Camping for free in National Forests
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 us 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.
Dispersed camping is free camping
Finding Free Campgrounds
The "Free Campgrounds" guidebooks by Don Wright are a bit misnamed, since they cover pretty much any campground 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: Includes Campgrounds $12 and Under in the 17 Western States - Updated bi-annually, this book lists all campgrounds in the eastern states that have camping fees of $12 or less. It includes all federal campgrounds as well as state parks and forests, fishing lakes with camping, county and city parks, wildlife areas, Indian reservation sites,utility company camps, lumber camps, canoe camps, and small private campgrounds with low fees.
Don Wright's Guide to Free Campgrounds: Eastern Edition - This one seems to be out of print, but you might still find copies online. The book lists all campgrounds in the eastern states that have camping fees of $12 or less. It includes all federal campgrounds as well as state parks and forests, fishing lakes with camping, county and city parks, wildlife areas, Indian reservation sites,utility company camps, lumber camps, canoe camps, and small private campgrounds with low fees.There are 155 National Forests and 20 National Grasslands in the United States, comprising 191 million acres—that’s bigger than Texas (www.fs.fed.us). 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.
There are also lovely historic lodges in many of the nation's National Parks where rates start as low as $85 for a cozy double room...
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 www.recreation.gov.
More on finding camping in the U.S.A.
Free camping is not restricted to federal lands. The Websites www.freecampgrounds.com and www.boondocking.org are the only general databases—though both are skewed more towards RVs than tents (like which Wal-Mart, K-mart, and Flying J parking lots let you pull into a corner space overnight so long as you're polite about it and don't, you know, dump your chemical toilet).
Google to find regional databases.
For finding campgrounds of all stripes—paid and free—check out the popular Woodalls guides (www.woodalls.com).