Free camping spots were not on the top of my list of priorities when I first hit the road. My main priority was finding safe camping spots, even if that meant paying for them. Initially, I had thought that in order to find safe places to camp, I would need to pay to be in those safe places. So, I budgeted accordingly.
However, I quickly found out that there are two ways to go about this whole living full-time in an RV thing: the affordable way or the expensive way. If I began paying $35+ per night for camping, my new monthly living expenses would be $1,050 on the road, for what would otherwise be rent or mortgage. If I wasn’t careful, my new way of living could easily become more expensive than my previous way of living.
The more I have traveled over the last eight months, the more I see that $35 per night for a campsite is common. However, that price is even low for some places. I have seen $60-$70 night at seasonal, high attraction destinations.
If you start paying these kinds of rates, that adds up to about $1,950 for living expenses or what would otherwise be considered “rent”. Now do you see how if you are not careful then this could be an expensive way of living? So finding free camping places where you also feel safe is important.
It’s confession time. I didn’t grow up camping and so the concept of staying in the woods in the middle of nowhere was completely foreign to me. In my mind, the forest and public lands were where parolees, escapees and preppers went to hide from the world. Those types of places definitely weren’t for me.
You have to understand how reluctant I was to ever do that, given my preconceived notions on who was there. The more I traveled, the more people I talked to and the more places I saw, I began to open my mind to the idea of free camping on public lands.
People I knew basically had to drag me kicking and screaming to these places. Needless to say my perspective on this in the last year alone has changed drastically. My motto now?
Don’t knock it until you try it.
Public lands and national forests have all been among the most amazing places I have stayed. They offer the most amount of space for your campsite and some of the most amazing views.
Now, if you ask me if I prefer to be crammed into a camping spot in a parking lot next to strangers and paying $35-$70 a night to do so, or if I would rather have amazing mountain, lake or forest views for free without another soul in sight, I’ll have to tell you that I definitely prefer the latter.
So you can see the appeal of free camping for vanlifers, RVers or digital nomads living full-time on the road.
How To Find Free Camping
Depending on the area of the country that you are planning to stay in, some of these options will be available to you, while others won’t. Out west, there are a lot of wide open spaces, public lands for camping, national forest service lands and free camping options. There, learning how to find free (or cheap) camping will be easier than it is out east where options are limited.
In many of these places out west you can stay two weeks at a time. There are also some long term visitor areas (LTVAs) where you can stay 30 days, 3 months or 7 months with the proper permits.
Once you begin to move toward the center of the country, you will see more Army Corps of Engineers camping options. I will go into more details on each of these options below.
Resources to use to find free camping
Trying to figure out how to find cheap or free and safe places to camp? Here are some additional resources and information to help you begin your search.
The first place I always look when searching for free camping is freecampsites.net. By far, this is the top resource that I use for research and also hear that many other travelers use as well. This platform relies on crowdsourcing for its information.
Crowdsourcing is basically the concept that many people will contribute to the whole to compile a database of information. Freecampsites.net shows locations and reviews posted by other travelers of locations they have discovered that have cheap or free camping.
By reading reviews posted by freecampsites.net users, you can also get a sense of the vibe of the place. This will help you to know if it is a place that you would feel safe going to.
Just in case, have a couple of backup options for the area you are going to. Scope each one out before deciding where to stay the night, if you can.
At times where I have not found many good free or cheap campsite options on freecampsites.net, I have then also continued my search on campendium.com. This too is a popular resource for many travelers to search for a campsite.
In addition to finding free camping, or cheap camping on campendium.com, you can also search for pay campsites here as well. Between freecampsites.net and campendium.com, you should have a good overview of free camping or cheap camping options for almost any area of the country you will be traveling to.
Army Corps of Engineers
Army Corps of Engineers campgrounds have quickly become my new go-to and favorite when it comes to traveling to new places in the middle part of the country.
While these are fee based campgrounds, they are often nicely developed campgrounds with services such as showers and water, for minimal camping fees per night (usually $10-$20).
Depending on the national park pass you have, you may also qualify for discounted camping (50%) at Army Corps of Engineers campgrounds. With your pass in some cases then, you can get camping at these types of campgrounds for as little at $6 per night. The Army Corps of Engineers campgrounds I have come across also have a two week maximum time limit on your stay.
For many reasons, I believe that Army Corps of Engineers campgrounds are among the safest for solo female travelers to stay. They usually have very strict rules that are enforced. At night, they lock the gate so that you can get out in the case of emergency, but no one can get in.
They have campground hosts that welcome you, check you in and make the rounds several times a day. The ones I have come across have been incredibly friendly, have been doing what they do for a long time and are caring and helpful.
Army Corps of Engineers campgrounds also have enforced quiet hours and a strict no alcohol policy. Knowing that no one is going to be allowed to come there and party also makes me feel a lot safer as a solo female traveler.
[ Related article: Traveling Alone Can Be Safe, Here’s Why ]
To find Army Corps of Engineers campgrounds, I usually start my search on AllStays.com and then once I find one in the area I am looking to stay, make my reservation on recreation.gov.
BLM and LTVAs
BLM stands for Bureau of Land Management, while LTVA stands for Long-Term Visitor Areas.
Typically on BLM land, you can stay a maximum of 14 days at a time. Then when those 14 days are up, you need to move a certain distance away from your camping area and go to a new area.
However, there are a few exceptions during certain times of the year and these are known as LTVAs. LTVAs were created in an effort to mitigate damage to public lands and handle the large influx of seasonal visitors to an area. The most populated LTVAs can be found in Quartzsite, Arizona in the winter time.
LTVAs may offer minimal services in exchange for a permit fee. Depending on the state and the area, LTVAs may allow you to stay anywhere from 30 days to 7 months, as an exception to the normal 14 day stay rule on BLM land.
These are only during certain times of the year and only in certain places. For more information on permits and fees, check out:
California Summer LTVA Information
California/Arizona Winter LTVA Information
Do you have any other resources for finding free campsites? Share your experiences in the comments below.
While this list of course does not include every single resource out there, these have been the resources that I have found so far that are the most accessible to everyone. They are also the easiest to use when it comes to figuring out how to find free camping or cheap camping and also places where I feel safe.
If you are looking to do the same, starting your research with these resources will give you hundreds or maybe thousands of free camping options all across this beautiful country of ours. Get out and enjoy!
Read about some of the most beautiful and scenic places you can camp in America in my book, The Proving Ground: A 12-Month Solo Road Trip Across America
As a city girl myself, camping is also a little nerve-wracking to me. But these tips are great, thank you!
I get that! It can seem scary at first, I never grew up camping, but quickly got used to how peaceful and relaxing it is!
This is some very useful info especially for long term camping. Thanks for sharing!
Thanks Nora! I’m happy to hear it’s helpful. It’s from learning things the hard way and sharing so that hopefully it makes someone else’s journey easier 🙂