This is part of our weekly How To Series….
We have been doing a better job of staying under budget in the last couple of months, partly due to our efforts at finding free places to camp. Free camping opportunities vary state by state, but there are lots of amazing sites throughout the west since there is a lot of public land. Here are some tips for finding a great free and legal place to camp.
- Find Public Land: the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management are the two largest agencies managing public land that is open to “dispersed camping” (read: FREE). Unfortunately their websites are both pretty terrible, so it is best to make time to go into the local USFS or BLM office and ask a ranger for the camping regulations and advice on where to find a good site. There are a few notable exceptions in which the National Parks Service actually has free campgrounds or allows dispersed camping (we have found this at Great Basin National Park, Lava Point in Zion National Park, Death Valley National Park, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Lake Mead National Recreation Area, and Congaree National Park).
- Get a good map — we use the National Geographic Road Atlas and then look for state maps that list recreational areas. You need a map that is color coded to show which areas are public land. Once you’ve identified public land, look for roads that spur off of the main road and are not being actively used for ranching, logging, or mining (they do not lead directly to tanks, mines, etc.). It is off of these roads that you will find suitable sites.
- Give yourself time — the site may be free, but it usually takes more time and gas (if you’re traveling by car) to find a free campsite. If you are going into a national forest or BLM recreation area for the first time to search for a campsite, make sure to allow an hour just to drive around and look.
- Look for impacted areas — USFS and BLM lands (and occasionally National Park Service) allow dispersed camping in areas that have already been impacted. In other words, there are tire tracks or destroyed vegetation or fire rings, or all of the above. You do not want to go into a bit of healthy habitat and start driving around and building fires. Please review Leave No Trace practices before trying primitive camping.
- Be prepared and self sufficient — Free camping almost always means primitive with no amenities. You need to bring sufficient water, a shovel for digging a hole to use as a bathroom, and of course food and a way to cook it. In many areas they have fire restrictions, so do not plan on being able to roast a meal over an open fire. Even sites near natural sources of water require that you bring a way to purify the water since it has often been contaminated by livestock or humans.
- Let someone know where you are going — If you are headed off the beaten path in search of a campsite it is a good idea to tell someone where you are headed in case anything happens. Many public lands do not have cell phone reception and we often go for days without seeing anyone.
- Leave it better than you found it — Having areas to camp for free is a real privilege. Unfortunately we often find that popular free camping areas are trashed. Please pack out your trash and pick up a few things that someone else left behind so that it is nicer for the next camper.