How to Find the Best Free Camping in the USA (Video)

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Tips for how and where to find awesome free camping on your next USA road trip adventure. Find amazing, off the beaten path, beautiful places to camp!

rooftop tent in one of many free campsites in New Mexico mountains

Probably the question I get asked the most about our style of camping is, “Where can I find free camping?”

People will message me, email me, and comment asking where they can find free campsites in different parts of the country.

Listen, we’ve camped in some pretty amazing places… Like 10,000 feet up a mountain pass close to an old abandoned mine… On the edge of a meadow with a herd of elk peacefully grazing nearby… In the middle of the desert with a night sky chock full of brightly shining stars… In the heart of a national forest where wolves wake you up at night with their howls right outside your tent.

But we’ve also been in your shoes trying to figure all this out, searching for ‘free camping near me’… In the dark, it’s getting late, we haven’t eaten yet, still looking for a good place to stop for the night and pitch our tent.

We’ve even camped on a roadside pull-out with cars honking their horns all night long as they passed. Oh the joy that night was! If only we’d known that just up the road was a beautiful campsite on top of the mountain, tucked back into the trees away from honking jerks, er, cars.

That very scenario and all of the questions I get on a regular basis about how to camp for free, lead me to writing this, so I can give you all the details, down to the nitty gritty, of how to find free camping in the USA.

Stay tuned because eventually, we’ll be covering Canada and individual states. We’re also planning to share places where we’ve camped in the United States, as well.

WHY WE CAMP FOR FREE

When I say ‘free’, I mean free in a money sense, as well as free in a ‘wild and free’ sense.

Dispersed camping allows our family to travel and experience everything this beautiful amazing country has to offer. Like kayaking Beaver Lake, it gives us the opportunity to explore places we may only have otherwise dreamed of exploring.

For us, camping means an escape away from civilization and most of the time, away from developed campgrounds. While the preparation and all that it entails may not be free, we like to stick to wild camping in off the beaten path camping spots.

gorgeous hardwood trees and aspens in the Carson National Forest in New Mexico, USA

WHERE TO FIND FREE CAMPSITES

Finding free places to camp may require a little bit of research before you pack up and head out. The type of campsite you need will depend on the type of equipment you have.

For example, are you RV camping or boondocking? Tent camping? Are you backpacking?

All of this will factor in to your decision as to where you want to look for camping spots.

Below is a comprehensive list of all the places where you can find free camping in the USA, as well as tools you can use to find these places. You’ll find descriptions and details, rules and regulations, and even a few examples.

NATIONAL GRASSLAND AND NATIONAL FOREST CAMPING

Camping in National Forests is usually our #1 choice. In fact, we plan most of our trips around being able to find good camp spots in the National Forest.

We also have a favorite spot on the Rita Blanca National Grassland where we like to stop for free overnight camping if we’re making our way out West.

Camping in a National Forest or on the Grasslands are usually good for all kinds of camping, whether you’re an RV camper, in a fifth wheel or trailer, a van, tent camper, or backpacking. There are usually options for all.

But be aware, there will be no amenities. We’re talking dry camping here. You won’t have access to restrooms, picnic tables, bear lockers, running water, electricity, or trash service.

road atlas and adventure road atlas  on rocks

How to Find Camping Spots in a National Forest or Grassland:

  • Look for light green areas on your map. You can find them in Google Maps (you may need to zoom in/out to see more detail) or in any road trip atlas or adventure atlas.
  • Use Google Earth to get a satellite view and find pull-offs or clearings, both being pretty good indicators that there are campsites in the area you’re searching.
  • Driving just about any Forest Service road (usually dirt roads) will lead to all sorts of places you can camp for free. Look for spots alongside the road, or look for sites that are tucked back into the forest more. You may even be able to backpack in to a site if that is your preference.
  • Always look for a fire ring and an already established site. Never create your own site.
  • Locating and stopping at a ranger station in the Forest you’re visiting enables you to get all the information you need, as well as more detailed maps and Motor Vehicle Use Maps (the best maps you can have because they’re updated regularly with road closures) of the area, which you can also find on the Gaia GPS app. Plus, you can get all of your questions answered and become aware of any problems/issues they’re experiencing at the time (example: burn bans, wildlife warnings, road closures, etc.)
  • If camping in a Grassland, calling the local authorities may give you insight as to whether or not it’s ok to park for the night in a picnic area.

Here is a list of printable/downloadable maps for all the federal lands, listed by state. You may also find a Benchmark Road & Recreation Atlas for each state helpful.

motor vehicle use maps on rocks, perfect for finding back roads, Forest Service roads, and free camping in the USA

Rules and Regulations:

Usually, there is no fee or permit required, meaning you will probably camp for FREE the entire time! You just have to check with each area you are planning to enter because some do require permits.

All campsites are first come, first serve. You can not reserve these remote sites.

Rules are posted online. And you can usually find signs with rules and updates upon entering the area you’re visiting.

Here are a few…

  • Stay on existing roads, whether paved or unpaved.
  • Check fire conditions and for burn bans before starting a fire. Also, make sure you don’t need a permit to have a campfire. On that same note, drown your fire before going to bed and before leaving the campsite.
  • Always camp at least 200 feet away from any type of water source, such as rivers, creeks, lakes, and wetlands.
  • There’s usually a 14 day limit, and you can’t return to that exact campsite for 1 whole year. So if you find a good site, you may wanna stay and enjoy it for as long as possible.
  • Leave no trace. Always pack in what you pack out. And don’t harm any vegetation or feed any wildlife.

BUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT (BLM LANDS)

BLM Lands can be found mostly in western states. When I think BLM, I think of a spot in the desert outside Roswell, New Mexico, where a sudden windstorm nearly blew us away.

However difficult they may be to locate, you can find some really beautiful camping spots on BLM Lands. Note that you’ll also find some developed campgrounds, but they usually charge a fee for camping.

All campsites are first come, first serve. You can not reserve these remote sites.

Camping on BLM lands is usually good for all kinds of camping, whether you’re an RV camper, in a fifth wheel or trailer, a van, tent camper, or backpacking.

But be aware, there will be no amenities. Again, dry camping… You won’t have access to restrooms, picnic tables, bear lockers, running water, electricity, or trash service.

4Runner with rooftop tent dispersed camping in the mountains of New Mexico, USA

How to Find Camping Spots on BLM Lands:

  • Find maps on the BLM website for the state/s you’re visiting.
  • Look for spots alongside the road, already established campsites where previous visitors have camped.
  • If possible, stop by a local BLM office to get more information, as well as hard copy maps.

Here is a list of Public Lands where you can search by state and then by BLM Lands, National Forests, etc.

Rules and Regulations:

Some BLM Lands are in use by mining companies or ranchers with grazing rights. So, there may be livestock running on the lands.

  • Stay on public land. Never enter private land or go through a gate without getting permission to do so first. And then if you do go through a gate, leave it the way it was.
  • Check fire conditions and for burn bans before starting a fire. Also, make sure you don’t need a permit to have a campfire. On that same note, if you are allowed to have a fire, drown your fire before going to bed and before leaving the campsite.
  • You’re usually limited to 14 days within a 28 day period.
  • Always camp at least 200 feet away from any type of water source, such as rivers, creeks, lakes, and wetlands.
  • Leave no trace. Always pack in what you pack out. And don’t harm any vegetation, livestock, water supply, or feed any wildlife.
national forest camping in Colorado with fire ring in golden aspen trees

OTHER OPTIONS FOR FREE CAMPING

You may find other options for free camping in wilderness areas, state areas, Wildlife Management Areas, county and city parks, and even a rare spot in a National Park.

Some state parks and national parks allow backpacking in, camping in the backcountry, and primitive camping, as well.

Check the state you’re visiting for these types of camping areas, and contact the appropriate office to get more information.

Just keep in mind, it may not always be free because you may need a permit. But usually, a permit will be much cheaper than paying for a nightly campsite.

Though it does require a paid permit, we’ve enjoyed backcountry camping in Big Bend National Park. Pick a spot, pay the permit fee, and drive out into the backcountry to set up camp. It is amazing and treacherous all at the same time.

Another national park that has free campsites is Great Sand Dunes. You can drive out on a 4-WD road beyond the sand dunes and find 21 free campsites that are first come, first serve. This was actually one of our first experiences with dispersed camping.

Not Exactly Camping, But…

You may also find a place for overnight parking (and sleeping in your vehicle or camper) at places like truck stops, Walmart, and even some casinos.

They’ll sometimes allow you to stay the night in their parking lot.

wild camping with a rooftop tent and camp trailer in the Carson National Forest in New Mexico, USA

WEBSITES AND APPS FOR FINDING FREE CAMPSITES

We’ve used a few resources, both paper and electronic, in our years of camping together out in the boonies. The great thing about modern technology is that it’s given us way more options for finding campsites than ever before.

1. Free Campsites We’ve used this website quite a bit, especially when we just need a spot for free overnight camping. We found a great little spot one night next to Ottawa State Fishing Lake while driving through Kansas on our way to Wyoming.

2. iOverlander Both a website and an app, you can find both established campgrounds, including free campgrounds, and wild campsites where you can camp away from anyone else. It even has sites in Kansas… Any app that can tell me where to camp across the empty expanse of Kansas is a-ok in my book.

I like that you can add filters for amenities and types of sites too. For example, you can search by wild camping or established campground; you can search for sites with water, dump stations, propane, etc.

3. Campendium I notice this app shows a lot more campgrounds than actual dispersed camping sites, but if you filter by ‘free’, you’ll get a lot more dispersed campsites in your search results.

I do love that you can also search by National Forests, National Parks, State Parks, etc., so it gives you the ability to really narrow down your search.

4. The Dyrt Yet another website and app that allows you to filter and search for both established campgrounds and dispersed campsites by location. You can also find cabins with this app.

*PAID* APPS FOR FINDING GREAT CAMPING SPOTS

1. Ultimate Campgrounds A pretty amazing app, it allows you to filter by BLM Lands, US Fish & Wildlife, Corps of Engineers, National Park, Appalachian Trail, US Forest Service, and so much more.

It really is the ultimate app for finding remote campsites away from civilization. And it’s only $3.99. Worth every penny. Also available for Android.

2. Gaia GPS I mentioned finding the MVUM maps on this app. We use this app on every single trip. Dan and I both highly recommend it!

It’s a great way to download maps (including offroad and topo maps), plot your route, get the latest weather/fire information, and get information on whether lands are public or private. You can also sync data between devices, and you can record your own trips or hikes. It’s an amazing app!

CAMPING RESOURCES FOR YOUR NEXT ADVENTURE:

WATCH OUR VIDEO TO SEE HOW AWESOME DISPERSED CAMPING CAN BE!

PIN IT FOR LATER!

If you love camping as much as we do, help me share the “how to” on Facebook and Pinterest!

how to find the best free campsites in the USA

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