For the frugal among us, it can be hard to pay the $25 per night rate for campsites at many National and State Parks. Thankfully, there are alternatives. It’s simply not necessary to pony up to have a beautiful place to spend the night. Read on to learn a few tricks for finding awesome free sites.
Let’s start with the “free camping lingo.” You might need to do some research, so it’s good to know all the names that camping off the beaten path goes by to use in your searches. “Dispersed”, “dry”, “primitive”, or “backcountry” camping, as well as, “boondocking” are the most popular of these colorful names – subtle differences, all essentially indicating camping for zero dollars. Now you’re ready to start searching!
Check Public Lands
The most common place to find free camping is on public land. Areas such as National Forests, Bureau of Land Management land, and some State Forests allow you to camp anywhere you can find an already-established campsite. You don’t even have to clear the leaves and fight off the bears – there are already thousands of level, open spots with fire rings just waiting for you to find them. Check out the following three ways to find these gems.
- Web Searches: The spots on public land are never well-advertised, so you have to be creative to find them. The first strategy for finding them is a good old internet search. For example, do a search for “dispersed camping Arapaho National Forest,” and see if there are any blogs by locals detailing some good spots.
- Maps: You could also pull out a physical map (or Google map with satellite view) of the area, locate some forest roads, and just go out and explore. You’ll usually see these campsites right off the aforementioned dirt roads winding through wilderness areas, usually in a gorgeous setting and nary another soul in sight.
- Ranger Stations: Finally, you can always call or visit the area ranger station for suggestions – rangers might be able to give you a road number where there are plenty of good spots if you’re willing to go do a bit of exploring.
Check Websites and Apps
The Lewis and Clark-style of discovering your own free camping spot is great, but there are several websites and apps that can help you find your next forest home. In these tools, generous souls have shared the GPS coordinates and descriptions of great spots in specific areas. All you have to do is pick one and click “get directions to here.” Some spots happen to be on public lands, but many others are in places you would have never thought to check.
The website freecampsites.net is a treasure trove of campsites with detailed descriptions, photos, and ratings to help you decide which site is best for you. Thanks to this resource, I hung out for several days with a glorious view of the Grand Tetons, spent a magical rainy weekend in the Olympic Peninsula’s rainforest, and woke up one morning on a butte overlooking the Black Hills of South Dakota surrounded by buffalo – all for free!
The app, iOverlander, features a wonderful interactive map, and others recommend US Public Lands, The Dyrt, and Wikicamps USA.
Most free campsites will not have trash cans or toilets available. Always keep the Leave No Trace principles in mind and leave these wonderful, free places better than you found them. Happy (Free) Camping!
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Brianna A. is a friendly local librarian turned travel/adventure writer who loves to learn about the world…and then write about it.