A friend tipped me off to a little known fact – many campsites are free! She writes:
You have to pay at any state or regional park or national monument (aka Yosemite), whether you make a reservation or not. Where you don’t have to pay for camping is in federal wilderness, BLM land and national forests — in many cases you can camp anywhere you feel like it provided you have a camping permit.
To check the facts I called Kevin Mack, who is campaign director at the Wilderness Society in Washington, D.C. I found many free camping options are rustic – but not all!
Wilderness areas are the most protected land in the U.S. Some require permits but often there is no fee associated. Mechanized travel is not allowed, so no cars or bikes. Campgrounds are not carved out like at national parks and there is no running water or toilets. You can park on the edge of a wilderness area and hike in, or go by horseback, kayak, or canoe. Once you get there you can hunt, fish, hike and rock climb. For more info visit Wilderness.net, which has a handy map of wilderness areas.
A whopping 89 percent of Bureau of Land Management territory does not have fees. Some require a permit, others don’t. Most are unmarked and waiting for you to find them. Typically, BLM land has minimal or no services (like running water, pit toilets, or designated campsites). You may be able to drive in on a 4-wheel vehicle, hike in, or park on the road and pitch a tent. “But it doesn’t have to be a primitive experience,” Kevin said. “I have done car camping on BLM land. You can bring a cooler and have a gin and tonic at the end of the day. The only difference is you are by yourself and you have to think creatively about your bathroom facilities.”
About 10 percent of BLM land is managed by the National Landscape Conservation System, which offers more traditional camping options.
Most National Forests are free to camp in and ideal for folks comfortable looking at a map and contacting the local ranger station for info. But you don’t have to be a burly man or 20-something backpacker, Kevin said. “Just be willing to step off the paved road…and drive down a dirt road and chose your own camp spot,” he said. National forests that are highly trafficked usually have fees. Search for sites by state on this page.
RV sites for less than $10 a night: If you RV, check out FreeCampgrounds.com, which list extremely cheap places to park overnight by state. The list includes parks, rest areas, store parking lots, and more. The site also lists Wal-Mart stores that do NOT allow overnight parking.
Also check out FreeCampground.com, which lists a limited number of free sites by state. There were just 7 free campgrounds in California, none in Maryland and four in Oregon.