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Dispersed camping: A guide to free camping

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Free. It’s a word we all love. Especially freelance writers who like to travel the world without draining their bank accounts. So when rambling about the country in our trusty Prius, there’s nothing we like better than free camping, even if it’s just in our car. Never done any dispersed camping (aka free camping)? If you’re doing a lot of traveling in the U.S. it’s a great way to see the country and spend some time in the great outdoors on a budget. Bring on the road trips!

What is dispersed camping (free camping)?

Free dispersed camping, boondocking, freedom camping, free camping, whatever you call it, it’s parking your car or RV or van (#vanlife anyone?), usually on public lands, and sleeping in it. No nightly fees or advance reservations required. Often it’ll be on Bureau of Land Management land—think national forests and the like. Some might lump in rest areas and overnight lots (we often park and sleep in any and all of the above), but we’ll mostly be talking about the type of free dispersed camping found in nature. And sorry east-coasters; there’s a lot more BLM land open for free camping in the western half of the U.S.

dispersed camping guide to free camping

Dispersed camping/free camping near Yellowstone and Teton. This site had a picnic table, fire ring AND a drop toilet! Pure luxury!

What to expect when free dispersed camping

If you’ve ever gone camping, campsites tend to have a shower and bathroom facility, a little general store where you get the marshmallows you forgot (or kick yourself for forgetting the vegan mallows—ain’t no campground gonna have your Dandies), and maybe some electric hookups. Well, there won’t be any of that with dispersed camping. In fact, if there’s a toilet within hiking distance you should consider yourself lucky. Dispersed camping will likely be just a dusty parking spot off of a forest service road. There probably won’t be water, food, electricity or a shower. But you can do without the latter two for a few nights and you can bring the first two with you. Just make sure to follow strict Leave No Trace Principles, especially when it comes to going to the bathroom. Also, some spots don’t allow you to set up a tent, so it’s a good idea to be prepared to sleep in the car. All it took to make our 2011 Prius comfy was to put a custom trimmed sheet of plywood in the back to extend the lay-flat seats all the way to the backs of the front seats so there was enough room in the back to stretch out. Oh, and usually you’re not allowed to start campfires. You’re in the woods, after all. 

Come prepared

You know what there won’t be, so what should you bring? Well, we wrote a post about the little conveniences that will make sleeping in your car easier (read it here and make note of number 4), but the big three are water for drinking and cooking, backup batteries for your phone in case there’s an emergency, and food. Oh, and probably a spade and toilet paper for, you know, when nature calls. Leave no trace! Naturally, camping gear is a plus. Even if you’re not allowed to pitch a tent, a sleep pad, pillow and sleeping bag or blanket are a must. 

dispersed camping guide to free camping

Dispersed camping (aka free camping) outside of Ouray, Colorado.

How to find dispersed camping

In the U.S., you can use Google to find rest stops and the like. Otherwise, we like freecampsites.net and campendium.com to show us free places to park or camp all over the country. There are usually details, directions and tips in each listing. But not every free dispersed campsite is going to be listed, especially in national forests and on BLM land where opportunities to dispersed camp often abound. We’ve called up park headquarters, asked national park rangers, parking attendants, even local sheriffs where we can find free camping for the night. As a general rule, you can drive down most forest service roads (they’ll be identified with numbers) and locate unpaved pull-outs and little drives that look kind of like a pull-in campsite. If you’re lucky, there will already be a car or two there to help you locate them. Some spots only have space for one vehicle or tent and some have room for a whole caravan of frugal travelers. There’s no telling what you’ll find. 

dispersed camping guide to free camping

Technically this was camping with a permit within Redwood State and National Park in California, but it was free, so it counts!

Go forth and camp for free

Don’t be afraid to try free dispersed camping. It’s a blast, spending a night or two off the grid. Also, it feels a little like sticking it to the man. “That’s right, overpriced campsites! I don’t need your ridiculous $50-a-night fees just because you offer a shower and a game room! Imma sleep in the same tent, in the same darkness, in the same county as your silly site, and Imma do it without spending a dime. So stuff it!”

Just me? Well, I guess that’s Ok. Have you done much dispersed camping? Have any tips of your own? Share em! Wander on!