Thinking about hitting the open road but worried about where you’re going to find free camping near you? Don’t worry, we’ve all been there and realize how stressful finding parking can be when traveling on the road, especially if you’re on a budget.
Fortunately, camping doesn’t need to be expensive. There are a ton of places throughout North America where you can park for free. The trick is just knowing how and where to find it. We’ll show you!
Our Most Asked Question: How Can You Afford Camping & Parking on the Road?
We’ve spent nearly a year traveling full-time on the road and are always asked how we find parking throughout the US and Canada.
We haven’t paid for parking or camping in over 3-4 months now.
Campgrounds and RV parks can charge anywhere between $20-$200 per night. Sometimes, it is absolutely necessary to pay for a campsite or RV park. For example, if you don’t have the ability to stay off-grid long-term, campgrounds and RV parks offer water, electricity hook-ups, and specific areas for dumping your tanks.
Personally, we prefer the “boondocking” lifestyle and it has significantly reduced our costs. We’ve gotten fairly good at finding locations to camp for free.
Yes, you heard me right – there is free camping in the United States and Canada! So, how do you find free camping in some of the most beautiful locations around North America? Let’s get into it!
Is There a Catch? What Exactly is “Free Camping”?
Free camping locations throughout the US and Canada are places where you can legally camp without having to pay a fee. Common terms used throughout the community include dispersed camping, boondocking, dry camping, backcountry camping, stealth camping, and wild camping. I’ll dive a little more into the meaning of those below:
Dispersed Camping: This is the official term used by the National Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to describe free camping that is located throughout the United States. Dispersed camping is located in non-developed areas usually without daily fees. For the most part, you can stay on BLM and National Forest Service land for up to 14 days.
Boondocking: This is a term used by most RVers and others traveling full-time on the road to describe camping without being connected to water, electricity, or sewage. Boondocking can include free camping in either a national forest or Walmart parking lot.
Dry Camping: This term is interchangeable with boondocking but is used less commonly. For most free camping spots, you will need to consider that you most likely won’t have access to water, electric, or sewage hookups.
Stealth Camping: If you are thinking about a van, you’ll hear the term stealth camping a LOT in the community. Stealth camping is when you have a more “discrete” looking vehicle and have a better chance of parking in urban areas such as neighborhoods, parking lots, scenic overlooks, etc. If you have a camper, RV, or skoolie, this may be a lot more challenging for you. The idea is to blend into your surroundings and avoid being noticed like any parked vehicle.
Our Favorite Parts of Free Camping
Before deciding what kind of free camping is right for you, it’s important to consider the pros and cons of the situation.
It’s Free! Of course, the biggest pro is that free camping will completely eliminate “rent” expenses. Additionally, you can have some of the most beautiful views right outside of your window without having to break your trip’s budget!
Flexibility. We personally love moving around every week or so. If we’re staying on BLM land, we’ll just move down the road. Free camping allows you the ability to choose exactly where you want to park without the pressure.
Seclusion. Our favorite part of boondocking: 100% the seclusion and privacy that you’ll get! RV and campgrounds can sometimes be very crowded which almost takes away from enjoying nature. There’s nothing like waking up in the middle of the woods without seeing a single person all day.
What Should You Expect When Boondocking
In terms of what to expect when you’re boondocking, every location will be different. Here’s what we find to be the most common setups when we’re boondocking:
-No potable water, showers or bathrooms
When it comes to free camping, you’re most likely going to have to find your own source of water. If you’re limited on water but don’t want to smell stinky, we’d recommend purchasing some Cottonelle FreshFeel Flushable Wet Wipes from Amazon. I’m telling you…they’re perfect for getting a quick “shower” in before bed if you’re trying to conserve water!
In terms of drinking water, we’d always recommend having some extra onboard. This is more of a precaution to ensure that you always have some in case you run out of freshwater in your tanks.
-No dumpsters or trash cans
For the most part, it will be your responsibility to bring back all the trash that you brought into a campsite. Local county dumps are usually cheap if you’re desperate for finding somewhere to throw away your trash.
While also free camping, it’s important to follow the “Leave No Trace” guidelines. Those 7 principles include:
Plan Ahead & Prepare
Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces
Dispose of Waste Properly
Leave What You Found
Minimize Campfire Impacts
Be Considerate of Other Visitors
-No picnic tables
Don’t let this be your determining factor. If you want to eat in comfort while enjoying the great outdoors, think about investing in a portable camping chair. We personally love the Cliq Camping Chair from Amazon. Super compact and light!
-There may or may not be fire rings
There are usually no “official” fire rings at free campsites. In addition, you’re going to want to check for fire restrictions by each state. If fires are allowed, you’ll most likely have to make your own pit!
-Roads are usually unmaintained and rough
Most roads on BLM and National Forest land are rough and unmaintained. If you don’t have an AWD, you’re going to want to always scout out a location. You never know what could be in your way, including mud, deep water, fallen trees, and low hanging branches.
-Cell service may be spotty
You cannot expect to get cell coverage and the Internet at every single boondocking spot. Sometimes, you are really out in the middle of nowhere.
If not getting the Internet is a concern for you, I’m here to put your mind at ease. David designed the WiFi system that allows us to get internet in some of the most remote locations in the United States. Go check out our article: How to Get the Fastest Off-Grid Internet.
Finding Free Camping Near Me in the US & Canada
National Forests and Grassland
There are over 154 National Forests and 22 National Grasslands that hold more than 193 million acres of public lands. Unless otherwise noted, National Forests and Grasslands are open for dispersed camping. Most areas do not charge a fee and have camping limits between 3-30 days.
There are also developed campgrounds throughout the United States managed by the US Forest Service. The campgrounds in National Forests in general designed with minimal services to consolidate impact. While you may have some amenities, site managers do generally charge fees between $5 to $35 per night (average $10-$20/night). Those with an America the Beautiful Senior Pass can get up to 50% off their camping fees.
Only downside? While National Forests and Grasslands exist throughout the United States, about 90% of them are west of the Mississippi River. The states with the most acres of National Forests and Grasslands include Alaska, California, Idaho, Oregon, Colorado, and Arizona.
Bureau of Land Management (BLM)
The Bureau of Land Management oversees 35 million acres of undeveloped land throughout the United States. Areas run by BLM include National Wild and Scenic Rivers, National Recreation Trail, National Wilderness Areas, National Landmarks, and National Historic Trails.
The best way of finding BLM land throughout the United States is by visiting Recreation.gov or playing with the BLM Interactive online map. Recreation.gov is a great way to search for outdoor activities on public land including national parks and forests. From the results pages, you can find BLM campgrounds with links to their description and campground information.
Walmart, Casinos, Truck Stops, Rest Stops, etc.
Most of you are probably like: Excuse me?! Parking in public lots is not camping. However, you’d be surprised on how handy Walmarts, casinos, and other public lots are when traveling full-time or on a road trip.
Walmarts are of course the most well-known standard for overnight camping in urban areas. While there are many Walmarts throughout the country that allow overnight parking, there are also several that do not. For example, Colorado pretty much prohibits overnight parking in most public lots. Our biggest suggestion is to always call first to be sure you’re allowed there. You do not want to be woken up by a cop late at night or early in the morning!
Other common “non-camping” options include casinos, truck stops, casinos, Home Depot, and rest stops. The situation will essentially be exactly the same as staying in a Walmart parking lot. You’re going to want to park towards the peripheral of the lot, be completely self-contained, and eliminate the usage of generators. CasinoCamper.com is a great resource for finding casinos throughout the country that allow overnight parking.
Crown Land (Canada)
Crown land is legally owned by the Federal or Provincial government and is free of charge to Canadian residents for 21 days or less. It covers up to 77% of province landmass and consists of 39 million acres of land and water. In order to find Crown land, you can check out the online atlas provided by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry.
Not a resident of Canada? Don’t worry, you’ll still be able to camp but will have to purchase a permit for $9 per person, per night. I’m sure you can risk it if you’re in a super remote spot.
Do note that hunting is legal on Crown land!
Resources for Finding Free Camping Near You
Ok – so you get the idea of what free camping is, what you’re going to have to bring, and what to expect. But, what about resources for finding locations that you feel comfortable parking at?
Below are a few of our personal favorite apps and websites that we use for finding free camping throughout the country.
iOverlander (FREE): This is our go-to app and website when looking for somewhere to camp. Users submit campsites, dump stations, water-fill areas, and campgrounds on the app. However, since the content on the app is user-produced, the information may not always be accurate. It’s best to do your research and ensure the location works for you (especially if you are a larger rig).
FreeCampsites.net (FREE): This is another popular app and website that features comments, GPS coordinates, and who’s managing the land. If you need another app to follow up with, this is a good option.
Free Roam (FREE): We have recently discovered this desktop and mobile app and are surprisingly impressed! You can apply BLM and National Forest overlays which are super helpful for finding public land. Additionally, the app shows road views, Motor Vehicle Use Maps, and cell coverage.
A similar product includes the US Public Lands App. However, the app is not free and costs $2.99.
Campendium (FREE): This app allows you to search for camping by site and offers a ton of other useful information including cell coverage, reviews, and pictures.
Boondockers Welcome ($50/year): I know, I know – this isn’t a free resource. But, we absolutely think it is worth it! When we traveling during the fall and winter months, Boondockers Welcome was our go-to app. You have the opportunity to request stays at people’s properties throughout the United States and Canada, completely free of charge.
Occasionally, a host will ask for a donation if you use their hookups or need to fill water. Besides that, it’s a perfect way to experience some of the most beautiful parts of the country while meeting some amazing people along the way!
Harvest Hosts ($79/year): Similar to Boondockers Welcome, Harvest Hosts is another online membership program with benefits that include access to overnight parking at sites all over the country. The locations are usually wineries and farms so they may not have electric or water hookups. While they are free to stay, it’s suggested that you support their local businesses.