How to Camp for Free
“All National Forest lands are open to camping unless otherwise posted.” —United States Forest Service
Trying to find a place to camp for free sounds like an oxymoron; however, most campground and campsites charge a slight fee and/or park entrance fees. Yes, camping is cheaper than getting a motel, but it’s rarely free. But did you know there are about 640 million acres of wild land you can camp on without paying a dime?
It’s called “dispersed camping” and it is allowed on almost any federally-owned land in the United States.
What is Dispersed Camping?
Dispersed camping is when you camp away from a designated campground or campsite on public land.
Dispersed camping is the same as primitive camping. It is when campers find a spot away from any designated campground or campsite or other campers. Dispersed camping is more private, peaceful and quiet, but dispersed camping has little to no amenities. Whatever you take with you is what you have, and you must take everything back out with you, as there will be no trashcans and most likely no bathrooms. For those who appreciate venturing off the beaten path, dispersed camping is preferred.
Dispersed camping is free and legally allowed unless otherwise posted in any National Forest, Bureau of Land Management (BLM,) Wildlife Management Areas (WMA) or other federally-owned Forest Service Land.
You can camp with a camper, tent, hammock, under the stars in a sleeping bag—you can even sleep in your car when dispersed camping. Yet, there are rules when you rough it. Rules are in place for your safety, as well as to protect the environment and the natural habitat of our lands.
The number one rule in dispersed or primitive camping is to strictly follow the seven principles of Leave No Trace. These seven principles help minimize your impact in the wild, because no matter how diligent you are, camping, hiking and backpacking create a negative ecological impact. As avid lovers of the outdoors, naturally, we want to safeguard what’s left of the wild. This means you must be self-contained when dispersed camping:
- Having enough water or a way to procure safe drinking water with water filters or purifiers
- Ways to properly dispose of human waste
- Dealing with trash appropriately
How to Find a Dispersed Camping Spot
Dispersed camping is not allowed in designated campgrounds, day-use areas, picnic spots or at trailheads. Primitive camping spots in the national forest must be a 1-mile radius from established campgrounds, at least 100 feet away from a body of water and 150 feet away from a road.
Camping lifestyle website, the dyrt says, “Select an area of interest within National Forest Land and use Google Earth in satellite view to check your route for pull-offs. A great idea is to pick a trailhead and look nearby. A dirt pull off or small clearing in a forest is an indicator of an existing camp spot.” The U.S. Forest Service suggests calling its nearest office to your area of interest and asking about dispersed camping spots.
Where to Pitch Your Tent
After pinpointing the vicinity you’d like to camp in, just hike in and find a secluded clearing or good camping spot—preferably someone else previously (but not freshly) used. Your tent needs to be pitched preferably on dirt or sand, disturbing as little vegetation as possible. Even better, sleep in a hammock!
When You’ve Got to Go
Most likely there will be no toilets or outhouses. When you’ve got to do the doo, dig a hole 6 inches deep and at least 100 feet away from ANY water source. After finishing, fill the hole back up with dirt and pack away and take with you all toilet paper or tissues used. (This is where Ziplock baggies come in handy!) Dispose of toilet paper in a proper trashcan.
Unless there are fire restrictions or bans, you may build a campfire when camping primitively. Use pre-existing fire pits or rings if available. If not, you will need to build a mound fire or use a firepan.
To make a mound fire:
- Find a flat rock or another firm surface away from overhang, grass, leaves and other flammable material.
- Lay down a ground cloth or garbage bag.
- Shovel dirt, gravel, sand or soil and build it 3-5 inches thick on your ground cloth. Keep the fire small and make sure you don’t cover your entire ground cloth with your mound.
- Gather tinder, kindling and firewood to get your fire going. Only gather wood from around your campsite. Bringing wood from outside usually requires a permit.
- Extinguish your campfire completely before going to bed or leaving your campsite. This means there should be no red coals left.
Pack a compact camping or hiking stove with you just in case so you can boil water and prepare food if a campfire isn’t possible.
The Golden Rule of Camping—Pack In/Pack Out
Whatever you bring in needs brought out. Have a plan on how you are going to deal with your trash and waste. Ideally, you will create as little trash as possible but it’s inevitable you will have some. Storing it away from bears, raccoons and other critters is essential to you and the animals’ safety. Even biodegradable items like banana peels and apple cores are trash and need to be disposed of properly.
Not only is primitive camping quiet and peaceful, but it also challenges your survival and wilderness skills both mentally and physically, leading to a really rewarding experience for the entire family.