My husband and I both love camping, so it’s not surprising that our kids do too. We go camping as often as our schedules allow.
Some people’s idea of camping is a 20 foot by 20 foot space with a paved parking spot, fire ring and a picnic table, with some trees in sight. Not us. When we are spending time in the outdoors, we want to spend time IN the outdoors. No pavement, no picnic tables, no neighbors.
It’s hard for me to imagine paying good money to sleep in a tent on a small grassy plot surrounded by strangers! Why would you do that when you can have a peaceful, authentic outdoor experience for free?
After writing about how we sometimes camp when we are on road trips, I’ve had people ask for more details on how we camp for free.
How to Camp For Free
Of course, you could camp for free in your own yard, but that’s not what I’m talking about. What I am talking about is often called dispersed camping, primitive camping or backcountry camping. Dispersed camping means camping outside of designated campgrounds on public land. Undeveloped land under the administration of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is available to the public for camping and recreation. Dispersed camping is also free and legal in national forests, national grasslands, many state forest areas and other similar public wilderness land.
Lots of state and national parks are tucked away in state and national forests. Instead of paying $35+ per night to camp in the park itself, leave the park and find your own spot in the forest for free. This is what we do every time we go to Yosemite. We find a beautiful, piece of forest about ten miles outside of the park boundaries, off a fire access road, where can’t see or hear another soul the entire time. Besides being free, it also feels safer since we don’t have trash cans and a history of careless campers to attract bears.
Each area will have its own rules, but generally the regulations are all pretty similar. You must be a certain distance off of a paved road (100 feet to 1/4 mile). You must camp at least 100-200 feet away from any water source. You can’t stay longer than 14 days within a 30-day period.
So how do you know where to go? If you know there is national forest, state forest, or BLM land near you (or near where you want to go), then look up the specific rules for that area. Otherwise, start with an online search of “dispersed camping” (or one of the synonyms I listed above) and the area or state you’re interested in. The Western United States is covered in public land (nearly the entire state of Nevada, for example). Since the East is more densely populated, there is less public land acreage, but it’s still there waiting for you to discover!
Why We Love Free Camping
Dispersed camping isn’t for everyone. Some people are happy to pay a fee and sleep under the stars in designated campgrounds. That’s perfectly fine. It’s just not our style. I love that dispersed camping allows us freedom to not be tied down to a specific destination. This comes in handy when we’re on road trips and aren’t sure where we’ll be stopping. We also enjoy free camping when we have a trip planned.
Here are some other reasons we love free camping:
- It’s free!— I bet you saw that one coming. It’s hard to believe the price campgrounds are charging these days. In some areas it’s as much as a motel.
- There’s privacy— I like people, don’t get me wrong, but I prefer not to feel like I’m having a giant sleepover with a bunch of strangers.
- You can enjoy natural nature— Instead of just sleeping outside, you are in a real natural environment. You can get a real breath of fresh air and explore the road less traveled.
- It’s quiet— You don’t have to worry about loud neighbors– or neighbors at all– with dispersed camping. You can just enjoy the sound of nature.
Choosing a Dispersed Camping Spot
Before you leave home, take a peek at a map of the state or national forest you’ll be going to (or passing by, if it’s a road trip). Most likely the highway will go right through it. In fact, there will probably be signs (“Entering _____ National Forest”) when you enter and exit state and national forests. Looking at a map will help you to plan approximately where you want to stop.
You can’t know everything from a map. When you enter the forest or BLM land, you’ll want to start looking for a spot with the following:
Somewhere to PULL OFF and park
When you enter the forest area, start looking for a pull off. There are many access roads, some will have open gates, but the majority will be closed. If the gate is open, you can drive down the road, then pull off of the road when you decide to stop. Many gates will be closed to car traffic (they are access roads for forest fires, logging companies, etc), so you’ll have to enter on foot. I like to pull off where my car isn’t visible to cars passing on the main road.
One November we camped in Tahoe National Forest. We parked just off the main road, near a closed gate as you can see in the picture above. There wasn’t any snow when we parked, when we awoke we were covered in snow and our car was stuck! Moral of the story: if there is a chance of snow, park on flat ground.
Somewhere with PRIVACY
It’s not too hard to find privacy, but you’ll at least want to take a look around and make sure you can’t be seen from the main road (or the access road if the gate is open). If you are equipped to hike a bit, you can get away from the noise of the road too.
For the sake of comfort, you’ll want to find a flat spot to sleep. Sometimes this is tricky. Sometimes we’ll pull off in several spots in order to find a nice flat area. Often, I’ll stay back at the car with the kids and my husband will hike in a little way to see if there is a nice flat spot. Other times we’ll see one right away.
Anytime you set up camp, you’ll want to make sure it’s in a spot that is safe. If there’s a dead tree that looks like it might fall over in the next wind storm, don’t put your tent under it. Dry riverbeds are sometimes covered in flat, soft, sand, but can quickly fill if rain further up the mountain cause a flash flood. If you are planning (and allowed) to have a fire, make sure you have a clear safe spot for open flames with no tall grass or low hanging branches.
A Few Things To Know about Dispersed Camping
When you pay to camp at a designated campsite, you’re paying to use their facilities. With dispersed camping you need to be self-contained. You can’t rely on facilities or campground improvements. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- No Bathrooms— You’ll need to know how to go in the woods. For number two, that means digging a hole six inches deep and bringing toilet paper with you.
- No Trash— You’ll need to pack out what you pack in, which includes all of your trash.
- Leave No Trace— Leave the land how you found it. Hide evidence of your being there so that others who come can enjoy the land’s natural beauty.
- Know Fire Regulations— Find out the local rules where you’ll be. For example, in California you need a burn permit. That’s something you sign each year that says you’ll have water and a shovel on hand. For much of the summer, no fires are allowed at all, and some areas are designated no-fire zones all year.
- Gathering Firewood— In most areas it is perfectly legal to gather dead and down wood to burn during your stay (assuming you are obeying fire regulations). You should not cut any live trees.
Primitive Camping is the Way to Go
Here are a few more examples of where we’ve done dispersed camping:
We met some friends in Fort Bragg, California and instead of paying $40 to stay at a campground right on the coast, we drove fifteen minutes or so back into the state forest and camped in the trees.
When we were traveling across the country to move to California, we found a camping spot on some BLM land in Nevada. We had driven well into the night and the kids were all asleep when we arrived. It was a beautiful area near a roaring river that kept everyone asleep as we used our head lamps to set up the tent in the dark and carry the kids in.
We headed up to Lake Tahoe to camp and cut our own Christmas tree last year. We found a beautiful spot in Tahoe National Forest.
Utah is covered in public land. We have visited many of the breathtaking sites there, and always found great private, free places to camp, often in the national forest areas or BLM land.
We’ve camped at couple of different spots only a few hours from home. One of the spots, was in a more popular dispersed camping area so it had vault toilets within walking distance, though camping was still free and we still had a private, beautiful camping experience.
While primitive camping is not for everyone, it works perfectly for us. We love the outdoors and the adventure of wilderness away from the heavily trafficked paid areas (and the price). If you like roughing it, then dispersed camping is a great way to cut down on the costs of road trips, vacations, and time in the great outdoors.
How About You?
- Have you taken advantage of dispersed camping on public lands? Do you prefer “improved” fee campgrounds?
I’ve gone to the Shaver Lake area in the Sierra National Forest a quite a few times. Near Shaver are a few more large lakes. Can get busy at times, but usually can find a spot if you get up to the area in a reasonable time. This year went to Courtright Lake, about an hour or so east of Shaver Lake. So much fun!!
I’m very intrigued. We usually blackberry pick in these designated areas, but never camped. However, I notice a lot of ‘teenager evidence’ in these areas: Local kids finding a hidding spot to drink and other stuff. Do you ever run into this while camping?
Joe taylor says
Live near Missouri Ozarks (Mark twain Nat. For.) Will definitely give that a try next time I need some alone time. I knew about backpackin camping along ozark trail but not enough details about forest roads. Thanks for info
Great info. We camp every year for two weeks in Alabama and love it.
Cool article! Ive never thought about that..I usually just couch surf for free but this is more adventurous! Did you happen to keep track of any exit numbers or more specific areas that you stayed at that we could use? thanks1
Couch surfing is adventurous too!
No, I haven’t kept track of any exit numbers. The options abound though!
Erin @ livingEZ says
Thanks for an informative post! My family did not do much camping when I was growing up. My husband and I recently moved to Australia and would love to take some extended road trips with our nine month old, and camping is definitely the cheapest option. I would love to hear more about the logistics of camping with kids. How do you do “bath time”? Do you bring a potty for the littler ones? Do you bring some sort of camping stove to cook on? Maybe these are just newbie camping questions, but you got me excited 🙂
When we’re camping we don’t worry much about baths! 🙂 We don’t bring a potty either. Going in the woods is easy for boys. For girls, you can hold them up so they are in a sitting position, or just tell them to take their pants all the way off so they don’t pee on them.
If we are going to be having a fire, we don’t bring a stove. We bring food that can be cooked or warmed over a fire. If there is a fire ban (like there often is here), we bring a small stove (we have this one— it’s great for backpacking or just packing light).
Sara Newton says
I grew up backpacking and camping a ton, but have not done it much as an adult. We usually use points to stay at hotels for free… Not exactly roughing it. But now that we live in the west again, we are planning on taking advantage of camping opportunities! As an aside, camping gear is pretty expensive when you don’t already have it!
That’s awesome that you’ve gotten hotels free with your credit card points! We’re using ours for cash now, but maybe in the future we’ll try some travel hacking!
Just like any other hobby, buying camping gear can be addictive. There are lots of ways we camp with minimal outdoor gear… maybe I’ll write a post about that! 🙂
Indasa Butler says
Stephanie. Please, let me know when you write about camping with minimal outdoor gear (if you haven’t already). My husband is a self-professed camping gear addict. He takes care of the gear, so it lasts and we get a lot of use from it, but he loves acquiring it too. Plus, it is A LOT to pack and haul. I sometimes feel like we are moving! Ha!
Dane Hinson says
Some great tips in this post. My two kiddos and I have planned an annual camping trip. Heading out this weekend and looking forward to some incredible quality time with my boys. We always plan out the trip to a T, from the activities to the menu.
Have an fun time with your boys Dane!
Thanks for sharing your tips. For us, this is the best solution for long-term travel. We splurge on a campground when we need hot showers, but that’s about it. Our family loves feeling like backwoods pioneers wherever we go. I do wish there were more opportunities on the east coast to camp for free, though.
We love the pioneer-feel too. We’ve read the entire Little House series and we love imagining what it was like.
We camp a lot in the George Washington and Jefferson national forests, lots of fire roads and easy access for primitive camping. There are also plenty of pay sites in the area.
Great tips Stephanie. We live in Reno so we are able to take advantage of all of the Nevada BLM land, as well as the Tahoe National Forest. We love to back pack and hike. Sometimes we will even just set up sleeping bags in the back of the truck and sleep under the stars when weather permits.
That’s great CeCee!
Our son plays travel baseball all over the Southeast. We often dry camp/boondock in our travel trailer at the ball park or at a Bass Pro Shop to avoid RV Park fees. In Alabama, you can sign up to be be a work-camper at any of the state parks to offset your lot rental.
Great tip Faith!
Great idea! But not for me. 😀 I like my flushies, I won’t “rough it” at a rustic campground that has only slushies. Kudos to you for showing your kids an adventure.
Haha… flushies and slushies! Trees are way better than “slushies” any day!