Taking to the road for a wild and fun adventure is the perfect way to explore the country and enjoy some freedom. But, finding a place to park your camper van while you spend the night can be a challenge, especially if you are working with a tight budget. Luckily, there are plenty of options available for free camping, if you only know where to look. Let’s better understand free camping and learn where to look for this unique and largely beneficial service.
Understanding “Free Camping” Terms
When it comes to “free camping,” people have several preconceived notions about what to expect. It follows that there are many different definitions of “free camping,” each with slightly different offerings and restrictions. Before you start wandering the countryside with your camper van, it is a good idea to understand the “free camping” terminology so that you can be prepared for what camping options lie ahead.
Both the National Forests and the BLM will officially use the term dispersed camping to describe a free camping option. Dispersed camping is commonly used by park rangers and campers alike, and the word is primarily accepted to mean camping in space for free. Dispersed camping in a National Forest or BLM location refers to allowing a camper van, tent, or campsite in a non-developed forest or grassland area for free. If you have a question about free camping areas, it is best to use the term dispersed camping when speaking with an official park ranger or representative.
An informal but widely used term to describe free camping is boondocking. This term is very popular with the camper van and RV crowd. Boondocking simply refers to free camping anywhere. Boondocking can apply to a dispersed camping area at a National Forest or describe a Walmart parking spot. A technical boondocking site is wide and varied and is widely found on popular camping and tourism blogs across the internet.
Wild camping is a term that is interchangeable mainly with dispersed camping. This term is popular in Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. Wild camping is the official term used by park rangers and park officials in these countries.
With the #vanlife movement, stealth camping became a popular term among travelers. The term stealth camping is usually referred to people camping in urban areas with an inconspicuous camper van. The idea of stealth camping is to park for free in urban areas, seemingly blending in with the environment. Stealth camping can apply to parking in a neighborhood or a scenic overlook. The trick to stealth camping is to spend the night in a location without being noticed.
Dry camping is a term that is largely synonymous with boondocking but offers more description. Dry camping can apply to any free camping, ranging from backcountry camping to dispersed camping. Dry camping denotes the fact that there will not be water sources available there. Expect to bring your water source or have arrangements for showering or bathing. Remember too that you will need water to cook with and to brush your teeth in the morning. Always pack more water than what you think is necessary to prepare for emergencies.
Sometimes you will hear the term backcountry camping thrown about when finding free camping for your camper van. The idea of backcountry camping is to find a free campsite that is off the beaten path. Essentially though, backcountry camping means backpacking to a location and camping in the wilderness. Most often, backcountry camping is not ideal for a camper van arrangement.
What to Expect
When it comes to free camping, it makes sense to adjust your expectations for what a campsite will entail. Camping on public land or BLM land often does not have the modern conveniences campers come to expect with paid campsites. Understanding what to expect with dispersed camping options will allow you to better pack and prepare, knowing that you will have limited resources and amenities for your free RV camping.
While the description of dry camping can be used to describe specific sites that do not have access to water, assume that most dispersed camping sites will not have water. This fact means that there will be no potable water to drink. Be sure to pack plenty of water for yourself, your party you are traveling with, and any pets you may be traveling with. Having no running water also means that your dispersed camping site likely will not have showers.
Have a plan in place to take care of trash and garbage. Many dispersed camping locations will not have dump facilities and do not have trash receptacles. Always take everything with you when you leave a campsite and never leave debris or rubbish at a camp. It is a good rule to try to leave your campsite better than you found it with every overnight stay.
Remember that many campsites, especially on public land or BLM land, do not have modern amenities that we commonly associate with a campsite. Often, these sites will not have fire rings, so have a plan for lighting and dinner. Many campsites do not have a picnic table, so be sure to pack your own travel chairs and table to give yourself somewhere comfortable to sit.
Getting to your site may be a bit of a challenge. Many roads and paths to dispersed camping areas are unpaved and are not maintained throughout the year. This fact means that they may not be suitable for a large motorhome or RV. Make sure your camper van or truck is capable of driving through unmaintained roads in all weather conditions. Because these campsites are often in unpaved areas, cell phone reception can be spotty. Always have a backup plan in place and let friends and family know your location in case of an emergency.
Where to Look for Free Camping
As difficult as finding a paid campsite during busy times and peak seasons, finding free camping or free overnight RV parking can be quite the challenge. Be sure to keep your options open and flexible when searching for free camping areas, especially during holidays or peak seasons when free camping spaces may be hard to find.
National Forest and Grassland
Most National Forests around the country will offer free dispersed camping options for travelers. Of course, every National Forest will be slightly different, so it is always good to call the park ranger before planning a free camping trip to a National Forest or Grassland.
Camping in a National Forest will give you plenty of options. This type of free camping is perfect for people with an RV, camper van, or simply a tent or hammock. There are plenty of sites you can set up camp, including hiking into the woods or parking at a scenic overlook.
When camping at a National Forest, expect your amenities to be at a bare minimum. There likely will not be water, showers, trash, or a fire ring. Camping in a National Forest will give you plenty of privacy but expect to be largely on your own when it comes to providing the bare necessities. Searching for National Forests in your area or simply using a GPS app will allow you to quickly find these locations that offer a dispersed campsite option to travelers.
Remember always to respect the rules of the National Forest. Although regulations may change from location to location, it is generally a rule that you must set up camp at least 200 feet away from waterways. Never allow your stay to exceed 14 days, and keep your campsite away from developed campsites throughout the forest.
Bureau of Land Management (BLM)
Often abbreviated to BLM, the Bureau of Land Management is a perfect place to find free camping options. These sites are usually found in the Western United States but are becoming more prevalent in the South and East. Unlike a developed campground, a BLM land option will be very similar to a National Forest camping option.
Expect to find varied terrain that can be well suited for a camper van, tent camping, or RV. You may be able to backpack into a reclusive area to pitch a tent or simply pull your RV into a designated parking space. Like National Forests, these areas often have minimal amenities, and you will likely have to be self-sufficient to spend the night. Pack plenty of food and water, and be sure to have a plan in place to pack your trash and debris out of the campsite.
BLM land differs drastically from National Forest land because often BLM land can be used for multiple purposes. It is not uncommon to have this land also used for cattle grazing or mining activities. Before committing to a campsite for the night, be sure to thoroughly examine and inspect your BLM land to ensure it is suitable for camping. Most BLM land also limits travelers to a 14-day stay before forcing them to relocate and continue their adventure.
If you are simply looking for free overnight parking for your camper van or RV, you may want to consider widely available and public parking lots. There are several options for parking lots that will easily allow you to park your vehicle and enjoy some rest. Amenities may be varied from site to site, so always consider your needs before committing to your overnight camping location.
Walmart Parking Lot
As a courtesy to travelers passing through and simply need a place to rest for the night, Walmart has allowed many of its stores to offer overnight parking to people in their camper vans or motorhomes. While this is undoubtedly not camping, it does provide a safe place for people to spend the night, close to civilization. It is important to remember that not all Walmarts offer this service, and many urban Walmarts do not allow overnight parking. Further, this is a privilege, not a right, so always act respectfully and follow the rules set forth by Walmart appropriately.
When it comes to parking overnight at a Walmart, the name of the game is to keep a low profile. Park toward the back of the lot, so you do not use up valuable spaces for paying customers. Arrive late in the evening and leave early in the morning. Keep your activities contained to your car or camper, and do not use the grill or set out chairs in the parking lot. The public restrooms within Walmart are available during operating hours, and chances are if you have forgotten something along your travels, Walmart will offer an easy place to purchase your necessities.
Finding a truck stop along your travels can be a saving grace for weary travelers. Many truck stops, like the Flying J, are available along major highway routes. While many truck stops cater to large semi-trucks, some truck stops also allow parking for motorhomes and RVs. Of course, you will always want to check ahead of time to make sure you can park your camper van overnight.
Truck stops are not really camping but provide a safe and public area to rest your eyes for the night. Many truck stops will have restroom facilities and will have a convenience store that will allow you to purchase necessary goods on your travels. A truck stop may not be ideal for camping but offers a safe solution to help you reach your next camping destination.
Like truck stops, rest areas are often dotting the highway, giving people a place to rest. Many rest areas have food, public restrooms, and a place to recharge your batteries. Rest stops are an excellent option for people who simply need a few hours off the road or need to reconnect with civilization through frequently offered Wi-Fi.
Before committing to an overnight stay at a rest area, be sure to check with the individual rest area location. Many rest areas are subject to state and local regulations that may prohibit overnight camping. While it is not impossible to find a rest area that permits overnight parking, you will need to do a bit of digging and research to find a rest area on your route that will allow you to spend the night.
Similar to a Walmart, many casinos will offer overnight parking to motorhomes, RVs, and large trucks. Remember that this is not a right, and overnight guests should always remain respectful of the rules surrounding parking in a casino parking spot. Remember to arrive late in the evening and leave early in the morning. Your goal when parking in a casino overnight is to make as little impact on the casino’s operations as possible. Keep your activities contained to your vehicle, and only enter the casino to use the restrooms during normal operating hours.
What Should I Pack?
When it comes to free RV parking for the night, you can save a significant amount of money. Of course, these cost savings do come with a hefty price. Expect to be mainly on your own and independent when using free campsites. Many free campsites have minimal amenities that people otherwise are accustomed to finding, even with rustic camping.
Many dispersed camping locations do not have running water, so be sure to bring your own supply. You will want to have enough drinking water for you and your travel companions, as well as enough water to cook, brush your teeth, and potentially shower using a portable shower bag.
Free campsites also do not have fire pits, so you will need to have an option to prepare your meal. Plan on pre-packaged items that do not need to be cooked, or find self-sufficient cooking stoves that will safely warm your meal. Remember that many free campsites do not have trash receptacles, so have a plan for any trash. Never leave trash behind in the wilderness, and as a general rule, you want to leave the campsite better than you found it.
If you plan on doing some bushwhacking into the forest to find your camp spot, make sure you have the appropriate gear. You want proper clothing and footwear, and you will want to pack the necessities for tent camping. Be sure to have a tent, sleeping bag, inflatable pillow, and blankets to keep you warm and comfortable through the night in the wilderness.
Lastly, make sure you pack comfort items to make your stay enjoyable. Because picnic tables are a rarity in free camping sites, you will want to pack portable chairs and tables to give you room to spread out and relax. Many camping chairs and tables are available that are incredibly lightweight and pack down to a manageable size.
When it comes to finding free camping for your camper van, adventurists are faced with plenty of options. How do you know where to find free camping, and how do you choose a campsite and location that works best for your needs? Luckily, many people have asked these same questions related to free camping. Below, let’s take a look at some commonly asked questions about free camping sites to help you better understand the process for finding a free camping spot.
Where can you legally park a camper van for free?
Finding a space to park your camper van for free can be challenging, especially if you are traveling between states or even between countries. Rules and regulations vary from state to state, so it is always good to check with the National Forest, rest stop, or BLM site before making a plan to spend the night. When looking for a place to park for free through the night, you will want to reference the availability of dispersed camping arrangements. Many parking officials and representatives will know exactly what you are talking about.
Many people have the best luck finding free parking for their camper van at either a National Forest or BLM land. Many of these sites are large enough to accommodate an RV or a motorhome. National Forests will usually have multiple camping arrangements but will be very limited to amenities and accessibility. BLM land also welcomes overnight campers but will often allocate the land for various purposes like mining or cattle grazing. Be sure to thoroughly inspect a campsite ahead of time before committing to an overnight stay.
How can you determine if a free campsite is RV-friendly?
RVs can be quite large and cumbersome, so finding an RV-friendly campsite can be a bit challenging. To help facilitate free overnight camping, many states have started to designate both parking spaces and campsites that are RV-friendly specifically. In states such as California, Georgia, Florida, Michigan, and Oregon, look for the RV Friendly logo on designated parking spaces.
If you are traveling through a state that does not have a specific logo indicating an RV-friendly space, look for an ample, double parking space. Usually, a parking space at least 18 feet by 45 feet will be large enough to accommodate an RV passing through for the night.
What kind of facilities can you expect from a free campsite?
Compared to traditional, paid campsites, a free campsite is extremely basic. Expect minimal amenities, if any, at your campsite. Most free campsites do not have water, so be sure to pack plenty of drinking and cooking water for you and your travel companions.
Free campsites also lack any trash or rubbish facilities, so you must be careful to pack and dispose of all trash produced while spending the night. These campsites also will not have luxury items like a fire pit or a picnic table. Be sure to pack portable and comfortable chairs and a safe and convenient way to prepare a hot meal for the night.
Lastly, because many of the free campsites are in remote areas of the country, expect very little, if any, cell phone reception. These campsites are often only accessible through remote roads that are not maintained through the season. Understand that your path into and out of a campsite may be treacherous and constantly changing with developing weather conditions.
Can you park a camper van anywhere?
Unfortunately, you cannot park a camper van just anywhere. Many locations, like federal land and National Parks, require paid campsites that are closely monitored and tracked. Park rangers carefully control these sites to limit the number of guests entering and staying at the National Park.
If you are stuck searching for a place to overnight with your campervan, you can always rely on truck stops, Walmarts, or casinos. While certainly not camping, these locations will give you a safe and public space to spend the night. Remember, when visiting a casino or Walmart, keep a minimal profile and avoid disturbing normal business operations at all costs. It is good to arrive late to these parking areas and leave early before you significantly impact the day-to-day operations.
So where do you find free campsites?
Free campsites are often denoted in National Forests and Grasslands, as well as with BLM land. Further, plenty of online resources can help direct adventurous travelers to areas with free camping.
First, savvy travelers will be able to use GPS apps, like Google Maps, to find National Forests that may offer dispersed camping options. All National Forest areas will show up with GPS tracking. Be sure to call the individual National Forest association before committing to an entire overnight stay to confirm availability and compliance.
Another great tool to use is the free Motor Vehicle Use Maps created by the National Forests. These maps help to outline available areas where people can camp overnight. Users will be able to download the maps for free from the National Forest website. Users will then be able to sort available campsites by state and location to help track down an open overnight campsite. Similarly, BLM’s website also has an easy-to-use and free map download that allows users to toggle between states and regions to find a safe and legal site to spend the night.
Further, there are plenty of valuable blogs, websites, and online forums dedicated to adventurers just like yourself. Joining an online community of campers is a great way to stay connected and receive up-to-date information on available free camping sites, changing conditions, and open space. Many online communities are listed under free camping or boondocking keywords. Apps like Free Roam, iOverlander, and Campendium can assist users in finding available free camping throughout the United States.
Can you live in a campervan on the street?
Living in a campervan is a great way to grow your independence and discover new areas across the country. Finding free campsites can be a challenge, so people are often tempted to find available street parking to take up residence. Often, this practice is called stealth camping and is usually applied to urban settings.
While stealth camping is undoubtedly possible for short, overnight stays, it is not legal in many cities and states. There are several laws and regulations which ban sleeping in a vehicle in a residential area. Further, sleeping in a vehicle may be banned if you are parked close to a school, park, or daycare. However, a handful of states allow people to live in an RV parked on the street legally. These states include Washington, Florida, Nevada, Texas, and South Dakota.
Can you sleep in an RV rest stop?
An RV rest stop is designed to give weary travelers a place to rest their eyes for a bit. Unfortunately, not all rest stops allow overnight accommodations. Regulations and Laws differ by state and city, so finding an overnight RV rest stop may be challenging. If you are in doubt, call the rest stop before your arrival to confirm the availability of overnight accommodations. At a minimum, an RV rest stop will allow you a place to recharge your batteries and get a bite to eat before hitting the road again.