When I was 19 and an idiot, I set out on a harebrained road trip from Seattle to California with no real plan other than eventually, maybe, to come home. With two of my best friends in tow, we did our best to tear up the Pacific Coast, underage-college-kid style. It was a trip of firsts: first shot-ski, first crippling hangover, first time off-roading (unintentionally, in my mom’s Toyota Camry). We didn’t have much money, so after departing from the dorm-room floor we took over in Tahoe, we had to get creative. We had banked on making camp in secluded spots like tucked-away beaches or forest road pullouts, and got totally iced out.
San Francisco? Pitched a tent inside a fraternity house whose brothers we vaguely knew. Up the coast? First night, we crashed in the car—which, mind you, was not big enough for one person to sleep comfortably, much less three—in the parking lot of an old inn. We snuck out at first light and tiptoed into a campground up the road (which cost upward of $30 a night to sleep in) for a much needed shower. Second night? Not proud of it, but after searching fruitlessly until 11:30, we pulled into another $30+ campground once the ranger was off-duty and packed up camp before the sun rose.
It’s not quite as easy to camp for free in the good ol’ USA as it might be in, say, New Zealand or even bikepacking across Europe, but here are a few (legal) strategies and helpful bits of information to keep costs down and spirits high next time you’re jonesing to sleep under the stars.
Know your public lands
National forests, grasslands, and BLM land are your friends. National and state parks tend to be pricey. Private land is, quite obviously, off-limits (though there’s an app that lets you connect Airbnb-style with landowners who might be open to you crashing, typically for a fee.)
You can camp for free on the aforementioned friendly public lands, as long as you’re outside of developed campgrounds and not in an area explicitly marked as closed to camping. It’s called dispersed camping, and it looks pretty much like camping on a backcountry trip. Find a flat spot an appropriate distance from trails and waterways, practice good Leave No Trace habits, and don’t overstay your welcome. You’re required to move camp after 14 days in a national forest and after 21 on BLM land.
If you’re traveling in the western half of the US, start with this interactive map of public lands to get a feel for where you might be able to rest your head. Also, these two databases are full of crowd-sourced free camping spots.
On that note, your odds are better out West
There are 450 million acres of public land in the United States, but the vast majority of that is in the wide-open states west of the Mississippi. Nevada has the most public land of any state. Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, Wyoming, and Alaska round out the top ten. Road tripping around the heavily-developed, privately owned Eastern half of the US is going to be a little harder on the wallet.
According to the expert, road-tripping AJ staff, camping for free in Colorado is easy as pie, particularly in the stunning southwest corner of the state. Check out the Weminuche Wilderness, which is “amazeballs,” according to Paddy O’Connell, and if you find yourself in Buena Vista, try for a spot by “the fractions” on the Arkansas river.
Despite the large tracts of public land, California can be tough for the frugal camper, particularly along the coast. Once you get farther away from population centers, your odds improve, particularly in the far north and northeast of the state. What not to do in California? According to Justin Housman, beware of winging it in Mendocino National Forest, where there are “plenty of people growing weed there who don’t take kindly to strangers.” Steve Casimiro echoed and extended the sentiment to include grow country in Oregon as well.
Speaking of Oregon, many of those gorgeous, misty beaches are free for campers as well—as long as they’re not adjacent to Oregon state parks, or within the city limits of Cannon Beach, Lincoln City, Seaside, Newport, Bandon, Gold Beach, Rockaway Beach or Manzanita. Scope out your spot beforehand, though. The rugged coastline isn’t always easily accessible. There’s also a solid chance you’ll get rained on, and make sure you know what’s going on with the tides.
Take a walk, and get creative.
As a rule, backcountry camping is going to be cheaper than road tripping. But where you need a permit, you’ll likely need to pay a fee, and the permitting process for popular backpacking trips these days can be a bit of a run-around. Take, for instance, applying for a permit to backcountry camp in Glacier National Park in the summer: if you reserve your campsites ahead, it’s a $40 fee per group, and you pay an additional $7 permitting fee per person, per night. If you show up for one in person, there’s a chance you won’t get the permit for your itinerary for a few days, if at all, and you still have to pay the $7 per night fee. But if you decide to go in the off-season, November 20-April 30, it’s totally free.
Same goes for the Enchantments, a super-popular hike in Washington’s Wenatchee National Forest. The fee is just $6 to apply for a permit, and $5 a night, but getting a permit can be damn near impossible. Once October 31st hits (which can be a great time to see the larches burn yellow) and before May 15, you don’t need a permit at all. If you’re not keen on cold-weather camping, at least open up your travel plans to include less-popular wildernesses, which will be less strict about their permitting processes. Try the Wind Rivers rather than Grand Teton National Park, or the Sawtooths instead of Yellowstone.
None of this is to say we ought to begrudge the public lands their fees or their permits, we should be more than happy to pitch in and help maintain our increasingly cash-strapped public lands. And of course, limiting the number of hikers in popular areas is crucial. But nobody likes to wait in line at a ranger station three days in a row, and we’re all–parks included—looking to save a little cash.