Lodging is the biggest expense for any vacation, right? If you’re planning a roadtrip, you’ve probably tried to plan how much hotels or motels will cost you. Well guess what? It doesn’t have to be expensive, and if you’re comfortable outdoors, you can find free camping all over the U.S.!
There are tons of relatively low-cost commercial campsites in every state in the union. However, if you are ready to try dispersed camping, you can sleep for free in hundred of locations. So grab a tent (or hammock, or just the ground), an airbed and a sleeping bag and head over to www.freecampsites.net.
This website is a community of campers and RVers that spans the whole country and lists thousands of free and low-cost campsites (generally $12 or less per site). The bulk of campsites are on U.S. Bureau of Land Management land, Forest Service land, Wildlife Management Areas and public parks.
It’s simple: open the website, type in your destination in the map, and see nearby free campsites with green flags, paid ones with red flags, and sites requiring a local pass or permit with blue flags. Each listing includes any amenities such as tables, fire rings, bathrooms, hiking trails and more. It’s all community-based, so new sites are added often and you are encouraged to leave a review if you visit one of the sites.
Note: You can camp for free in every national forest. There are many clear spots set up in many national forests, even in areas where there are residential communities or hotels – I camped for free in view of a Marriott hotel one time, although I prefer quieter spots. Freecampsites.net lists a lot of these national forest sites, so you can plan ahead and get directions, however you can often just spot sites while driving through a national forest.
Some of my best memories from my first year road tripping were earned at dispersed campsites in National Forests on the west coast and in the midwest.
I recently found myself in Biloxi, Mississippi, and was offered several options. I ended up staying in De Soto National Forest for the night.
I’ve stayed at more free sites than I can count, from simple ones less than a mile off a main road to a few I really shouldn’t have tried to access with my ’97 Camry. Many listings recommend caution and recommend 4x4s or high-clearance vehicles.
Now this is where I advise a beginner camper that for a lot of these you do need to be prepared for dispersed camping. Often there are zero facilities: no table, no fire ring, no garbage cans, no water, no electricity, and almost certainly no bathroom. But there can be a huge bonus to that (depending on what you calla bonus): There probably wont be anybody else there.
If you have an RV or are on an extended roadtrip with lots of supplies, you can likely just show up last minute. Otherwise, you should stop at a grocery store for essentials like water, food and even firewood.
If it is in a remote area, there may not be cell phone service for miles in any direction. On a dirt road that could mean a half hour or more to make a phone call. But if you’re prepared, all you need is a patch of flat ground!
So before you try dispersed camping, remember to:
- Be comfortable driving: A dirt/gravel road may be required – it will say so on the website.
- Check the weather before you go! You may not have cell service. I love the Weather Underground app, it’s got everything.
- Bring plenty of water: At least 1 gallon/person/day.
- Overprepare: Bring more food/gas/supplies than you think you’ll need.
- Bring toilet paper! I repeat: Bring toilet paper!
- Don’t get lost: Have a standalone GPS or data-free navigation app like Navmii so you never get lost and can explore off the grid.
- Notify someone: Let family or friends know where you are going and how long you will be there. Social media is great for this.
- Be smart with fires: Stay away from trees, grass, brush, etc… and check local burn restrictions, particularly during droughts or in dry states. These are often posted on roadside signs.
- Be a good camper: Try not to use too much local wood (sticks, dead trees, live trees trees, etc…) – many locations list rules, but in general, try to use dead wood and don’t decimate the area. Other people will be there after you!
- Don’t make a mess: Dig a 6-inch hole to do your business and bury it – seriously, nobody wants to step in your shit. You can use a stick or a rock to dig if you have no available tools.
- Clean up after yourself: Pack-in and pack-out absolutely everything. Bring a garbage/recycling bag for anything you consume, and take it with you when you leave. There are no clean-up crews here – this is imperative.
- Enjoy the quiet.
- Fall in love with nature.
All that said, some sites do have fire rings, tables, or even pit toilets (no running water – basically a small building that acts as a permanent porta-potty).
I highly recommend camping near a river or stream. There is nothing quite like falling asleep and waking up to the sound of running water. I spent entire days exploring riverbanks and climbing dry creek beds in California.
If you want a truly relaxing vacation, find someplace where you don’t have cell service and may not see another human for several days. It requires you to work for your enjoyment, but it is a visceral and eye-opening experience to find yourself alone in nature, relying on yourself for survival. When visiting a noisy city I try to imagine the hum of traffic is a babbling brook – it doesn’t work, but it puts me in a good headspace.