Free Camping Guide: Tips & Apps to find Free Campsites in the USA




I’m going to let you in on a little secret...

We rarely pay for campsites.

Not because we are against paying, per se. But sometimes free campsites are just better. Shocking, I know.

Well, that and I suppose we do like saving money…

After building our first campervan, we were damn near broke. We casually looked up a KOA campsite to see how much it would cost for a night, and our jaws nearly hit our keyboard when we saw it was $50 for the most basic site they had. Yikes.

We knew right away that staying exclusively at private campsites just would not be sustainable for us, especially because we were planning on living in our campervan longterm.

The good news is that it didn’t take long for us to find out just how easy it is to find free camping, especially with a campervan.

This is a free campsite we snagged in Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula.

So where do we find free camping?

Glad you asked… We’re about to share exactly how we find free campsites; plus, we’re going to divulge some insider tips we’ve picked up over the years as well as some cautionary personal tales. 

Before we get started, I do want to mention three important things…

a) Beware of “fake” campsites: Many photos you see of #vanlife on Instagram are not taken in a spot where the creator actually spent the night. While beautiful (we’re certainly guilty of taking these!), staged photos can be a bit misleading. Just keep this in mind as you browse social media.

Psst! In this article, we’re sharing photos of our previous experiences and using the caption to explain each specific site in detail. Be sure to read those so you know the real back story.

b) Not all free (or paid!) campsites are equal: You’ll find some amazing campsites, and you’ll find some that just… get you through the night. The latter will make those good ones even more incredible.

c) Know how to camp responsibly! Please do not leave this article without reading the section on responsible camping guidelines. We’ve been to some sites in the past where it is clear that previous visitors did not know (or care) about how to be a respectful camper. Please don’t be that person…


Contents

Know exactly what you’re looking for? Jump to the section you’re interested in:

Free Camping Basics

Where to Find Free Camping

Best Free Camping Apps

Essentials for Free Camping

Responsible Camping Guidelines

Stories about when free camping goes wrong…

Important Note: This article is focused on Free Camping in the United States. Not camping in the USA? If you’re looking for campsites in New Zealand, we’ve got a whole article on that! Camping in Iceland? We can help with that too! What other countries or regions would you love resources on? Comment on this article and we’ll see what we can do!

Free Camping Basics


















Believe it or not, this was where we woke up (for free!) in Grand Teton National Park!

I don’t know about you, but I find it can be kind of intimidating when you’re getting into something new and you come across all sorts of words and phrases that you’ve never heard before.

Let’s go over some of the terms you might hear when it comes to free camping…

Developed camping

This term refers to any site that has clearly been created with camping in mind. Developed campsites can range drastically:

You may find a very basic site with just a fire ring and picnic table.

Or you may find a developed campground with restrooms, electric hookups, picnic areas, garbage services, potable water and dump sites.

Developed camping can be free or paid. The more facilities it has, the higher the price tends to be. Most free developed campsites we’ve stayed at have only a fire ring, picnic table, and pit toilet.

Dispersed camping

This would be camping in an area that is not developed.

According to the US Forest Service, “Dispersed camping is the term used for camping anywhere in the National Forest OUTSIDE of a designated campground. Dispersed camping means no services; such as trash removal, and little or no facilities; such as tables and fire pits, are provided. Some popular dispersed camping areas may have toilets.”

Rules for dispersed camping (according to the US Forest Service):

your vehicle must be self-contained (defined below)

you can camp in a dispersed area for up to 16 days, after that time, you must move at least 5 miles away before finding a new dispersed area

do not park or set up a tent within 100 feet of any water source

pack everything out with you

be bear-aware if you’re camping in bear country

follow fire ban restrictions

if you do go #2 outside, you must dig a hole six inches deep at least 100 feet away from any water source, and dispose of toilet paper in the trash.

never leave feces or toilet paper on the ground, as it can contaminate the local water source



Boondocking

This term is more commonly used in the RV community than it is with vanlifers, but essentially it just means off-the-grid camping.

No power or water hookups. No toilets. No services of any kind.

This term gets used for all types of situations… spending the night in a Walmart parking lot, camping out in your friend’s driveway, or setting up camp on a remote piece of public land.

While each of those situations looks very different, what they all have in common is that you must be totally self-sufficient when it comes to a toilet, water and power.

The term “boondocking” also typically refers to places that are not set up as campsites.

Other related terms:

Wild camping / Free camping: again, off-the-grid camping; this is essentially the same as “boondocking”

Dry camping: this means not using any hookups (power, water, etc.) or toilets. Unlike boondocking though, sometimes people refer to “dry camping” when they’re at an established campsite, but just aren’t using any services. It’s kind of the whole “not all rectangles are squares, but all squares are rectangles” thing… You are dry camping when you’re boondocking, but you’re not always boondocking when you’re dry camping. Make sense?










Stealth Camping

This is the term all the cool kids use when referring to parking somewhere overnight while appearing like nobody is inside the vehicle.

Usually, this phrase is used in the campervan community when parked in a city or residential street. An RV or tow-behind camper, for instance, couldn’t really stealth camp because it’s obvious that it is meant for camping.

That said, most campervans these days are far from truly being stealth. Take one good look at our van, for instance, and you’ll see solar panels on top and can more or less guess that it’s not an empty cargo shell. Even our previous build with a low roof was somewhat obvious once you saw curtains in the windows.

The whole point of stealth camping is to camp unnoticed in areas where it is legal yet perhaps not encouraged to park overnight.

Related: Jump to our section on urban camping etiquette.

BLM


















Wine, stars, and nobody in sight… what more can you ask for?!

In this case, we’re not referring to the Black Lives Matter movement. In the context of camping, this abbreviation stands for Bureau of Land Management.

Essentially, this is public land that is overseen by the BLM. It is free and open for public use.

The purpose of BLM land is:

conservation

protection of resources (natural, cultural and historical)

recreation (hiking, biking, fishing, climbing, camping)

energy development

When it comes to camping, BLM land has both developed and dispersed camping, some areas are free to camp, and others require a small fee that goes toward maintaining facilities.

This map denotes BLM land across the US. As you can see, the vast majority is in the western half of the country.

Good to know: Almost all of the United States’ BLM land is in the western half of the country (see map). If you’re traveling in the eastern part of the country, you likely won’t come across any BLM land, but if you’re in the west, BLM will be one of the best places to look for free camping.

Insider Tip: In the Free Roam app, you can select the BLM layer to get a good visual of where you are in relation to nearby BLM lands. (More on camping apps below)

Self-contained

This means your vehicle has everything it needs and does not require any outside facilities to function.

Most notably, it has a toilet and a container to hold greywater.

Additionally, sometimes people also include having the capability to power itself without being plugged in to a power source. This can be as simple as battery powered lights to an off-grid solar system.

Good to know: If your vehicle is self-contained, you have the capability to park in many more places than those that require a bathroom facility.

Leave No Trace

You’ll often come across this phrase as guidelines to follow when camping. Sometimes it’s just referred to as the concept of not leaving any trace at your campsite (aka cleaning up after yourself and leaving the land as good as or better than you found it).

Leave No Trace is also an organization that is centered around the following 7 principles:

plan ahead and prepare

travel and camp on durable surfaces

dispose of waste properly

leave what you find

minimize campfire impacts

respect wildlife

be considerate of other visitors

Important Note: These principles are pretty self-explanatory and are overall very good guidelines to follow in the outdoors. But we do want to point out there are some flaws with the LNT organization.

First and foremost, they have garnered criticism for their lack of representation of POC and falling short when it comes to inclusion in the outdoors. Here’s more information on the topic. We’d encourage you to do a little reading on the subject so you get a more wholistic picture of LNT beyond the 7 principles for which they’re known.

Psst! Jump to the bottom of this article where we break down responsible camping guidelines in detail.

Free Camping Pros & Cons


















This is an example of a beautiful free campground in Washington State. As you can see, lots of people have tried to squeeze in, and since it’s not managed by a camp host, it can get crowded.

Free camping comes with pros and cons. Lots of each, actually.

We’re going to break it all down for you so you know what to expect…

Pros of free camping


It’s free... Need I say more?

No need (or option) to make reservations, which is very helpful when you travel more spontaneously, like we do. Many big campgrounds book up months in advance, so free sites are a good option when you’re traveling with a loose plan.

Free camping within a city (more on urban camping later!) is a good way to avoid expensive hotels.

Some free campsites are very much under the radar and you can find blissful solitude… Stargazing, anyone?!


Cons of free camping


Some really amazing free sites can be a bit out of the way and may even require a 4x4 vehicle to access

Some sites are not well-maintained and some visitors clearly do not respect free sites

Being that free sites are not managed, reservations aren’t really a thing. This can be great if you have loose plans, but some free sites are extremely popular and fill up quickly (just like paid campgrounds).

Most free sites will not have the amenities that paid campsites do, like potable water, showers, trash bins, power hookups, toilets, etc. That said, we’ve encountered quite a few free campgrounds that have toilets and drinking water. If these are necessary, be sure to read the reviews and descriptions in camping apps before heading there

Because free sites typically lack the amenities of paid ones, it’s much easier if you have a self-contained rig that is able to go off grid

Sometimes it’s just not an ideal situation… like a Walmart parking lot. I mean, who actually wants to camp out overnight at Walmart? Likely nobody. But sometimes it’s the only option.


Who can use free campsites?


















In theory, anyone… The thing we do want to point out is that your vehicle will determine which types of free camping you can easily take advantage of.

For example, a big RV won’t very well be able to park on a city street, but a campervan sure can. And a van with low clearance might not be able to access an unmaintained road, but a Jeep with a rooftop tent will be just fine.

There are certainly free sites that work well for RVs or tow-behind campers, but your options will be more limited than those with campervans. And if you’re camping in a tent, you’ll be even more limited. That said, there are free sites that are only for tent campers.

Your rig is going to really determine what types of sites you’re able to utilize. More on that below…

What do free campsites look like?


















This State Park campground in Idaho is completely free and has fire pits, grills, picnic tables and a pit toilet. Oh, and it’s situated in a beautiful canyon on a river. But for every site like this, expect to spend at least one night in a parking lot or residential street! It’s not all this good #keepingitreal

Honestly, free camping can vary an incredible amount.

The good: We’ve stayed at free campsites where we have a private, designated site with a fire ring, a picnic table, a pit toilet, fresh water pump and beautiful views. Yeah, seriously. We’ve stayed at several free sites that tick all these boxes. Check out that sweet site in the picture above…

But sites like these are gems in a rock pile full of pebbles.

The not-so-good: Many, many more of our free “campsites” look like parking on a city street, a pull-out, or even a Walmart parking lot. Yeahhhh, definitely not our best moment.

And then there are all the mediocre ones in between.

Places to look for free campsites

Essentially, there are two different types of campsites we’re going to discuss:

a) an actual campsite

b) a parking spot for the night

Let’s start with the fun one…

Free Campsites

When you’re dreaming of vanlife, this is what you’re likely envisioning…

Waking up in beautiful places with views of the ocean or mountains or a lake. Ample room to hang out outside your van: to practice yoga or to build a campfire. Privacy and beauty all wrapped up in one place.

The good news is you can find plenty of sites like this around the United States that are completely free. You just have to know where to look.

And that’s where we come in!   

BLM 

Good for: campervans, RVs, tow-behind campers, tents

BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land is free for everyone to use, and often has both developed and dispersed camping areas. Some are free while others have a fee per night.

One major thing to keep in mind is that nearly all of BLM land is in the western half of the United States, so depending on where you’re traveling, you might exclusively camp on BLM or never step foot onto it.

Insider Tip: Use the app Free Roam to get a visual of where BLM land is relative to your location.

Forest Service Roads


















Forest service roads, like this one near Bend, Oregon, are great if you’re looking to get away from civilization and don’t need services (like water or toilets). Be prepared to go totally off-grid, and don’t expect much other than a place to park. But if you’re cool with that, you may just be treated to an epic night under the stars!

Good for: campervans, RVs, tow-behind campers, tents (depending on the area)

While this may be using the term campsite loosely because essentially you’ll be finding a flat spot to park in a forest. We usually love camping on forest service roads because there is rarely anyone else around you.

That said, there are no facilities, so be prepared with drinking water and a plan for using the bathroom. Also, many Forest Service Roads are outside of cell service, so plan accordingly.

State Parks


















This is a free state park campground in Idaho. We did not make a campfire because of fire restrictions at the time. Even though nobody is likely checking up on you, it’s incredibly important to be a responsible camper.

Good for: campervans, RVs, tow-behind campers, tents

It’s also worth searching state, city and county parks, as they sometimes have free camping areas. We’ve found a few great free State Park campgrounds over the years that have pit toilets, fire rings and picnic tables.

Overnight Parking

While this section is a little less ideal, sometimes all you need is to find a safe (and legal!) place to park for the night. Depending on where you are, this can be simple or it can be an ordeal.

We’re sharing some tips that’ll be helpful in your search, because chances are, you’ll eventually find yourself in a situation where you find yourself saying, “I don’t care where it is, I just need a place to park!”

City or Residential Streets

Good for: campervans

This is where we camped for the night in Boulder, Colorado. As you can see, it’s a wide street with other cars parked near us. And we made sure to not park directly in front of someone’s home. That said, you can still have issues when parked in a neighborhood. Jump to the bottom of this article to find out what happened while we were parked here…

Our very favorite places to camp are in the wilderness where we have space all to ourselves. However, we often find ourselves camping within city limits. And more likely than not, you’ll find yourself in cities too.

Here’s why:

It’s a cheap way to stay in a city. I don’t have to explain how expensive it can be to book a hotel or Airbnb in a popular city center.

Cities usually have good cell signal, so it can be nice to get some work done in a city before going off-grid.

Access to other amenities like grocery stores, restaurants, laundromats, etc.

Often times we find ourselves in cities on the way to our final destination.

There’s a pretty significant amount of full-time vanlifers who base themselves in and around cities, and for that reason pretty much exclusively stick to urban camping.

While it may not offer the idyllic views of camping in the wilderness, you might find you like the convenience of urban camping more than you thought… we’ve definitely been surprised by how little we actually mind it.

Honestly, once we’re inside our van and have the window coverings up, we kind of forget where we are parked because our van just feels like “home”.

Parking on city or residential streets can be a really great way to find a free and safe place to park while in a city or town.

With a little practice you should have no trouble scoping out a perfect spot, but when you’re first starting it can be a little intimidating.

Here are some tips and etiquette to keep in mind…

Where to Park:

We’ve had a lot of luck with finding good spots in front of public parks.

Look for roads where people are already parked in the street. You definitely don’t want to be the only vehicle.

Avoid cul-de-sacs, as they tend to be more private and it’s noticeable when a new vehicle comes through.

As always, read signs and make sure you’re parked legally.

Urban Parking Etiquette:

We’ve been on the other side of this too, as the neighborhood we currently live in is often filled with vans parked overnight. Usually we hardly even notice them (which is the point!). Please read through these guidelines so you don’t become a burden to residents.

Try not to park right in front of someone’s window (unless street parking is pretty packed and theres’ no other option). It’s nice if you can find a break in the houses and park near green space like bushes or trees so you’re not a nuisance to residents.

Once you park, try your best to stay inside your van (or walk to the city or a park for a bit if you want to be outside). Hanging out right outside your vehicle is going to raise flags of residents. You really should aim for them to not even notice there are people inside.

Be respectful. Keep noise levels down. Keep pets under control. Just generally be a decent human.

Pay attention to parking signs and follow the rules.

Try to arrive late and leave early. And don’t stay in the exact same place multiple nights in a row if you can help it.

Put your window coverings up. This is as much for your own safety and privacy as it is for the courtesy of the people who live on the street on which you’re parking.

Don’t leave anything behind.

In short, your goal should be that nobody knows there is someone sleeping inside your vehicle. You want to come and leave unnoticed.

Visitors Centers

Good for: campervans, RVs (sometimes)

This one can be hit or miss, but sometimes visitors centers can be a really good place to park. Be sure to look out for signs that prohibit overnight parking, but if you don’t see any, you should be good to go.

Some visitors centers even have a water fill station which can be especially helpful, as well as public restrooms.

Parking Lots


















Believe it or not, this little oceanside gem is a public parking spot. We searched high and low and there we no signs prohibiting overnight parking, so we spent two blissful nights here. Be warned, not all parking lots are this scenic…

Good for: campervans, RVs (sometimes)

Camping in a parking lot is not anyone’s idea of an ideal camp spot. But sometimes it can be a real lifesaver when you’re driving long distances through urban areas. Walmart and Cracker Barrel are widely known as establishments that allow overnight parking, even for RVs. But there are some other options as well:

Public Parking Spots or Lots: This is our favorite type of parking lot to stay overnight. Every once in a while, we’ve found public parking lots that don’t have “no overnight parking signs”, which typically gives you the green light. Personally, the only times we’ve found this to work out has been in small towns.

For example, while traveling on the Oregon coast, we found that many beach towns had public parking right by the ocean with no regulations, making pretty spectacular places to spend the night for free! (pictured above) The rest of the parking lots on this list aren’t so scenic…

Walmart: It’s pretty common knowledge that you can park your rig overnight in Walmart parking lots. But what you may not know is many branches around the US are starting to prohibit this practice. Look up Walmart locations in your area and call ahead to ask if they allow overnight camping, or look on a camping app to see if that Walmart is listed (it should be if they allow overnight camping).

The good: It is acceptable to park a big RV as well as a stealth campervan, so most rigs will be able to take advantage of this type of free camping.

The bad: Umm, it’s a Walmart parking lot. Need I say more?

Cracker Barrel: While these old-timey restaurants aren’t nearly as common as Walmarts, they are pretty plentiful in some parts of the country, and they typically allow overnight parking.

Casinos: While overnight camping isn’t necessarily encouraged, casinos that operate 24/7 typically have people parked in the lot at all hours of the night. This option is a lot better for campervans than it is for large RVs, but it’s still unlikely that you’d be asked to move since nightly parking is expected.

Hotel Parking lots: Hotels are another place where overnight parking is kind of just the norm, and we know a lot of vanlifers who regularly spend the night in hotel parking lots. One additional vehicle isn’t going to cause much of a stir in the lot of a larger hotel. That said, we recommend not trying to park in the lot of a boutique hotel in the city center. If the hotel has limited parking spots, you will be noticed and likely asked to leave. Be sure to read signs to see if the parking lot is reserved for guests only. You should be able to get a feel for whether or not it’s a good idea at a particular hotel.

The good: Hotel parking lots often have security cameras and are lit up at night, so they are a pretty safe option.



Rest stops

Good for: campervans, RVs (sometimes)

Parking to get some shut eye at a rest stop is always an option, and since they’re so common it’s usually not hard to find one. Depending on the particular rest stop, it can feel very safe or pretty sketchy.

We’d recommend reading reviews before heading out of the way, and also have a backup plan in mind in case it doesn’t feel comfortable.

The good news is, even the most bare bones of rest stops usually have restrooms that are serviced frequently and drinking fountains. The nicer ones can have picnic tables, snack machines, historical markers, walking trails, and some even have fill and dump stations.

Trailheads

Good for: campervans

This is a decent option when you’re planning to do an early morning hike and there are no nearby places to spend the night.

Before you make your way to the trailhead, be sure to find out if overnight parking is allowed. It is prohibited at some very popular trailheads.

To be safe, choose a longer trail where it’s common for people to do nights in the backcountry. This means overnight parking is likely allowed since people will have to leave their vehicle behind when doing a multi-day hike.

Trailheads sometimes (but not always) have pit toilets, which is an added bonus for some people. If there are trash bins available, we’d recommend not dumping all your garbage at once, as that’s not the point of these usually small receptacles.

Good to know: In the Pacific Northwest (and likely other parts of the US, too) SnoParks are a good place to park for the night. It’s typically a large parking lot and pit toilets are common.

Pullouts

Good for: campervans, RVs (depending on the size)

An example of a pullout that’s perfect for camping. This spot is along a scenic highway in Washington State and was situated right next to the river. Not bad!

Okay, you know when you’re driving on one-lane roads and every once in a while there are pull outs for view points or just so vehicles can pass?

Well, these can be decent spots to park overnight.

And yes, the word “can” is in italics because it really, really depends. For example, I would never park overnight in a super narrow pullout that can only fit one vehicle. However, we’ve found some that are quite spacious.

Just look at the two photos below. One is clearly much safer than the other. (And to be clear, we did not park overnight in the very narrow one.)

We DID camp here: This is a good sized pull-out near Aspen, Colorado where we decided to stop for the night as the skies were getting dark and it was starting to rain. It was far enough from the road that we felt very safe.

We DID NOT camp here: This is an example of a pullout that we parked in for a bit during a hike, but I wouldn’t feel very comfortable camping here overnight, as drivers won’t be able to see you as they come around the bend. Plus, there’s not much space between you and oncoming traffic.

Sometimes pullouts work well when you’re going from Point A to Point B and it’s getting dark. (We’ve been in that situation one too many times!)

And other times, pullout spots can be pretty great. See the image at the top…

Just be sure to look for signs that prohibit overnight parking before planning to stay the night.

Insider Tip: Look for “historical markers” on Google Maps. These are often very large pullouts that work well for overnight parking in a pinch.  

Looking for free tent camping?


















Not in a campervan or RV, but still want to find a free campsite? It is possible!

You’ll want to ignore most of the list above, as you’re definitely not going to want to set up your tent in a parking lot!

BLM Land: The only one on the list that’ll be relevant to you is the BLM land, as there are often times clear campsites that work well for tents. You might even be lucky and find a nice tent-sized flat spot, and in some cases, a picnic table and fire ring.

State Parks: These are another great option for finding tent-friendly (and sometimes free!) sites.

Insider Tip: You’ll be able to tell pretty easily if a tent will work in any given site by reading reviews on any of the camping apps mentioned below.

Wilderness Areas: If you’re into backcountry camping, your options are nearly endless when it comes to free camping. This means you won’t be near your car, so be sure you have all the proper backpacking gear and knowledge before setting out on the trail. Also, be sure you do a little research to see if there are any permits or park fees required for the area in which you’re camping. In National Parks, for instance, you need a park pass as well as a backcountry permit. We’ve paid anywhere from $5 to $35 for this. But in other wilderness areas, it is likely that no fee is required.

Cheap campsites

While this part of the list isn’t totally free camping, we’re including them because they’re inexpensive and really good options to supplement your free stays.

National Forest Campgrounds


















This National Forest campground offers spacious campsites, picnic tables, fire rings, bear-proof storage boxes, potable water fill stations, hiking trails, and bathrooms with FLUSH toilets. (Yep, flush toilets!) Oh, and our site had access to a beach on the river, where we spent most of the afternoon. All this for just $20 a night!

National Forests are freaking awesome. They are usually in very beautiful areas — think near a lake, a river, or in a lush forest — and are equipped with some basic camping necessities. Plus, they are some of the least expensive organized campgrounds you’ll find.

National Park Campgrounds have pit toilets that are typically well-maintained; plus, each site usually has a fire ring, picnic table and a flat place to park your rig. Like we said, everything you need.

It is worth noting that National Forest Campgrounds can vary quite a bit in their amenities. Most of the ones we’ve personally stayed at tend to be quite primitive, but some feature fresh water or even showers (though they are few and far between!).

Price: The cost per night varies a bit on location, amenities, and the type of sites that are available, but they range from free (yep!) to $25 per night. In our experience, most NP sites we’ve stayed at have been around $10 - $15 per night.

Insider Tip: If you’re in a popular National Forest, try your best to arrive early (especially on weekends). Some of the more sought-after NF campgrounds get filled pretty early.

Harvest Hosts


















Enjoying sunset wine from the SOURCE! As you can see, the grapes were covered with netting while we were there to deter birds, but it was still a pretty unique place to wake up!

This is a relatively new program, but it’s a pretty cool idea…

Essentially, you pay a membership fee — $80 for an annual pass — and you can park for free at wineries, distilleries and farms around the US.

We’re pretty new to the program, and have somewhat mixed feelings so far. We’re sharing our honest thoughts to hopefully help you decide whether or not it’s a worthwhile membership for you.

This program is especially good for RVs. With a campervan, it’s easy to park just about anywhere (see our section on urban camping), so the membership isn’t as valuable as it is for those with a rig that can’t easily park on a city street.

Don’t expect amenities or frills. There aren’t toilets or power hook-ups for guests to use. (If a host offers these features, they are the exception.)

Some hosts are great, and others… well, not so much. We had one very good experience with a host and another interaction with a very rude host.

This is a big one, and we weren’t totally aware of this until after we joined… You’re expected to buy something. In addition to the membership fee, you’re expected to purchase wine (or other swag) from each host. If you’re really into wine, you might not even see this as an added expense. However, if you’re on a tight budget and prefer your wines from the bottom shelf, the costs can add up.

Just as an example of what to expect, one of the hosts we stayed at had a variety of wines for around $20, with small discounts if you purchase multiple bottles. We ended up spending about $60 on 3 (lovely!) bottles of wine, and we were happy. However, if you count this as a camping expense, it’s more than we’ve ever paid to camp anywhere for the night. So it really depends on how you look at it. (And yes, we totally could have just purchased one bottle.)

It’s not a super last-minute solution. You must call at least 24 hours in advance to reserve a space (and sometimes they fill up quickly, just like other campgrounds). Also, you’re usually asked to arrive before they close (most we’ve seen are around 5 p.m.), so you need to be mindful about time when staying at a Harvest Host.

It would have been a much better shot if the nets we’re there, but hey, gotta protect the grapes from the hungry birds!

All these points considered, Harvest Hosts offers a super unique experience. I mean, when else can you sleep at a vineyard?!

Also, it can be a good solution for an inexpensive and safe place to park on long road trips when you just don’t feel like street parking or spending the night in a Walmart parking lot. Don’t blame ya on that one.

Good to know: You can see where hosts are located on a map, but until you purchase a membership, you can’t actually see host names, descriptions or reviews.

Requirements to join Harvest Hosts:

self-contained vehicle with a toilet, water tank and inside cooking facilities

no tents of any kind are allowed

Cost: $79 for an annual membership, BUT you can get 15% off with this link, so it’ll save you $12.

Still confused on whether or not it’s for you? Feel free to shoot us a message and we’ll do our best to answer your specific questions.

Hostels

This one is worth keeping in mind… I have a feeling that this option may become more common in the future, but as of now they are very few and far between.

On some of the camping apps you can see hostels that allow people to pay to park on their premises. Typically, it is an affordable rate ($10 - $25 give or take, depending on location and season), and for that price, they will typically let you use their facilities: shower, kitchen, water, laundry, common area, etc.

If you see a hostel in a town you’re traveling through that isn’t mentioned on a camping app, it could be worth stopping in to see if you can pay to park onsite and use their facilities. If they have room in their parking lot, it would be a way for them to earn money even if all their beds are full. And it would be an inexpensive way to get a shower and well-located parking spot.

Free camping apps & websites


















The app shown in this photo, Free Roam, shows BLM land in orange, and has icons for different types of camping sites. You can click on each icon to see a quick preview of the site (photos & ratings), and you can click again to get a very detailed breakdown of what to expect.

Alright, now that you know what types of free campsites exist, let’s talk about the easiest way to find ‘em…

Camping Apps!

There are a handful of apps out there that are community-sourced maps of free camping, meaning you can see where other people have camped for free.

Some of these apps will include photos and reviews as well so you know what to expect (both good and bad!).

They are super helpful, especially when you’re first getting started with the whole vanlife thang. And even now, we still use them all the time because we aren’t fans of spending hours trying to search for places to park. We’d rather have a destination in mind.

These apps are specific to the USA. Each country that is campervan/RV-friendly has its own network of apps and websites. In our experience, we haven’t found a great resource that is useful worldwide (yet!). The apps and websites mentioned in this article are geared towards the USA.

Here are our favorite apps for finding free campsites:

FreeCampsites.net

I’ll be the first to say that this website is in dire need of a makeover! It is clunky and a bit annoying to use on a mobile device (which is usually how I find myself using it). That said, it is a fantastic resource if you have the patience to use it. We’ve found that this old school website actually has quite a few more sites than the fancy apps listed below.

FreeCampsites.net | Website | Free

iOverlander

This app displays campsites in a list or map version and has icons that differentiate between established campgrounds and wild camping. You can use filters to find what you’re looking for.

In addition to finding campsites, you can also see nearby water fill stations, gas stations, laundromats, showers, and well, pretty much everything else you’ll need, which is incredibly helpful.

Click on each icon to get more information and read user reviews.

iOverlander: iOS & Android | App & Website | Free

Campendium

Similar to iOverlander, Campendium displays nearby campsites (from primitive to established RV parks) as well as dump stations. There are fewer types of amenities you can search for — you’re limited to public land, RV park, overnight parking, and dump stations.

Some additional features include:

On Campendium users can upload photos of campsites so you can see the spot before you head there which can be pretty helpful.

There are some additional filters (like cell signal from specific carriers) that you can access with a paid membership.

Campendium: iOS (No Android version) | App & Website | Free

FreeRoam

Similar to the others listed above, this app has all sorts of campsites listed along with reviews. We only recently discovered FreeRoam, but so far have been really impressed as it has some additional features that the apps above are lacking.

On FreeRoam, each campsite is rated on specific features like crowdedness, fullness, noise, shade, cleanliness, safety, and road difficulty.

Another feature that we appreciate about this one is that you can add layers to your map to show where BLM land is located, as well as cell service signal (by provider).

FreeRoam (like Campendium) has photos of most sites so you can check them out before you go.

FreeRoam: iOS & Android | App | Free

Honorable mentions: We’ve heard a handful of good reviews of The Dyrt app, however, it costs $35.99 for a year membership. It could very well be worth it (there’s a free 7-day trial), but we haven’t personally tried it because we’ve found there are plenty of great free options out there. AllStays is another popular one and it has a lower price point of just $9.99.

Things to ask yourself when looking for a campsite 


















Forest service roads, like this one near Bend, Oregon, are great for getting off the grid!

As you’re searching on camping apps (listed above) or are just trying to scope out a parking spot on your own, these are all things you’ll want to take into consideration.

Is it legal?

Before parking for the night, be sure you look around for signs that prohibit overnight parking. Typically it is pretty clear if you cannot legally park somewhere. It would be no fun to be woken up to a ticket on your dashboard or worse yet, your van getting towed.

Is there a flat place to park?

Even the slightest incline can make a difference. Trust me, you don’t want to be sleeping on a noticeable angle.

While we’re on that note, look specifically for a place to park that is clearly meant for vehicles. Avoid parking on land that is fragile, and instead look for gravel, pavement, or ground that has been parked on before.

Will it be quiet & private?

A busy bar street or lively neighborhood isn’t going to be a super comfortable place to spend the night. Same goes for parking near a heavily trafficked road.

Does it feel safe?

You want to park in an area that you would feel comfortable getting out of your vehicle and walking around. If you aren’t getting good vibes, our advice is to move on because you will not get a good night’s sleep if you’re worried about your safety.


Is there a bathroom?

If your vehicle is not self-contained (and does not have a toilet), you’ll likely want to park near a public restroom. You can often search for these in Google Maps or in apps like Campendium and iOverlander.

It’s also pretty common to find bathrooms near public parks and rest stops. If this is a must for you, be sure you look to see what hours the bathroom is open. Often times, they will be closed in the wee hours of the night, so a midnight pee may not be possible.

Can my vehicle handle the road conditions?

Some dispersed camping is found on rough roads. Typically, if you find the site on a camping app, you’ll be able to read reviews from past campers on road conditions.

We’ve driven on a few rough roads with our van, and to us, it’s just not worth the risk of getting stuck or getting a flat. Another thing to take into consideration is that many of these unmaintained roads are outside of cell signal, so it will be difficult to get help if you get into a messy situation.

The more you drive your van, the more you’ll start to understand what it can (and can’t!) handle. At first though, our advice would be to play it safe.

Will I have access to fresh water?

A lot of free campsites do not have fresh water available. Some do, but these are the exception. Before you head out of the way to the campsite, be sure you have enough for drinking, washing dishes, and cooking.

As a general rule of thumb, you should expect to fill up before making your way to a free site, unless you read otherwise.

Will I have cell signal?


















When we know we’ll need cell signal (for work!), we make sure to stay within city limits. And often times, there are some pretty sweet spots, like this little oceanside public parking lot on the Oregon coast!

Getting off the grid and camping at a site that has no cell signal can be liberating… that is, if you’re expecting it. Since we work online, we need to know whether or not we’ll have cell signal at a campsite.

The great thing about the free camping apps we listed above is they are great resources for finding out whether or not a particular site has sell signal, and if so, how strong it actually is.

If we have a lot of work to do on a particular day, we may just stick to sites that are definitely connected. On other days, we might download some essentials, then head off the grid knowing full well what to expect.

Insider Tip: If service is super important, check reviews on a few apps to ensure that you’ll have a strong enough connection before going out of your way to the site itself.

Free Camping Essentials

Here’s the thing… pretty much anyone can spend the night in their vehicle and survive. You might have a shitty night of sleep, but hey, that happens.

But if you want to thrive and be super comfortable parking, well, anywhere in your campervan, these things are going to make it a heck of a lot easier for you.

Self-contained vehicle

Big things first… Being self-contained will make it infinitely easier to find free campsites.

Our first campervan was not self-contained, so we always had to think about parking near a public restroom. This definitely limited our parking options, though it wasn’t impossible.

Important note: If you do not have a self-contained vehicle and are planning to camp in the wild, you must have a shovel to dig a hole for #2. You’ll also need a trash bag to dispose of TP!

4-wheel drive & high clearance

There are some epic campsites on remote and unmaintained forest roads. And if you don’t have a 4x4 vehicle, some of these can be difficult (or even impossible) to access.

Neither of our campervans have been 4x4, so there have been a handful of campsites we’ve had to pass on because of road conditions.

Having a more rugged vehicle would open up your options quite a bit, and you’ll be able to access the most remote sites out there (yay for solitude). 

Don’t have 4-wheel drive? No worries, we don’t either. Just be sure to read reviews on camping apps and pay attention to the descriptions of road conditions before deciding on a site.

A Place to Sit


















This is a site at a National Forest campground in Wyoming, and it cost us just $10 per night. Picnic table, fire ring, garbage service and pit toilets were included! Our camp chairs made it extra comfortable for hanging out with coffee in the morning (and wine in the afternoon!).

Having camp chairs, a picnic blanket, a hammock, or a comfortable place to lounge in your van is going to make life a lot more comfortable.

Some free campgrounds have picnic tables, but most do not. So having a place to stretch out your legs after a long day of driving is going to feel oh so good. And not having that option kind of… sucks.

In our first campervan, the bed was fixed (aka it did not convert into a couch). So if we were camped somewhere without a picnic table, we legit had to eat dinner and hang out on our bed. It wasn’t all that comfortable, so eventually we bought some camp chairs, and it was a game changer.

Camp chair recommendation: There are tons of options out there for all budgets, but if you have limited space, these chairs pack up to the size of a Nalgene water bottle! We even bring them on short backcountry trips because they’re so tiny!

Awning

This is on our wish list! Having an awning and a blanket or mat to lay on the ground will open up your space a ton and give you a comfortable spot to hang out even if the sun is shining bright or rain is sprinkling down.

Mosquito Curtains

If you plan on camping in wild areas, you might want to consider getting magnetic mosquito curtains for your sliding door. This will allow you to keep the door open and catch the sweet, sweet breeze, while also keeping those pesky bug outs.

Planning on urban camping? The next two items will help a lot…

Window coverings

For those nights where you are parked in a somewhat public spot — like a parking lot or on a residential street — you’ll definitely want window coverings for both privacy and to keep the lights out.

Here are two good options that really keep the light out:

blackout curtains

magnetic window coverings


Sleep “aids”

If you typically have difficulty sleeping, you might want to make a little “sleep kit” for nights where you need to park in an area that is noisy or has lots of lights.

eye mask

ear plugs

melatonin (natural sleep aid)

Calm app’s sleep stories (we’ve become obsessed with sleep stories lately!)  


And if you’re looking for more road trip essentials…

























Road Trip Packing List

We spent hours creating this packing list so you know exactly what to bring (and what to leave at home!) for your next road trip. 

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