Tips for Dispersed Camping on the East Coast
By Carly Eisley
One of the great things about renting an Escape campervan is the ability to go (almost) anywhere. There are tons of opportunities for free camping (aka “boondocking”) out west, with large tracts of undeveloped national forest and Bureau of Land Management lands that you can just drive onto and set up a peaceful, secluded, and FREE camp. Dispersed camping on the east coast is less abundant, but still exists!
The Eastern United States is full of beautiful and rugged places, with many opportunities for free camping… if you know where to look. Free camping may not be quite as spontaneous and easy to find on the east coast, but with a little research and advance planning, you’ll find plenty of places to set up camp. I highly recommend using the website www.freecampsites.net and Allstays (website or phone app) as a guide. And of course, always check with local rangers to determine the accessibility and availability of sites. They are a wealth of knowledge about their areas – it’s their job!
Rules of Thumb for Dispersed Camping
Some general rules of thumb to help guide your search:
- Sleeping/camping at trailheads is generally not allowed.
- Dispersed camping is generally (but not always) free. The cost is usually minimal if there is one, and much cheaper than established car campgrounds.
- Your best bet will be National Forest areas. Some state-managed properties (like the Adirondacks and the Pennsylvania state forests, for example) may have some dispersed camping areas available. Start out by looking at an atlas. Find a big swath of green and narrow it down from there!
- Things change. Areas that may have once allowed dispersed camping can be closed, inaccessible due to road conditions, etc. Always call or stop into a local ranger station to get the most accurate information.
- The internet is your friend… to a point (see #3). Websites like freecampsites.net and Allstays are HUGE when looking for dispersed camping (and for a local truck stop or Walmart in a pinch). People will generally leave reviews that will give some detail and information about what kind of vehicle is needed to access the roads, etc. Just be sure to verify before setting up camp for the night! You don’t want to be stuck in an illegal spot… or just plain stuck on a road not meant for Escape van travel.
- There are TONS of free sites that you can backpack in to. If you are carrying the equipment for that, you can park the van at a trailhead for the night and hike in.
Remember – it is primitive camping. Some areas will allow campfires, and typically you can use down wood that you find on site. Adhere to the Leave No Trace principles at all times to minimize your impact on the landscape and environment.
Ready to hit the road? Here are a few ideas to get you started in your quest for free East Coast camping!
Northeast Dispersed Camping
- A few areas in the Green Mountain National Forest (mainly in the southwestern portion of the state) offer opportunities for free camping. Check with local rangers.
- New Hampshire
- Some areas in the northern region of the White Mountain National Forest (Randolph, Gorham, Kilkenny areas and just across the border into Maine) may have some dispersed car camping. Check with local rangers.
- In the northwestern area of the state, there are a few tracts of public forest that have some free camping possibilities.
- New York
- Pennsylvania is a GREAT place for free dispersed camping in the northeast. There are numerous large state forest areas with boondocking campsites throughout them. Some may require a permit (free), so check in with local ranger/forest offices to get some maps and the skinny on the best sites to snag.
Mid-Atlantic and Southeast Dispersed Camping
- The George Washington National Forest and Jefferson National Forest have free dispersed camping throughout. This is a great way to get some solitude after exploring nearby Shenandoah National Park. There are also several wildlife management areas around the state that allow camping (permit required for a small fee); use caution during hunting season as many of these areas are popular hunting grounds.
- North Carolina
- Western North Carolina will give you the biggest bang for your… no bucks. The Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests have several areas that are designated for primitive camping. Heading closer to the coast, Uwharrie National Forest and Croatan national forest also offers some dispersed camping. Be mindful of road conditions when setting out, some of the forest roads can be quite steep and require high clearance and 4-wheel drive to access.
- The Cherokee National Forest in Eastern Tennessee (just over the North Carolina Border and north of Great Smoky Mountains National Park) offers some dispersed camping.
- The Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest in northern Georgia (only 2 hours from the Atlanta Depot) has some dispersed camping. Visit nearby Chattanooga, TN for some great trails and a little “city” time.
You may see more crowds in camping areas than usual due to dispersed camping being one of the safest and more popular options during COVID-19. Be sure to stay safe by following proper guidelines and not sharing spaces while on your trip.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of dispersed camping on the East Coast…. research the areas you are heading to, book your Escape campervan, explore, and enjoy!