Camping is one of those traditional pastimes that never really seems to go out of style, no matter what else is trendy or ‘hot’ in the travel world at any given moment.
Surprisingly though, even simple tent camping can get rather expensive fast, often because of the increasing size of the campground fees charged by camp sites and parks.
Ideally, shouldn’t ‘getting back to Nature‘ be free?
After all, she does not charge anyone. The good news is that there are indeed thousands of places located across North America – yes, Canada is included in this too – that do indeed offer free campsites!
If you do decide to try to stick to the unpaid version of camping there are some things you need to know, along with some great resources to help you ‘find a freebie’ in the areas that are currently on your camping wish list.
These things – and more – are what we are going to take a closer look at now.
Just What is Free Camping?
The phrase is relatively self-explanatory.
A campsite where those making use of it are not charged for doing so. It applies to RV camping and tent camping and some seasoned campers would not choose any other way.
If you have, to this point, always paid for a campsite spot, free camping may take a little getting used to.
Also sometimes known as dry camping, boondocking or dispersed camping, free camping is rarely offered in the kinds of developed campsites you might be used to.
In all likelihood, you’ll find there is no ‘on tap’ electricity, limited (if any) shower or bathroom facilities and you may be many miles away from the nearest decent Wi-Fi hotspot.
In some instances, you might even struggle to get a cellphone signal. In other words, you’ll REALLY be camping out in the wild (for the most part.)
For many though there are real pluses to this, aside from the obvious cost savings. Some like the fact that it’s ‘real camping’ and they can camp further away from other people and truly enjoy some peace and quiet.
Is Free Camping the Right Choice for Me?
Loving being in the great outdoors is does not always translate as loving being almost completely cut off from civilization.
Some campers like the fact that there is an onsite restaurant nearby, or that a warm shower is just a few steps away.
Some can’t imagine trying to deal with limited Internet access or spotty cell phone service.
If you think that might be the case for you then no, free camping is probably not the right choice for you.
However, if you are OK with being more self-sufficient – which is much easier in an RV than a tent obviously – then it’s an idea well worth looking into.
Some of the most beautiful spots in North America – the ones that really take your breath away – are in free camping areas and any inconveniences are worth it just to spend some quality time in them.
Because this is the 21st century there are also lots of things you can do, and buy, that will make even boondocking a lot more civilized.
What Will I Need to Go Free Camping?
The supplies you’ll need to enjoy – and not just survive – a trip to a free campsite will vary.
If you are an RV camper you’ll need less than a tent camper in most cases, but that does not mean that you won’t need to bring along some extra supplies above and beyond those you might usually have on board when heading to a more formally set up paid campsite.
Some things that all campers will need include the following:
Often how many additional supplies you’ll need will depend on just how far ‘off the grid’ your chosen free campsite is.
If you are an RV camper and the nearest town is only a short drive away the chances are that you really won’t need to load up too much.
However, for a tent camper a ten-mile hike is very different to a ten-mile drive, so you’ll need to keep that very much in mind.
How to Find Free Camping
OK. You have come to conclusion that free camping actually sounds like a lot of fun.
This is great, but now you have to find those free campsites.
In North America there are three major providers of free camping:
National Forest Camping
A lot of people confuse National Forests with National Parks, but they are not the same thing.
To camp in almost all National Parks you will have to pay campsite fees and occupy a formal spot.
National Forest sites on the other hand are often free.
There are National Forests all over North America. Not all of them allow camping, often because the flora and fauna in them is too delicate to stand up to too many people – but most do. You’ll find them all over, but especially in the Western parts of the United States.
Each campsite owned by the National Forest does have different rules and regulations, especially when it comes to how long you can stay there – generally 14 day stay limit per site – so make sure you are aware of those before you set out.
BLM (Bureau of Land Management) Campsites
The BLM – aka Bureau of Land Management – is the government agency in the US that manages a largish number of open, desert like landscapes, most of which are located in the Western United States.
Because of their usually hot, rather arid nature many BLM campsites, while free, are not well suited to tent camping, but are great for RV fans who can carry plenty of water and power with them (power and A/C or fans to be precise).
Why would you seek to head to one of these spots?
There are lots of reasons but one of the biggest is if you love star-gazing they are some of the best spots you’ll find in the Americas in general to do so, so make sure you add a good telescope to your packing list!
General Public Lands
Dotted across the US and Canada you will find state parks, town parks, and even some conservation areas that allow limited free camping.
You can even find some campsites operated by the military – specifically by the Army Corps of Engineers – that welcome civilian campers at no charge.
Finding Specific Free Campsites
As you can now tell, there are lots of free camping opportunities out there.
But going to website after website in search of them can be a time-consuming and rather frustrating chore. The good news is that there are all kinds of maps, apps and other resources that will make narrowing down your choices and finding just the right spot easier and more efficient.
Here’s a look at some of them.
iOverlander is a free iOS app that helps you find almost anything, including free camping. You can search by desired location, amenities, pet friendliness and more.
Listings include user generated photos and reviews, so you can find out what kinds of experiences boondocking campers have had before you.
For most campsite locations basic rules and restrictions are listed, along with, usually, another official website you can navigate to in order to get even more information.
Freecampsites.net is a community contributed website that brings together all kinds of resources and allows you to search for free camping by state, town or city or even zip code.
It boasts a very handy trip planner that will help you build a long roadtrip with dispersed camping options all along the way too.
For each listing the site provides GPS coordinates and driving directions as well as information about basic rules and regulations and links to other helpful information about each campsite you might need.
This paid camping app might be good for those who are not quite sure yet whether they want to go on a free camping trip or stick with tried and true paid campsites. It lists not just paid and free campsites across North America but also handy things like where you will be able to charge an RV battery, where food and drink facilities are, even the quality of the available WiFi and cell signals.
At $9.99 the app is not free but it may be worth the investment if you go camping often as it offers a lot in one place, and really will make planning your boondocking trip easier.
About "Leave No Trace"
What it means is just that, learning to camp without impacting the environment around your campsite adversely with any kind of waste.
There is more to this than making sure you have lots of garbage bags on board though (although that’s important).
It also means learning how to ensure any fires you light for cooking or heat don’t damage anything (including local wildlife) and setting up your camp in the right spot.
It’s important, so if you are not familiar with the concept take some time to read up on it.
The official Leave No Trace website is a great place to start.
Some of MY Favorite Free Camping Spots
The US is a big place.
Even bigger if you include Canada in your free camping trip considerations.
If you have never tried boondocking before even thinking off where you might go that you’ll really enjoy might seem intimidating.
While there are lots of options – and I encourage you to look at as many of them as you feel like – to help you get started here’s a little about five of my personal favorite free camping spots:
1. Sugar Hill Fire Tower – Watkins Glen, New York
This is a great free camping spot in New York’s beautiful and sprawling Finger Lake district.
And while you can camp away from others with relative ease – it does fill up more in the height of the summer – there are some basics available like running water, toilets and a spot to do dishes (no showers though).
In terms of free camping this spot is pretty civilized, and the views of the stunning lakes should not be missed.
As New York has cold winters though – and the lakes are no fun to camp at in them – this free campsite is only open from May to October.
2. Magnolia Beach County Park – Port Lavaca, Texas
Fancy a little free beach camping?
It can be hard to find but in this serene corner of southern Texas in Port Lavaca, Texas you’ll find it available all year round.
While there is very little in the way of amenities both San Antonio and Houston are not too far away (if you have an RV, walking is not advised) and the Internet and WiFi signals are, past campers say, surprisingly strong, so you can stay connected to the world while still enjoying some truly stunning beachfront views and experiences.
[Also Read: Best RV WiFi Boosters. Do They Really Work? ]
3. Wedge Overlook – Little Grand Canyon, Utah
Everyone who camps knows – or has heard – that camping near the Grand Canyon is expensive and crowded. And, in many ways that’s true.
But Utah is a big place, and if you are willing to go a little farther out you can camp for free in what is a very lovely little spot.
This is a real no frills spot though; you’ll be on your own and there isn’t even a water supply nearby.
With some planning though if you have ever wanted to rough it on the edge of a real canyon this is a great spot (and you can always drive down to the bigger, better known tourist attraction if you really want to.)
4. Forest Road 29 – Sappho, Washington
Ah, Washington, the state where you can see sandy beaches, rolling oceans, lush forest and even snowcapped mountains in the space of a day or so.
However, this is another often very expensive place to camp, but there are a few free spots, like the tree lined free campsite in Sappho, Washington.
It’s something of a hidden gem as it is very off the beaten track and has next to no amenities.
But, with a fully stocked RV spending a few (free) days there is an experience you won’t quickly forget.
5. Craggy Wash – Lake Havasu, Arizona
Lake Havasu is a very special place and many a wealthier person heads there in the winter to escape harsher climes. But away from the swanky resorts and very expensive ‘glamping’ campsites you’ll also find this free camping gem.
Located right on the border between Arizona and California this spot offers fishing, hiking, biking, stargazing and more.
There is very little in the way of facilities – although the Wi-Fi is reportedly quite good – but if you want a desert trip to remember it’s a great spot.
You’ve decided to go boondocking and have found free camping to do it in.
Great, you should be in for a great time.
However, there are some things you should do that will improve your trip even more enjoyable, especially when it comes to safety:
Scout the Road Ahead Where Possible
As some free campsites are off the beaten track by quite a lot, if you are RV’ing then you should try to scout ahead before you take the rig down any roads where it might get stuck or be unable to maneuver.
If possible, walk or bike ahead to make sure that you are choosing an accessible spot.
Checking out the terrain ahead using Google Maps and Google Earth can be very helpful as well.
Know the Local Landmarks
Even if you are actively seeking to go off grid for a while you should know where useful local amenities are before you go, to save wasting time seeking them out after you arrive.
Find out in advance where the nearest gas stations, battery charging points, grocery stores and local medical facilities are at the very least.
Let People Know Where You are Going
Hopefully it will never matter, but you should let at least some people back in the outside world know where you are and how long you plan to be gone.
Also, even if the signal is spotty, try to keep your phone charged, as it is one of those modern technological devices that can make a real difference in an emergency.