if a campsite is free, it will be boondocking, dispersed, or dry. Free campsites usually lack any amenities, minus possibly a pit toilet, and they can either be one big open area of land you can camp on, more private, smaller areas that are separated, or more of a traditional campground feel with designated sites.
While nature spots come to mind first when thinking of free camping, another type of free camping in the USA is in parking lots. These can range from Cracker Barrels, Walmarts, Cabelas, and other select stores, as well as rest areas and truck stops. We will share more about these later on!
They are usually first-come, first-served
Besides amenities, one other big differentiator between traditional, paid campsites and free campsites is that they are almost always first-come, first-served. While traditional campgrounds can also be this way and not accept reservations, it is very rare that a free camping area takes any sort of reservations.
Perks of free camping
You may be thinking, “wait, so no restrooms, showers, hookups, or a fire ring? Why do you love free camping so much?” Here’s why!
As we mentioned earlier, paid campsites add up! As we write this blog, we are currently on Vancouver Island in Canada and we have had to pay for a campsite every night, ranging from $12 USD-$55 USD. In our two weeks here, we have spent a total of $450 on campsites, granted a good chunk of that was for a fancier than normal campground (and worth it).
More space from others.
While this isn’t always true, typically when free camping you’re able to have a lot more privacy and space from other campers. One of the biggest adjustments for us when paying for a campground is how close our neighbors are. Sometimes paid campgrounds have a good amount of trees between sites, but many RV focused campgrounds do not offer much privacy at all and feel like a parking lot.
However, for many free campsites we have stayed at, we are in our own little nook and cannot see anyone else. It’s the best!
More immersed in nature.
Similar to above, free campsites tend to be more remote and in nature, which means less humans and road noise. Free camping has taken us to areas we wouldn’t have known about and allowed us to truly enjoy life outdoors!
Downsides of free camping
It’s not guaranteed.
As we mentioned earlier, free camping is almost always first-come, first-served. As a planner, this often gives me anxiety. While you can usually gauge how hard it’ll be to get a spot by reading reviews, sometimes there is no way to know if you’ll get a spot or not. We will never forget going to the Olympic Peninsula and driving to 5+ free campgrounds and finding zero spots open. We ended up sleeping at a Walmart instead, which wasn’t ideal in such a beautiful, outdoor focused area. But there have also been many times we worried about crowds and had it to ourselves. We try to always have backup options just to be safe!
They can be harder to get to.
Typically free camping is tucked into national forests or down some rough roads, which is great for escaping crowds, but also means they can be hard to get to, especially in specific vehicles, and also take a lot of time to get to. We have stayed at some that looked close to town, but due to the nature of the roads, it took us 40 mins-1 hour (one way) to get into town, which is a big time suck.
We try to rely solely on our solar panels and alternator charger to keep our van batteries charged up, but the lack of amenities with free camping can be hard if it’s raining (so no solar), if we are low on water, or if we need to dump our liquids container from our compost toilet and there isn’t a pit toilet to dump into. Sometimes we have to drive into town to charge up our batteries, dump the toilet, and also get water, which we wouldn’t have to do at a paid campground with amenities.
Where can you legally camp for free?
There are a bunch of options when it comes to where you can legally camp for free, which vary a lot in terms of luxury and views.
National forests are one of the best spots to find free camping in the USA! National forests are federally managed lands that have been set aside for public use and also conservation. They can be found across the country, with the majority being in the west and contain different hiking trails, ranger stations and other facilities, developed campgrounds, as well as land for free camping (national forests typically call free camping “dispersed camping”).
These free camping areas will have more of a nature feel and a big bonus is pets are almost always allowed in national forests!
While national forests do contain paid campgrounds, which usually are dry camping and do not offer a ton of amenities, they also allow FREE camping in many areas. It’s important to pay attention to signage to ensure you’re not camping at a paid campground and think it’s free.
For free camping in national forests, you can camp pretty freely, with some rules. You will want to ensure you’re only driving down roads that allow vehicles. You can use a Motor Vehicle Use Map (MVUM) to find roads. In our experience, once we are down a national forest road, we can typically find little pull outs or nooks that are suitable for our van (or a tent). Many already will have evidence of camping, like a fire ring made out of rocks.
Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land
Similar to national forests, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land is federally managed land (managed by the US Department of the Interior) that is meant for the public to enjoy and to be protected in order for future generations to enjoy it.
From an outsider perspective, BLM land is very similar to national forest land and the same type of rules apply for camping in either. Similar to national forests, the Bureau of Land Management also offers a mix of paid and free camping, with free, dispersed camping allowed in many areas away from developed recreation sites.
We use many apps to help us find spots in national forests and on BLM land (more on that soon!) and will also use Google Maps to get a satellite view of the area to gauge what the area is like. Also, when unsure if you can camp somewhere, talk to a ranger! We have called rangers in both national forests and BLM areas to confirm rules and ensure we are camping legally.
National Forests and BLM land are the two go-tos for finding free camping in the USA out in nature, but there are lots of less glamorous options, including rest areas.
Rest areas can usually be found along major highways all across the USA and depending on the state, may allow overnight parking. We have found that the rules really vary state to state whether you’re allowed to park overnight or not.
Some states do not allow it at all, some have time limits, some allow it only at specific rest areas, and some allow it and don’t seem to have limits. To figure out where sleeping in a rest area is allowed, we try to Google each state’s rules. We also will read the Google reviews for the rest area and search for words like “sleep,” “overnight,” and “RV,” to see what people’s experience was like.
Based on our experience, Texas allows people to park for 24 hours. They often have people working the rest areas, which makes us feel safer (although we tend to feel pretty safe at rest areas, since there are always others around and decent lighting).
However, many states out east did NOT allow it, while other states, like Washington, allow it for 8 hours, which means you need to arrive right when you want to sleep and leave right when you wake up. This isn’t ideal for us, as sometimes it can be hard to find a place to hang out until 10 PM and not look suspicious.
But we have found a small hack for this. We noticed many major highway rest areas have a rest area on both sides, so we will park at the southbound (for example) to make dinner and wait until bedtime and then head to the northbound to sleep to not exceed our allotted hours. We personally don’t know how strict they are about the time limit, but we are rule followers and don’t want to abuse what is allowed and risk it being taken away.
The only consistent rule we have found among all rest areas is that tents are NOT allowed. So this is only an option if you plan to sleep in your vehicle or a van/RV. Also, PLEASE be considerate of truckers. Truckers drive long hours and are required to stop and rest, so try to take spots for cars or RVs when you can so that truckers can get a spot.
Fun fact: some casinos let RVs or vans park overnight for FREE! And they sometimes even give you some spending money in the casino or at the buffet (extra win!). We have stayed in casinos all over the US for one night and sometimes up to three, depending on the rules. It’s not glamorous at all, but they usually have security, so they feel safe.
One website dedicated to camping at casinos that is worth looking at is casinocamper.com, which has reviews for each one.
Business parking lots
A handful of chain stores and restaurants offer overnight parking for customers, with the most common that we have seen being Walmart (a classic van life spot!), Cracker Barrel, and Cabelas. Not every single location of these allows it, so we will use different apps and websites to see which do and also confirm with the store by calling or going in and asking.
Similar to rest areas and casinos, this is for RVs and vans only, no tents are allowed.
When driving down major highways, it’s common to see truck stops like Love’s, Flying J, TA, and Pilot. These are good places to grab fuel, snacks, and for truckers, get some rest. They can also be a good spot to camp overnight in a van or RV, although we have found that not all allow vans to park overnight and many do not have a designated RV area and you may have to sleep among semi-trucks, so make sure to check beforehand!
Bonus: truck stops also have paid showers if you need a shower too!
There are two membership services that offer “free” camping to self-contained RVs and vans (as in, you have a toilet and do not need any hookups): Harvest Hosts and Boondockers Welcome. These are not 100% free, as there is a yearly fee for both, but the actual stay is mostly free.
Harvest Hosts is a service that lets you stay at farms, breweries, wineries, golf courses, and other spots for FREE, with the expectation that you will support the business. While this means you do need to spend some money and it’s not totally free, it’s usually a unique experience and you get to support a local business.
We LOVE Harvest Hosts, especially when visiting ones that offer items we need anyway (like farms, where we can buy local produce and other items).
Want to try it out? You can use our link to get 15% off a Harvest Hosts membership!
Boondockers Welcome is a cool concept where anyone can allow RVs or vans to stay on their property for free. Each host is different, but you can typically stay between 1-3 nights and some will even offer electric hookups or water. We tried this at the beginning of our time on the road and it was super helpful, especially in areas where BLM and national forest land is extremely hard to come by.
Where you CANNOT legally camp for free
While there are a handful of places you can camp for free, there are more places that you cannot. Here are a few of the more obvious spots where you cannot camp for free.
National Park parking lots
National parks do NOT allow anyone to park overnight in parking lots in the park, unless you’re backpacking and have the appropriate permit. The only exception we have ever seen to this is at the Painted Canyon Rest Area in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota (which was also a highway rest area) and in the winter at Lassen Volcanic National Park (which cost $10).
They DO enforce this, so it is NOT worth trying! Quick story: While at Acadia National Park, we arrived at Cadillac Mountain for sunrise and were one of the first cars to do so. The road was coned off until a specific time and we had to check in with a ranger, as it required a reservation. When we got to the parking area, we saw a van similar to ours parked in a different area than all of us were being directed to.
We quickly realized this van stayed overnight and we aren’t totally sure how they pulled that off, as the road closes overnight and we would think they’d check, but shortly after realizing this, a park ranger arrived and started knocking on their doors and even blared their siren and used a loudspeaker to try to get them to come out. The couple never came out and we have no idea what happened, but yeah, don’t do it.
Even if you do not park overnight in a national park parking lot, beware that van lifers and RVs have a bit of a target on their back from park rangers. We have had multiple rangers think we stayed overnight because we arrived at a trail early and also had our windows covered. Thankfully we have been able to prove otherwise every time, as we know the rules and follow them, but we now are very hyper aware that we will likely get accused. We try to always have proof handy in case we are confronted and accused.
Tip: National parks are typically near national forests, so you can usually find free camping nearby!
Some trailhead parking lots
Sometimes you are able to sleep overnight at national forest trailheads, which we have done many times, especially if getting an early start. This is usually allowed, especially at trailheads that are the starting point for overnight backpacking trips. However, if it is not allowed, there will be a sign that says so. Please follow the rules!
In some cities
Some cities have laws that prohibit sleeping in vehicles. Businesses that may allow this in one state or city, like Walmart, may not in the next city over, but there is usually signage that says so and when in doubt, make sure to ask!
Also, stealth camping is a popular option among van lifers. Stealth camping is essentially parking in a place that is not intended for camping and trying to blend in, like a neighborhood street or in a place that isn’t a known free camping spot. This is very much a grey area, as it’s not 100% allowed, but also not illegal in some places.
This would only work if you’re in a van, not in a tent. While some van lifers do this often, with the rise of van life and awareness of stealth camping, it is becoming much more common to get a knock on the door if a neighbor notices and decides to call the cops on you. We personally like to get a good night’s sleep and not worry about getting knocked on, so we do not stealth camp. While we don’t fully recommend this, if you decide to do this, please be respectful.
Free camping rules + etiquette
Most free camping areas in the USA do NOT have any services or amenities, so PLEASE follow the Leave No Trace principles to ensure you leave every place better than you found it, so that others can enjoy these beautiful places for many years to come!
These seven principles include planning ahead and preparing, hiking and camping on durable surfaces, disposing of waste properly (pack out what you pack in!), understanding campfire rules and always fully extinguishing your fires, respecting wildlife, and being considerate of other visitors.
There have been many cases of free camping areas being at risk of being shut down due to people trashing them. PLEASE do not be a part of the problem and do not ruin it for others.
A few other important rules to be aware of:
- Use existing camping areas. Try to camp on land that is already matted down from camping, instead of harming additional land.
- Similar to above, use existing fire rings (usually made out of stones) instead of creating new fire rings.
- ALWAYS make sure fires are completely out before you go to bed. Forest fires are a huge problem out west. It’s not uncommon for fire bans to be in place, so make sure to know the current restrictions.
- Camp at least 200 feet away from water. Different areas have different rules for this, so make sure to research ahead of time.
- For many national forest and BLM free camping areas, you are limited to staying in one spot for 14 days within 28 days. After your 14 days are up, you will need to move to a different area. Some areas do restrict you to less days though, so please research in advance.
Safety when free camping
While we personally have not had any safety issues when free camping, being in a more remote area and away from resources can be more dangerous than camping at a more developed campground. Here are some safety tips based on our experience!
Let someone know where you will be
We always tell my mom where we are exploring (hi mom!) so that someone is aware of our location and plans in case something goes wrong. We also have a Garmin InReach Mini to communicate with loved ones if we do not have cell service or use SOS in case of emergencies (thankfully we haven’t had to). It does require a monthly subscription, but it can be as low as around $10/month.
Be bear aware
If camping in an area with bears, be very mindful of cooking near your tent or leaving any scented items or food scraps out by your site. For tent camping, please put any scented items and trash in your vehicle at night or in a bear canister. We also carry bear spray on us for safety.
Trust your gut
If something feels off, find somewhere else to go. We always read reviews before camping somewhere to gauge if people felt safe, but even if a spot is safe for most, there could be a weird one off experience. If you feel uneasy, listen to your gut.
Get there during the day
When arriving at a new free campsite for the first time, we try to always arrive during the day so we can easily find a spot and scope it out in the daylight.
Keep your valuables hidden
We always keep our windows covered when we leave the van or are sleeping so that no one can look inside the van. For tent camping, be careful leaving your camping items out while you’re gone. We’d suggest keeping more valuable items in the trunk of your car if you leave your tent at a free campsite.
Things to consider when looking for a free campsite
Before looking for free campsites on the various apps and websites we will share next, here are a few things to keep in mind to help you decide what are the right spots for you.
Where you are going
Location plays a HUGE factor in free camping! The western part of the USA has significantly more public land and therefore more free camping areas, especially on national forest and BLM land, than the midwest and east.
Out in the midwest and east, we rely almost exclusively on Walmarts, Cracker Barrels, and Harvest Hosts, but out west, we can usually find a good nature spot for free, minus in cities.
Cities in general are very hard to find free camping that isn’t a parking lot. And some cities have laws to prevent sleeping in vehicles. California, for example, has tons of overnight parking and camping rules and on the coast, finding legal, free camping is very rare. We had to pay most nights or drive a bit out of cities to get a spot. However, the desert and mountains in California have lots of good free camping, so things can vary by region in the USA, as well as within a state.
For some, camping is a chance to get off the grid, but for us, we have to work everyday and having cell service is key. Many of the apps and websites we share below will also give user generated cell service data, as well as cell service maps, to help you see if a campsite will work for your cell service needs, if applicable.
Since we live full time in our van, we have to do normal chores weekly while camping, so looking at where campsites are in relation to a town is crucial to ensure we can find laundromats, internet, dump stations, water fill up, grocery stores, and restaurants. Even for those camping for a vacation, you may need these services as well, so keep that in mind when looking at campsites.
Day of the week + time of year
The day of the week can play a huge role in how busy certain spots are. Weekdays will almost always be less busy, making getting a spot at a more popular area more feasible.
Time of year is also important to consider for a few reasons. For one, some areas may be inaccessible during specific seasons due to snow, while others may be downright miserable during some months of the year due to rain or heat. It’s also good to think about holidays, plus spring break and summer break, as crowds will be higher during those times.
Free campsites are usually down unpaved roads that can be a bit washboarded, rutted, and overall rough. It’s important to read reviews about different sites to ensure you have the proper vehicle to get down to them. We have had to skip quite a few campsites due to our van not being 4×4, but there are usually still good options for those without it.
What activities happen in the area
One thing that we have learned over the years is that some free camping areas are also popular for other activities, like offroading and shooting, which can cause additional noise. Usually things get quiet at night, but keep this in mind in case it may bother you during the day!
Have backup options
As we mentioned earlier, free campsites are usually first-come, first-served, so try to have some backup options in case your first choice is full!
Apps + websites to find free camping in the USA
And now for all of the apps and websites we use to find free campsites! One complaint we have about the camping world is that there are so many apps and each one has different campsites, so we often have to look at many to gauge what the free camping options are in the area. While this means we can usually find something by looking at all apps, it is also time consuming.
After almost three years of finding free campsites and trying a LOT of apps and websites, these are the ones we use the most and find the most helpful!
Campendium is a FREE app (and website) that has a nice user interface and offers a filtering system when sorting for campsites so that you can filter by specific requirements, like cost, hookups, etc. They even have listings for parking areas, like casinos and rest areas, plus dump stations, so it’s a good one stop shop!
On each campsite listing you’ll find info about how long you can stay, road conditions, what the cell service is like, plus reviews. A lot of this info is user generated, but tends to be pretty accurate. We rely on reviews to decide where we will camp and Campendium is one of the most useful apps when it comes to reviews.
They do also offer a paid membership, which lets you filter by cell phone coverage and elevation as well, plus has public land map overlays and cell service map overlays, but we personally have not tried it.
The Dyrt is the #1 camping app in the US and is a great resource for both free and paid camping. The Dyrt has a free version, which enables you to look for campsites, read reviews, see cell service reports, look at photos, and more!
However, they also offer a PRO membership, which has some extremely useful (and unique) features for free camping, like map layers for BLM and national forest areas, so you can know where you can legally camp, even if no campsites are pinned, cell phone map layers to see what the service is like, and offline maps so you can find campsites even if off the grid.
And if you do happen to need to pay for a campsite, they offer discounts on campground bookings (up to 40%) at select campgrounds, which is a HUGE perk!
Want to try The Dyrt PRO? Sign up for a FREE 30 day trial using our code AplusK!
What we love about freecampsites.net is that it only shows free campsites, or campsites that require an affordable permit or are cheap, so you don’t have to sift through as much info to find the truly free campsites.
While the interface could use a bit of updating and they do not have an app, it is still one of the best databases of free campsites that we have found and usually has a lot of reviews for each campsite, which helps us decide if it’s a good fit for us.
We recently began using iOverlander more this past year while in coastal California, where most apps didn’t seem to show any free campsites in the area. This app helped us find an amazing spot in the hills above Santa Barbara (a very non van life friendly city), with insane views of the city and ocean!
The interface of the app isn’t our favorite, as it’s pretty bare bones, and photos don’t load automatically, but it does offer insight into what amenities campgrounds have and features reviews as well.
iOverlander has also helped us a lot with finding potable water, which can be one of the hardest chores in the van. So it is even more useful than just free camping!
RV Parky is our go-to app and website to find parking lots to sleep in, like Walmarts, Cracker Barrels, and Cabelas, plus other options. The app does offer more features, like searching for RV parks, even letting you sort by type, including military RV parks, KOAs, and more, but for us, we have found that for free camping, the best way to use it is to just look at the “stores” filter.
One thing we have noticed though is that sometimes a Walmart will be marked as “overnight parking not allowed,” but after reading reviews, we see that people have successfully gotten permission to stay the night, so we do not turn on the filter to “only show stores with overnight parking” and definitely try to read all of the reviews to get the latest info. And regardless if it says you can or cannot park overnight, we suggest asking the business to double check!
We shared a bit about Harvest Hosts earlier and while not 100% free between the annual fee and buying something from the business (they suggest spending $20), it has saved us big time in areas where there aren’t a ton of options.
And a good way to think about it is if you plan to go to a winery, brewery, or need any meat/produce anyways while traveling, the purchases at Harvest Hosts will benefit you and it will still make the campsite feel free. Plus you get to support a smaller business and have a unique, local experience!
What to bring with you to free camp
Because of how remote free campsites can be and the lack of amenities, you’ll want to ensure you have the proper equipment on you. We share all of our backpacking gear in this post, which is also very applicable for free camping.
Free campsites often do not have any trash cans, so make sure to bring bags or something to put your trash in so you can pack it out. This includes bringing dog poop bags for your furry friend (and actually taking the bags, NOT leaving them on the ground or on a trail).
Trowel or wag bag
Be sure to follow the Leave No Trace principle #3 and dispose of human waste properly. Lucky for us, we have a compost toilet in our van, so this part is pretty easy. But if you’re tent camping it may be trickier. For solid waste, some areas allow you to dig a 6 inch hole to bury your waste and in those cases we use this trowel. However, some places do not allow you to bury your waste and you will need to use a wag bag instead.
Unless you’re camping near a water source and can filter your water, make sure you bring plenty of water for both drinking and cooking, plus any hiking you may do.
Car emergency kit
Free campsites are often very unlevel. While we are pretty used to sleeping slanted, being able to level yourself a bit will improve your quality of sleep. We just use some wood to level our van, but level blocks work great too!
Since you won’t have access to power at free campsites, make sure to bring some power banks to keep your phone charged in case of an emergency. We like this Anker power bank, as it’s thin and can charge multiple devices at once.
Permit or pass (if applicable)
While free campsites usually do not require permits, some may require you to have a specific pass, like the America the Beautiful pass or another type of permit. For example, Washington has some campgrounds that are free with a Discover Pass, which is $30 a year. So while not 100% free, it ends up being very cheap depending on how many nights you spend
While free camping can require a bit more work and preparation, it’s worth it to get a more remote and nature-filled experience. We hope this guide helps you find free camping in the USA and enjoy them responsibly and safely. If you have any additional questions about free camping, let us know below!
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