My favorite campsites are the ones you discover in the middle of the night, the ones that surprise and stun you when the sun rises.
We’d pulled up in the middle of the night, so had no idea what we’d wake up to. The temperature had plummeted in the wee hours of the morning and when I woke, in my hat, gloves, two pairs of pants and down jacket inside my zero degree sleeping bag, a hot cup of coffee was the only thing on my mind.
I unzipped the door and numbly shoved my socked feet into my hiking boots. I went to pull aside the fly and froze, my breath a cloud billowing above me.
We spent the summer traveling across the US in our Subaru and didn’t pay to camp once. Read on to find out how!
34 days on the road, 7500 miles, 9 states, 2 countries, $0 spent on lodging.
This summer my boyfriend, shepherd (duck) mix and I packed what we could into our Subaru Outback and the rest into a storage unit and took off on a month long road trip. We had limited funds and of course unforseen circumstances arose (like needing a new radiator in Kalispell, Montana) but we managed to stay in budget and have money leftover when we got home by not spending a dime on a place to rest our heads.
We spent a few nights with family members in Washington and Oregon and slept in a Fred Meyer parking lot one night in Astoria, but other than that, we tent and car camped our way across the Western US.
It can be daunting to not know where you’re going to sleep at night. Even in Colorado, where camping trips are usually planned several weeks in advance and locations are known, it can be hard to find a place where you don’t have to pay to pitch your tent. I’m writing this article to share my experience and tips on how to camp in any state for free!
First off, stop Googling “free places to camp near xxx”. If you find any real information, everybody and their brother who was planning on camping in the area has already found it and you will be lucky to find a spot. Grab yourself a physical map of the area and pick a National Forest with a road running through it. As long as there aren’t “no camping” signs or posted regulations, YOU CAN CAMP ANYWHERE in a National Forest*. We had terrible luck with Google Maps showing proper forest boundaries on our trips, so we stuck to physical maps showing boundaries. Once we saw where a national forest began and what the boundaries looked like, we would load the area on Google Maps while we still had cell service. We’d use Maps to look for Forest Service roads (usually indicated by NF, FS or other logical letters before a number) and head for those. Loading satellite images of the area can be helpful to try to decipher what might be flat or have a nice clearing, but if you’re on the road with iffy service, just alot yourself plenty of time before dark to find a place and head towards a Forest Service road.
As a rule of thumb, we never start looking for a camping spot unless we’ve seen a forest service sign or a “welcome to the national forest” type sign. Once we’re sure we’re in the clear, we start exploring the national forest roads. Generally, try to aim away from any private land as distinguishing what’s public and what’s private can be tricky. Take every dubious looking dirt spur road. They often end in the best campsites. Seeing fire rings is an indication that a site is good and that you are indeed where you think you are.
If you don’t have ample time to explore the area, make sure you have a plan B. We tried to set the tent up most nights because there was more space to sleep, but there were oftentimes where we couldn’t find a flat enough place to pitch camp, or there wasn’t much but a small pull out on the side of the road. If you can sleep in your car, you have more options. There were plenty of times we set up the table and chairs and made dinner on the side of a little used dirt road and then slept in the car. In both Montana and Washington, we saw tire tracks off the side of a frequently used paved state highway (in national forest!) and camped with just a bit of forest separating us from the road. It might not always be glamorous, but if you have room in your car, you can sleep pretty much anywhere once you know what you’re looking for. That being said, we were able to pitch our tent more than half of the places we went. There are amazing free campsites all over, you just need patience to find them!
A few dispersed camping etiquette tips…
•If you don’t know the area well, look up fire bans before you go. Don’t have a fire if there’s even a chance of a fire ban, make sure you have a quick way to put it out and burn local wood to avoid spreading pests! As a rule of thumb, we never had a fire if there wasn’t an existing fire ring.
•If you’re camping near water, do your bussiness and despose of your waste water away from the water source. I believe there’s a 25ft rule, but use common sense.
•Bury your #2 deep and throw toilet paper away in your own trash bag. Feces and used toilet paper attracts bugs and ruins nice campsites.
•Pack it out! This should be a no-brainer, but we encountered horrible amounts of litter on our trip. Bring your own trash bags and throw away EVERYTHING. Don’t burn it unless its paper and it won’t leave a trace and don’t throw your trash around. No one is cleaning up after you.
•Be bear and animal aware. Put anything that smells in your car. Food, trash and dishes attract unwanted visitors.
•Be smart about the roads you’re driving. Some of those dirt spurs? They turn into rock crawler roads with no places to turn around. I’m lucky my boyfriend’s the world’s best backwards driver or I’d still be stuck in a forest on the Olympic Penninsula. If you don’t have 4WD, AWD or high ground clearance, be aware and stay on the main roads. If a road looks sketchy, get out and walk it first. If you don’t have cell signal, finding a tow is gonna be a problem!
Sure, its easier to pay the $10-$20 campgrounds want, but what are you getting for that? A pit toilet and a flimsy picnic table? Frequently we would find a nice campsite half a mile from a campground and be able to use their dumpsters and toilets without paying for the priveledge of setting our tent up there. Sometimes if you’re lucky, you can find designated dispersed camping sites that have tables, fire rings and pit toilets and are free of charge and first come first serve. Follow these GPS coordinates for approximate location of one between Grand Tetons and Yellowstone in Wyoming: 44.108489,-110.668543 and these : 41.861242,-122.772761
for a state highway in NorCal that has a bunch (but this highway IS miserable. )
Its amazing what you can find when you take the time to look. We found great camping just outside Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, Glacier and Rainier all for free. We even found camping along the Oregon Coast which was a crazy find on a summer Saturday night.
Good luck, and happy travels!
*This means national forest. Not national rec area, not national wildlife refuge, not national park. NATIONAL FOREST ONLY.