The Ultimate Guide to Free Camping
1. Free campsites
Yes, there are actual camping areas designed specifically for free camping. Don’t expect anything fancy, as 9/10 times the campsite will include nothing but a fire area, but you usually find them in beautiful, off-the-beaten-path locations. If traveling during high tourist season, plan to arrive early and always have an alternative plan. Almost all free campsites are first-come-first-serve basis.
The best way to find free campsites is to research them based on specific countries/states. For example:
2. Wild camping
Wild camping is when free camping is allowed on any public land. This is common and legal in European countries such as Iceland, Norway, and Bosnia. It’s the number one way to make traveling in Europe affordable. On our three-month jaunt across the continent, we took part in wild camping for nearly forty nights. Specific rules come with primitive camping, which sometimes includes no campfires and one-night limits, which is why it’s crucial to research particular regulations for each country.
It’s not pretty, it’s not glorious, and it’s definitely not what you see on Instagram, but the truth is there are few vanlifers out there who haven't spent at least one night cozying up in the back of a Walmart parking lot. Fact is no one probably WANTS to be there, but when traveling near cities, it’s free, safe, and convenient.
In California (and some other major cities) parking lots essentially shut down after certain times, making it difficult to camp out in places like Walmart or Planet Fitness. If you try it, you will be stirred awake at some point in the night by a tired and aggravated cop who’s sick of this car-camping fad. For the best chance at a free-night sleeping without cops in CA, try park-and-rides.
4. International Dark Sky Parks
International Dark Sky Parks are becoming more popular across the world and are established in places with little to no light pollution. They are open overnight for people to come in and enjoy stargazing. Some National Parks, such as Canyonlands, Grand Canyon, and Joshua Tree, double as a dark sky park and are open all hours. The perfect place to watch a meteor shower AND to catch some Zs.
5. National Forests
For a majority of National Forests in the United States, there is some sort of free camping (called dispersed camping) within the forest limits. Each state has unique rules associated with National Forest camping, but most will allow you to camp legally, and for free, in certain areas for up to 14 consecutive nights. General rules include camping at least 200 feet from any road, trail, or water source. And all belongings must be packed-in and packed-out. Find out about free camping in specific National Forests here.
NO TRACE LEFT BEHIND
For those interested in free camping, please obey the “leave no trace” principle. These free camping options will be taken away if campers abuse and disobey laws. Please always pack out your trash and leave nature the way you found it.
At any given moment, Shalee is either lost, hunting for ice cream, or obsessively planning her next adventure.
Born and raised in rural Michigan, she began exploring the shores of Great Lakes as a teen, often sleeping in her car to save money. Eventually, her urge to explore pushed beyond her Midwest borders. Today, Shalee shares her tips and stories to thousands of readers interested in adventure, outdoor, and sustainable tourism. Her pack now includes two spunky hiking cats and her partner, Josh. Learn more about her here.
JOIN THE ADVENTURE