I’ve been camping out of my converted SUV since last February, searching for free places where I could sleep overnight. I wrote this article in hopes it can aid someone who is looking to car camp somewhere for free.
BLM Land (Bureau of Land Management)
To find BLM land near you, check out the BLM Interactive Map.
BLM land stands for Bureau of Land Management land. This is a category of public land in the United States managed for things such as conservation, recreation, and resource development. BLM lands are most prevalent in Western states and offer huge areas of natural landscapes.
Camping on BLM land is a popular activity because it often allows for a more secluded and nature-immersive experience compared to traditional campgrounds. Here’s a basic guide on how to camp on BLM land for free:
- Find BLM Land: First, you’ll need to identify where BLM lands are located. You can do this by checking the BLM website, using BLM maps, or utilizing various camping apps and resources.
- Understand the Rules: Each BLM area can have different rules and regulations. Typically, you can camp for free for up to 14 days within a 28-day period in one spot. After that, you must move at least 25 miles from your original location.
- Choose Your Spot: Look for existing campsites or areas that have been camped on before. These are often identifiable by existing fire rings. Camping in previously used spots helps to minimize the environmental impact.
- Leave No Trace: It’s crucial to follow Leave No Trace principles. This means packing out all your trash, minimizing campfire impacts, and being respectful of wildlife and the natural surroundings.
- Be Self-Sufficient: BLM land camping is usually very primitive. There are rarely any amenities like water, toilets, or trash services. You’ll need to bring everything you need, including water, food, and a way to dispose of waste.
- Check for Restrictions: Some BLM lands may have specific restrictions, especially during wildfire season. Always check if there are fire bans or other restrictions before you go.
Forest Service Land (USFS)
The United States Department of Agriculture was established in 1905 to protect and diversify American land. There are over 150 national forests totaling around 190 million acres of land.
Dispersed camping is allowed at every national forest unless stated otherwise. To discover which locations permit dispersed camping, it’s smart to get in touch with the Forest Service office closest to where you want to camp. Generally, dispersed camping is prohibited near established camping sites or trailheads.
Like BLM camping, forest camping is usually very primitive. There are rarely any amenities like water, toilets, or trash services. You’ll need to bring everything you need, including water, food, and a way to dispose of waste.
To find national forests near you, check out the USFS Interactive map.
Rules for Dispersed Camping on Forest Service Land
- Groups of over 75 people who wish to use the forest, need to obtain a special use permit. There is no fee and permits can be obtained at the nearest District Office.
- You need to be self-contained. No amenities are provided; such as water, restrooms, or trash cans.
- You may camp in a dispersed area for up to 16 days. After 16 days, you must move at least 5 road miles to camp in another dispersed area. Campers may not spend more than 16 days of any 30 day period at the same dispersed area.
- Please place your campsite at least 100 feet from any stream or other water source.
- Keep a Pack-In Pack-Out camp. Follow Leave No Trace guidelines.
- Contact the local Forest Service office to see if any restrictions, especially fire restrictions are in place.
- Be Bear Aware. There are bears on the National Forest, so camp accordingly.
For more information on free camping in national forests visit the USFS website here.
Don’t forget to use leave no trace principles! This means packing out all your trash, minimizing campfire impacts, and being respectful of wildlife and the natural surroundings.
Other Free Places To Car Camp
I do not recommend the following list compared to the above options due to the areas being patrolled or not as safe (depending on where you are).
Rest Stops or Truck Stops
You can sleep in your car at rest stops for a total of 8 hours in any 24-hour period. While it’s not an ideal camping site, it can come in handy if you’re tired and don’t know where else to go. For more information on rest stops, check out this website.
As for truck stops, they seem to be a bit more lenient than rest stops and offer amenities such as food and sometimes even showers. Just be cautious and aware of your surroundings as I see truck stops as the most dangerous option.
Car camping in neighborhoods requires careful planning and respect for local regulations and community norms.
Firstly, it’s essential to research and abide by local laws related to overnight parking. Once you find the spot you’d like to park at, prioritize locations that are safe, well-lit, and not intrusive to residents, such as near public parks or on quieter streets.
Aim for a low-profile setup to blend in with the surroundings and block your windows. I got my window covers from WeatherTech and I absolutely love them.
When arriving, do so quietly and later in the evening to avoid drawing attention, and plan to leave early in the morning. Leave no trash.
Planet Fitness is known to allow anyone to park overnight. I have stayed at a few Planet Fitnesses and each time there are a few other fellow car campers I see!
The only exception for parking overnight here is if the gym is in a shopping center that does not allow parking overnight.
What Are the Different Types of Car Camping?
1. Dispersed Camping
The term dispersed camping involves setting up camp outside of designated campgrounds, usually on Forest Service Land or on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land in the United States. It’s typically free and allows for a more solitary experience in nature. There are no amenities like water, restrooms, or trash disposal.
Similar to dispersed camping, boondocking usually refers to camping in a recreational vehicle (RV) or camper in remote areas. It’s common in public lands and involves no access to amenities like electricity, water, or sewer hookups.
3. Stealth Camping
Stealth camping is the practice of camping where you are not seen, often in urban or suburban areas. It’s usually done in a van or small vehicle, and the key is to leave no trace and move on early.
What To Expect
Car camping without amenities presents a unique set of challenges and expectations, emphasizing self-sufficiency and adaptability. Here’s what to expect:
- Basic Accommodation: Your vehicle will be your primary shelter. It’s important to have a comfortable setup inside your car, such as a flat surface for sleeping, sleeping bags or blankets, and perhaps window coverings for privacy and insulation.
- No Restroom Facilities: Without access to restrooms, you’ll need to plan for alternatives. This might involve using public restrooms in nearby facilities during the day or portable solutions like a travel toilet for emergencies. Always follow Leave No Trace principles in disposing of waste.
- Limited Access to Water: You’ll need to bring enough water for drinking, cooking, and basic hygiene. Water conservation becomes crucial, and you might need to rely on water purification methods if refilling from natural sources.
- Food Storage and Preparation: Without amenities, you’ll need a way to store and prepare food. A cooler can keep perishables fresh, and a portable stove or grill can be used for cooking. Remember to store food securely to avoid attracting wildlife.
- Lack of Electricity: Charging devices and powering equipment can be a challenge. Car batteries, solar chargers, or portable power banks can be useful. Minimize power usage to avoid draining your car’s battery.
- Weather Dependence: Without the insulation and protection of a traditional campsite, you’re more at the mercy of the elements. Prepare for weather changes by packing appropriate clothing and gear.
Also, take into account “Leave No Trace” principles. Camp on surfaces that are not easily damaged, all garbage and waste (including food scraps) should be packed out, don’t disturb the local ecosystem, respect wildlife, and be respectful of other visitors or residents.
How to Find Free Camping Near You
- The Dyrt (my favorite)
- Free Roam
All the above are apps you can download on your phone. They all show free campsite options all over the states!
Is Dispersed Camping Safe?
Dispersed camping can be safe, but it requires careful planning, preparation, and awareness of your surroundings.
There is not only the danger of not knowing what to expect or not being prepared in the middle of nowhere (which we discussed earlier) but the danger from strangers.
The best way to stay safe when in the middle of nowhere (especially if you are a solo female) is to be aware of your surroundings at all times, have a security system, and possibly even a weapon or two. The easiest way to stay safe is to use your gut instincts. If you feel unsafe, leave.