Finding free camping spots on public land is no easy task. Most campgrounds will give you a few square feet of your own space buttressed up against the next camping spot which could be full of a family of five with loud screaming children when entirely ruins the tranquil experience you were hoping to find by camping outdoors. If you’re looking to find this type of designated campground that you just don’t have to pay for – this post is not for you, that’s not what we’re going to cover here.
When it comes to camping, we prefer to get as far away from other people as we can and have the whole area to ourselves, which usually means avoiding designated campgrounds. But how do you find those “middle of no where” “off the beaten path” spots where you’re legally allowed to camp? Well, I’m going to tell ya!
Can you camp anywhere for free?
No. Unfortunately you cannot just camp anywhere for free… unless of course you want to risk waking up with a shotgun in your face or spend the rest of the night in a jail cell. You can only camp on public land or in a designated campsite. Designated campsites are what you find at most campgrounds where you’re allocated a piece of land right next to someone else’s allocated campsite and you usually have to pay for the pleasure of sleeping there. Public land is just what it sounds like – land that’s open to the public. So how do you find public land for camping? Hang on, we’re getting there!
What is dispersed camping?
Dispersed camping is basically “roughing it” (aka: pirate camping or boondocking) and setting up camp out in the wilderness. The vast majority of the time this means there’s not going to be any amenities – no toilettes, water, etc. so make sure you leave no trace and pack out everything you pack in.
Dispersed camping is a great way to not only get a canopy of stars and the wind in the trees all to yourself, but it’s also a great way to save some bucks if you’re on a tight budget! Plus, most people aren’t even aware that there are still places in the US where you’re able to do this!
Outside of designated fee-based campgrounds, you can more or less dispersed camp anywhere you want as long as it’s on public lands.
Is Dispersed Camping Legal in National Parks?
Technically yes, dispersed camping is legal in national parks – it’s just called backpacking or “backcountry camping”. Most will only allow dispersed camping in specific areas whereas some don’t allow it at all. The restrictions are usually such that you can’t just camp along any of the roads, near campground, or any other attractions – they don’t want tents clogging up the landscapes that people are paying to come see! So you can’t really just camp anywhere within a National Park – it’s going to be off in the woods or desert somewhere, and often in a designated campsite or area – and you will always have to get a permit (sometimes months in advance) to reserve a spot as only a certain number of people are allowed to camp in a given area at a given time.
Free camping on Public lands! But, what is considered public land?
Public land is, well, open to the public – not owned by a private person or business, but rather by the government (the park service is not the government!) – and thus, the people. Federally-owned land makes up around 29% of the United States and is available all over the country all though there’s a lot more of it out west. On this land you’re usually allowed to camp for free without any permits or anyone to answer to…..with a few restrictions (come on you didn’t think it would be that easy did you?).
There are four main types of public land available in the United States where you should be able to find free camping:
- National Forests
- Bureau of Land Management (BLM)
- Wildlife Management Areas (WMA)
- National Grasslands
- State Forests (sometimes)
You should always check with a ranger (if they’re around) or try to get more info on the website for the area (if it has one) before setting up camp just to make sure you’re in the clear. Make sure to pay attention to signs – “no overnight parking” or “day use only” – pretty obvious right? High use areas or areas with sensitive vegetation or ecosystems will often say “no camping”. And of course make sure to avoid any “no trespassing” signs.
Always try to find a camping spot that is going to leave minimal impact on the environment. More than likely someone will have camped in that area before, so try to find a spot that was previously used (firepits are usually a good sign). Be respectful and avoid damaging fragile plants or living biological crusts.
Within each of these area, there are still some restrictions as to where exactly you can camp. You have to check with each area to be sure, but in general:
- You cannot camp in the same spot for more than 14-16 days. Depending on the rules of the are you may need to leave the zone completely or could just move to a new spot.
- Campsites have to be at least 100 feet from any stream or water source
- You cannot camp in the vicinity of developed recreation areas such as campgrounds, picnic areas, or trailheads
- Check for fire restrictions! This is especially important in dry wooded areas such as California
- Be bear (and other wildlife aware) – you’re on their turf, make sure you’re keeping all your smelly tasty treats locked up!
- Large groups may need to acquire a permit
How do I find public BLM land or National Forests?
Now that you know WHERE you can camp for free, how the heck do you know if the land you’re on is public land or not? Well, there are a few options for this:
Look at Google Maps!
Google Maps is great for National Forests – just look at all that green! If it’s green and say “…. National Forest” or “…. State Forest”, well that’s a national/state forest and you can probably find somewhere to camp there.
Unfortunately, Google Maps does not show BLM land, nor WMA or national grasslands.
Use an app
Free Roam is a FREE app that will show you where BLM and USFS land is anywhere in the country. Plus it gives you details about cell service for multiple carriers which is pretty great too. Just choose which type of area you’re looking for from the Layers option in the app and ta-da – a nifty map with all the BLM or USFS land, plus campgrounds!
It’s more target towards RVers and nomads than campers, but campers can use it for finding spots to spend the night too. The thing I really love about this app is that it gives you the land boundaries, not just the available campsites, which gives you more versatility in deciding where you want to camp.
The Dyrt – is a similar app (with a paid upgrade option) which lists all kinds of campgrounds including public and private ones, plus some free dispersed camping options.
It’s again more geared towards RVers and includes reviews with photos etc. of each campsite. My biggest complaint with this app is that the BLM and USFS land boundaries is part of the paid version of the app whereas you can get that for free with Free Roam above.
IOverlander – another FREE app that will show you campsites all over the world! It’s all crowdsourced, so everything you’re looking at is information from other users on places that they’ve camped – photos, reviews, details about the site, etc.
It’s not only great for finding places, but also gives you great recent info based on other’s experiences at that site.
Use a website
While I personally think the above app is more convenient since you can check to see what’s available around you based on your location, there are also a few websites that can help you find free camping on public lands:
The BLM website has an interactive map of all of it’s land, which also shows nearby restrooms etc.
FreeCampsites.net – maps free, paid, and permitted campsites all over the country. It’s really helpful for finding campsites, their biggest downfall is that they only show designated campgrounds – not public land areas where you’re allowed to camp.