Summer is here, the kids are out of school, the R.V. is ready, and the campsites are full, or simply just expensive. Whether you are trying to save money and not stay at the standard KOA’s and R.V. Parks around the country, or are just looking to get away from the crowd, simply venturing a little further off the beaten path can take you away from the bustling hubbub AND save you some money, all it takes is some extra preparation and research! In this article I’ll lay out the steps you can take to find free campsites anywhere you are looking to travel.
Understanding Free Camping Areas:
National Forest stay limit sign
The first and most important aspect of free camping is understanding where you can and can’t camp. The style of camping we are discussing in this article is referred to as “Dispersed Camping”. This is allowed in national forests, as well as on BLM land. It is important however, to keep in mind the different rules and restrictions each of these agencies has in place, and to know which kind of land you are camping on.
In National Forest land, the standard is a 16 day stay limit, you must move more than 5 miles between campsites, and you are not supposed to stay in the same campsite more than once in the same calendar year.
On BLM land the limit is 14 days within a 28 day period, and you must move 25 miles from your previous campsite for at least 29 days until you can return to that site. These rules can also change depending on the state, or National Forest you are in.
The best way to ensure you are following the rules is to check the specific rules for the forest or area you intend to camp in, and when staying in a National Forest, it can even be helpful to check in with the local ranger station and ask for information regarding dispersed camping in the area. Here is a link to an example of the Fish Lake National Forests dispersed camping regulations, as well as the general BLM dispersed camping rules. For more localized information, a quick google search can provide insight to your local rules and regulations.
So. Now that you understand what free camping is, and how to ensure you are following the rules while you do it, how exactly do you find these spots? There are a few approaches I have personally used, and found to be quite effective when used in conjunction with each other.
Step 1: Get a Map!
The first thing I do in my planning process is always to buy a good atlas of the area I plan on camping. If you get a good atlas, it usually makes it very clear which land is BLM and National Forest land, making it easier to pick out areas with potential free campsites near where you’re trying to go.
I have personally found that many times, a good local atlas will show a lot of small forest service roads that don’t always appear as readily on applications like Google Maps. Also, it provides a nice backup, in case you get into an area with limited cellular service, you know you have a map on which you can rely to find your way in, or out!
I usually pick up my atlas’s at REI as they usually carry atlas’s specific to the areas they are in
Step 2: freecampsites.net
This is probably one of the best pieces of advice I can give you! As someone who spends a majority of their time in their camper, especially in the summer, FreeCampsites is my GO TO resource for planning campsites and finding good areas to park my trailer. FreeCampsites is a community based website designed for sharing good free camping areas.
Anyone can post spots they have found onto the FreeCampsites map, and it gives you the power to search specific areas for both free, and paid campsites, read reviews and testimonials from people who have stayed in these spots, and even has a trip planner function to help plan your ultimate R.V. road trip without having to pay for a campsite ONCE!
Here is an example of what the FreeCampsites map looks like to use
Step 3: Use Google!
The third and final step in my process is to use Google Maps satellite view to look at the area I am planning on camping. I do this for a couple reasons.
My primary reason is to just make sure the road looks passable with my trailer, and if it looks questionable, it allows me to see if there will be good places to turn around if I need to. Pulling a travel trailer behind my truck, while being a great way to camp, also limits my off road ability, as well as my maneuverability, and the last thing you want is to have to back your rig up down a rough dirt road.
The second reason I do this is to scope out potential spots in the areas I have previously found on FreeCampsites. The satellite overview shows good pull-offs, and in some cases you can even see fire rings, denoting places others have already stayed. This way, if you drive up, and see one spot taken you will already know if there are more sites up the road to check out, or if you should cut your losses and move on to the next area.
Alright, you are almost there! You have your dates selected, you’ve done your planning, you know where you’re camping, there are just a few more things to keep in mind before you take off on your grand adventure!
Dispersed Sites don’t have facilities:
Although this may seem apparent to some, it is very important to note that most dispersed camping areas do not have any hookups or facilities. More often than not, you will be out there on your own, so be prepared for this. Bring water, propane, and plan accordingly for your bathroom needs. Whether this means using the restroom in your R.V., or digging a pit in the woods, you need to know what you are getting into before you get out there.
Plan for your Electric Needs:
Similarly, these sites don’t have electric hookups. If you are looking for a primitive, low power outing, then there is nothing to worry about, but if you want to be running the radio, using the lights, charging camera gear, or anything else that requires electricity, plan to not have hookups. I personally use solar panels to keep the batteries topped off, however you can use generators, or run your R.V. or car engine in order to keep things charged if needed. Whatever works best for you, just make sure you plan accordingly.
My current solar power setup
For More information on Solar Power setups, check out our guide to the best RV solar panels.
Pack in Pack out:
Dispersed campsites rarely if ever have any waste facilities. Because of this, you need to be prepared to pack out whatever you pack in. As we all heard growing up “Leave No Trace.” In order to keep these sites free, and pristine, it is important to clean up after yourself, and plan on packing out whatever garbage, recycling, and other waste you make while you are out on your adventure.
If you are planning on being on the road for a while, plan on stopping in towns from time to time and finding the local waste collection facilities, to ensure you are helping keep these free camping areas beautiful for the next campers!
Go Have Fun!
Dispersed camping near Hungry Horse, MT.
Alright, you’re set! Now you know what dispersed camping is! You know how to find your next campsite for free, as well as what to expect once you get there, and how to be prepared for it! Now it’s time to load up the R.V. and hit the road! Enjoy your adventure!