They say there’s no such thing as a free lunch. However, there is such a thing as free RV camping. In fact, President Roosevelt called for the creation of free campgrounds on Federal lands when he addressed Congress in 1901. (Although at that time he wasn’t referring to RVs!)
Now commonly referred to as boondocking, camping free of charge is real, but it isn’t for everyone. Boondocking isn’t officially defined but the term stems from the expression “boondocks” that refers to a remote area. Overnight RV parking places such as truck stops, Wal-Mart parking lots, or campgrounds in which RV hookups aren’t available may not necessarily seem remote, but are all generally lumped into the boondocking category.
Other terms associated with free camping are dispersed camping, dry camping and backcountry camping. Although backcountry camping officially refers to areas that can only be reached by canoe, bicycle, on horseback or on foot.
Planned adventure may seem like an oxymoron, but you need just as much planning and research as you need a sense of adventure to find and enjoy those great campsites you see on magazine covers. Remember, adventurous doesn’t necessarily mean spontaneous, especially when it comes to camping in remote locations. For tips on free RV camping, we’ll look at popular boondocking places in the U.S., boondocking etiquette, and resources to help you plan before you set out on your adventure.
The Most Popular Free RV Camping: Boondocking
Thanks, in part, to President Roosevelt, every major national park has acres of land available for boondocking.
While boondocking, you will not have access to any hook-ups. This means it’s imperative that you are prepared; planning in advance for water and power. There also won’t be a convenience or camp store nearby, so packing enough food and supplies is important.
Many people find that free RV camping is an ideal way to use their RV and never go back to traditional campgrounds. Being out in the “boondocks” at free camping locations tends to be much more secluded and peaceful experience. It is an opportunity to experience nature in a more natural state than alongside hundreds of other campers.
You may never see another person when you are boondocking, but there are some basic rules of boondocking etiquette to follow while you are communing with nature:
- Don’t park alongside rivers or other water sources; camping within 300 ft. of a water source is generally prohibited.
- Whenever possible, don’t park in sight of other boondockers. Parking too close to other boondockers defeats the purpose of the remote experience.
- Always leave campsite cleaner than when you arrived. The next camper will appreciate not pulling up to a littered campsite.
- Use places that have already been cleared for campsites and/or campfires. Don’t make new ones or cut down trees.
- Being courteous to plant and wildlife in the area.
National parks and forests usually have some place to camp for free. Motor Vehicle Use maps are travel maps showing which roads are open and which areas restrict dispersed camping. These MVUM maps are available free of charge from the US Forest Service. Certain high popularity areas restrict camping to designated campgrounds, so check with USFS and Bureau of Land Management offices prior to camping.
Other agencies to check with for free RV camping opportunities include the US Fish & Wildlife Service, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation, State Parks and State-owned lands.
When boondocking it isn’t likely that you will have access to power, but you may be able to get water to drain/refill your tanks. Keep in mind that free camping areas almost always have a maximum time limit – usually no longer than 7-14 days. Though there are some areas that only allow 3 days and some up to 42 days. So, it’s always best to check first and not assume that every campsite has the same limit. It is your responsibility as the camper to know – and follow – the rules.
Other Place to Camp for Free
Free RV camping is available at many Walmart locations. There are some locations where it is not allowed, so it is important to always ask. A quick phone call to a store manager is not only a courtesy, but will give you peace of mind knowing you have permission.
Rest Stops/Truck Stops
Another option for free RV camping overnight is at truck stops. Some truck stops have a certain number of free parking spaces intended for RVs. Many also have restaurants, shower facilities and more. However, call ahead to confirm overnight parking is allowed.
There are casinos all across the country and many allow, and even encourage overnight RV camping. They are, of course, hoping you’ll head inside for a good meal and spend some time in the casino as well. As with other free camping options, calling ahead to check their policy on overnight camping is just good planning and common courtesy.
Etiquette When Using These Locations
Other common courtesies when parking overnight include not overstaying your welcome. These are businesses not campgrounds. One night is plenty to get you refreshed and back on the road. Arrive late afternoon or evening and depart fairly early in the morning to respect the generosity of these businesses.
Don’t disrupt the business or rest stop when you’re camping for free. Partying, dumping gray water on the ground or leaving trash scattered about is not respecting the privilege that these businesses afford RVers. Don’t take advantage of free RV camping locations. Obey every traffic sign and be a good guest.
Best States for Free RV Camping
If you’re planning your next road trip and want to find a hotbed for free camping locations, we have you covered! While most states in the country will have some number of free camping locations (even if it’s just the ease of finding a local Walmart or truck stop,) there are a few states that make it a cinch to find a place to park your RV overnight without costing you a dime in campground fees.
Here are some of the best states to plan your next trip:
Utah – It’s hard to understate the breadth of free camping locations in Utah. Particularly on the southern side, you’d be hard-pressed to drive an hour or two without coming across somewhere comfortable (and legal!) to pull over for the night. The state is flush with beautiful places to visit, including both natural and man-made attractions.
California – With a state this big, it should be no surprise that it has plenty of land for free camping. The Eastern Sierras are a fantastic destination to enjoy nature, and doubly so if you’re looking to do so without campsite costs! You’ll never see anything in America quite like the gorgeous Redwoods either, so it’s a state every camper should visit at least once.
Colorado – The mountainous landscape of Colorado comes with a variety of camping locations to enjoy the peaks from the base. You’d do yourself a disservice to camp across America without a visit to at least one region of the Rocky Mountains. If you’re feeling adventurous, the state offers more than these popular peaks, so don’t hesitate to stray from the mountains to enjoy the rest of the breathtaking landscape.
Michigan – RV Wholesale Superstore is based in Ohio, so we wanted to offer a quick mention for our locals. You don’t need to cross to the west to find free camping, our neighbors to the north in Michigan offer quite a variety of dispersed camping options that don’t involve charging a fee. From lakes to dunes and everything in between, the entire state of Michigan (both lower and upper peninsulas) have something for a camper on a tight budget.
Free RV Camping Resources:
There are some wonderful resources online to help you find free campsites such as RV-Camping.org.
Another, National Park Service, contains a lot of information about parks, many of which have free dispersed camping, and can be quite useful for planning trips.
Remember camping free of charge takes work and planning. It isn’t for everyone, but it may be for you.
The professionals at RV Wholesale Superstore are ready to help you find the perfect RV for you and your family. Visit us in-person at 5080 W. Alexis Road, in Sylvania, OH or call us at (866) 640-9871
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