How to Find Free RV Camping in the United States

Oct 28, 2019 |

How to Find Free RV Camping in the United States

By Nathan Paul Swartz

How to Find Free Camping in the US

The United States is a big country. It’s also broken up into, you guessed it, 50 states–each of which can have drastically different rules and availability when it comes to free camping.

Firstly, you can almost never go wrong with a Walmart. Exactly why many of the parking lots outside of this national chain permit overnighting is riddled in RV folklore, but though they don’t all permit free camping, it’s a pretty solid option if you just need a place to stay for the night. They’re not the only chain to do this, Cabela’s sporting goods stores and Cracker Barrel restaurants are known for their nightly RV skylines, as well.

If sleeping in a parking lot isn’t exactly your idea of camping, you need to start looking at the country by region.

For example, most states east of the Mississippi offer very little in the way of free camping, but still may permit RVs to stay for six or eight hours in roadside rest stops. Is it really camping if you can’t fire up the lantern and roast some S’mores? Maybe not, but it’s a free place to stay for the night.

On the other hand, the American West holds about as many places to camp for free–amidst some of the most stunning nature in the world–as there are grains of sand on a beach. Most of these places are within National Forest or BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land, which means they’re owned by the government. Some states offer similar land, such as Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife campgrounds. Others, like New Mexico, sell a pass that gets you heavily discounted or free camping all throughout the state.

While the big difference between free camping in National Forests vs. BLM land is usually the type of terrain (the former is usually woodlands while the latter tends to be wide open spaces, often in the desert), the sites, sounds and serenity you’ll experience at any given spot is as varied as the multitude of ecosystems in the US.

We’ll discuss nearly every state that offers free camping suitable for RVers below, to help familiarize yourself with where the best of the best comes into play…

Top 10 States for Free Camping

10. Michigan

As the only state on the eastern half of the country to make it onto this list, you may think we’re just trying to be nice. Rest assured, we’re not giving Michigan any special treatment here; the state has earned its place on this list for an abundance of free camping options–from rest areas near the cities to gorgeous natural areas like the state’s National Scenic Lakeshores.

9. New Mexico

With a strong state park pass option that can get you camping for nothing, accompanied by a healthy side of BLM land, the Land of Enchantment promises free camping across the state.

8. Oregon

What’s not to love about Oregon? From farmers markets to temperate rainforest, empty deserts to one of the nation’s coolest big cities, once you toss in a smorgasbord of free camping you just start to feel the “I Heart Oregon” phenomena.

7. Idaho

One of the Northwest’s most overlooked destinations, Idaho is stacked head to toe with the classic camping experience.

6. Utah

The entire southern swath of the state is laden with National…everything. Parks, Monuments, Forests…and that’s just one side of the state!

5. Wyoming

While Yellowstone tends to get all of the attention, it’s Grand Teton National Park that’s responsible for more jaw-dropping surprised looks than maybe anywhere else on the continent. It only begins there, as Wyoming is nearly 100,000 square miles full of wide open spaces.

4. Washington

If campfires beneath thick forest canopies, rushing rivers and distant mountain peaks are your idea of a good time, well, you won’t find them in more abundance–and accompanied by more free camping–anywhere else.

3. Arizona

From old mining towns turned tourist traps to the megalopolis that is Phoenix, from the Saguaros to tall pine trees, Petrified Forest to the Grand Canyon…Arizona has a cavalcade of sights to see and over 200 free places to camp, easily giving it the bronze medal.

2. California

The Golden State could take second place for all of the free camping along US-395 along the Eastern Sierras alone. If big cities like LA or San Francisco come to mind, or even places like Yosemite and the Redwoods, when you think “California”, you’re in for a completely other world when you head to the eastern side of the state.

1. Colorado

Colorado takes the number one position out of sheer volume of free camping beneath the nation’s most rugged peaks. Exploring the western half of the state is a modern day mountain man’s dream.

Free Camping Options in the United States

Alaska

The Last Frontier is as abundant in free camping as it is hard to get to by RV. For those bold enough to brave the crumbly dirt and gravel roads, long drive through Canada and thin window between frigid spring and frozen autumn, it won’t matter if money grows on trees or not, you’ll be able to keep yours in your wallet as you navigate the state.

Many a 5th wheeler or vandweller will recount epic tales of the times they beat the odds and scored a majestic, spacious spot all to themselves in wildest Alaska’s Walmart parking lots. For those seeking the elusive Alaskan Prius though, Wally World isn’t the only department store you can pull the parking brake into, though. Fred Meyers is getting in on the notion that RVers tend to head into the stores where they sleep. Not only does Freddies tend to stripe off spots just for big RVs, some of them will even have a dump station.

“I didn’t drive all the way to Alaska to park between a Hummer and a shopping cart corral,” you say? Heard that. So what’s a thrifty boondocker in search of freedom and grandiose vistas to do this far north?

Free camping is available in some areas of Alaska’s National Forests, such as Portage Glacier Road in Chugach National Forest, where you might just find yourself in the solitary heaven of your own private pond and easy access to the lake and glacier going by the same name as the road.

Lakes reflecting glaciers or snowy mountains tend to be a recurring theme in Alaska, and if you prefer nothing but a few trees between you and that sort of glorious home-on-the-road, Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge’s Lakeview Campground a go. Back in Chugach National Forest, you can call Whittier Airstrip home–for free–and watch the cruise ships roll in or the planes take off.

Arizona

Snowbirds have been flocking to the Grand Canyon State ever since your grandma bought her first Airstream, and for good reason. It’s one of the few places in the United States where you’re just about guaranteed warm weather all winter long. That’s bread at least 200 free places to camp in Arizona, all of which can be found right here on Campendium.

With so many places to drop your leveling jacks and call it winter, though, maybe you’re looking for the absolute best in a particular region? No need to empty the tank in an endless pursuit of where to go, we’ve got your ditch-the-crowds, gorgeous-vista must-stop spots for finding free camping in all of Arizona’s most beautiful deserts and forests.

Best Free Camping Near the Grand Canyon

“Whoa, it looks like a painting,” is the unofficial slogan of the Grand Canyon. While not officially sanctioned by the National Park Service, a recent survey found that 107% of people utter this very statement upon their first glimpse of what is, no doubt, one of the most impressive sights in all of the world.

Getting an RV spot in the park’s official campgrounds can be a race to the reservation desk, though, and camping in this 8th Wonder of the World will cost you a penny prettier than the canyon itself. If you’d rather save your money for the gift shop, you’re in luck.

Most pilgrimages to the Grand Canyon will begin somewhere near Flagstaff, as the easiest trails and vistas are found near Grand Canyon Village at the South Rim. Forest Road 688 hosts a popular campground, particularly with the hunting crowd, and you’ll want to show up mid-week to snag one of the better spots (or a campsite at all). Expect plenty of room to stretch your awnings and even a few bars of cell signal, plus a commute of only 15 minutes or so to find yourself back in the park.

If 688 is too packed for your liking, head east on Highway 64 toward Coconino Rim Road. Less cell service, more dispersed camping, and plenty of room for big rigs and tents alike in this forested slice south of the National Park. If you love the idea of getting away, but still need to check your email every now and then, word on the forest road is that the tower at the head of the Arizona Trail (easily accessed by foot via this campground) will give you a lick of service when you need it.

Not interested in the crowds at all? Maybe give the North Rim a go. While it’s not as convenient to all of the visitor center and lodging restaurant hubbub that tends to overwhelm the southern side of Grand Canyon, it might be exactly what you’re looking for if solitude is your number one priority. Campgrounds that go by the names of Forest Road 248 and Forest Road 225 make for shady little patches to call home near a lake by the name of Jake (well, formally known as Jacob Lake, but nestle into one of these sites and you’ll sure to be all buddy-buddy in no time). Want to get even further away from civilization? Indian Hollow Campground will take you to the end of the road, but it’s not for the faint of heart (or long of trailer) as the road isn’t quite as easy as a Sunday morning.

If getting up close and personal with the North Rim is more of what you had in mind, and you’re in something a little more akin to a van or truck camper, give Point Sublime a highlight on the ol’ atlas. For larger trailers looking for something with a little easier access, Forest Road 611 East Rim is a phenomenal spot close to the rim and lodge, though cell service doesn’t come as part of the package.

Coming from Page, Arizona? There’s some endless vista to be had a little outside of town, more or less on your way to the Grand Canyon, by the name of Badger Creek Campground. You’ll get cell service, a big empty expanse full of that Arizona red rock, and relatively easy access back to Page and attractions like the ridiculously over-photographed Horseshoe Bend.

Best Free Camping Near Flagstaff, Arizona

Flagstaff is a hip little town that, while it’s collected its fair share of sprawl over the last decade or so, has managed to retain a downtown vibe that harkens back to the Old West–if they had organic cafes and sushi in the desert back then.

If decent cell service is the name of the game, give A-1 Mountain Road just west of town a shot, or Walnut Canyon in Coconino National Forest. Head north and get lost in the shade of Fort Valley, one of those spots that feels like the middle of nowhere but still gives you plenty of access to the big boxes and downtown Flagstaff has to offer.

Best Free Camping Near Phoenix

Some folks just absolutely love Phoenix. Others find it a complete mess, sort of the opposite of why we decide to get out and camp. If the allure of an international airport and big city vibes have you pulling into the largest city in Arizona, though, you can still get by on a free place to stay.

The name of the game? Casinos. There are a handful of dice worth in the area, one of which should provide you with minimum commute to wherever you need to be in the city.

Best Free Camping Near Tucson

Phoenix may be the big gun in town, but Tucson is the hipster younger brother who gets all the glory without as much of the big city hassle.

What started as a place to water your horse has become a growing metropolis that lives smack dab in the middle of Saguaro National Park. Indeed, you have to drive through the city itself to get from one side of the park to the other, and the twinkling lights of progress are ever-present regardless of where you find yourself in the surrounding area.

Go remote at Redington Pass for your best chance of free nature camping, or try and hide behind an unoccupied pile of rocks at the arguably less desirable Snyder Hill. If you didn’t blow the bank on free overnights in casino parking lots near Phoenix, the dazzlingly named Desert Diamond will be more than happy to give you a corner of their parking lot to call home.

Free Camping Near Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Organ Pipe is one of those National Park Service sites that few people go to–certainly compared to the deep draw of the Grand Canyon–because it’s just flat out of the way. If you prefer to shake hands with more cacti than people, though, it’s well worth the voyage.

Take a drive to Gunsight Wash for the best of the bunch, but if that spot doesn’t quite prick your finger, you can choose from the equally wonderfully named Denizen Campground or Darby Well Road.

Free Camping Near Bisbee, Arizona

No doubt about it, Bisbee is the most eclectic small-town Arizona has to offer. Once a thriving mining town full of bar fights and gunslingers, it was abandoned decades ago only to be “discovered” by hippies in the 1970s. Since then, and all while retaining its Wild West charm, the town has come to be a place where you can rummage through endless thrift store hallways or stick your fork in some of the finest dining the state has to offer.

Or just have a seat in the park in the middle of town and scratch your head as touristy families, bourgeoisie artists and tattoo-faced drifters coalesce as smoothly as turquoise and silver.

Free camping? Well, aside from van-lifers who can call just about any parking spot home, legally, within the city limits, there are some more official places to hitch up your wagon–if you’re willing to find yourself a haul’s worth of miles outside of town.

Free Camping on the Arizona / California Border

If you’ve been calling Arizona home all winter and are desperate to see another state’s license plates whizzing by as you barrel on down the freeway, heading West is your best bet to escaping AZ as early as possible without freezing your tailpipe. On the way to California, gas up the tank (the prices tend to jump fifty cents or so once you cross that border) in Lake Havasu or take the slow southern road via Yuma.

The former is perhaps best known for playing host to the London Bridge–that’s right, some guy with enough money disassembled a bridge in England, shipped it to AZ, and had it all put back together to prove his monetary point did just that–but it’s also a bit of an RVers mecca. Just outside of town is the dubiously named Lone Tree, though said tree may have gone and uprooted since then given the popularity of this free site.

If you want to head south toward Yuma, get your rims dusty via the expansive American Girl Mine Road for what’s more or less endless desert with a stunning mountain vista all within a few minutes drive to Yuma’s old town. For our money though (that is, paying nothing and getting the best you can find), Fortuna Pond on the other side of town offers a little cell service coupled with shaded spots along with a small splash of water.

We’d be remiss not to mention the snowbirding mecca of Quartzsite, too, where some 2 million boondockers migrate every winter to bask in the sure bet of Arizona’s share of the Sonoran Desert.

California

For what can easily prove to be one of the most expensive states to mosey on through, California inversely offers some of the most prevalent and scenic free camping anywhere in the United States. The next time you find your hood ornament shining in the setting sun of some western excursion, feel free to leave the piggy bank intact as you find shade beneath a Redwood or tuck away into the absolute solace of a desert. The Golden State boasts nearly every possible experience you can find in the US, from ocean to mountain, big city nightlife to an endless sea of stars.

Let’s loop California’s best regions for free camping and see what gold we can dig up then.

Free Camping in the Redwoods of California

They say a Redwood could make enough matches to keep Smokey the Bear in business for an eternity. Folks caught wind of that idea from just about the day the first European explorer set foot in these otherworldly woods, and so you’ll have to forgive the State and National Park services if they keep tight wraps on free camping in this area.

That said, just because you want to leave no trace beneath the largest living organisms on the planet doesn’t mean you’ve got to shell out for a place to call home at the end of the day. You just have to be willing to do it in what may be the exact opposite of what you’ll experience walking under the canopy of these temperate rainforests all day.

So what are we talking about here? It may seem a bit anticlimactic, but if you want free camping in this region, the answer lays in the casinos.

Lucky 7 and Elk Valley will put you in the heart of the northern reaches of the parks, while Blue Lake Casino gives you that southern approach from just outside of Arcada.

Free Camping near Mount Shasta, California

Shasta stands towering in her snowy wedding dress nearly all year long, and the town bearing the same name feels like one of those that’s always on the brink of blowing up. Take in the endless well of things to explore in this area and don’t pay a penny for camping while you’re at it.

You can snag a max of three nights in a row at Castle Lake, just outside of the town of Mt. Shasta, if you’re lucky enough to score one of the five first-come-first-serve spots available. If you could care less about daily strolls into town, and call a tent or very small RV home, then get away from it all at Orr Lake for one of those classic forest-on-lake-on-mountain-backdrop campgrounds. For something a little more in-between the two, Lake Shastina Campground sounds like the best place to snag a little cell service, feel somewhat secluded, but not be so into the wilderness that you can’t make a run to the store when needed.

Free Camping near Lake Tahoe, California

Lake Tahoe is simply one of the absolute best places in the US. It’s fun in the sun, longboarders and boaters, great food and big views. Even though it’s one of the most expensive places in California, it’s packed full of free fun whether you want to just take a swim on a secluded slice of the shore or hike into the mountains on a trail few tourists frequent.

Such a fancy pants locale, of course, comes at a high real estate price, but lucky for you we just so happen to know about a sweet spot by the name of Lake Tahoe East. If you’re hauling one of the bigger rigs, don’t even dare, but if you find yourself circling Tahoe desperate for a free place to call home in your van or small camper, cross into Nevada and feel free to call this place home…complete with a bit of cell connectivity.

While Tahoe’s cool, if you’re really looking to get a little more remote, head north a few hours to Lassen Volcanic National Park. Lassen is one of those national parks that tends to get overlooked–given its proximity to the Redwoods and Yosemite–which means you can explore all of the towering trees, mountain vistas and calm reflective lakes, but without the city magnitude crowds.