Camping can be expensive, and we’re not just talking about gear and gas–campground fees are more inflated than our award-winning air mattresses these days. However, there’s free camping out there, you just have to look for it.
In this guide, we’ll break down our favorite spots for free car camping, ranging from dispersed camping zones in Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land and National Forests to Walmart parking lots and yo mama’s house. Seriously: your mom’s house is totally fair game–just park in the driveway. This is also one of the only free campgrounds where you might get a complimentary breakfast and unsolicited relationship/career advice.
Next, we’ll outline a few go-to tools we use to find free car camping, including state-of-the-art apps and good old-fashioned maps. By the time you get to the end of this guide, you’ll be ready to camp like a champ and save dough on your next road trip. Our hope is that this newfound knowledge will help you enjoy the great outdoors safely, comfortably, and affordably.
Free Car Camping in Public Lands: Why BLM is Your Best Bet
BLM land accounts for approximately one-tenth of all land in the United States, and the vast majority of it is condensed in the western half of the country. The Bureau’s task is twofold: the first part of its mission is to administer multi-use public land, which covers mining, logging, and energy production. The second piece of the puzzle–one that’s close to our hearts–is conservation. The Bureau oversees 35 million acres of National Conservation Lands, which include Wild and Scenic Rivers, Wilderness Areas, National Monuments, and more. While that’s only a sliver of the Bureau’s 245 million acres of land under management, National Conservation Lands are popular destinations for car campers due to their intrinsic natural beauty and outdoor recreation opportunities.
The BLM has a difficult job–fossil fuels, mining, and logging fly in the face of conservation, after all. Regardless, BLM land is publicly owned, and as long as signage doesn’t forbid you from doing so, you’re free to car camp on it.
When hunting for free car camping on BLM land, you’re looking for dispersed camping, which refers to any camping outside of an established campground. Some dispersed sites are marked–this is increasingly common as more and more campers visit popular recreation zones–but more frequently they’re just a pull-out on the side of a dirt road or a flat spot with a fire pit.
When dispersed camping on BLM land, always camp in an existing spot–just because you’ve got a capable off-road rig doesn’t mean you should put it to the test in cryptobiotic soil or sensitive grasslands, capiche? To further encourage car campers to Leave No Trace, the BLM generally limits stays to 14 days–once those 14 days are done, you’re expected to move 25 miles before setting up camp again.
BLM land is a hotbed for free car camping, but there are exceptions to the rule: certain mining claims or logging areas may have signs that forbid you from entering or spending the night. Additionally, the BLM manages established campgrounds in popular zones. These established campgrounds can vary–some charge a fee and include amenities like toilets, drinking water, etc.–while others are extremely basic. For the most part, BLM campgrounds are first-come, first-serve, but some can be reserved here.
More Free Public Lands: National Forests and Grasslands
National Forests and Grasslands offer additional options for car campers. These public lands are managed by the Forest Service–a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture–and they’re rife with free dispersed camping opportunities.
However, just like BLM land, there may be signage that prohibits overnight stays or entry in specific zones. Also, while there are established campgrounds in National Forests and Grasslands, don’t expect amenities when looking for free, dispersed car camping. As a rule, be self-sufficient, bring plenty of food and water, etc. Also, practice Leave No Trace principles: camp in existing sites and pack it in, pack it out.
Free Car Camping on Private Property, Parking Lots, Etc.
Remember earlier when we were joking about camping at your mom’s house? Well, we weren’t joking at all. When you have an RV, van, or SUV with a Luno Car Air Mattress in the back, it’s easy to camp curbside or in the driveway of family or friends. RVers call this “moochdocking,” and it’s a great way to camp for free. We suggest bringing beer–or be ready to chip in on some yardwork–to thank your host.
Parking lot camping isn’t an option if you’re pitching a tent, but if you’re self-sufficient and self-contained in your vehicle, the world is your oyster. Walmarts and Cracker Barrels are famous for letting vehicles stay the night, but that’s not always the case, so be sure to check for signs when you pull in. Casinos are another popular option for parking lot camping. It makes sense–casinos are often open all night long and the parking lots are crowded. Don’t be surprised if you do get the dreaded knock at a casino, though, as they want you inside spending money, not catching up on beauty sleep in the parking lot.
Rest areas aren’t our favorite place to camp–they tend to be loud and crowded. However, they’re easy to find, common on major highways, and generally a safe place to spend the night. Also, they have bathrooms, which is a plus. Most states don’t allow traditional camping at rest areas–again, no tents–but crashing in your car is generally accepted. Check out this helpful guide from the Boondocker’s Bible to research state by state.
Pro tip: if you do frequent rest areas, invest in ear plugs.
Car camping in residential areas is hit or miss. If you camp in a residential neighborhood, try to find a quiet, dark parking spot. Be on the lookout for no parking signs and abide by them. Keep a low profile–we like to use window screens and a privacy curtain. Also, it’s always best to arrive late and leave early.
What’s the Best Way to Find Free Camping? 5 Tools We Love to Use
If you’re looking for a free place to car camp, check out freecampsites.net. The interface isn’t remotely modern, but the user-generated dataset is enormous and consists of thousands of campsites. User reviews are helpful, highlighting everything from parking advice and amenities to sound pollution and cell reception. Many of the sites are on BLM land, but you’ll also find listings for Forest Service land, county parks, and even the occasional Walmart parking lot.
We’re big fans of Publiclands.org–in particular, their “Recreation Map.” Click the “filters” menu, and you can search by activity. You can click “camping” or select options like “water sports,” “fishing,” or “climbing.” Our favorite way to use the map, however, is to click through land types. You can select “BLM” and “National Forests”–our go-to search when hunting for free camping–or explore public lands designated as “Wild and Scenic Rivers,” “Army Corps of Engineering Dams and Reservoirs,” and more.
Desktop-friendly maps are helpful when you’re at home and planning your route, but it’s key to have a mobile solution when it’s late and you’re looking for a place to crash. We like iOverlandr, which also consists of user-generated campsites, parking spots, and reviews. Plot your approximate route ahead of time to load campsites in case you don’t have service during your travels. It’s worth noting that iOverlandr sites aren’t exclusively on BLM land, and you’ll also find camping suggestions in residential neighborhoods, parking lots, etc.
The Dyrt PRO
Paying for apps sucks, but if you’re a road trip regular, we recommend The Dyrt PRO. For less than a tank of gas, you’ll get access to downloadable BLM and Forest Service maps. The Dyrt PRO also offers maps of cell service–a must for remote workers operating off hot spots–and road trip maps to help you find great campsites along your route.
While you can’t update a physical map, they also can’t run out of battery, which is nice. REI has an extensive selection of maps, and it can be worth checking these out before a road trip.
Respect the Road
That’s it folks–a few tricks of the trade we use to find free car camping. If you love to enjoy the great outdoors but hate paying a premium for a parking spot, hopefully, this article aids you on your quest.
One last thing: whether you’re dispersed camping in BLM land or crashing in a residential neighborhood, please be respectful. This means picking up after yourself (and your pets), being quiet late at night, abiding by fire bans, etc. More and more car campers are hitting the road, which is a beautiful thing, but it’s critical that we’re all good ambassadors for car camping or authorities will be forced to crack down–and we’ll be forced to pay for campgrounds.
That said, have fun, be safe, and we’ll see you on the road.