Florida Keys – How to Camp for Cheap or Free

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 may be possible if you’re staying in a vehicle, van, truck camper, or tent. However, you should note that boondocking or camping in parking lots isn’t allowed, so you shouldn’t head to the Keys and expect to find places to sleep for free or cheap. If you happen to (like we did), it’s because you either got lucky or knew someone with inside info. Read on for my tips on how to camp for free or cheap in the Florida Keys.

Cheap, Free and Unique Camping in the Florida Keys

Free Camping 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 (and in general). If anyone disagrees with that or has made it happen easily, let me know in the comments or at lauren@travelsages.com. 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.

Cheap Camping Florida Keys

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.

Good Campgrounds Florida Keys

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!!!).

Unique Camping Experiences Florida Keys – Dry Tortugas

We weren’t able to do this because we couldn’t leave our bunny, but we would love to have taken the ferry or a private vessel to Dry Tortugas National Park and camped there. According to the National Park Service, “Camping at Garden Key is an incredible experience with amazing star gazing, snorkeling, sunsets, and more! But you must be prepared to camp in this remote location. To assist you in your planning, be sure to review the information on this page to learn more about camping at Dry Tortugas National Park.” The camping fee is cheap ($15 per night), however you have to pay for the ferry or a private vessel there and back, which are a little pricier.

 

As always, if you have other suggestions, feel free to reach out!

 

About the author

Lauren is a 'digital nomad' (for lack of a less obnoxious term) who works, lives, and travels out of her truck camper with her partner, Patrick, and dog, Odin, the one-eyed Wirehaired Pointing Griffon. She started TravelSages in the summer of 2013, and has since founded a digital marketing consultancy, called LyteYear, and a sustainability brand, called RePrint. Before moving into her tiny mobile home, Lauren lived in Chicago for 6 years, pursued two graduate degrees, studied abroad at Oxford, worked for a summer in Hong Kong, and traveled to various countries in between. She has a mildly unhealthy love of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Netflix, and breweries with good New England IPAs.

Comments

  1. I’m going to attempt to move to the keys to build stuff and fix things. I’m a master carpenter with a van full of tools. What are my chances?

    1. I know they could use help rebuilding! I’d say go for it. If you can live out of your van, you can rent a campground month-to-month for relatively cheap.

  2. Most likely nowhere. Coupon Bight you can get away with for a few nights or until the pigs run you off. It’s near Bahia Honda. Due to the latest hurricane there’s plenty of places to park out there because the previous vegetation is blown away.

  3. Hi there. I was curious about backpackers an tent camping.

    We have our own tents and are self sufficient… where in your opinion would be a good place to go off the grid in key west?

    1. Hi there! It honestly is really, really difficult to boondock on the Keys, especially Key West. It will be easier if you don’t have a vehicle to deal with, though. I would try the outskirts of Stock Island (the key right before Key West), or the key directly before Stock with the naval air station on it. The struggle with the Keys is that they’re tiny and heavily populated, plus boondocking isn’t really allowed anywhere. So you have to try it and hope you don’t get caught. There aren’t many large beaches, either, so you can’t really set up your tent on a deserted part of a beach.

        1. Good question! I’m not sure which is the definitive cheapest, but campgrounds on the middle keys are usually cheaper than on Key Largo or Key West. Big Pine Key Fishing Lodge was only $40 per night, which was really cheap for the keys. Maybe give it a try!

        2. Lazy lakes on sugarloaf key runs a $35/night summer special. It is land locked but had a nice pool and sitting/bbq area

    2. Actually, scratch what I said before, if you’re backpacking, I’d camp on Dry Tortugas: https://www.nps.gov/drto/planyourvisit/camping.htm. You have to pay for the ferry to the park, or a private vessel, which aren’t all that cheap, but if you can swing it, I think that would be the absolute coolest place you could stay on the Keys! We couldn’t do it because we had our pet bunny while we were there, but we really wanted to go.

  4. You should mention that it is illegal here,and that police will ticket and arrest those who car camp. There are signs prohibiting everywhere.You may get away with it a short while, but there is no such thing as stealth. If your vehicle looks like someone could be in it at night, rest assured, people notice, your plates have been run, and you will be warned, fined, arrested.If you are a van dweller ,don’t wonder if you’ll get busted, but just wonder how soon. If you didn’t, you are not clever, just lucky. Based on your blog, you did exactly what every other car camper does. There are limited, obvious options, the police and residents know them , dozens try it nightly, and this has been going on for years, which makes you predictable and easy to spot since you all do things exactly the same way and yet many of you think you are being original or stealthy.You are not doing people a favor by encouraging them to try it.Are you prepared to pay their tickets tows and fines?

    1. Thanks ‘Greg Anonymous.’ Everyone trying this is aware of the risks. It’s part of the lifestyle. And a big part of the article is saying that it’s difficult and nearly impossible to boondock on the Keys. Thanks for the unnecessarily cagey and aggressive post, though. Super appreciated 😉 It’s too bad the Keys residents couldn’t figure out how money works or get the queen of England to accept you guys as your own country, or you could have successfully seceded from the US. Then you wouldn’t have to deal with mainlanders trying to camp for cheap.

    2. More reason not to visit and spend my money in restaurants and shops. But if your representative of local yocals, Id rather not visit at all!

    3. Someone trying explore somewhere inexpensively, keep to themselves and not hurt anybody, what a crime! And you trying to help!?! Oh no, we can’t have that.

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