Dispersed Camping 101: Free camping in the US
We once had a lovely German couple rent a campervan for 110 nights and they (legally) didn’t pay for a single campsite. True story. How? Dispersed camping!
3 Reasons Why Campervans are Perfect for Free Camping:
If you’ve never tried out van life before, you may have concerns about how to find places to camp–especially during the busy summer months when many public and private campsites have been booked since January. The beauty of traveling by camper van is that finding camping can actually be pretty easy (if you know where to look!). With a campervan, you can:
- Fit into most standard tent sites. These are significantly cheaper than RV sites and there are often more of them available. You always have the option to splurge for a utility site with an electric hook-up or a larger RV site with all the bells and whistles, but you don’t have to. When in doubt, always double-check with the folks who run each individual campground. You can find out the length of each campervan model if required.
- Easily navigate side roads. Scoping out the perfect campsite is easier in a campervan because you can drive down small, windy roads that RVs can’t access. No stress! Just be aware that this is at your own risk–insurance only covers you on state- and county-maintained roads.
- Find FREE dispersed camping almost anywhere you go! Dispersed camping is one of America’s best-kept secrets. There are a few important guidelines to follow, but once you get the hang of it you’ll find that not only is it free, but it’s also fun and easier than you might expect. You’ll never look back!
Going to Canada?
Dispersed camping regulations are different here than in the US. Check out our Guide to Dispersed Camping in Canada.
What is dispersed camping?
Also known as free camping, pirate camping, boondocking, or just plain roughing it…whatever you call it, the rules in the US for vehicle camping in designated Forest Service Land are a godsend for any budget-minded traveler.
Unlike pay campsites in national, state, and RV parks, dispersed campsites offer few of the amenities you’d typically expect like toilets, showers, adjacent restaurants, etc. What you do get in lieu of these luxuries are very few neighbors, a canopy of stars, the wind in the trees, and the satisfaction of knowing you’ve finally made it off the beaten track.
Dispersed camping has become one of the safest and more popular camping options post-pandemic restrictions. While most of the country has no mask restrictions or COVID-19 closures, remember to stay safe, and follow proper local guidelines during your trip.
How do I know what’s legal?
Look at a map and you’ll see light green shaded areas within each state designating National Forests. Within these areas, it’s (usually) legal to car-camp for FREE! Remember this as it’ll save you big $$$ during your road trip. The United States is peppered with federally-owned land, comprising roughly 28 percent of the entire country (and about half is in the West). Just look out for posted signage, such as “no overnight parking” and “day use only.” If you see one of those, we recommend you find another place to camp. Always check with a ranger to confirm which areas are and are not legal.
Where You Can Camp:
Unless stated otherwise (always check with a ranger), it’s legal to sleep in your vehicle within ANY federally designated lands. These include:
- National Forests
- Bureau of Land Management (BLM)
- Wildlife Management Areas (WMA)
- National Grasslands
- Some County Parks & City Parks – Check signs
- Some trailheads – Check signs
- Closer to civilization: Parking lots and truck stops
Look for the (usually) brown and yellow signs announcing your entrance to public land and you’ll know you’re in the right place. Be aware of wildfires during the warmer months in California and surrounding areas when planning your trip – camping is not permitted when there are active wildfires in the area.
How do I pick a good campsite?
Many people drive out on Forest Service roads into the woods and find a clearing or a spot near a stream or with a view of the mountains. Do not drive on meadows to access your camping site. Drive on existing roads to prevent resource damage. You can also follow these tips:
- Ask a ranger. For an inside track into the best places to stay, keep an eye out for any BLM Ranger Station or visitor center and ask the true locals (Rangers) for their suggestions. We’ve never been led astray and you’ll be amazed at how much they’ll go out of their way to help you out.
- Scour Google Maps. Again, look for the green areas that signify public lands. Use Google Earth to get an idea of roads and landscapes.
- Attempt to camp on a paved road. If not possible, camp on bare, well-packed gravel. Note that this is done at your own risk: if renting an Escape Campervan, you are NOT covered by insurance and are NOT covered in the Escape Roadside Assistance plan if you are OFF a paved road. Camping on a level area also makes sleeping more comfortable.
- If you’re going to an area where others have camped before, pick a site that has been used before. Plants, soil, and wildlife are impacted by new campsites so using existing ones will minimize your impact on the forest. Always follow Leave No Trace principles.
- Check out these online resources and apps that make it easy to find places to camp:
- If all else fails, find a Walmart or a truck stop. Free camping isn’t solely limited to Federal Lands. Walmart parking lots, truck stops, and rest areas can also make for serviceable and convenient places to park for the night. Remember to check the signs first to make sure you can stay there overnight.
Recently, Walmart changed its universal Free Car Camping policy and has left it up to individual stores to make the decision as to whether to continue this service. If you plan on sleeping in a Walmart parking lot, please notify the manager upon arrival.
Dispersed Camping Rules of the Road
There are extra responsibilities and skills that are necessary for dispersed camping. It is your responsibility to know these before you try this new experience.
- Contact the local Forest Service office to see if any restrictions (especially fire restrictions) are in place. This includes finding out if campfires and open stoves are permitted – in much of the West, drought conditions are severe and no flames of any sort are allowed. Ground tents are occasionally not allowed on federal lands or at rest stops (good thing you’ll be in a campervan!). There is also usually a 14-day limit on staying at the same campsite within a 30-day period.
- Leave it better than you found it. Pack out everything you brought in, including trash. “LEAVE NO TRACE” is the official guideline. Brush up on your LNT knowledge.
- Dispersed camping is allowed in a one-mile perimeter away from campgrounds and 100 feet from any stream.
- Don’t sleep on the side of the road – it’s usually illegal. To prevent resource damage, keep your campsite within 150 feet from a roadway.
- Bring plenty of your own water, or have a way to treat it. Just because you found a campsite near a stream or river with seemingly nothing else around doesn’t mean the water is safe to drink. Always treat the water you get from natural sources so that you don’t have to end your trip early!
- Be prepared. Bring a good atlas and/or GPS to help you find your way in/out of the woods (try to arrive early with plenty of daylight to find a campsite for this reason). Check the weather for rain, which can create mud holes that you can’t drive out of.
- Use your judgment – if the campsite feels unsafe, move on.
- Be bear aware. If you’re in bear country (and we highly recommend finding this out prior to camping there), store food and other scented items in a bear canister or outside of your vehicle overnight. Read more about wildlife safety here.
- There are usually no fees for dispersed camping, but not always. If there are fees, it’ll probably be around $5-$10.
- Be sure to check for any signs that may prohibit overnight parking.
Dispersed camping on the East Coast
It can be a bit more difficult to find free camping on the East Coast compared to out West. Visit our blog on dispersed camping on the East Coast for tips.
Leave No Trace
Do bears pee in the woods? Yes, they do and so will you.
Dispersed camping means there are likely no bathrooms in the area. To dispose of urine, etc. while you wild camp, dig a hole six inches (15 cm) in the ground at least 100 feet away from any water source. When you are done, fill the hole with dirt and take toilet paper with you. Really. Used toilet paper can, and will, pollute local water sources. Or just commit to nature and find a big soft leaf to use!
If you follow these guidelines, you can save a safe, low-impact, primitive camping experience away from all the crowds for FREE.
Ready to Try Dispersed Camping?
If you’re ready to try out free dispersed camping, don’t forget to book your camper van rental at one of our many US or Canada locations. Thank you for helping care for our National Forest on your next campervan adventure!