How to Find Free & Cheap Camping
One of the most interesting parts of van/truck/RV life is the perpetual search for the next boondocking spot. Based on questions I get from others considering this lifestyle, I built the below comprehensive list of the best places we’ve found to stay while being truck camping digital nomads over the past 9 months.
Boondocking in Nature (Outside of Cities / Towns)
We spend about 50% of our time boondocking in natural areas outside of cities or towns. Frequently these areas are near national parks, mountains, lakes, rivers, seas, or other landscapes with opportunities to hike, kayak, ski, etc. When staying in these areas in the US, we most frequently stay on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, or US Forest Service (USFS) roads. When camping in these areas in Canada, we typically stay on Canadian Forest Service roads, or free Canadian Recreation Sites.
The main struggle with these sites is that cell service isn’t guaranteed. We often were able to find service, but sometimes we had to drive around for a bit (30-60 minutes) and try a few roads/spots before finding one that worked. BLM land and Forest Service roads have no toilets or showers, but many free Canadian Recreation sites have toilets (the free ones usually don’t have showers).
Where & How to Find BLM Land, Forest Service Roads & Recreation Sites
- National Parks – BLM/Forest Service land usually surrounds national parks. You can ask a ranger for a map of BLM or Forest Service land surrounding them and/or where you can boondock for free near the park. They’ll tell you where to go.
- US West, Pacific Northwest, Southwest, and British Columbia – Much of the western US, including PNW and southwestern US, has a whole lot of BLM/USFS land. States that we’ve found particularly easy to find BLM/USFS land to camp on are: Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico (most of the state of New Mexico is BLM land), Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, and South Dakota. It’s extremely easy to boondock throughout all of British Columbia, so you should have no problem finding a place to park for awhile there. One of our favorite boondocking sites was an area near The Chief in Squamish, BC. We also found cell service to be excellent throughout British Columbia and much of Canada, even on Forest Service roads and Recreation Sites.
- Midwest, East Coast, and Southeast US – We generally found it quite difficult (nearly impossible) to find BLM/USFS land in these locations. If you’re camping here, you may need to book campsites or stay at rest stops, Wal-Marts, Cabela’s, etc. I’ve heard you can find wineries and farms that allow you to stay on their lands, but I’ve never tried it. We also haven’t traveled to the northeast US yet, but I’ve heard there is more BLM/USFS land there.
- FreeCampsites.net – We use this site to find BLM land/FS roads/Recreation Sites. You just type in a nearby town or location, and it’ll pull up sites recommended by other campers, and then map you to them via Google Maps. We use this site on a daily basis.
- Public Lands App (iPhone Only) – This app shows you an overlay of different types of public lands in the US. You can use it to generally determine where USFS, BLM, national government lands (national parks), state government lands (state parks), and private lands are located. Although it’s not a mapping app, it will give you a general idea of where to drive to find boondocking lands.
- Free Campsites Canada – This site shows all the Recreation Sites (paid and free) in British Columbia and Canada.
- onX Hunt – This is a hunting app that shows you very detailed mapping views of public and other types of lands. It’s probably the best you can find, however you have to pay $120 per state to use it (I believe there’s a bulk multi-state fee too). We were too cheap to buy it and relied on the methods above instead.
Boondocking in Cities or Towns
We’ve spend roughly 30% of our time staying in cities. Admittedly, this is because we have a place to crash with friends and family in most of them, or just rent an Air BNB. When we haven’t rented or had a place to couch surf, we’ve typically stayed in truck stops that are nearest to the city (New Orleans), or the nearest Cabela’s / Walmart to the city (Anchorage, Fairbanks), or for Seattle, Vancouver, and other PNW cities, we’ve used FreeCampsites.net to find areas in the city where other boondockers park, and stayed there. In Milwaukee and Key West, we were able to sneak a weekend in a parking lot that allowed overnight parking. In Vancouver and Seattle, you can pretty much park anywhere you see other trucks/vans/RVs parked and stay there as long as you want.
Paid Camping in Nature
We pay to camp at campgrounds around 15-20% of the time. We try to find cheap BLM campgrounds in natural areas. Although they typically don’t have showers, they’re gorgeously placed in the midst of the best natural landscapes we’ve found. Two of our favorites were one in the Organ Needles in New Mexico, and a free one near Gates of the Arctic National Park in Alaska. There are a number of paid Canadian Recreation sites as well. The Canadian sites are awesome. For around $10/night, they frequently have toilets, showers, and free firewood.
Roadside Rest Stops
Occasionally we stay at roadside rest stops. Although most states prohibit overnight parking at rest stops, I believe you’re allowed to park overnight in the following states:
- Illinois (only on Illinois Toll Road)
- Indiana (only on Indiana Toll Road)
- New Mexico
- New York (emergencies only)
- Ohio (only on Ohio Turnpike)
- Oregon (14-hour limit)