Free Camping

The only thing worse than setting up camp at 2:30am—our own fault for trying to put too many miles behind us before the next day—is being woken up at 6am by a relentlessly cheery camp host looking for his $27.

That’s what happened to me last summer at South Dakota's Custer State Park, where the entrance fee was $12, the camping another $15. Though the campground was perfectly lovely—full of deer and bunnies, with buffalo by the roadside when we pulled in—in retrospect we should have just turned off the road before we got into the park and looked for a free site somewhere in the Black Hills National Forest.

Finding Free Campgrounds
These twin guidebooks by Don Wright are a bit missnamed, since they cover pretty much any camground that costs $12 or less—but that does include plenty of freebies. Great resources. One book covers the states east of the Mississippi, the other covers 17 states in the Western U.S. (where there are far more free camping opportunities).

Guide to Free Campgrounds—WEST, 13th Edition
Guide to Free Campgrounds—EAST, 12th Edition
There are 155 National Forests and 20 National Grasslands in the United States, comprising 191 million acres—that’s bigger than Texas ( What makes them a camper's secret weapon is National Forests don't charge admission, and camping is absolutely free—so long as you steer clear of official campgrounds (which charge between $5 and $25 for the privilege of pit toilets, picnic tables, and close neighbors in giant RVs).

This is called "dispersed camping," and the rules vary. In most forests, you must pitch your tent at least 100 or 150 feet from the nearest road, trail, or official campground; in popular areas, it might be as much as half a mile.

It can be a bit of a mixed blessing, since these hidden campgrounds tend to draw two types: nature nut budgeteers who pack in what they need and pack out all of their trash, and cheapskates looking for a place to crash with no late-night noise rules to hamper their drunken revelry—and they tend to leave their trash.

Out west especially, many National Parks are wrapped in a cocoon of National Forest land, so you can often sleep for free within a few dozen miles of the park gates. Just pause at the National Forest entrance to read the posted signs (which will either detail local camping rules or provide the phone number or location for the ranger, who will know) and start driving up smaller secondary and dirt roads looking for a sweet spot by a mountain stream.

For more information on camping and all other recreational uses of National Forests, National Parks, BLM lands, and other federal lands—or to play it safe and book an official campsite ahead of time (again, for—anywhere from $5 to $25) visit


This article was last updated in January 2008 . All information was accurate at the time. | | |
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