How to Find Free Camping in the US & Canada

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Whether you’re traveling long term or just camping on a budget, learning how to find free camping is an essential skill.

Find out how you can camp for free in beautiful locations throughout the US and Canada in this free camping guide.

We’ve spent 13 months camping across the US and Canada, and one of the most frequent questions we get asked is “How do you afford to pay for campsites?”

The simple answer is we don’t.

If we had to pay the usual $20-30 dollars per night to stay at established campgrounds, we would have gone broke long ago.

Instead, we’ve gotten very good at finding places where you can camp for free. (Yes, such places exist!) Whether you call it dispersed camping, boondocking, dry camping, or wild camping, the end goal is the same: a place to enjoy the outdoors without having to pay a daily fee. There are a ton of free camping options out there – you just need to know where to look.

We know what we’re doing now, but when we first left on our trip, we were completely clueless. On our very first night out, we remember pulling off on the side of the road in Big Sur and frantically searching on our cell phones for the rules of dispersed camping in National Forest. But we couldn’t find anything definitive. In desperation, we ended up nervously sleeping in a pullout. It was awful. The next day, we panicked and drove straight to San Francisco to stay with a friend.

Now that we have a little more experience in the free camping department, we decided to compile this guide to help anyone who is just starting out. Below, we’ve outlined places where you are allowed to camp for free and how you can locate them.

Find out how you can camp for free in beautiful locations (like this spot in Big Sur, CA!) throughout the US and Canada in this free camping guide.

Free National Forest camping in Big Sur, CA!

National Forests & Grasslands

Typically you are allowed to camp for free in US National Forests & Grasslands, unless otherwise marked. Each national forest has slightly different rules, so check ahead of time, but generally speaking you are allowed to camp anywhere outside established recreation areas and developed campgrounds.

Who it’s good for: Tent camping, Vans, Trailers, and RVs.

What it’s like: You have a lot of options when camping in a National Forest. You can find a nice pullover, backpack into the woods to set up camp, or find an attractive spot along a forest service road. However, you’ll need to be self-sufficient, as there will likely be zero amenities. No picnic table, trash, or restrooms. In some places, you are allowed to have a fire if you obtain a fire permit and there are no fire restrictions in place (these can change frequently, so check with the ranger office).

Due to the lack of amenities, it’s essential you adhere to the principals of Leave No Trace while camping. If you are not familiar, you can check out this outline here.

How to find It: National Forests are well marked on Google maps, but you can use the National Forest Map Locator or search state by state to find information about specific jurisdictions you are looking to camp in. Again, the rules are different depending on the area, so check ahead.

Details:

  • Camping must be done outside of developed campgrounds.
  • Usually a 14 day limit, sometimes more.  
  • No amenities – picnic table, trash, or restrooms. Practice Leave No Trace.  
  • Set up camp 200 feet away from any stream or water source.

** This information does not apply in National Parks – but many National Parks are bordered by National Forests!

Find out how you can camp for free in beautiful locations (like this spot in Anza Borrego, CA!) throughout the US and Canada in this free camping guide.
BLM (Bureau of Land Management)

These publicly managed lands are commonly found in the western part of the United States and typically allow free camping outside of developed campgrounds. However, BLM manages a wide range of activities including cattle grazing rights and mining operations, so they can require a little more research to determine if they’re suitable for camping.

Who it’s good for: Tent camping, Vans, Trailers, and RVs.

What It’s Like: While there’s BLM lands all over the west, the majority of it covers desert topography.  Similar to National Forests, you can stay at pullovers, backpack in a little ways, or find a secluded spot along an access road to set up camp. There are also some semi-established unofficial camping areas that are frequented by RVing snowbirds during the winter. Again, there will be no picnic table, trash, or restrooms. In some places you are allowed to have a fire if you obtain a fire permit there are no fire restrictions in place (these can change frequently, so check with the field office)

How to Find it: BLM lands are not marked on Google Maps, making them much more difficult to locate. UPDATE 6/17: The official BLM.gov website used to have a terrific interactive map, but unfortunately it was removed in early 2017. It has now been replaced with a much clunkier and nearly impossible to use map. INSTRUCTIONS: Go to Search, type in the state your looking as well as the words “Surface Agency Map”. If the result you’re looking for has a (+) mark underneath it, click it, and it will be added as a layer to a map located in another part of the website. (not all states have a Surface Agency Map layer and even fewer have the (+) mark.) Then navigate to Maps, which is located in the top navigation bar. Once there, add the layer to the interactive map. You should now be able to see BLM for that state. We’re not sure what happened to the old map, but this process is way more complicated and incomplete than the process we used during our travels in 2016.

You can also check out Our Wandering Rhythm’s BLM Google Earth Overlay. Download the file and upload as layer into Google Earth.

Details:

  • Camping must be done outside of developed campgrounds.
  • Usually a 14 day limit, sometimes more.  
  • No amenities – picnic table, trash, or restrooms. Practice Leave No Trace.  
  • Set up camp 200 feet away from any stream or water source.

Find out how you can camp for free in beautiful locations (like this spot in Alberta!) throughout the US and Canada in this free camping guide.
Crown Land (Canada)

About 89% of Canada is designated as “Crown Land” and available to Canadian residents for public use. (Non-residents can pay for a permit, which varies by province.) While you are allowed to camp for free on Crown Land for up to 21 days, there are many areas where camping is not allowed. The reason being that Crown Land is actually divided into different subcategories, which are managed both on the federal and provincial level, with varying levels of restrictions.

All this can be somewhat difficult to understand and navigate, but the sheer amount of Crown Land makes it worthwhile to look into if you are traveling through Canada.

Who it’s good for: Backpackers, Tent camping, Vans, Trailers, and RVs.

What it’s like: There’s a lot of Crown Land out there, so your experience will vary greatly on where you’re located. In some provinces like British Columbia, there are primitive campgrounds called Recreation Sites on Crown Land that function like traditional campgrounds, but with fewer amenities. However, much of Crown Land is located in more remote regions of the country, where infrastructure is limited. Because accessing the land can be difficult, many Canadians use public waterways to canoe or kayak in.  This is particularly popular in the eastern provinces, like Ontario.

How to Find It: Good question. How to locate Crown Land that is suitable for camping varies from province to province. Some provinces have interactive online maps, some have static .pdf maps, but other don’t have much information at all. Down at the bottom of the article we’ll link to a few resources to help find Crown Land near you.

Details:

  • Canadian residents can camp for up to 21 days
  • Non-residents can pay for a permit (varies by province)
  • Recreation Sites can be accessed by vehicle
  • Most Crown Land camping resembles backcountry camping 

Find out how you can camp for free throughout the US and Canada in this free camping guide.
Walmart

Here we get into the grey zone of what is considered “camping.” While many Walmarts across the country allow RVs, trailers, vans, and other self-contained vehicles to stay overnight in their parking lot, few people would consider this camping. Nevertheless, staying at Walmarts can definitely come in handy at times. Whether you’re trying to pull off an epic travel day and just need a place to sleep for the night, or plan on using Walmart as a staging place in order to stay close to civilization, there are a lot of reasons to spend a night at Wally-World.

Who it’s good for: Vans, Trailers, and RVs.

What it’s like: Again, let’s be clear: this isn’t camping. It’s sleeping in your vehicle overnight. Plan on arriving later in the evening and leaving early in the morning. When staying at a Walmart, it’s best to park towards the outer periphery of the parking lot so not to interfere with normal store activities like customer parking and late-night truck deliveries.

Being allowed to stay overnight at Walmart is a very graciously offered privilege, and by no means a right. (From a liability standpoint, it would be way easier for Walmart to prohibit this activity, but they have decided extend a helping hand to travelers.)  So, be courteous. The general rule is to keep as low profile as possible. No tents, no chairs, no hibachi grills. Everything must be done within your vehicle.

How to Find It: Not all Walmarts allow overnight parking. This is often the case for Walmarts in major urban centers. In some cases, the store managers have decided against it, in others, local laws prohibit sleeping in your vehicle overnight. Before you decide to stay at a Walmart, check this Walmart No Stay List.  You can also call the store and ask to speak with a manager. (We’ve found associates are usually unaware of the policy and will just say no out of over-caution. Speak with a manager.) 

Details

  • Must remain self-contained within your vehicle.
  • Arrive late, leave early.
  • Park away from the entrance of the store.  
  • Bathrooms are available during store hours.
  • Need anything? Chances are Walmart has it.

Find out how you can camp for free throughout the US and Canada in this free camping guide.
Other Non-Camping “Camping” Options

While Walmart is the gold standard for overnight parking / urban stealth camping, there are a few other options that can be worth exploring as well.

Casinos

Many casinos allow overnight parking for RVs, trailers, vans, and other self-contained travelers. The situation will be similar to staying at Walmart. Basically, keep your activities within your vehicle and keep a low profile. You can check out the map locator on CasinoCamper.com to see what casinos allow overnight parking. For more in depth information on camping at casinos, check out this post by Desk to Dirtbag.

Truck Stops 

You can hardly drive a hundred miles on a major freeway without seeing a truck stop. While they primarily cater to long-haul truckers, some of them also provide accommodations for RVs, trailers, and vans. In addition to offering fuel, food, and other travel amenities, many of them allow overnight parking. If you’re uncertain, it’s always worth calling the location to find out.

National chain truck stops include:

Rest Stops

Along many US interstate highways, you can find designated rest stops. These locations have been specifically designated for drivers to be able to pull over and rest.

However, finding a rest stop that allows overnight parking can require a lot of digging. Rules differ state by state, county by county, and city by city. Sometimes it can be more trouble than it’s worth, but when it works out, they can be useful in a pinch.

If you’re looking to find a rest stop near you, you can take a look at this list by Interstate Rest Areas.

Find out how you can camp for free throughout the US and Canada in this free camping guide.
Resources

These are some of the resources we use to find free campsites.

National Online Resources

Campendium.com (US & Canada) – Awesome camping resource that allows you to search free camping by state. Read reviews, see pictures, and see the campground’s cell coverage. They have a great mobile map that makes it easy to find a campsite on the go.

Freecampsites.net (US & Canada) – Another great resource that allows you to locate free campgrounds. Read reviews, get GPS coordinates and directions, find out the agency that manages the land. This site is best used on a desktop/laptop, though their map works on mobile as well.

Ultimatecampgrounds.com (US & Canada) – A great resource that lists all public campgrounds in the US & Canada. While not all the campsites listed here are free, the descriptions will let you know if they sites have fees and if so, what they cost. They also have an iOS and Android app.

Forestcamping.com (US) – This website lists national forest campgrounds. While most of them are paid sites, they are usually much cheaper than campsites found within National Parks.

Publiclands.org (Western US) – This website has an interactive map that allows you to search public lands in the western part of the United States. While the campsites listed are all paid, if you click “Land Status” you can see exactly where you can find National Forest and BLM land.

Nationalmap.gov (US) – While it’s not super detailed, this website offers state by state maps of federal land. If you click the Print PDF Map option, you can download the maps onto your computer or smartphone to be viewed later. Even if you’re not planning on printing them out, choosing this option will offer you the most detail.

Canadian Crown Land

British Columbia – Recreational Sites and Trail Interactive Map

Ontario – Land Information Ontario Map Locator

Alberta – Alberta Environment and Parks – Crown Land PDF Maps

Nova Scotia – Nova Scotia Data Portal – Crown Land Interactive Map

Saskatchewan – Campgrounds and Recreation Sites – Google Map

New Brunswick – Crown Land Conservation Map

Paper Maps and Guidebooks

While you can get a lot of the information you need for free online, it is always useful to have a paper map on hand. Cell service can be notoriously spotty in these remote areas, and if Plan A fails it’s nice to be able to research Plan B on the fly.

Benchmark Road & Recreation Atlas (US) – These large paper atlases offer detailed maps by state. Not only do they outline National Forests, BLM and other land agencies, but they’re filled with other helpful information like campgrounds, topography, drivable roads (by classification), trailheads, water sources, and much more.

National Geographic Road Atlas – Adventure Edition (US) – This comprehensive atlas covers Canada, United States, and Mexico, with a special focus on outdoor recreational activities. While it won’t give you the same level of detail as state by state or park by park map would, it will give you a good impression of all of North America.

National Geographic National Forest Maps (US) – These paper maps provide lots of detail about specific forests and ranger districts. While it would be expensive to buy all the maps, if you know you’re going to be exploring a specific area, the maps can be incredibly useful. Not only do they show National Forest boundaries and roads to camp on, but they also denote trails, drinking water, dump stations, and campgrounds with showers.

Backroad Mapbooks (Canada) – A collection of regional map books for finding Crown Land, backcountry roads, rec sites, hiking trails, lakes, and hot springs in Canada.

Where are your favorite free campsites? Have any suggestions we should include in this guide? Please let us know in the comments below!

This post contains affiliate links. We only recommend products we use & love, and if you choose to make a purchase through one of our links, we’ll make a tiny commission – at no additional cost to you – which helps us keep this site running.

Find out how you can camp for free in beautiful locations throughout the US and Canada in this free camping guide.

Fresh Off the Grid is a culinary resource for the outdoor community. We offer a collection of recipes, how-to guides, and camp cooking gear to help elevate your outdoor experience through food and drink!

33 Comments

  1. Great information!

  2. This is fantastic! Thanks for putting all of this information together.

  3. Great article.

    If you use Google Earth or desktop software like Garmin's Basecamp you can add POI (Point of Information) for many of the resources:
    http://www.poi-factory.com/poifiles/popular - Rest areas, Walmarts, Cracker Barrell, and truck stops are all potential over night places .

    This site will help you convert for different formats including KML for Google Earth -
    https://www.gps-data-team.com/convert/

    Another resource for RV POI including Escapee boondocking (must be a member and subscribe) here:
    http://www.discoveryowners.com/cginfo.htm

    • Thanks for the additional resources, Scott! The conversion site is especially helpful. We've only recently begun using Google Earth but I think it has so much potential.

  4. Thank you for demystifying free camp sites! this is great information!! and i like your delicious recipes too. Keep livin the dream!

  5. This is excellent, thanks so much! I cannot believe how expensive some campsites can be! Sure, it's nice to have a shower house or laundry facilities every now and then, but I'm planning a 3-6 month road trip next year and no way can I afford $30 a night. This will definitely come in handy.

    • I can't believe how expensive some sites are as well. If you stayed at a paid site every night, it could end up costing almost the same as rent for an apartment! It's definitely nice to have access to showers and the nice restroom facilities that many paid sites provide, but if you're willing to rough it, you'll definitely be able to stretch your budget a bit! Enjoy your trip! :)

  6. This is a wonderful and informative post! Love all of the photos!!

    Growing up my dad was a total off the grid camper when it came to summer vacations, so we got to stay at some pretty rugged, yet jaw dropping gorgeous, out of the way dry camps in a lot of the National Forests in the NW corner of the US. Often times we would have the entire "campground' area to ourselves. I will always treasure those trips, and have recently been retracing a lot of our camping adventures now, over 20 years later.

  7. Hi! I just discovered your blog and absolutely love it! My boyfriend and I are rebuilding a truck slide in camper and will be traveling for a year or so once it's finished. Your pictures are amazing, what kind of camera and other equipment do you use? Also are you just naturally gifted or did you take a class to learn how to master photography? Thanks for the inspiration!
    -Erin

    • Hey Erin! Thank you for the kind words :) I picked up a camera back in high school and had intended to go to art school to get an MFA in photography, but went a different route in the end (art school is so expensive!). I did take a few basic photo classes in HS and my first year of college, but I mostly think that the way I got better was by just shooting - a lot, and studying other photographer's work that I admire (what about the photo do I like/what makes it engaging - composition? Lighting? Use of color, texture, or subject?) I definitely still learn something every day! For equipment, we use a Canon 5D and most recently we picked up a Canon 70D for video, but it is also a great camera for stills as well (and much more affordable and lighter weight)! We have a few different lenses, our most used ones are a 10-18mm and a 24-105mm.
      Have a blast on your trip - will you be keeping a blog or an IG for your travels? We'd love to follow along if you do!
      -Megan

    • Thank you so much for replying so fast! I love photography and took high school classes but I always have a hard time getting a crisp clean photo like yours, I will just keep trying and look into the canon 70D, it sounds like that one might be easier to carry. I want to start a blog but I have no idea how to, so there will be lots of researching for me to do, but once I figure it out I'll let you know! I will keep reading your awesome advice, it is helping me get an idea on what to expect :)
      -Erin

  8. Great website! There is always something to learn - great resource!

  9. Hello,
    what a great and helpfull blog.
    We are planning a road trip through America and we would love to camp in parks ans forests. ( bonus are the no costs)
    As we are not from America there is a lot to researche.
    So far we are planning to buy a camper in America(not sure yet if it is possible for a foreigner) and than travel around for 1 year.
    I was wondering were do you shower and wash your clothes when you are staying on a place with no amnimeties?
    Because we are travelling with a little boy (4year) we will probably do 2 nights on a camping without amenities and 1 night with.

    If you do have any tips and absolute must sees, please let me know

    Kind regards, laura

    • Hi Laura! So excited to hear that you're planning your own road trip across America!

      In terms of showering and laundry: Laundry is actually fairly easy to take care of. We keep a laundry bag and when we pass through towns we'll go to a coin operated laundromat. We can typically go 10 days between washes. That is definitely something to consider when deciding what clothes to pack for your trip. We find that while we don't like to use up too much space with a large wardrobe, we do want to carry enough clothing that we don't have to do laundry every few days!

      I'll be honest, showering is a bigger issue than laundry is, especially if you tend to free camp often like we do. We have a portable shower that we bought from REI (Nemo Helio pressure shower) and that is what we use most of the time, along with biodegradable soap (Dr. Bronner's is a popular option that is available at many stores in the US), and then we will pay for a campsite with showers when we can. I think your strategy of two nights camping without amenities and one night camping in a place with amenities like showers would be a good way of approaching it, especially with a little one in tow. Depending on the type of camper you're looking for, you may be able to find one with a shower built in!

      As far as must see's: so many! America is a huge country and the landscape is SO diverse. I see from your blog that you're planning on visiting many of the National Parks - that is a great way to see the US! If I were to pick three "Don't Miss" parks that we have visited, I would pick: Redwoods in CA, Glacier in Montana, and Badlands in South Dakota.

      We're (online) friends with a couple who are currently traveling to all the US National Parks this year, so you may want to check out their blog to read about their trip! Their website is http://ourvie.com/

      Best of luck, and feel free to reach out any time if you have questions!

      -Megan

    • Dear Megan,
      Thank you for youre reply.
      Off course it is possible to wash in a laundromat????( we don't have that in holland, so i didn't even think of that)
      We will probably use a camper with shower. Although we do have to refill it now and then. So i think 2 days camping in the wild and 1 day on a camping should be working.
      Glacier is absolutly on top of my wishlist. I have seen the beautifull picturs and i am in love.
      But i am basicly in love with every np i see.
      I will check out the site of youre friends for more inspiration.
      Kind regards,
      Laura

  10. One addition I discovered recently... Many wineries offer free camping in designated areas. We extended our trip across New York State last year by a few days after we discovered many of the wineries offered free space for RVs, trailers and other enclosed vehicles. I'm not sure this is valid in other places but seemed quite common across the Finger Lakes Wine region.

  11. […] a couple of rules you have to account for, but with a little research it is possible to score a free campsite. For those who want to sleep more comfortably and don’t mind spending some money, you can […]

  12. Great information! thanks for putting all information together. My boyfriend and I are going on a 3 month US roundtrip by car in September.... would you say it's save to camp on a resting area / casino / Wal-Mart? Do you camp the majority of your nights on free campground with no amenities? How do you keep yourself clean?

    I would appreciate your answer a lot ;-) since I am a little afraid of "wild" camping...?

  13. Hello, tanks for the good advice. We'll travel like this already 15 years in Europe (2 months a year). In 1 week we'll travel for a view days to Traverse City (USA, Michigan). From there we borrow a car and we'll make a trip from Traverse City, to Montreal and Quebec and back by Vermond, Toronto and Detroit. We'll like to be as much as possible in the nature areas. If someone have good ideas for those areas,... Please let us know.
    If someone wants to make a tour in Europe than let me know and I'll give you some tips: [email protected]

  14. There's a picnic site just off of the Blue Ridge Parkway, as you're passing through the Pishgah National Forest. It's one stop away from the Pishgah Inn...and the site is PRIMO for free car-camping. You can't tent camp there, but it's mostly unpatrolled, dogs are allowed on site, AND there are bathrooms... This is all like 10 minutes out of Asheville and SUPER close to some great hikes leading to waterfalls (beat the summer camps and arrive at the falls around 7-9am for undisturbed swims!)

  15. Good article, lots of good info help.
    In a pinch if u travel on a scenic highways or the back byways often you can just pull over off the median if it is not private property and car camp. I like to call the local lawenforcement in the area and just give them a heads up that I'm not in trouble and just was tired, tell them the milemarker and 90% of the time they will tell you to be safe and have a good night.
    Hostels, & gyms are also a great way to get clean and take showers on the road, most will let you bathe for less than 5 dollars.

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    • Hi
      I would like to find these places where you can camp free.
      Thanks Ron

  18. […] Previous Previous post: Searching, Fishing, and Tenting Ideas from Area & Stream Readers Search for: […]

  19. Of course, what a great website and illuminating posts, I definitely will bookmark your blog.All the Best!

  20. Another great idea is to join a gym that has locations across USA they all have showers . You can also shower at truck stops. Pay per use but cheap. Great info. Getting ready to go for a minute nth or so across the states. Can't wait.

  21. Missouri conservation areas have designated camping areas that are free and some even have grills... as far as Wal-Mart's go, Ohio is the most anti truck/rv place you can get.

    They even have 13 foot high barriers at their entrances so trucks revs and busses can't enter

  22. Hey your information is very helpful we are seniors doing a five month canada us trip

  23. […] get to spend some time in nature. For others, camping is a way of life. There are plenty of people who have crisscrossed the US, camping for free – or very low cost – at primitive campsites (often referred to as […]

  24. Thanks for all the good information. Anyone camped for free in very eastern Canada ?

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