Finding free camping in the US is difficult if you don’t know where to look. As a general rule, the further East you go, the more difficult finding free campsites gets. The more populated an area is, the less likely it is to have access to public lands and undisturbed camping areas.
I’ve been traveling all over the US for the last 10 years. From cross-country road trips to extended backcountry trekking, I’ve mastered the art of finding free camping.
Whether you’re a seasoned adventurer or just starting out, this guide will show you tips and tricks for finding free camping spots in your area.
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Free Camping Level: Beginner
Travelling deep into the backcountry to find undocumented sites might not be in your repertoire just yet, but don’t worry. Here are a few ways you can find free camping near you.
Types of camping:
- Car Camping in parking lots
- Car camping in campgrounds that are free
- Free overnight camping at Cabelas in Lexington, Kentucky
Pulling an RV from South Carolina to Wisconsin, we stopped here for the night. Quiet and semi-secluded, we felt safe and got a great night sleep.
- Buzzard Roost Recreation area in Hoosier National Forest. Free primitive car camping site.
Driving from Philadelphia to Colorado, we found free primitive camping about 15 minutes off the highway in southern Indiana. Driving down quiet dirt roads to get there, we got a bit of a “Deliverance” vibe, but arriving at the campsite, we found it quiet and comforting.
Free Camping Level: Intermediate
You’re not afraid of a few backroads, and maybe even have some prior backcountry camping experience.
Types of camping:
- Boondocking (off-grid car/RV camping) at unmaintained sites
- Hike-in or designated free areas
- backcountry campsites and shelters
- The Outbound
- Local State/National Park Website
- Free Camping 1 hour outside of Salt Lake City, found using the Outbound app.My friend found this site using the Outbound app while we were traveling in Utah. We got in late at night and I set up my tent. The highlight of this spot? Waking up surrounded by a herd of cattle.
- Free overnight shelters for backpackers in Harriman State Park, NY.We made camp at the Fingerboard shelter on a sub-zero night in February. As the sun went down a few college kids wearing jeans strolled in, covered in snow and freezing. I wasn’t sure they’d make it through the night…(they did). Read about that trip here.
Free Camping Level: Advanced
You understand a map and compass, and you have the gear and know-how to make it on your own in the wild.
Types of camping:
- Unmarked or un-established sites
- Camping on BLM or USFS land
- Make your own site, basically
- Dispersed Camping in Nicolet National Forest
This National Forest marks free dispersed campsites on their maps as a white square with a brown tent. Browsing through dozens of maps to find potential campsites is no easy task. You also need to estimate road conditions and don’t know if the campsite will be accessible. I marked these locations in Gaia GPS, and used the Public Lands overlay to verify I remained on Public Land. Learn more about using Gaia GPS in USFS areas here.
- Badlands Overlook – just outside of Badlands National Park
I found this site using Freecampsites.net and verified that it was on public land using the Gaia GPS Public Lands Overlay. This ended up being a popular location, with RVs lining the cliffside.
Always leave no trace when you visit a campsite. Clean up your trash and be sensible.
If you get a bad vibe at any place, listen to your gut and leave.
If you find a cool camp spot that isn’t listed online or in any of the resources above, consider keeping it a secret. Keeping low amounts of traffic to certain areas is what keeps them free for all.