finding free (or cheap) campsites in the US

Callen is back on the blog today writing about how he finds free (or cheap) campsites on our trips. We've mentioned before, in our sleep systems blog post (here), how we save a ton of money by camping instead of staying in hotels, but even camping can get expensive! After staying in amazing, free sites like our Cave spot in Alabama Hills, we get a little bitter about having to pay $15/night for a crowded campground in a national park where Charlie has to remain on-leash. Note: all photos in this post show free campsites.

I get this message or email all the time, and I love answering it.  “I’m going to _______ And I want to know where to camp.”  This in short, is the story of my life.  I’m an advocate of exploring new places and I enjoy the logistics of finding new campsites along the way.  This is our typical procedure for finding free or cheap campsites when traveling to a new region of the U.S. We always start by hitting up Google Maps to set a rough itinerary (i.e. an estimated radius of where we will be camping each night). We often set an itinerary before even leaving on our trip, but it's always subject to change. 

Once we have an idea of where we might like to camp each night, we consult our MVP, This website has helped us through some rough nights (and caused some rough nights when not used properly - more on that later). Some things I've learned after using this resource for a few years:

  • Not all campsites on the website are free, some are fee sites (Green = Free | Red = Fee).
  • Read the entirety of each site’s directions.  Simply plugging the GPS coordinates in to Google Maps and trusting your iPhone’s blue dot doesn’t always work out.
  • While you're in cell service, take screen shots of site descriptions, maps, etc. as many sites are located in public lands far from service.

I suggest always having 2-3 options lined up in case of crowding, unfavorable conditions, or not being able to find a site. These sites are free, so it’s no surprise that we’ve encountered campsites littered with glass and reeking of human waste. Always be prepared to either tough it out, or drive to a new site if necessary. I should also note - almost none of the sites have bathrooms, so try to take care of major things in public restrooms before heading out there...and ladies, learn to squat. Abbi is a pro at this point. 

Always be aware of your limit, how tired you are, and how much farther you can make it drivingg around looking for sites. A free last resort is sleeping in the car, but be aware of what is/isn't legal. Several big box retailers allow overnight parking (Walmart, Home Depot, etc.). We’ve slept in Walmart parking lots a few times as a last resort, and it actually has a few benefits, like wifi (it'll often reach the car) and 24/7 restrooms. But the bright lights and the dang crack-of-dawn leaf blowing puts parking lots in the last resort category for us. 

Please keep in mind -- this blog is intended to help frugal travelers save money on campsites.  Honestly, Abbi and I often set camp hours after sunset and are just looking to sleep for free and continue on our quest first thing in the morning. We do enjoy camping in nice paid campsites and will do so on occasion if we want to stay in a national park over night or something, but almost always prefer primitive sites.

If you found this post helpful, you might enjoy reading some of our other Advice for Adventurers posts:

Backpacking Favorites

Bringing Your Dog

Finding Free Campsites

Sleep Systems

Roadtrip Food