Shannon is a social worker, counselor, avid traveler, scuba diver, adventurer, and mom.
In the United States, sometimes we think that nothing can really be free. Capitalism and all that. But there are actually hundreds of places that you can camp for free or near free in the US, Canada, and even Mexico! Many of them are in highly desirable places. Ok. Ok. We know. But you really can camp for free!
How do you find these free campsites? Well, there's a website for that!
I absolutely and completely love www.freecampsites.net. It is my number one go-to tool for my own free camping trips in North America. Are you in Canada? No problem, eh! You're covered. This page not only has an interactive map to search for free, pay, and permit camping all over North America. It even includes locations in Mexico (and trust me, it's hard to find free (or any) camping in Mexico!).
Freecampsites allows for interactive map searching in any area, provides GPS coordinates, and even has a trip planning tool. The trip planning tool allows you to enter two or more destinations and shows you every free (and fee) campground along the way! I did a test run for a trip from my little town in Texas to Boston. There were hundreds of free campsites along the route! The site also allows users to enter their own discoveries and touts itself as a community-based site. Users rate campgrounds as they use them so each site has a star rating and useful information about the rules, directions, and seasonal restrictions. This is a must bookmark for the budget traveler. Above is a peek of search results for the entire state of Texas.
Public Lands: This Land Is Our Land
Although there is often a day fee or a camping fee on public lands, did you know that you can usually use dispersed camping areas for free? This means that you'll stay outside of the traditional campgrounds or in the backcountry. Often they will even have fire rings, tables or even lantern poles at different areas where dispersed camping is permitted. Even some National Parks allow dispersed camping (although they are more regulated than other public lands).
You can find all the information you need to find public lands that are allowable for day use by visiting www.recreation.gov. They partner with the public land management agencies to provide information about recreation all in one place. You'll find information on lands with the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, National Park Service, Tennessee Valley Authority, Fish and Wildlife Service, US Army Corp of Engineers, and the US Forest Service. Of note: Don't expect them to advertise free dispersed camping, they do not! That does not mean you cannot do dispersed camping there! You may have to do a bit more research or call to find out where dispersed camping is allowed.
If you submit a search for camping in any area, it will show you pay campsites within the parks and lands that can be reserved in advance. You can also purchase a Parks Pass through this page ($80.00 per year for most) that covers unlimited entry and use fees (and discounts on camping, boating, etc) on all public lands that require fees. I recommend spending the money if you're planning to trek across America.
Parking Lots and Rest Stops
Walmart, Bass Pro Shops, Cracker Barrel, etc.
That's right. I said Walmart. Almost every Walmart will allow you to camp in their parking lot overnight for free. Don't expect to pitch a tent in the parking lot, you'll need to either be sleeping in your car or have a van or RV, but with a few exceptions (find a list of the small percentage where it is prohibited here). Although highly considered to be the best, WalMart isn't the only company willing to allow you to grab some zzz's on your road trip in their parking lot. Most Travel Centers (Flying J, Love's, etc), Cabela's, Bass Pro Shops, Camping World, Home Depot, Cracker Barrel, Costco, and Kmart also generally allow overnight parking of RVs and boondockers (aka car/van/RV sleepers just parking it for the night who do not need hookups). There are some general courtesies to be followed when utilizing these type of accommodations. Find information more information about Walmart Etiquette at www.walmartlocator.com. You can visit the definitive "boondockers" website for places to camp in your car/van/SUV/RV for free at www.freecampgrounds.com.
Rest Areas are also a great place to stop for the night and get some sleep. You can sleep overnight in almost all rest areas. We recommend sleeping in a well-lit area if you're going to do this. But, don't let that alarm you, I have been sleeping in rest stops for years and have never had a single incident. As a bonus, many rest areas have local travel and weather information and picnic areas (usually with a BBQ pit) for preparing a nice meal or coffee in the morning. I can personally recommend some rest areas in both the Smoky and Rocky Mountains that will give you picture-worthy views.
But is it safe? I recently took a 6000-mile cross country trip where I experimented with on-the-fly car camping. I went from Texas to Canada and back and visited areas such as New York, Boston, Niagara Falls, Washington DC and the Great Smoky Mountains. I utilized parking lots and rest areas more than any other free camping area included in this article during my three-week trip. I was alone during my trip and felt more secure in these areas than I did in some of the more remote dispersed camping areas. Each time, there were at least three or four other cars or RVs in the parking lot with me staying overnight in parking lots and many more in rest areas. Often, there was security or staff on site and actively patrolling. There's the added bonus of being able to use a restroom or slip inside the stores to grab essentials or breakfast.
Mexico, Central and South America
Although Mexico is technically in North America, I am putting it here because camping in Mexico, Central and South America requires its own strategy, a little bit of guts, and some luck!
Mexico does have a fairly abundant amount of camping places available, but free ones are difficult to find. Other than word of mouth, the charity of the locals, or a real sense of adventure, you're going to find that you may have to pay for most sites. The good news is that the cost is so low that it's almost free and you'll be fed more often than not by gracious hosts of families. There is a great resource for campgrounds in Mexico, though these are pay RV parks: On The Road In Mexico: Campgrounds. We recommend purchasing a copy of the Traveler's Guide to Mexico if camping Mexico is on your bucket list. I am extremely familiar with Mexico, the culture, and the landscapes. If you are not, you'll want to do a lot of research before embarking on the journey and have a solid plan. If you are going to attempt to car camp, ensure that you're in a safe area and know your surroundings.
As for Central and South America, your best bet is to find a hostel and ask them if you can pitch a tent or sleep in your car. They may allow you to do it for free or they may ask you to hand over the equivalent of a fiver or so. Central American border crossings can be dangerous, but you'll find that traveling around (even hitchhiking or backpacking) can be safe and a fun adventure! The locals are helpful and friendly in most cases! A little Spanish helps, but usually isn't required. Also be sure you check out national and local parks as they'll often allow you to camp for free or for a very modest fee. You can find several blogs and anecdotal accounts of camping in the lower Americas.
Luckily, Wild Camping is prevalent and accepted in most of Central and South America. Wild Camping basically means that you find a spot and put down a tent wherever you are. And in Central and South America, there are many landscapes that make this type of camping magnificent. You can usually find free camping (or camping libre/camping agreste in the local language) or low-cost private campgrounds in cities and in the countryside. Much of Central and South America will have municipal camping grounds near towns. But be aware, these can get loud and rowdy as the locals come in after work and on weekends.
iOverlander (www.ioverlander.com) can give you some direction. It is similar to freecampsites.net except that it does not focus only on camping. It shows locations of everything from restaurants and tourist attractions to primitive and wild camping spots. It also uses user input, a feature I love! Although this is a great resource for finding worldwide resources, it does not focus on pricing of the established or primitive campsites. There is no way to know whether camping spots are free or require payment. Some user input reports whether it is free or the cost they negotiated, but this is not consistent and requires a bit too much work unless you are looking for exclusively Wild Camping (which should always be free).
Share Your Opinion
Oh Europe, the country known for its abundance of backpackers, hostel-goers and yes, wild campers. Most of Europe is camping friendly with a few restrictions. Technically, it is illegal in Greece, but it appears that no one really cares about that technicality and wild camping is prevalent. There are loads of sites on wild camping in Europe as well as loads of sites on camping, backpacking (or walking as its called in some circles). There are also a large number of apps that you can whip out to find a spot. I could point you to them, but a google search will net you more resources than this article will for finding your spot in your location.
Nearly every city in Europe has a campground within the city limits and/or right outside the city limits. The camping options across the pond put the options in the Americas to shame. Most of the campgrounds there will charge you per tent, per vehicle, or per person. All combined, you'll find that it's still a much cheaper alternative even to hostels or Airbnb nights. There are also several options for camping cards that allow you discounts in thousands of campgrounds. As a bonus, most of these will also provide you with some liability insurance and discounts on food, clothing, and supplies as well.
My recommendation is to stick to wild camping if you are looking for exclusively free camping. You'll need to know the rules for the specific country or region and follow the general etiquette expected to stay out of trouble. AlanRogers.com has great information about camping in Europe in general but has a specific Wild Camping Guide that is updated regularly with the latest information. While you're there, check out their program for camping in the low season using Camping Cheques to pay one discounted rate for hundreds of different camping locations.
Australia and New Zealand
Much like the United States, much of Australia is dotted with traditional (and low cost) campsites and National Parks. But free camping is quite possible and there are many free camp spots. You can stay in truck stops, rest areas and parking lots much like the US. You can be fined around $200 for wild camping in designated areas so it is important to know whether you are allowed to wild camp where you pitch your tent. Generally camping in Australia and New Zealand is comparable to camping in the US and the same guidelines can be followed.
I found a few resources that are great for finding the spots. Rankers has a great interactive map of New Zealand that identifies free and low-cost campgrounds. Spaceships (a rental company) has a free app that covers both Australia and New Zealand that identifies free and low-cost campgrounds as well as other usual tools for road trippers. WikiCamps has been recommended as the definitive free camping companion for Australia. (This app is also available for US, Canada, New Zealand, and the UK). The apps are free for a trial period and then you will have to pay a modest $5 or so to use the app. You can filter exclusively for free campgrounds, which we like, but it is a bit hard to navigate at first. I have included a screenshot of free camping areas near Brisbane.
I'm not going to lie to you, I don't think it is wise to Bush Camp (aka wild camp) in Africa, though it is done. You can refer back to iOverlander.com to explore a stunning amount of user-submitted wild camping sites in the country. If you are interested in trying this, it will be free to camp or you may have to pay the nearest tribal chief or head a small fee to bush camp in the area. In any case, you will likely need someone to know where you are camping, give you a few tips on how to navigate the bush in the area, know more than the basics of keeping your camp as animal proof as possible, and know the area around you well enough to be able to handle any emergency. Stay off game trails and away from watering holes.
Africa is wild. We all know this. This is the appeal. But then again, so are Australia and Texas! The tipping point, in my opinion, is that Texas may have poisonous snakes and deadly spiders and even an occasional wild boar or mountain lion, we don't have giants. Elephants, baboons, hyenas, lions, tigers, rhinos. Should we go on? Read camping tips and then decide if you really want to try to man Africa without shelling out for a guide or an established (and fenced) camp.
That said, camping in Africa is not only possible, it is common! But free camping is not. You will find the most prevalent camping areas (and the safer wild camping spots) in South Africa. Campsa has a great resource for finding campsites in the southern portion of Africa. As with most anywhere, you'll find that wildlife refuges and parks will give you the best-established camping spots. Camping in the bush is recommended to be on top of your vehicle and off the ground. You can rent 4X4 vehicles with rooftop tents and even refrigerators for self-driving tours. And again, know more than basic animal proofing and safety before you go!
Asia is such a small word for such a big place! There are so many facets to Asia that it likely deserves its own article, but I'll try to give you as much information as I can in compact form!
China does not have campgrounds or well, not many. Part of the culture in much of Asia considers camping to be a ridiculous endeavor. Also, it's technically illegal(ish) for foreigners to camp in China. There are exceptions, such as tour operators setting up tent colonies at the Great Wall, but for the most part, camping just isn't a thing in China. But if you want to try it, it's certainly free! Some tips for stealth (wild) camping in China: Don't camp too near cities. Try to blend in and stay in lower lying areas away from roads, lakes, and more traveled areas. Ask locals if you can pitch a tent on their land and don't be surprised if they invite you in! In cities, you might be surprised to find that smaller restaurant and business owners may allow you to sleep in their shops for the night. Stay away from borders and military bases. Do not use formal GPS or other higher end navigation equipment as this can cause you more trouble with the authorities than you want! And finally, if you do happen to be intercepted by authorities, play dumb. You are foreign. You didn't know any better. You never read this. I've never seen you before. Who are you?
You cannot independently travel in Tibet. As much as you may dream of trekking up to the base of Everest (I certainly do!), you cannot do that on your own. You are required to have a guide, be with that guide, and ready to present your permit at all times. This is not something I'd recommend messing around with. If you somehow make it into the country without established permits and a related travel agency or guide, there are checkpoints all over. That said, you can totally camp in Tibet with a guide or a small group! It is high up on my list! But it's not free. I wish!
Yes. You can! You SO can. Wild Camping in Mongolia is comparable to Europe. It isn't that uncommon and landowners are friendly as long as you don't stay too long in one place. Be wary of whether you have pitched on prime grazing land or are disruptive to crops. Landowners will likely show up, talk with you and will probably invite you to dinner. If you have any food, share it with them as well. Be aware that open fires with scattered wood should be done minimally and respectfully. Petrol/gas stoves are preferred for cooking while wild camping in Mongolia.
You cannot camp for free in Singapore. As a matter of fact, you can camp in exactly three parks in the entire country: East Coast Park - Area D and Area G, Pasir Ris Park - Area 1 and Area 3, West Coast Park - Designated area within Area 3. You also require a permit that is displayed on your tent and are only allowed to camp 4 days per month. The permit application states that you must certify that you have a residential address in Singapore, but from my research, this isn't a necessary requirement. You can camp as a visitor.
Southeast Asia: Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos
You'll find Southeast Asia much like Mongolia in most places. No one will bother you. No one will stop you as long as you're not bothering anyone and following the basic good practices. It is not that common because rooms and dorms are so inexpensive in that area ($5-$10 USD per night). Local Expats say that there are many places for camping in the beach areas but the bugs, heat, and rain may make it impractical. But it isn't illegal and it is very often done. You can also pay a very small fee and camp in National Parks.
If you can find no other alternative, find a wat or a temple. Monks will invite you in and give you a place to sleep and likely a modest meal. You will also come across huts and shacks that you can find shelter in if you are in a pinch, especially in the more rural areas. Again, you can always ask the locals to pitch a tent and subsequently be asked in for a meal, of course.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2017 shancontented