No campground, just a spot on the side of the road on public land: Dispersed camping is free, fun, and easier than you might expect.
A few years ago, I rarely spent the night in a tent, didn’t know what “dispersed camping” meant, and had no idea of places across the country where camping is completely free. Now, after more than a year on the road (and hundreds of nights camping across North America), I can say without a doubt that dispersed camping is my favorite.
Not only does it save major cash, but by getting off the beaten path you will discover some of the loveliest and most isolated spots available. Camping for free can take a bit more effort but leads to adventure far and wide.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2016 and has been updated with new information and free camping tips.
Primitive, Dispersed Camping
Dispersed camping (also called wild camping, boondocking, or dry camping) is not about luxurious amenities. It is about beautiful natural places and camping in an area that is not a designated campground.
Imagine driving into the forest, turning down a dusty dirt road, and discovering a spot right in the wilds with no camp noise, bathrooms, or showers.
However, you’ll need to do a bit of extra planning. Make sure to bring everything you need – most importantly, plenty of water. Because there is no way to reserve a dispersed camp spot, plan to arrive with plenty of daylight.
Research ahead of time helps, but finding an ideal campsite can still take time. A search that’s fun in the daylight can be miserable in the dark.
Find Your Free Camp Site
In the United States, you can camp on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) areas and in national forests across the country. You can also find free camping opportunities in some Wildlife Management Areas (WMA), state forests, and grasslands.
Certain high-use areas or sensitive habitats are marked with “no camping” signs. Other environments have specific ways to minimize damage, like avoiding the living biological crusts of desert environments or fragile plants of high alpine areas. But the majority of public lands are available for respectful use. Below is my favorite strategy to find an epic camp spot.
Scour Google Maps. Look for the green areas on Google Maps that signify public lands. This is a rough demarcation of national forests and other public areas, so be sure to respect private land at the fringes. Take note of what’s available in the region you plan to explore. Use the Google Earth mode and zoom function to get an idea of roads and landscapes.
Use a paper map. Some wild spaces don’t show up on Google Maps. And once you’ve gotten off the beaten path, cell service may not be available. This is where paper maps come in handy. Choose one of the options listed below or stop by the ranger station for a local map. These will help you identify roads, trails, potential obstacles, and water sources.
Look up rules and regulations for the area you plan to visit.
Talk to a ranger. Call or stop by the local National Forest or BLM office. These folks are full of useful information and are usually happy to share advice. Get firsthand tips on where to go and what to avoid. Plus, it’s always a good idea to let someone know where you’ll be when you head off the grid.
Head into the wilds with a sense of adventure and an open mind. The spot you pick on the map might be perfect or might not. Remember the journey is the destination. If it was just about rolling into a spot and setting up the tent, there are plenty of campgrounds meant for that.
Camping away from designated campgrounds takes extra effort; here are some ways to find great spots.
National forests: There are nearly limitless opportunities in National Forests across the United States.
BLM land: BLM land covers 247.3 million acres in the United States, making good odds of finding a nice spot for your tent.
Campendium.com: A helpful compilation of free campsites.
Freecampsites.net: Users can add campsites, reviews, and tips on free campsites across the U.S. Sites vary from noisy parking lots to pristine wilderness gems.
onX Maps: This app, designed primarily for hunting, is a treasure trove of public land information. Navigate public land interspersed with private land and avoid trespassing with this powerful tool. It’s great for anywhere public and private lands mingle.
Know Before You Go
Do you need a fire permit? Are there seasonal restrictions? How are the road conditions?
Droughts cause fire bans, hunting can form seasonally crowded areas, and rain creates impassable roads. It’s better to know before you go. Give the ranger a call.
Leave No Trace
There’s nothing sadder than finding a spot in the middle of nowhere covered in garbage. Leave things better than you found them. Pick up trash, pack out waste, and tread lightly.
Follow the seven principles of Leave No Trace and keep the rugged places pristine and wild for future adventurers to come.
Park only where legal and safe, and don’t create new paths with vehicles. Your goal should be to leave the place without any evidence of your visit.
Bring a Paper Map
Cell phone coverage is unreliable and often nonexistent once you get off the beaten path. This is where paper maps become invaluable. And even when you’re in cell range, it’s hard to beat the detail and information provided in a quality map.
Benchmark Road and Recreation Atlas: These comprehensive, detailed atlases cover entire states. Coming in at 11-by-16 inches, they take up some space but provide plenty of useful information. This includes public lands, updated road conditions, campgrounds, and boating access. A must-have for epic road trips and long-term life on the road.
National Geographic national forest map: If you know a certain area you plan to visit, grabbing a Trails Illustrated Map is the way to go. They provide detailed info on campgrounds, trails, and local topography. Plus, they’re constructed of a sturdy, waterproof material, so you can easily stick them in your pack when you leave the car behind.
Free maps: Most ranger stations have free maps of the area. Swing by when you drive into the forest and see what’s available. If nothing else, they’ll have a large map on the wall. Snap a pic with your phone and at the very least you’ll have a reference when you get out of cell range.
Be a Better Camper Every Time
I once awoke floating in a field because I didn’t understand local tides. It was an unpleasant lesson, but one that I won’t soon forget. Mistakes are an inevitable part of learning something new and also valuable lessons that make us better campers.
But when you wake up, unzip the tent, and lie back to enjoy the rising sun, disconnected from the frantic pace of modern civilization, you’ll realize the extra effort is worth the hassle.
When you sink into the mellow rhythm of nature, surrounded by open spaces and wild places night after night without any wallet-pinching worries, you’ll be hooked.
So don’t wait. It’s time to get off the beaten path, live outside, and enjoy nights under the stars. Best of all, it’s time to do it all for free.