Free Camping on Public Lands – Ultimate Guide

This is a pitched tent by the river at a free camping ground.

Camping used to mean grabbing a tent and heading to the woods. You would search for a spot free of tree roots and rocks, so the ground would be relatively comfortable. You’d need to check for anthills and other natural concerns that could make your trip unpleasant.

If you want amenities, you might search for a natural spring for water, or a lake to cool you from the summer heat. Today, many people camp in designated campgrounds. These can have bathrooms, showers, water, grills, and other modern conveniences. Some also have RV hookups.

The camping sites are on level ground with no biting insects nearby. Some campsites even have gravel areas for you to pitch a tent. For most people, this is as close to “roughing it” as it gets.

Then there’s the other camping subset. Glamping. These campers are sipping mimosas under the canopy of their pop-up camper. Or sleeping in large tents on a generous air mattress. Glamping typically involves bringing the comforts of home to the great outdoors. Some glampers even bring Wi-Fi.

There’s another subset of campers, however. These campers hold to the old way. They have no desire to camp in a developed campground that is sure to have plenty of other campers.

Instead, they want to truly experience nature. They want to get away from society. The noise that groups of people inevitably make. They want to interact with their surroundings with a sense of reverence for the land. They want to camp the same way their parents or even grandparents did.

This was once known as camping, but today it’s most commonly called primitive camping. In my opinion, it’s the best way to camp.

There’s also an element of excitement when you choose this camping option. Instead of just pulling up to a designated campground, you’ll need to find your own camping area. It can feel improper and exciting to camp off the grid, which may be why it’s also called stealth camping.

Dispersed Camping

A group of friends camping on public lands with a couple of tents and campfire.

Free camping on public lands is known as dispersed camping. This means that you will not be camping in a designated area with camping facilities.

Instead, you’ll be on your own with nature. If you are RV camping, you’ll have the amenities it provides. Just keep in mind there’s no electricity available.

Camping in a tent away from a designated campsite is known as primitive camping. Primitive camping and RV camping outside designated areas are both types of dispersed camping.

Free Camping on Public Lands

A group of friends having breakfast while camping on public lands.

Did you know that many public lands allow free camping? Many of the most beautiful natural areas in the country allow you to camp for free. You can spend days in the forest or hike your way up a mountain, or drive through service roads in your RV until you find a suitable spot.

Places to find free camping on public lands include:

  • Bureau of Land Management (BLM)
  • National Forest and National Park
  • State Park
  • Wildlife Management Area (WMA)

Bureau of Land Management

The most common free camping is found in the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) areas. These are areas that are designated to preserve the natural landscape.

The BLM has 35 million acres of National Conservation Land. This includes wilderness areas, national monuments, national conservation areas, historic trails, and rivers. Much of this BLM land is available for free camping.

Many BLM areas provide designated campsites. These areas charge fees to maintain the campsite facilities. Most areas that aren’t designated campgrounds are available for free camping.

Rules of Free Camping on BLM Land

This is a close look at a caution signage warning against trailers and bringing water.

Free camping on BLM land has a time limit. You may camp at a site for no more than 14 days out of 28. This includes intermittent camping as well as consecutive days and starts from the day you begin camping.

If you’ve reached this limit, you must move your campsite at least 25 miles away until the 29th day from the first camping day passes.

This may seem arbitrary, and let’s be honest, confusing, but there is a purpose. Even the most conscientious campers have an impact on the natural habitat in the area. Prolonged use can cause damage to the habitat and resources. Limiting the time spent in the area allows the land to recover.

You must not leave personal belongings at the site for more than 10 days. Unless you are in Alaska, where you may leave your gear for up to 12 months.

The last and most important rule of dispersed camping is to leave the place as you found it. Do not leave garbage, sewage, chemicals, or any other type of pollution. The saying “you pack it in, you pack it out” certainly applies here.

Some states have additional rules and regulations, so be sure to check the regional website before you plan your trip.

National Forest and National Park

This is a sweeping view of Zion National Park.

National Forest areas allow dispersed camping as well. Groups of more than 75 people will need to obtain a permit, but they can still camp for free.

You’ll need to camp at least a mile from a designated campsite and 100 ft away from any water source to avoid water contamination.

National Forest camping is allowed for up to 16 days out of 30 days. If you reach 16 days, you must locate an area at least 5 miles away from the site.

Camping in a National Park is similar. Many National Parks require you to get a permit for dispersed camping, and some may charge a fee.

State Park Camping

You may also be able to camp for free in your local state park. Laws vary by park and state, but many state parks allow dispersed camping. RV and car camping may be allowed as well.

The rules will be similar to those mentioned for BLM and National Parks, including camping at least 1 mile away from a designated camping or recreation area and 100-200 feet away from a road or water source.

Wildlife Management Areas

This is a close look at a group of friends trekking through a dense forest.

Wildlife Management Areas (WMA) often provide public land for hunting and recreational activities. These areas are usually less developed than parks.

Many WMA allows free camping. They are run by the individual state’s wildlife agency, and the regulations vary by state and area.

How to Find Free Camping On Public Land

It’s ironic that the easiest way to find free camping, with the intention of getting away from technology, is to use technology.

Start with a search on Google Maps for public land near you. Google Maps will display public land in green, and provide a link to the area’s website.

You can also use a search engine. A standard search engine like Google is the simplest way. However, there are several websites devoted to helping you find free camping, including Campendium and Free Campsites.

You can also search by agency website. Each type of public land has its own advantages, and regulations will vary by agency and location.

Agency websites will typically have information about free camping and regulations, as well as where to find free camping in your area.

Free camping search by agency:

After you’ve selected the wilderness area or Park where you would like to camp, it’s time to find a dispersed camping area.

Offline maps are a great way to find free camping areas. Some areas designate certain areas for dispersed camping, while others allow them in all areas away from developed campground and recreation areas.

You can also call the park or Bureau of Land Management area you plan to visit. A ranger station is an invaluable source of advice when choosing a campsite. In addition to knowing the area well, they know all the rules and regulations you’ll need to follow.

Staying Safe When Camping

A group of friends surrounding the large camp fire at night.

If you’ve never camped outside a developed campground, it’s a challenging experience. You’ll need to bring everything you need for your stay.

Setting Up Your Camping Area

If you are tent camping, you’ll need to find a level area to set up your tent. It’s wise to find your campsite and set up your tent before the sun goes down. Navigating the woods and pitching a tent becomes much more challenging in the moonlight.

If you are RV camping or car camping, you’ll still need to select your camping area. You’ll also want time to explore the area before sundown.

In both cases, you’ll want to look for dead trees. These are known as widow makers. A falling tree or limb can cause serious injury or even death.

Food Storage and Prep

You don’t want any wild visitors, so you’ll need to take care of food and cooking. If you are in a bear country, you’ll need to store and cook your food at least 200 feet from where you sleep.

If you are camping in an area where bears aren’t a concern, you should be fine with keeping food stored so it’s not accessible to bugs and rodents. If you have food scraps, throw them at least 100 feet from your campsite.

Fire Safety

This is a close look at the camp fire with a view of the tent in the background.

Fire safety is essential when you are in a wilderness area. 85% of forest fires are started by humans, and most of them are accidental.

Some dispersed camping areas have campfire sites, but many dispersed campers have to create their own. First, you’ll need to select an area free of weeds, leaves, and other debris near your fire.

Next, dig a one-foot hole and place rocks in a ring around the hole. This creates a fire pit and keeps the fire inside the pit. Once you are finished with the fire, you’ll need to make sure it’s completely out before leaving the site.

Use a shovel or stick to turn the ashes to ensure no hot coals remain. Once you are sure the fire is out, you should be able to stick your hand directly into the ashes. If it’s cool to the touch, the fire is safely out.

Free Camping on Public Lands FAQ

Can you camp for free on BLM land?

Yes, most BLM areas allow dispersed camping for free. In fact, it’s one of the most popular areas for free camping.

Where can you find free camping?

Free camping is available on most public land. This includes wildlife management areas, BLM areas, National Forest, National Park, State Forests, and State Parks.

What do you need to camp for free?

In most areas, you’ll simply need to be prepared for your camping trip. Remember that dispersed camping occurs away from developed campgrounds, and no amenities are provided. You’ll need shelter, typically a tent or RV, water, and food.

Pack an emergency kit as well, because you’ll be far from civilization if something goes wrong. You may also need a map of the area and compass. You’ll need to pack clothing that is appropriate for the weather. Keep in mind that the weather can change quickly, so be prepared for unexpected weather conditions.

Where can you camp on BLM land?

Generally, you’ll need to camp a mile or more away from developed areas. You should camp at least 100 ft from roads, trailheads, and water sources. Unless otherwise noted, you can camp in any area that meets these guidelines.

How do you camp responsibly in national forests?

Camping responsibly requires leaving the land as close to the way you found it as possible. When possible, choose a site that has already been used for camping to avoid disturbing another area. Choose an area free of vegetation. If you need firewood, gather fallen branches. Never chop a tree. Don’t dig a trench or build a tent platform. Camp and wash at least 200 ft from any water source.

You’ll need to bring anything you brought in back out again. Never leave trash or belongings in the forest. If you need to defecate, you’ll need to dig a small hole. Once you are finished, fill in the hole.

How far from water should you camp?

At least 200 feet away from water. You should also avoid washing or cooking within 200 feet of water.

What color is BLM land on Google Maps?

All public lands are green on Google Maps. To see BLM land, you can install the app Free Roam. It provides an overlay for Google Maps and will show BLM land in orange.

Can you live on BLM land?

In a sense, yes. BLM land has occupancy limits. Generally, this is 14 days out of every 28 days, but it varies based on the location. However, in practice, BLM officers aren’t very concerned with enforcing these limits. You can legally stay as long as you want on BLM land as long as you move your campsite 5 or more miles away every 14 days.

This means it’s possible and legal to live on BLM land as long as you move your camp periodically. You could easily rotate between 2 or 3 campsites and be well within the regulations.

What can you expect from dispersed campsites?

Essentially, you can expect wilderness. Most dispersed campsites provide no amenities, including picnic tables, fire pits, and bathroom facilities. If it’s an area used by other dispersed campers, you may find a fire pit.

Is dispersed camping dangerous?

There is an element of danger with dispersed camping. Wilderness areas have hazards, including animals, insects, and terrain. Weather brings its own dangers when you don’t have adequate shelter from an unexpected temperature change or storm. If you need help, it will not come quickly. These factors do make wild camping risky, but it also adds to the excitement.

Researching the area and coming prepared for weather and emergencies can increase your safety while camping. Be sure to inform a family member of your location and planned return date. It’s also wise to check in with the ranger’s office before heading to your campsite. Dispersed campers find the rewards far outweigh the risks of this style of camping.

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