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A Complete Guide To Free Camping

free camping
A Complete Guide To Free Camping – Photo by RV Hive

A Complete Guide To Free Camping

RV parks are definitely convenient. Many of them have more amenities than a nice hotel. However, they can get expensive on longer trips. Fortunately, there are free camping opportunities all over the country. You just need to know how to find them.

In this guide to free camping, we are going to discuss the different types of free campsites, tools you can use to find them, and how you can help keep those campsites free and open for others to enjoy.

Overnight parking

Just like the name implies, overnight parking spots are meant to be used for the night. Generally, you will not find a lot of things to do at these locations, and the scenery is not always ideal. The main goal of these sites is that they are free and easy to get access for a quick overnight stop. Here is an example list of locations that allow RVers to stop overnight.

Big Box Stores

Big box stores tend to have large parking lots. Many of them don’t mind RVers staying overnight. These free camping spots are typically not all that glamorous, but they allow you to stop for the night for free. Below is a list of stores that have been known to allow overnight stays.

  • Walmart
  • Bass Pro Shops
  • Cabela’s
  • Camping World
  • Costco
  • Home Depot
  • K-Mart
  • Lowes
  • Malls
  • Menards
  • Sam’s Club
  • Target
  • Planet Fitness

Before staying at the above locations, it is good etiquette to call the location and confirm that overnight parking is allowed. Some cities have rules in place that do not allow overnight parking by RVers. 

Also remember that you are just staying overnight, not camping. Believe it or not, people have set mats, grills, chairs, and even pets outside their RVs while at Walmart parking lots.

Casinos

Not all casinos allow free overnight parking because some of them have their own onsite RV parks. Even if you find out a casino offers free overnight parking on the internet, it is a good idea to call and confirm. You may get lucky. Some have large parking lots and allow parking, and a select few provide free power.

Cracker Barrel

Many Cracker Barrels around the country not only allow overnight parking for RVers, but they also have RV/bus parking spots as well. It’s always good practice to call ahead and ask permission. The nice thing about staying overnight in a restaurant parking lot is that  breakfast and dinner aren’t too far away.

Truck stops

Most truck stops have no problem with RVers staying the night alongside the truckers. Several chains are now adding RV spots separate from the truck parking area as well. These can be great free overnight spots because they have many of the amenities of RV parks without the price tag. For example, it’s not unusual to find laundry facilities, restaurants, showers, RV dump stations, fuel, and propane at a truck stop.

One thing to keep in mind is that professional drivers must stop and rest for 10 hours after 14 hours of duty. They are also only allowed to drive 11 of those 14 hours. If spaces are limited and there is nothing else close by, some people feel that leaving those spots for the truckers is the right thing to do. Truckers are doing an extremely important job, and without them, we would be unable to get supplies to all the stores around the country. It’s in our best interest to make sure they stay rested and safe.

Rest areas

Rest areas can be great overnight parking spots. Some of them even have amenities like WiFi, free dump stations, freshwater, hiking trails, and more. The overnight laws do vary from state to state. Some have a 24-hour limit on the length of stay, while some states, like California, have an 8-hour limit. It is a good idea to check the DOT page of the state you will be traveling through for the rest area laws.

Many RVers stay at rest stops in every state with no problems. The purpose of rest stops is to keep tired drivers off the road. A good rule of thumb is to only stay at rest stops as long as you need to get rest. But, if by chance, you ever get a knock on the door and are told to move on, the person asking you is probably just doing his/her job.

Long-term free camping

You may have heard the terms boondocking, dry camping, or wild camping. Those are all terms that commonly describe dispersed camping in an RV. Dispersed camping is basically camping outside an official campground on public land without hookups. Some places have designated spots for dispersed camping, but in others, you are free to camp anywhere that you are not blocking a road, trailhead, or gate.

Bureau of Land Management

About ⅛ of the total landmass of the United States is public land managed by the BLM. You will find most BLM land in the Western United States. Dispersed camping is allowed for 14 days at a time on most BLM land. Some of the campsites are only accessible to vehicles with four wheel drive or hikers. That doesn’t mean that RVers need not apply. Many camping spots can be found just off the road too. You can check out https://blm.gov to find out more.

United States Forest Service

Just like BLM land, the USFS looks after 175 national forests and grasslands. Many of those areas have developed campgrounds, but they also have many dispersed camping areas that RVers can utilize for free. Camping is usually limited to 14 days at a time. You can learn more about the camping laws by visiting their site https://www.fs.fed.us.

Wildlife Management Areas

WMA’s are run by individual states and are usually designated for sports such as hunting and fishing. Like all state-level laws, the rules for camping at these locations vary from state to state. Some of them allow camping, while others don’t. Some of them charge a fee to camp on their WMA land, and other states will allow you to camp for free. The best way to find out the individual state laws for wildlife management areas is to do a search for “WMA” and then the state’s name.

County Parks

As the name implies, county parks are run by individual counties, and just like state land, the rules for camping will vary from park to park. The best way to find out if camping is allowed is to call the park services of that county.

City Parks

City parks may not sound like an ideal camping destination. However, it is possible to find several amenities such as electricity, dump stations, water, and even free WiFi at city parks. Some smaller cities and towns maintain a city park with RV spots in an effort to attract tourists.

Some of these parks offer several days of free camping with a small fee per day after that. Though camping is free, some have a donation box to help with the cost of the park. If you don’t want to donate, the city wouldn’t mind if you spent some money at the local businesses and restaurants.

How to find free camping spots

It’s great to know that all these free camping opportunities are out there, but how do you find them? There are many services and sites that help find free camping spots. The following list is by no means exhaustive, but it is a sample of some of the most popular tools people use to find free campsites of various types.

RV Trip Wizard

RV Trip Wizard is a premium RV routing web app. It can be used to plan a trip and locate fuel stations, RV parks, BLM spots, Walmarts, Cracker Barrels, and thousands of other points of interest.

On top of the large database, the system has RV-friendly routing, can estimate trip costs, and warn you of steep grades, low bridges, and much more. RV Trip Wizard also syncs with the RV LIFE App to create an RV-friendly GPS unit.

free camping
RV Trip Wizard will show you most of the free overnight parking spots listed above and some free public land camping locations as well.

RV LIFE App

The RV LIFE App can find things like gas stations, RV parks, and rest stops using the app directly from your phone. The video below gives a basic overview of how RV Trip Wizard works, including how it syncs with the RV LIFE App.

FreeCampsites.net

FreeCampsites.net lists free and cheap RV spots submitted to the site by users. The site lists reviews and other pertinent information about each site. Though it is not as detailed and user-friendly as the above resources, it does have quite a collection of free campsites.

free camping
It doesn’t have as many bells and whistles as RV Trip Wizard, but FreeCampsites.net is a great resource.

Google Maps

It would be nice if you could type “free campsites” into Google Maps and come up with tons of free campsites. It doesn’t quite work like that, but Google can be a valuable tool in your search for free campsites.

Google Maps has awesome satellite views. It is often possible to just look around BLM or other public land and find campsites. You will often see RVs on the satellite view indicating that the site is accessible.

By simply looking around the BLM land that is around Lake Mead in Nevada, one can discover RVs parked in various spots down certain roads. This is a good indication those spots are easily accessible.

Tools like street view and distance measurement are also useful when determining what a road looks like and how far down a dirt road you have to drive to get to the site.

In the video below, you can see how to use RV Trip Wizard, FreeCampsites.net, and Google Maps to find a free campsite on a route.

BLM.GOV

The BLM website has a handy map with many layers one can turn on and off. You can have it display only primitive camping spots, which are almost always free. Once you find a location you like, it may be a good idea to check it out on Google Maps or RV Trip Wizard to see how the area looks on the satellite view.

You can quickly find BLM campgrounds on their official site and then use the other tools listed to find out more details.

Free camping etiquette

In general, if you are dispersed camping, you want to follow the seven principles of Leave No Trace.

  • Plan ahead and prepare.
  • Travel and camp on durable surfaces.
  • Dispose of waste properly.
  • Leave what you find.
  • Minimize campfire impacts (be careful with fire).
  • Respect wildlife.
  • Be considerate of other visitors.

The same can be said for overnight spots too. When you are staying in the parking lot of a business, you will want to leave your slides in and not call attention to yourself.  

Some city parks that allow you to stay for free have donation boxes. You don’t have to break the bank, but if every RVer that stayed there threw in a few bucks, it might just help keep that park free. If anything, it will cover the electricity used.

Overall keep in mind that we all want to enjoy the free camping spots around the country. To continue to do so, we must all do our part to help leave them as good or better than we found them.


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Click Here to Leave a Comment Below 1 comments
Marlene McCormack - December 13, 2020

These all are good pointers. However, I do have a correction: It is the U.S. Forest Service, not Forestry Service.

Also, free/dispersed camping does not come without the risks. Check local weather and hazards, including crime. If you’re camping in the mountains, know the weather forecast, if dispersed camping along the coast, know tide tables and local warnings. Don’t get snowbound along a road that doesn’t get plowed in the winter, nor be in an area that is within a tsunami zone. Know the local rules regarding campfires and fire level for the season.

Regarding crime: There are a lot of ‘off the grid’ people with warrants for misdemeanors or felonies who camp out of necessity. I have been on ridealongs with federal law enforcement officers and have witnessed this first hand.

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