Finding free camping is an art. It’s not easy to find, but free camping can put you in epic places AND you’ll save a ton of money. This blog will show you all the different types of places where you can find free camping from parking lots to wilderness areas plus apps and websites you ca use to find these free camping spots.
Types of Free Camping Spots
National Forests (NF)
National Forests provide the absolute BEST free camping opportunities in the US! Free camping in national forest bring you into peaceful and wild areas of nature and, as the name implies, forests.
Camping spots can vary from parking spots to large open areas big enough for multiple tents. Usually you are allowed to camp anywhere that not within 5 miles of an established campground. National Forest areas allow free dispersed camping for up to 14 days before you have to leave the area. If you are looking to camp somewhere longer than that, I recommend you check up on the national forest area’s rules for more specific rules on length of stay because there are times you can stay longer.
There are many different ways to find national forest land where you can free camp. See the apps and websites mentioned at the the bottom of this blog for more details. To put it simply though, as soon as you pass a National forest sign, you’re in the clear to free camp.
Best for: Getting out into wild and scenic places
BLM is almost the exact same as National Forest, but BLM is usually located in desert or non-forest environments. It too brings you to wild and scenic places where you can camp for free with no one around.
Best for: Getting out into wild and scenic places
If a trailhead lies within National Forest or BLM land, there’s a good chance you’re allowed to overnight park there. The most important thing to remember is just to look for signs that say “No Camping” or “No Overnight Parking.”
There’s not really any way of knowing ahead of time if a trailhead allows overnight parking. You kind of have to just use common sense about whether it’s likely to allow free camping or not.
For example, we were out exploring Cottonwood Canyon and all the trailheads were on national forest. Unfortunately, because the trailhead parking lots were all so small and popular due to the proximity to salt Lake City, none of them allowed overnight parking. On the other hand, Bend, Oregon is filled with trailheads that are in national forest and you could overnight park at almost trailhead you want, often because those trailheads are popular for backcountry camping and hikers need to leave their cars there.
Best for: When you want to get up and explore a trail in the morning
Tents: Probably not
Rest Areas + Truck Stops
When driving between destinations, rest areas and truck stops are the most ideal form of free camping because of their ease and simplicity. Rest areas usually lie on long stretches of highway between cities. Rest areas are definitely not a place to pull off at 6pm and chill before hitting the hay however, if you’re trying to get for A to B and need somewhere to sleep in your Vans or RV, it’s perfect.
Since these are just parking lots, this is not suitable for tent camping. Rest areas are usually very quiet places to sleep besides the sound of semi-truck engines running and they give you access to restroom facilities which can be nice.
The difference between rest areas and truck stops is that rest areas are right along the highway and are usually public, while truck stops are a part of large gas stations. Both are usually very well marked on highways so they’re no problem to find. If you know you’ll be driving on a highway to your destination, you can count on the fact that there will be a rest stop along the way for you to free camp at.
Best for: A place to sleep on long drives
When all else fails, Walmart is there for you. It’s not luxury nor scenic but often times they’re the only free camping option you have when you’re in big cities. We often stay at Walmarts when we have to go into the city for groceries and supplies.
Walmarts can be found on Google Maps or on AllStays but note that some Walmarts don’t allow overnight parking. To know if the Walmart you’re scouting out allows overnight parking check out this page on AllStays or you can always just ask the manager at the store.
Best for: In big cities when there are no other free camping options
Industrial Areas + Overnight Lots
Again if you’re making camp in town where public land is not in close proximity, industrial areas can substitute as a decent place park overnight.
These can sometimes be better than Walmart because they’re much darker and quieter places to get some sleep. In really big cities it might be quite a detour to find these areas to sleep at however in towns like Squamish, BC NF camping areas fill up fast and this is a good alternative. See Google Maps tips below for info on how to find these areas. Just like with trailheads, be sure to look for signs that say “No Overnight Parking.”
Many towns also have designated overnight parking lots. To find these you will have to google search “overnight parking in blank city.” Note that this type of free camping technically isn’t camping. A lot of times, overnight parking lots come with signs that say “No Camping” or “No sleeping in your vehicle.” We’re usually more lax about “No camping” signs because you’re arguably not setting up a camp, you just sleeping in your vehicle that’s parked overnight however, we usually don’t spend the night if the rules are the latter .
Best for: In cities when there are no other free camping options
Finding Free Camping
Overall: Best overall app for finding any free camping spots from federal land to rest ares and Walmarts. So helpful for everything else involved in free camping like dump stations and grocery stores.
AllStays is legitimately the greatest app ever for free camping. This app costs $10 bucks (which is crazy for an app) but the amount of money you’ll be saving by using this to find free sites will be worth it. The AllStays app shows you BLM land, National Forest camping, rest areas, Walmarts, and so many other options like dump stations, steep grades.
AllStays lets you search for features besides camping too like water fill stations, dump stations, steep grades on the road, Costcos, and gas stations.
The only thing I don’t like about the AllStays app is that you can’t download offline versions of the map and you do need cell service to use it, which can be quite elusive in many areas where you search out free camping.
Download All Stays on the App Store or get on the Google Play store.
Overall: Helps you find the top spots among BLM and NF land, just do your research ahead of time (before you lose cell service)
Campendium and FreeCampsites, which are almost identical, are both great websites that help you find free camping. Both are all community based so all the sites shown on this website have been submitted by fellow campers and are then rated and reviews by other campers when they try out the spot.
These sites are great for finding popular campsites within national forest or BLM since finding a campsite within an entire region of federal land can be quite overwhelming. They’re also great for knowing how rough the roads are to get to certain campsites within NF/BLM land. Campendium and Free Campsites can really help you find hidden gems.
Just remember to do your research ahead of time when you have cell service or take screenshots and save the details for later when you need them.
Overall: Offline maps feature makes this the best backup if you didn’t plan ahead and you’ve lost cell service.
Google Maps is one our primary ways to find free camping when don’t have access to AllStays, Campendium, and FreeCampsites and most of the time we end up scoring great campsites.
Google Maps has the amazing feature of downloading offline maps (click here to learn more about how to download offline maps for outdoor adventure).
You can find NF areas on Google Maps quite easily. Most literary green areas on Google Maps are national forest. Within National Forests, I’d recommend zooming in searching for side roads which will likely have pullouts great for tents, RVs, Vans, or cars.
National Forests are always marked with a name and light green shading on Google Maps. This in itself is usually helpful enough for us to find some free camping somewhere within that green area.
More specifically, to find dirt roads with free camping on GoogleMaps you will need to look for the symbol of black number in a white square box with a black border. Now, not every road with this symbol is a dirt road. You will have to use some intuition based on what type of places lie on that road. For example if there are residential house, bed and breakfasts, stores, restaurants, etc than you can be pretty confident it’s not going to have a place for you to free camp.
If you don’t have the AllStays app, GoogleMaps can be great alternative for finding Walmarts, rest areas, or industrial areas where you can overnight park. Simply search for “Walmarts” or “rest areas” “near me.” You can also try zooming in and scroll around city outskirts to find possible industrial areas where overnight parking is often allowed.
I’ve yet to figure out a way to find BLMs on Google Maps. Until then I use PublicLands.org to find any federal land in the western United States.
Besides apps, you can always go with the old school method of finding your way around: maps.
A National Forest Service ranger shared with us that every national forest has it’s own forest road map (different from trail maps). On these maps, you can see every single forest road in an area, all of which allow dispersed camping. You may be able to find those maps at a ranger station or welcome center the you arrive at a National Forest or BLM area and usually they are free.
You can also buy Benchmark maps for each state on Amazon. These are complete road atlases but they also show where NF and BLM land is and roads within them where you can free camp. They also show other cool things like where you can find drinking water and trailheads.
Finally, National Geographic also sells a similar map purely for national forests. They show forest roads for free camping, trailheads, designated campgrounds, and more. You can buy these maps on Amazon.
Leave No Trace
Wherever you choose to free camp, please remember to Leave No trace. The most essential rules are:
- Only camp on durable surfaces such as established campsites, rock, gravel, dry grasses or snow.
- Always camp at least 200 feet from lakes and streams.
- Good campsites are found, not made. Altering a site is not necessary in popular areas
- Pack it in, pack it out. Inspect your campsite and rest areas for trash or spilled foods. Pack out all trash, leftover food, and litter.
- Deposit solid human waste in catholes dug 6 to 8 inches deep at least 200 feet from water, camp, and trails. Cover and disguise the cathole when finished.
- Pack out toilet paper and hygiene products.
- To wash yourself or your dishes, carry water 200 feet away from streams or lakes and use small amounts of biodegradable soap. Scatter strained dishwater
- Where fires are permitted, use established fire rings, fire pans, or mound fires.
- Keep fires small. Only use sticks from the ground that can be broken by hand.
- Burn all wood and coals to ash, put out campfires COMPLETELY, then scatter cool ashes.
Hope you enjoy your epic (or not so epic) free camping. If this blog helped you out then don’t forget to to share it! If you have any questions feel free to let us know in the comments section below!