How to find free camping in the US

Imagine you’ve been driving along the most scenic of byways, you’ve been belting out all you’re favorite songs along with the radio, and life is good. Then you realize the time, and you want to pull over for the night….Where do you stay without having to pay heavy fees?  Free camping to the rescue!

Dispersed Camping

This is the best method for taking advantage of free camping.  Dispersed camping is the term used for camping anywhere OUTSIDE of a designated campground area on public lands. This means no services; such as trash removal, and little or no facilities. Sometimes, there will be existing fire rings and picnic tables in a pull off from the road. A toilet or privy is unlikely to be available. It’s a mixture of the self-sufficiency of backpacking and the convenience of car camping.

Free dispersed camping on Mt. Dickerman in Mt. Baker Snoqualmie National forest, Washington.

Free camping at it’s finest

National Forests and Grasslands

Camping in National Forests and National Grasslands is generally fair game unless otherwise posted.  As long as you are not in an established campground you’ll be okay.  This means there will be no running water, toilets, trash cans, etc.  With this being the case, you have to be very diligent about following the Leave No Trace policy.

  • Okay unless otherwise posted
  • Must be away from established pay to stay campgrounds
  • No amenities (bathrooms, running water, trash, picnic tables, etc)
  • Typically a 14-day continuous stay limit
  • Pets are allowed in National Forests and Grasslands but must be leashed

Finding a spot

To find a National Forest or Grassland, check out the US Forest Service website or use the interactive map to explore National Forest locations.  To find a National Grassland, go here and locate one by state.

Picking a Campsite

When picking a campsite, use common sense.  If you notice a spot has been used before, use it again to minimize damage.  If no previous site exists, chose a spot that will do the least amount of damage to the plants, soil, and wildlife. Follow these rules taken straight from the US Forest Service site:

  • Camp on bare soil if possible, to avoid damaging or killing plants and grass.
  • Do NOT camp within 200 feet of any water source, plants near water are especially fragile.
  • Don’t camp in the middle of a pasture or clearing. Make your campsite less visible so that other visitors will see a “wild” setting.
Free camping in our car in the Olympic National Forest, Washington. Boundless Journey.

Free camping in our Subaru on a National Forest road

BLM (Bureau of Land Management)

We had never heard of the BLM until 2017 when we went to Oregon to watch the total solar eclipse.  Turns out, BLM land is most prevalent in the Western states, but astonishingly the BLM manages one in every 10 acres of land in the United States. As far as camping goes, the rules are very similar to National Forests:

  • Okay unless otherwise posted
  • Must be away from established pay to stay campgrounds
  • No amenities (bathrooms, running water, trash, picnic tables, etc)
  • Typically a 14-day continuous stay limit
  • Pets are allowed on BLM but must be leashed

Finding a spot

Check out the BLM website to view an interactive map of BLM land.  You can also search by state and activity to find something specific you are looking for.  The detail page for each location is actually very helpful and states whether camping is allowed as well as other pertinent info.

Milky Way over a Volkswagen Westfalia van in the Painted Hills of the Oregon desert. Boundless Journey Photography.

The start of an incredible night

National Parks

National Parks are never free to enter unless you fit a small criterion (disabled, veteran), but once you’re in, you can swing free camping in some parks.  Mt. Rainier National Park, in particular, DOES offers free first-come, first-served permits for wilderness camping.  It’s always a gamble when trying to get walk-up permits because you can only obtain a permit on the day of or the day prior to your hike.

  • These spots are hike-in tent camping locations
  • Permits are issued the same day your trip starts, or up to one day before your trip starts, but no sooner than one day
  • To acquire a permit you must visit a Ranger Station in the park
  • There is no guarantee of availability

Finding a spot

First, look up information about the specific park you are looking to stay at to see if they offer free permits.  Next, find their Wilderness Trip Planner document to find wilderness campsites, here’s the one for Mt. Rainier National Park.

 

Now, the non-ideal locations for when you just need to get some shut-eye before hitting the road again.

Get Creative

Free camping at a bar in the middle of nowhere. Boundless Journey.

You’ve just gotta ask around to find a spot

Walmart

You can’t always live the good life.  Sometimes you just need to pull over to get a couple hours of sleep before carrying on to your next destination.  This is in no way camping.  Not even close.  There are also mixed reviews about sometimes being asked to leave the premises.  With that being said, my family did this all the time when we were traveling the country to get to motocross races.  On multi-day drives, we’d pull over with our van and trailer, park in the back rows of the parking lot and either sleep in the van or trailer.

Many Walmart locations across the country allow motorhome campers to stop overnight in their parking lots. Not all Walmart locations allow overnight RV parking. You can use this link to find Walmart stores that don’t offer this service. This is “dry camping”, so there won’t be electricity, water or dump stations available while you’re there.

  • Keep a tidy area (don’t set up lawn chairs, etc. keep everything in your car)
  • Arrive late, leave early.  There’s no point in hanging around
  • Park away from the entrance of the store
  • Bathrooms are available during store hours
  • Walmart conveniently has everything you need

Finding a spot

Here’s a compiled map of Walmarts.

Another separately managed list of Walmart locations here with reports of peoples stays.

Free car camping in the parking lot of Walmart

Rest Stops

Again, this is NOT camping.  Being the most convenient location of all parking spots when traveling, rest stops are a touchy subject with no clear answer.  The rules vary greatly for rest stops depending on the state, some allow parking for just a few hours, some all day but no overnight parking, and others just say no fires.  We should also mention that they may not be the safest place to lay your head, which makes sense when you think about it.  Given the number of travelers that pass through each day, there is always the chance of danger.  And murders have happened at/near rest stops, so be warned and use your best judgment.  That being said, I’ve done it before with my family.  When I was younger we were heading from Iowa to Washington state for a motocross race and stayed at a rest stop in Buford, Wyoming.  I specifically remember this because it’s the highest rest stop on Interstate 80 at over 8,000 ft. It was a cold night in the van. But nevertheless, we stayed there with no problems.

The six states that permit overnight parking:

  • Ohio
  • Oregon
  • California
  • Idaho
  • Minnesota
  • Washington

Check out here for specific details about the state rules for camping at rest stops.

Finding a spot

Find a list of rest stops by state here.

Resources

Freecampsites.net (US & Canada) – A great resource for finding free campsites in the US and Canada.  Provides reviews and GPS coordinates to help you find the spot.

Campendium.com (US & Canada) – Another phenomenal website with a great interface to find campsites.  Allows you to search by state, cost, and other parameters to find a spot.

ForestCamping.com (US) – This site allows you to find a site by state or Forest/Grassland name.  Most of the campsites here cost, but they are generally cheaper than camping in a National Park.

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5 Responses

  1. NORRIS Coleman says:

    This as a great article for me. I plan on traveling in a Truck Camper throughout the U.S. This will help on the travel expense.

  2. David Hall says:

    Thank you Thank you Thank you …. i am planning bicycle trips and this information will be valuable in finding good places to camp while i am enjoying our country

    • Hey David, sounds like a great trip! Where all do you plan on riding? And I’m glad it was helpful. We’re always looking for new topics to write about so let us know if you have any suggestions

  1. February 11, 2018

    […] Friday night we drove across the border and missed the ferry by about a half hour. We hadn’t planned to cross the border that night but went for it. Without a place to stay we were stuck with car-camping at Walmart.  We referenced our own guide for free camping, which you can find here! […]

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