If you plan to camp for longer than a month or so, then dispersed camping is something very much worth considering. You could camp at some campgrounds for an extended period, but those run $20 to $30 a night. That adds up after a while, almost becoming as much as most people pay for rent. You need something free. Fortunately though, you asked the right question, where are places I can camp for free in the US and Canada? Well, the short answer is that there are a wide variety of places you can go. The longer answer is what follows.
Common Places to Camp for Free – a Variety of Options
The Bureau of Land Management, a Federal Agency
One of the best places to go for non campgrounds camping is the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). It is an excellent resource. Found mostly in the Western United States, BLM land is far-reaching. You can find land near you that you can access by clicking here. There you will find maps of all the land and split it up by state. Many places have handy guides with local BLM offices you can contact for more information.
United States Forestry Service Land – Throughout the Entire Country
When you camp on United States Forestry Service (USFS) land, it is quite similar to what you see from BLM lands. You can camp in over 175 national forests and grasslands across the nation. For specific details, you have to check with a park ranger. The rules vary by area, so be sure to consult them. They know the rules inside and out, so they will tell you what you need to know.
Canada Crown Land, it’s a Bit Different from the US
Almost 90% of Canadian land is available to Canadian residents for public use. If you are a foreigner though, you can pay a small fee for a permit through the provincial government. All of this public land is categorized. In some places you can camp, in others you cannot. It depends on what the Canadian government says. Depending on where you go, your experience will vary. Some places are like traditional campgrounds you see in US national parks while others are completely barren of any amenities at all. You just drive in and go camp from there. I will go into more detail in the Canada specific section.
Parking Lots: Casinos, Walmart, Truck and Rest Stops
This is not so much camping as it is overnight parking. If you are willing to sleep in your car, then places like casinos, Walmart, truck and rest stops can offer you a spot. They may charge a very small fee, but most of these places are free. Be aware that you have to keep everything in your vehicle. Nothing can be left outside. Many truck stops have coin operated washing and drying machines you can use for your clothes. If you are on the road and catch yourself in a bind without a place to sleep, then a parking lot is a good option for you.
Check out this link for Walmart no parking spots. While this online resource is great, be sure to check with the Walmart store manager by giving them a call. They know the rules and you do not want to be evicted during the middle of the night. It would be a nightmare. For parking lots in general, keep a low profile. They can be sketchy if you are not careful. The poor lot lighting only adds to the risk. Keep under the radar and you will turn out fine.
My Top 5 Tips when Camping for Free
1. Follow Leave No Trace Principles.
Often times, you are out by yourself and alone or with another in the wilderness. No one else is there to help you but yourself. If you just throw your trash outside with no regard for nature, then it will harm the environment. There will be an inmpact. Clean up after yourself, pack your trash, and leave it as you found it. No one likes a litter bug.
2. Be Safe, it’s dangerous out there.
Walmart parking lots are quite scary at night. The very super, supermarket chain has a tendency to attract all sorts of unsavory characters to their store and that results in an unsafe parking lot, especially at night. Be careful camping in a parking lot. People will do all sorts of things when they see someone sleeping in their car in the middle of the night. Keep to yourself and mind your profile.
On another note, you probably will not have to worry about someone breaking into your car when you are dispersed camping. There are just not that many people around. You will, though, have to take care of yourself all on your own in such an area because no one else is around. That means plenty of food and water and a plan of action in case of emergencies. It is one thing to worry about people when sleeping in your car. It is another thing to take care of yourself when camping out in the wilderness by yourself.
3. Call and Check with a Ranger Beforehand.
Rangers will know the area best. They can help you follow the rules and tell you when it is the best time to go. They know the wildlife and will give advice so you do not have a bad encounter with a bear, mountain lion, or similar animal. If you get trapped, they will help get you out. Rangers prove again and again to be an invaluable resource.
4. Know the Rules for these Places.
For the US, there is a 14-day limit but a 21-day limit in Canada, so you cannot stay longer than those times. Where you camp will be outside normal campgrounds, which means additional rules apply as opposed to campgrounds camping. You have to be extra attentive to those rules. There are no amenities, so you have to take care of all your waste and prevent corruption of a water source (stay 200 feet (61 m) away).
5. Know How to Navigate without a GPS
In a previous article, I talked about how to use a map and compass to navigate. Most of the places where you can camp for free are off the grid. That means no cell service. If you are a beginner or not quite sure how to get by, then you need to fully understand how to use a map and compass. It is for your own safety. Check out the article and save yourself a lot of headache down the road.
Apps and Free Online Resources to Find Places Near You
Apps that are Perfect for your Smartphone Camping
All Stays Camp & RV is a $9.99 app that you can get on your smartphone. While the price tag may be deterring, it is well worth the money. It is less than two $5 foot longs! The app comes with options to filter by area and find places far away too. You can search for spot by federal agency and you can get directions on Google Maps. While the app will not work off the grid, it is just perfect when you are in the planning stages. There are over 30,000 campsites along with price filters, making it an app worth considering a download.
A lot of the sites listed below also have associated apps.
Free Sites to Type into Your Search Bar for Camping
Campendium.com allows you to search for campsites by state, read reviews, and get directions. You can look at pictures to see what the area is like and see what the cell coverage is like. The platform works best for RVs and van campers. Tent camping is not their style. They also have a stupendous Instagram with fantastic images of the places they list. Campendium also has an app for mobile users.
Forestcamping.com lists national forests where you are free to camp. Many of the places to camp are paid, but are a lot less expensive compared to that of a national park. You will save big.
Freecampsites.net lets you locate free campsites. It is much like the previous Campendium, but works best on a computer.
Nationalmap.gov is where you can find state maps of federal land. After viewing one of the maps you are interested in, you can then download a PDF file of the map to navigate with later. Whether you plan to print out a map or not,
be sure to at least download a free version of the area you plan to camp at.
Publiclands.org covers the entire Western United States. If there is public land, then this site has got it covered. Under “land status,” you can find out the agency that manages the land you are looking at to camp on and then reach out if needed.
Free Sites for Overnight Stays in Parking Lots
Casinocamper.com lets you find casinos where you can park overnight for free.
Interstaterestareas.com finds rest areas where you can camp overnight. If you are on a major highway, you can bet that there is a place you can stop and spend your time overnight at. They have bathrooms and various amenities.
Pilotflyingj.com is a national chain for truck stops. They have 750 locations in 44 US states and 6 Canadian provinces. You can also download their app.
Ta-petro.com takes care of all highway travelers. It is a national chain for truck stops.
Maps and GPS, Essential for Off the Beaten Path Camping
A GPS, it Will Help You Find Your Location Anywhere in the World
If you are planning to go dispersed camping at all, you will need a GPS for your safety. It will help you if you encounter trouble. Unless you are a super camper who knows all about the stars and navigating with a map and compass, then bring a GPS with extra batteries. You can set a way point to take you back to your campsite and nearby roads. Friends and family can find out where you are if you connect your GPS online.
The world of GPSs is deep and wide. You just do not know how to make a decision when there are so many GPSs to choose from. Fortunately though, I wrote an article to address that issue. The article, The Best Hiking GPS – a Review of Garmin GPSs, looks at the highly rated Garmin. It is, by far, the best for your pocketbook and what you will encounter in nature’s outdoors. When you have one of those puppies in you backpack, you won’t have to worry because it will help you find your way home.
Get Some Maps, so You Know Where You Are.
Many of these places will not have marked trails, giving you only the stars and your wits to guide you. A solid map will help you navigate the terrain. At the very least, download a PDF map of the area where you plan to camp for free. It will go a long way in helping you navigate.
If you do not have the money, where can you get a free map? Ranger stations offer free maps. They will be more than willing to hand you a map. If you cannot take a free map with you, then they will likely have a map on their wall. As a last resort, take a picture and start navigating.
National Geographic Maps – a Great Friend to Have
National Geographic has been around a while, so they have gone to the trouble of making maps. Their Road Atlas covers areas in Canada, Mexico, and the US. It gives you a very broad view of nearly all the North American continent. They also produce national forest maps, denoting specific sites, trails, water sources, and the like. If it is in the details, this map has got it down pat. The maps tend to be location specific, so you will not get a whole US state.
Benchmark Road Map and Recreation Atlas
On the other hand, Benchmark Road Map and Recreation Atlas covers each US state. They outline public lands and national agencies’ jurisdictions. You can find campgrounds, topography, trails, water sources, and roads, making it perfect for US focused dispersed campers. For about $20, you can get a map of a whole state. More importantly, their maps have the little back roads for big time thru hikers.
Backroad Mapbooks – Canada Specific Maps
These are going to be your number one tool to find maps for Canada. They include crown land, recreation areas, hiking trails, campgrounds, lakes, and hot springs. Each book is divided into regions, usually by province to help you navigate the Canadian back country.
Oh Canada! Oh Canada!
For visitors to Canadian Crown Lands, I recommend that you download Ultimatecampgrounds.com. It is a less expensive competitor to All Stays Camp & RV. It lists all public campgrounds in the US AND Canada, giving it an edge up on its opponent. If you have a smartphone, then you should get it if you plan to camp in Canada. They have covered over 38,000 different campsite between the two countries.
Another great way to find the crown land is to search by province. Many places do not have information at all while others have plentiful. It is not the most well organized system, but that is just the way it is.
Ready to Get Going?
While camping for free can be scary at times, the beauty boggles the mind. You become like Lewis and Clarke. There are no trails to guide you and you are almost all alone in the wilderness. The sights and sounds seep into your eyes and ears. Car and people noise evaporates. Light pollution disintegrates. Are you ready to get going? Click on one of the links listed above and find a place near you where you can camp for free and save big!
If you have any thoughts, questions, or think I missed anything, do not hesitate to comment below and please share the article. Thank you so much and I hope you make it a great day!