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The Art of Vagabonding: Free Camping 102

December 28, 2011

Last time I talked about how to camp for free we were just leaving The Far North of the Americas. I wasn’t sure how our free camping strategies would work in the lower 48 states. Well camping for free is slightly harder in the lower 48 but still very manageable and the more you do it the easier it gets.

The first thing that you need to know is where you can’t free camp. National Parks are a definite No/No. State Parks likewise. These Parks both have proper campgrounds and expect you to use them.

In many states Walmarts are ok to spend the night but there are states that ban this completely. Walmarts should only be a last resort – say if you are travelling long distances multiple days and just need somewhere to rest overnight.  The following link lists those Walmarts that ban overnight parking:

However we have stayed at Walmarts that don’t allow overnight parking. This is when we arrive late and leave early. We’ve never been asked to move.

Very valuable advice that we got from a full timer was that light industrial areas in towns are ideal for boon-docking. They are often not too far from the centre and after 5pm everyone has gone home and they are pretty much deserted. Very conducive to a quiet nights sleep.

Freeway rest areas are another spot that you can camp in. The rules vary state by state and the following are the states that you can stay in.

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

In many small towns as you cruise through you will see a road lined with trucks. These are places where truck drivers spend the night and there is no reason why you can’t do too. The only problem is that many of these trucks will run their APU’s all night so might be quite noisy.

When on freeway’s keep an eye out for Truck Stops, eg. Flying J, as they will often allow overnight parking.

We also found that Casino’s are great places to park. They welcome the business and operate 24 hours so they just don’t have a problem with more vehicles in the lot.

There are plenty of other urban spots that you can stay: churches, mall car parks (talk to security first though), residential streets (keep a low profile) – and loads more – be creative !

These places are all very well to spend the night when you’re not too bothered about where you are, but there are a whole lot of better places to spend the night. They just might take a bit more work to find.

There is state owned land all over the USA which is available for free camping:

National forest is probably the most obvious. In almost all National Forest areas you are allowed to camp alongside roads. You should try to camp in areas which have been previously used and operate low impact camping but other than that you can camp almost anywhere. The best sites are usually found along gravel roads though.

Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land is also a great place to camp. These can have many different rules but usually dispersed camping is fine. In many towns there are BLM offices which you can use to find areas of BLM land and get permits for camping (sometimes required but free). You can stay up to 14 consecutive nights on BLM land.

In much of the USA you will find unmarked turnoffs down gravel roads. Often within the first half a km of the turn you can find a great turnoff that you won’t be hassled for at least a night.

If in doubt you can ask the rangers at state parks and national parks as well as visitor centres. These people often know great places to stay for free and are only too happy to share.

The main thing to remember when free camping is to follow your instincts. If you don’t feel safe – move on and find somewhere else. Also wherever you are staying practice zero impact camping. If you keep places pristine you’ll make it easier for the next person who comes along. If you stay in a commercial establishment – buy something, eat dinner there or talk to the manager. When you stay somewhere where there are other people then don’t outstay you’re welcome – arrive late, move on early.

We found that the more we free camped the easier it became and we’ve never been moved on.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. December 29, 2011 9:11 am

    Great post, this type of thing is great for beginners like me.
    love your posts.

  2. Joyce Yager permalink
    December 29, 2011 3:09 pm

    I like this! How applicable do you think this is for those of us without campers? I usually travel out of my station wagon and sleep in my tent…

    • December 29, 2011 11:48 pm

      Glad you like it.

      If you are travelling in a tent I think that means that you can’t really stay in urban areas – the walmarts etc. What a lot of people do is build up a sleeping shelf in the back of their station wagon so that they can sleep in areas they don’t feel comfortable with putting up a tent. This would work great in urban areas.

      However the BLM and National Forest land is absolutely fine. We met a guy in Alaska, an ice climbing guide, who was spending the whole summer in a tent just off a turnoff from a rural road. The only thing I would do with a tent is try to make sure that it can’t be seen from the road.


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