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Methods to Discover Free Tenting within the US & Canada


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

Tent at a free campsite in Alabama Hills

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 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.

Two men sitting around a campfire in Big Sur

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.

Additionally, National Geographic has maps for specific National Forests, so you may want to pick one up if you’re planning ahead. This way you don’t have to worry about whether or not you will have phone service while you’re trying to find your campsite!


  • 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!

Friends sitting around a campfire in Borrego Springs.

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.

  • 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.

Man cooking a meal at a campsite in Canada

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.

  • 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

Car parked at 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.)


  • 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.

View from a car camper

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.

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:

  • Flying J
  • Pilot Travel Centers
  • Travel Centers of America (TA)

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.

Couple reading a map

Free Camping 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 Map & 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, and water sources.
Check price: Amazon

National Geographic Road Atlas – Adventure Edition
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.
Check price: Amazon

National Geographic National Forest Maps
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.
Check price: Amazon

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.
Check price: Amazon

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Editor’s Note: This post was updated 12/2017 with more up-to-date information.

The post How to Find Free Camping in the US & Canada appeared first on Fresh Off The Grid.