Camping is an ideal way to see the world while spending the least amount of money – this is especially true if you are sleeping in a camping tent with no need for water and electrical hookups. However, as any experienced camper would tell you, the costs can easily accumulate when you are camping in designated areas.
Even if you intend to sleep in a tent, a stay at a private campground will be worth $35 to $60 per night, depending on how fancy the campground is. If you spread this over multiple weeks or days, camping can get pricey.
The frugal alternative is to locate free campsites – these do exist in the United States. While free camping may not be the most glamorous option, it has got a certain “romance of the open road” to it. This article will make your time in the US free campsites much more enjoyable.
What is Dispersed Camping?
Dispersed camping, also referred to as primitive camping, refers to camping anywhere outside of designated camping grounds, on public land. At a dispersed campsite, you won’t have access to amenities such as toilets, tent pad, running water, electricity, or showers.
While you may find a picnic table or fire ring, these won’t be available on all the dispersed campsites. The only thing you should expect is a patch of land where you can set up your tent.
All dispersed campsites operate using the first-come, first-served principle. The campsites do not feature a reservation system. The sites are free to anyone who arrives first and claims them.
Benefits of Dispersed Camping
After going through the definition of a dispersed campsite, you may assume that free campsites do not feature any benefits. It is easy to think that they feature more work than fun. This is not the case.
If you pack your survival gear and tools and head to a dispersed campsite, there are numerous benefits you should expect. These benefits include:
The Campsites Are Free
Dispersed campsites are easy on the wallet. While you may need to pay for the parking ticket on some sites, the camping area itself is usually 100% free. Spending time outdoors does not have to cost you an arm and a leg if you are willing to be flexible with your location.
If you have been using your camping gear on designated sites for while now, you probably have noticed that between admission to attractions’ fees, gas, and camping food, camping may not be that cheap. Finding ways to make your money go further means that your camping trip can also extend.
Most people will be drawn to designated sites. Some may even prefer the comfort of car camping. This makes it possible for you to locate a campsite anytime you want – camping, whenever you want, becomes possible. Since reservations do not exist, all you will have to do is show up early and locate an amazing spot.
Beauty and Nature
If you have used your camping chair in the designated sites before, you already know that the sites can get crowded. This diminishes the natural beauty around the sites.
If you spend your time on a dispersed campsite, you will be right in the middle of what one can call a postcard-perfect environment. If you have your selfie stick with you, you can take amazing pictures with nature in the middle of nowhere.
Privacy and Solitude
The dispersed campsites allow you to get away from the crowds. They allow you to relax while enjoying a peaceful and quiet time – you will not have to worry about the neighbors disturbing you.
Dispersed Camping Rules
While you will be camping in the wilderness, probably away from other people, there are still some rules you will need to follow. In this section, we will look at the rules. One thing to keep in mind is that the rules do vary from place to place. Hence, before you pack your camping air mattress and head to a dispersed campsite, do your research to determine the rules that apply to the location you intend to visit.
1. Stay Away from Waterbodies
You should ensure that you are camping at least 200 feet from the water bodies. Waterbodies, in this case, include rivers, streams, and lakes. This will help reduce the chances of polluting the water bodies.
2. Camp Way from the Roads
This is a rule that protects you and your family. You wouldn’t want one of your kids to surprise motorists by emerging on the road unexpectedly. You should ensure that your tent is at least 300 feet from the nearest road.
3. Camp Way from the Trails
Similar to the roads, for your safety, ensure that your campsite is at least 300 feet from the trails.
4. Your Stay Should be Limited to 14 Days
If you will be camping in the same location, limit your stay to 14 consecutive days within 30 days. Some states in the US may allow a larger or smaller number of days. Be sure to consult the authorities or locals before setting up your camping site.
5. Avoid Recreation Areas
Most states will not allow you to camp near maintained campgrounds. Also, you should be a considerable distance from the trailheads.
6. Camp Close to the Trees
You should focus on staying in remote areas featuring camouflage or good coverage. You should ensure that you are not camping in the meadows or clearings.
7. Avoid Chopping Down the Trees
Once you are in the woods, you may need to start a fire – to cook or for the warmth. Any wood that you burn should be collected from the ground.
You should avoid trimming branches or cutting down trees for firewood or kindling. You should ensure that you do not damage any living tree, shrub, or plant during your stay at the campsite.
8. The Leave No Trace Rule
Even when camping outside the designated camping grounds, you should take all the necessary measures to ensure that you leave things better than you had found them. Finding a campsite covered with garbage can be quite discouraging. Just as you would want to find the campsites clean, ensure that other people who come after you enjoy staying in clean campsites.
The 7 principles of Leave No Trace provide an easily understood framework that helps minimize the impacts of anyone exploring the outdoors. The principles are adapted to work anywhere – from the remote wilderness areas to the local parks.
9. Camp in Used Locations
This rule helps reduce the impact that camping has on the surrounding environment. Try to locate areas where other people have used in the past and camp in the exact locations. If the people before you had used the Leave No Trace rule properly, the areas should be ideal for camping.
10. Be Aware of Wildlife
Before heading to your preferred camping location, do your research beforehand. Try to find out what kind of wild animals live in the area you intend to go camping.
The type of animals occupying your preferred site may affect how you implement your precautions. For example, if you determine that bears live nearby, you may need to take extra precautions with your camping food storage. If you won’t be packing a food storage locker together with the camping blankets, you may need to get a bear-proof container. Also, be sure to store the container a safe distance from your waterproof tent.
11. Follow the Burn Bans
The bans are generally dependent on the conditions. Before you use your fire starter, be sure to check whether the bans do exist in your camping area. Also, after starting the fire, follow all restrictions and regulations.
12. Be Responsible with the Fires
If you do have the campfire, ensure that you are attending to it at all times – be sure to practice campfire safety. When you are done using the fire, extinguish it thoroughly. If you cannot find a source of water nearby, be sure to carry enough water to extinguish the fire.
13. Waste Has to be Disposed of Properly
In the dispersed campsites, you won’t have access to any toilets, including the dreaded vault toilets. For this reason, you should learn how to dispose of human waste by digging a cathole – this is a small hole featuring a minimum depth of 6 inches.
The cathole you dig should be at least 100 feet from a source of water. This helps you avoid contaminating the water source. Be sure to pack out any toilet paper and do not litter.
14. Purify the Drinking Water
On the dispersed campsite, you won’t be able to access potable water. For this reason, be sure to bring plenty of drinking water.
If carrying water is not an option for you, ensure that you have a way to purify the water before you drink it. You wouldn’t want to head home with waterborne diseases such as cholera and typhoid.
15. Check the Roads
Before embarking on your camping journey, be sure to look up the roads. Before heading out, ensure that the roads are passable.
Flooding or snow can make it hard for you to reach your camping site. Also, poor road conditions can keep you stranded in the camping site. Be mindful of the changing weather conditions – these can easily hamper your journey.
Have a Paper Map
It is easy to assume that because you have Google maps on your phone, a paper map is not necessary. One thing you need to keep in mind is that the campsite you choose may not have a cell signal – this is remote camping, after all. Get a paper map and compass. Learn how to use both to avoid getting lost in the wilderness.
Below, we have some examples of maps you can use when exploring free campsites:
Benchmark Road and Recreation Atlas
These detailed and comprehensive maps cover entire states. You will find them in 11 by 16 inches. While they may take up some space, they do provide plenty of useful information.
Some of the information you will find on the maps includes public lands, campgrounds, boating access, and even updated road conditions. This makes the maps a must-have if you want to have an epic time when camping in remote areas.
National Geographic National Forest Map
If you already know the area you would like to visit, grabbing a Trail Illustrated map may be a good idea. These maps provide detailed information about local topography, trails, and campgrounds.
Most of these maps are constructed using sturdy and waterproof materials. You can easily stick them in the picnic backpack when you have to leave the car behind.
Most ranger stations will have free maps of the area. When driving into the forest, swing by one of the ranger stations and check to see what is available.
If the ranger station only has a huge map on the wall, use your phone to snap a picture of the map. At the very least, the picture will offer a reference if you happen to run out of the cell range.
Locating Dispersed Campsites in the United States
If you are new to the free camping sites, you may not know how to locate them. In this section, you should get an idea of where you can find the dispersed campsites:
This website features a list of free camping sites in the majority of the provinces and states located in the United States. Some of the camping sites are on the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land and National forests.
You will find some of the spots in the national parks, which may require you to pay an entrance fee, although camping is still free. Some of the sites are just little spots that other travelers have discovered.
This is another online database featuring free campsites. The website features a map-based search engine. The search engine largely relies on community contributions to provide up-to-date information to people interested in different types of camping.
On the website, the main focus is usually on public lands, including the BLM, Wildlife Management Areas, Forest Service Land, and city or county parks. The website is geared towards people seeking the wilderness.
In the United States, you are allowed to camp without paying anything in the grasslands and national forests, unless otherwise marked, for a maximum of 14 days.
Every national forest will have slightly different rules and guidelines. You should, therefore, check ahead of time. But, generally speaking, you are allowed to camp for free in areas outside the established campgrounds and developed recreation areas.
Free City Park Camping – In Kansas
If the next time you pack your camping solar lanterns you will be visiting Kansas, you won’t have to worry about finding a free camping site. In Kansas, there is a good number of towns allowing the travelers to pitch their tents in the city parks. You can access the list of the towns and city parks online.
This website does not feature 100% free campsites. However, the campsites are generally less costly compared to the rates offered by established campgrounds. Most of the campsites are usually on private land. The campsites will cost you as little as $10.
The Wilderness Act was signed into law back in 1964. The act designates millions of acres of US land as available for use and enjoyment of the American people.
Camping is allowed, along with canoeing, kayaking, mountaineering, horseback riding, backpacking, rafting, hiking, etc. You can even use your all-mountain skis or cross-country skis in these areas if you visit during the winter season when the snow is abundant.
Talk to Other Campers
If you know other campers, you can request them to recommend ideal free camping sites. Many camping enthusiasts do love to share their tips and secrets. You can always look for videos and blogs posted online by camping enthusiasts. This can help you learn more about the areas you would like to visit.
Look for GPS Coordinates
While the exact location may not be marked on any map, you can always try to pull up coordinates for a location you would like to explore. Plugging the coordinates into your GPS device should help you with the navigation.
Globo Surf Overview
Camping at a maintained campsite where you can access various amenities has its perks. However, if you are looking for a rustic experience or you are on a budget, dispersed campsites may be a good alternative.
Free campsites are often found in remote locations. Since losing the cell signal is always a possibility, be sure to pack a map. The physical map will be extremely useful when the maps software on your mobile device fails to work.
When camping, you should focus on leaving the campsites as you had found them. If possible, try to leave the campsites in a better state.
- Dispersed Camping Guidelines, Fs.usda.gov