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 often 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 $25 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 did when we went to Yosemite a couple years ago. We found a beautiful, piece of forest about ten miles outside of the park boundaries, off a fire access road, where didn’t see or hear another soul the entire time. Besides being free, it also felt safer since we didn’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 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.
Last 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.
- Somewhere flat
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.
- Somewhere safe
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 Be Aware Of
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.
The Way to Go
Here are a few more examples of where we’ve done dispersed camping:
A couple of weeks ago we went to Fort Bragg, California. 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.
Last summer we 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?
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