How to Find Free Camping
Let’s face it, finding free camp sites can be really hard depending on what area you are in. There are several sites to help you find free camping, including this one, but let’s concentrate on learning to fish instead of looking for fish dinners. We’re going to point you to some of the primary sources for free camping information and try to show you how to find what you’re looking for.
First, here’s a list of terms to be familiar with:
Dispersed Camping – Dispersed camping is camping outside of a campground area on public lands. Often, there will be existing fire rings, picnic tables and/or lantern posts in a pull off from the road. However, in most areas, as long as you are not blocking a road, gate or trailhead dispersed camping is fine as long as dispersed camping is allowed in that district.
BLM – Bureau of Land Management. The BLM administers public lands that encompass roughly 1/8 of the total land mass of the U.S. Most of these lands are in the western states. Often mineral rights or grazing land are leased from the BLM by private companies or individuals.
Dispersed camping is allowed on most BLM land for up to 14 days. Even if land is leased or has mining claims, you may camp there unless posted otherwise by BLM management. You may cross private land (as long as there is a public road) to reach BLM areas. You should not come across a locked gate, but if you cross a gate, please leave it in the state you found it – open or closed.
USFS – US Forestry Service. THE USFS administers the 175 national forests and grasslands in the United States. They are responsible for regulating logging, grazing and mineral rights on these lands as well as maintaining roads, trails, campgrounds and law enforcement in the area. The forestry service offers many developed campgrounds as well as a large number of ‘official’ dispersed camping sites. Regulations vary based on the ranger district, but for the most part, dispersed camping is permitted for up to 14 days.
NPS – National Park Service. The NPS manages all 58 national parks in the U.S. as well as 333 national monuments and historic areas. Many national parks offer campgrounds, but park lands are often more protected than forestry or BLM lands. As a result, dispersed camping is not allowed in many national parks, although this is not an across the board rule – dispersed camping areas do exist in some national parks.
WMA – Wildlife Management Area. WMA’s are state run areas of land that are often designated for hunting, fishing or simply preservation. Rules vary from state to state and often from one WMA to another within the same state. Some states allow camping in the majority of their WMA’s, some disallow it entirely. Some charge a day use or seasonal permit fee. The name of the agency that runs the state WMA’s varies, but a web search of “WMA <state name>” should point you in the right direction.
County Parks – County parks may be the trickiest of all to track down. As you would expect, the rules vary greatly, but depending on your area, there may be some great parks that allow free camping. The more remote an area, the better your odds are that it allows camping. You may also find that multiple organizations within the same county have their own park systems which means even more varying rules and fee schedules.
City Parks – City and Town parks may be the easiest of all to find if they exist at all. If a city park allows RV camping, they will often advertise the fact. Often you will find that they have dumpstations, drinking water, electricity and/or free wireless internet. The cities that maintain parks such as these are hoping to attract travelers in order to boost their economies. One such park we visited went as far as having signs on the outskirts of town advertising the amenities, directions and how long you could stay.
Now that we’ve got some definitions out of the way, where exactly can you find camping information? One important thing to remember is that while there are three primary federal agencies that are potential sources of free camping areas, they are all broken up into individual units.
For national parks, you only need to check the site for the individual park. For BLM lands, you begin looking in a specific state and then see that the districts are broken up geographically and select the district you are interested in. Forestry Service land is similar to BLM land, but often you will see contiguous districts within the same forest. The name of an area may change when it crosses a state border, but often the BLM or USFS area may be administered by the same district.
Once you’ve narrowed down your area as much as possible, start checking out the information provided on the website. Look for links such as ‘recreation’ or ‘camping’. Remember that not only does each district have different regulations, they also have different websites! Often these sites look very similar, but you’ll find that some links aren’t where you’ve grown accustomed to seeing them or on occasion the site will be completely different from the bulk of the websites administered by the same organization.
Some key things to look for are lists of campgrounds and camping regulations. Often you can find a complete list of campgrounds in the district along with prices and amenities. A surprising number of these campgrounds have no fees associated with them or very reasonable rates. Obviously, the more amenities a campground offers, the higher the price is likely to be. If you can find a list of camping regulations, often dispersed camping will be mentioned. Look for language that states camping is not allowed outside of designated campgrounds or language that states dispersed camping is permitted under certain circumstances.
If you’re unable to find any dispersed camping regulations or a campground that suits your desires, look for the district office phone number and give them a call! For the most part, employees at these agencies are very helpful and will be glad to point you to free campgrounds or dispersed camping areas. You may have to explain what you mean by ‘dispersed camping’ to some people, but we’ve yet to ask about dispersed camping and receive a rude response. If the person you’re talking to doesn’t know the answer, they will likely ask someone or transfer you to someone that does. We even had one lady scan a map and email it to us!
If dispersed camping is permitted, but there are no official areas or campgrounds in the area, you can still go out and pick your own spot as long as you comply with the local regulations. I think the best method for this is simply asking the locals where to find a nice campsite. Rangers can be a great resource as well as people that live in the area. If you stop in a district office, you can get excellent maps. Depending on the agency and what maps are available, the prices vary, but when you think of it as your ‘campground fee’, they will seem quite reasonable as you’re paying a few bucks to camp for up to two weeks.
Now, assuming you’ve found a spot you want to check out on the internet rather than by driving around, how do you figure out where it is? If you get lucky, the responsible agency has provided you with GPS coordinates, but don’t bet on it. More commonly, you’ll see driving directions. Typically, these directions assume you are coming from one town or perhaps two or three if it’s an area with multiple population centers nearby. On occasion, you’ll find nothing more than a site name and a description stating what road it’s on and perhaps how far from the nearest intersection. Some agencies may provide a detailed map showing the area and the local roads.
Getting these various formats plugged into a GPS system can be challenging at times. GPS coordinates pose little problem if they are a fairly standard format, but they are pretty rare, so let’s look at the ways to resolve the other types you may find.
One of the first problems you’ll run into is that many free camping areas are on very small roads. Often these roads have only numbers associated with them or, even more frustrating, the road may have both a name and a number, but your directions have one variant and your mapping software has the other. Another common problem is that the important roads for finding the campsite don’t show up on your map unless you zoom in to a high level of detail, making it difficult to follow the turns and directions. Finally, the road may not even exist in your mapping software as it is a new road or so small as to have escaped the notice of the cartographer entirely.
We have found that Google Maps can be an excellent resource for cutting down the research time when trying to pin down coordinates for a particular site. One of the first things I will try is going to http://maps.google.com and trying a map search. The important thing I have found is to click ‘Show Search Options’, which will bring up a drop down box to the left of the ‘Search Maps’ button. Often, you get much better results by changing the options from “All Results’ to ‘User-created Content’. If you have a site name, try the name along with ‘campground’ and/or the state abbreviation where it should be. If there is no name associated with the area, you can try the name of the district it’s in along with ‘campground’, ‘campsite’, ‘primitive’, ‘camping’, etc.
Many people that enjoy camping are actively putting up GPS coordinates for places they’ve stayed. Often you may find half a dozen GPS coordinates in the same general area for the site you’re looking for.
The last trick involving Google Maps is figuring out how to get that little marker into a plain old GPS format.
- If you have multiple pins, decide which one you want to use.
- Close the text box associated with the pin.
- Right click on the pin and select ‘What’s Here?’
- Google will put the Longitude and Latitude in the search box.
- You may now copy and paste the coordinates.
If you strike out with a Google map search for the camping area’s name, you can try to ‘virtually’ follow the given directions inside of your chosen mapping software. This can be a tedious process involving trying to match up road shapes from a provided map with unnamed or differently named roads. You’ll find you often need to zoom in to even see the roads you’re looking for. You may even need to use multiple types of mapping software as you find the roads you’re looking for don’t exist in one or the other. Don’t give up easily though, if you have a hard time locating the site, it just may be one of the more pristine areas out there and one you’ll truly appreciate.
Finally, if you’ve done all of the above and tracked down a keeper, why not share it with the community here at freecampsites.net? If we all contribute just a little bit of research time, we’ll all have many more sites to choose from with a lot less effort to locate them. After all, you’ve already done all of the hard work!
Please feel free to leave a comment with your own tips, tricks and resources for finding these obscure gems that we all love.