So, you want to go camping, enjoy the outdoors and not spend a cent? Me too. Lucky for you, free camping has become an area of expertise for me. After spending 3+ years living from my self converted van, I can say with confidence that spending time in the most beautiful landscapes doesn’t have to cost you anything.
Yes, that’s right, 99% of the time, it is completely free!
Why Free Camping?
Free camping is simply spending the night in your home on wheels without paying up for a campground. I don’t know about you but personally, I avoid campsites like the plague.
Why? Well mainly, it is expensive. Like, really expensive. Depending on where you are one night at a campsite can cost anywhere from $30-$100+. When I was on the west coast of Canada last month, one night at a decent campsite was $50, and that was during the low season.
During the 3 years I’ve lived in my van, last month was the first time that I had ever paid for camping. And that’s not because I was being stubborn for the previous 3 years. But, because up until last month, I simply had no reason to check into a campsite. This isn’t to shame anyone who enjoys a good campsite. If you can afford it, and see the value in it, then hey, keep it up!
Free Camping Near Me?
However, I’m here to let you know there are many places you can stay without spending a dime that are, 9 out of 10 times, just as nice if not nicer, than the alternative of a paid campsite.
Where to Look – The Obvious Spots
Do a quick 5-minute google search of free places to park overnight and you will be bombarded with the obvious and popular spots that give or take, are available from coast to coast. These are the parking lots that you can pull into at night and have peace of mind knowing that the chances of another like-minded traveller being nearby is very high.
This is a list of stores and services that are widely known to let travellers spend a night in their parking lots for free.
- Canadian Tire
- Movie Theatres – Larger Chains (Cineplex, etc.)
- Cracker Barrel
- Rest Stops + Truck Stops
- Visitor Information Centers/ Welcome Centers
All the places listed above are great options for when you’re looking for something last minute and close to a city or town.
Personally, my rule of thumb is: if I show up to a place and see other people in their vans, RVs or trailers then I take it as a sign that it is okay to spend the night.
But, if I am the first to get there and find myself questioning if it’s okay, I just pop inside and ask the customer service desk for permission to stay one night as I travel through. Most of the time, they are more than happy to say yes.
As vanlifers, we all have a responsibility to show up as respectful citizens who arent just stopping wherever we please and claiming a space to be our own without first, asking for permission.
Where to Look – The Hidden Gems
If you’re looking for free camping in more of a magical landscape, then you’re in luck. There are an unending amount of places that are available for public use. Most of the time these spots are scenic, hidden and unknown.
Beware, these spots are sometimes a little tricky to get to. They require cognizance when driving up to the spot and sometimes, it’s smart to walk in on foot before barreling through with your van. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been endlessly thankful that I took the 10 minutes to walk up to a spot only to realize that my van would have, without a doubt, gotten stuck on my way in.
How Do I Find The Hidden Gems?
If you have some time to wander around in an area, my first suggestion is to do just that, wander!
Ask locals if they have any ideas of a good spot to camp that gets you off the beaten path. If you ask the right person, they are usually more than happy to offer up suggestions and send you on your way.
If you’re a little more hesitant to ask around, another strategy is to find the logging or forestry roads. Depending on where you are, there are lots of these roads that are open for public use.
When entering the road, you will, most of the time, see a sign that states the road is for forestry but is open for public recreation at the risk of the person entering. From there, drive down the road as far as you’d like and once you find a nice spot to the side of the road, it’s yours to set up camp and enjoy.
Forestry and logging roads are typically a little more remote and very quiet, but they do take some adventuring to find.
A list of places that you can usually find free camping hidden gems:
- Forestry and Logging roads
- National Forests and Grasslands – USA Only
- Crownland – Canada Only
- BLM Land – USA Only
I think it’s important to say that when spending time in these areas do so with the most respect. Whatever you pack in, make sure it’s being packed out.
While you’re welcome to set up camp on these shared public spaces, it is our duty to make sure they look just as good, if not better than when we got there. Personally, whenever I stay off the beaten path, I try to fill a grocery bag with any garbage I find laying around.
RV Campgrounds Near Me
Where to Look: Apps & Websites
Another great way to find free camping is by simply downloading a few apps. There are plenty of apps that are made with the goal of sharing free camping spots. They are usually user reviewed. This means that other people who are also free camping have either shared a spot or taken time to review it.
Personally, this is by far, my favourite way to find a free (and awesome) spot for the night. It’s nice to check out a spot on an app before actually driving there. People who review the spots are usually very honest with photos and sharing if they foresee any possible issues.
Here is a list of great apps and websites that share free camping:
- iOverlander App
- BLM Land Online Maps – USA Only
- Forest Service Land – USA Only
- Crown Land – Canada Only
- All Stays App
Most of these options are completely free. The only outlier being All Stays. There is a one-time $9.99 fee to download the app and access all the campsites on the app.
Where to Look – Social Media
Another app that I haven’t yet mentioned is Instagram. There are so many fellow vanlifers on Instagram. Not including it in this list would be simply unfair.
I’ve made many invaluable friendships through the app. And, because of this, have been given suggestions for some pretty great campsites. If you ever find yourself unsure of where to camp for the night, just post on your stories or feed kindly asking if anyone has any ideas. You might be surprised by the number of internet friends who want to help you out.
Facebook is also great for this. There are so many groups dedicated to vanlifers and nomads. I don’t spend much time on Facebook but if it’s your cup of tea, join a group and ask for free campsite suggestions in a specific area.
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