One of my top goals for the first leg of our truck camping journey was to get scuba certified so I could volunteer with the Coral Restoration Foundation in Key Largo. We had campgrounds lined up for our first week and a half in the Keys, but planned (hoped) to figure out how to stay longer (for cheaper) once we were there. As of writing this, we’ve been in the Keys for over 3 weeks, and have stayed at a number of places – from campgrounds, to parking lots. Although it’s tremendously more difficult to camp for free here than it is out west, it’s possible if you’re staying in a vehicle, van, or truck camper. Read on for my tips on how to camp for free or cheap in the Florida Keys.
TLDR; Find ‘free parking’ lots that don’t close after a certain time, and side roads with pull-offs. Be stealth.
I’ll start by noting that it will be really difficult to free camp if you’re in an RV. If anyone disagrees with that or has made it happen, let me know in the comments or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Free camping is easiest if you’re staying in a regular vehicle or camper van. There are a few parking lots that allow free 24-hour parking. One example is the Casa Marina Key West (no link added because I don’t want them to see this article and start policing their lot more heavily). We talked to people who’d been sleeping in their vehicles for weeks in a Casa Marina spillover lot. From what we understood, as long as you aren’t obvious about it (i.e. We couldn’t have popped the top of our truck camper), then you can generally sleep in any parking lot that allows free parking and isn’t monitored (This seems analogous to sneakily camping on streets that allow parking in cities). We also were told that there were roads ‘behind Leo’s Campground’ on Stock Island (the Key right before Key West) where people, including RVs, were seen camping for days or weeks at a time. I can’t confirm that this is possible since we didn’t try it and didn’t see it ourselves, however I think you could make it work for a couple of nights on Stock Island or on roads around the Naval Air Station (the Key right before Stock Island).
Where you can no longer free camp – Ramrod Swimming Hole. Unfortunately, free camping (or any camping) is no longer allowed at Ramrod Swimming Hole. We tried and were advised by locals that it was no longer possible. However, Ramrod is a gorgeous spot, and free to enter, so I highly recommend checking it out.
Other dispersed camping options – According to this post, you can find dispersed camping sites near Key Largo, on Sugarloaf Key, and on Marathon Key. We tried to find a few of these sites, but gave up before driving too far. I’m 90% sure you can find places to pull off and camp on the roads mentioned in this post if you have a few hours to kill driving and looking, and can plan to move spots each day. We had a lot of places we needed to be, plus work meetings and calls each day, so we opted to minimize time wasted looking for spots and just pay for parking lots or cheaper campgrounds.
TLRD; Paid 24-hour parking lots!
The best cheap camping we found was in parking lots. We found one 24-hour lot on Simonton St & Green / Dey St in Key West that let us stay for $15/day for 3 nights. I can’t guarantee that they will always allow this, since the owner said he’d be fined $250 if the city caught us, but we were able to make it work for a few days, and even pop the camper as we slept in it. We spent the days swimming and working at Fort Zachary Taylor (which I highly recommend checking out), and used their beach showers / restrooms.
If you ask around, you can find some businesses and individuals who allow people to stay in their parking lots or properties cheaply, but this is very case-by-case, so you need to be in the Keys and making friends to find the opportunities.
Summary & Advice – There are a lot of awesome campgrounds on the Keys. However, many cost $100+ per night for a hookup spot. The campgrounds in the middle or lower/middle Keys seemed better priced that those further north (toward Key Largo) or south (by Key West).
We stayed in 3 campgrounds on 3 different Keys. Here’s my rundown of each:
King’s Kamp Key Largo – We spent a lot of time here since it was our jumping off point for getting certified and doing the coral replanting dive. The campground itself is great. You’re right on the water, so it’s easy to kayak / paddleboard / boat right from the site. The restrooms are really clean, large, and private. There also are nice seating areas on the water, plus there are a few bars and restaurants within walking distance. My only complaint is about Key Largo, not the campground itself. I found Key Largo to be the least pretty Key because the water was all mangrove bays as opposed to bright blue open ocean. There was nowhere that was nice to swim (including by our campsite). If you’re looking to swim, go to beaches, or see teal blue water, you should go a little further down the Keys. I believe our site was $80 night and included hookup (which we didn’t end up needing since the solar panels worked so well). Believe it or not, this is affordable for the Keys (Ha!).
Our setup at King’s Kamp in Key Largo.
Nightman, our bunny, out by the water at King’s Kamp Key Largo
Leo’s Campground Key West – Leo’s was a great spot on Stock Island near Key West. It was $95 per night (Seriously, it was a good deal for Key West…), and within biking distance of downtown Key West (4 to 5 miles away). The restrooms were excellent, each site had a nice grassy picnic area, and there were yard games.
Nightman’s setup in the grass at Leo’s Campground Stock Island.
Big Pine Key Fishing Lodge – This was my favorite of the campgrounds. BPKFL was only $40 per night, which felt like a steal after the other two! The campground is right on the ocean and bordered by a Key Deer nature preserve. It also has a rooftop pool, rec room with cable TVs, free coffee each morning, a number of workout classes and events, and yard games. All that said, I’d be remiss not to note that the BPKFL beach isn’t swimmable. It’s very murky and full of thick seagrass. BPKFL was hit really hard by hurricane Irma, so the entire island – including the campground – is still working to rebuild and recover from damage. So most of the ‘inconveniences’ we experienced were due to this, which is completely out of the residents’ and owners’ control. I’d highly recommend checking out this very affordable and nice campground. It also is less than 5 miles away from Bahia Honda State Park, which has the nicest beach we found in the Keys (even though half of it was closed!). So you can always head there to get your beach time in, then stay at BPFKL overnight (You could stay at Bahia Honda, but it costs over $160 per night!!!).
As always, if you have other suggestions, feel free to reach out!