Updated: Aug 3, 2022
If there is one thing we can all agree on, it's that anything available for free has an upper hand on anything available for a price. Believe it or not, camping is the same way and this is an article on how to achieve your ideal camping trip, road trip or life on the road without breaking the bank.
First of all, let's get it out of our heads that in order to camp anywhere, you need to drop money to solidify a safe and secure spot with a toilet – this is a myth. In my time of traveling, about 200 days in total between a road trip and now life on the road, I have only paid for camping twice. In a misfortune of events, I popped a tire while driving through Iowa, resulted to my spare and spent $12 on a river front campsite for the night...worth it. The second time I paid for camping was a recommended campsite and let's just say, I'll stick to free camping for now on.
Most of these free sites are just as good as, if not better than, sites you pay for. America is booming with Bureaus of Land Management, National Forests and Public Lands meant for, you guessed it, free camping. Right off the beaten path and usually wedged between pay-to-stay campsites are these patches of land with sites for the picking. Whether you are hiking in, pulling up a vehicle or parking your RV, there are sites for everyone and even apps/websites to remove the guessing and checking from the equation.
Which apps or websites should I use?
This is one of my most frequented websites. I executed a 50 day road trip around the entire country using this app alone. Now that I live on the road full time with a self-sustainable van, it also helps locate parking lots, rest areas and more for free overnight parking.
This app definitely helps when it comes to finding more updated spots around the country. When I don't find something promising on FreeCampsites.net, I often cross-reference this app. It provides not only camping and overnight parking but also dump stations for trash, water and toilets.
This app offers much more than most – not just camping, overnight stays and dump stations. iOverlander keeps on giving with hotels, hostels, tourist attractions, grocery stores and much more. This app is your one stop trip planner if you like to have everything in one place.
This is an app where you can check into your location, add emergency contacts and alert authorities should anything happen. Staying safe when off grid with no service is beyond important and checking in with this app is a brainless measure that could save your life.
What am I looking for?
This question is entirely up to you. When I camp, I don't necessarily need anything other than a spot that I can drive my van into, which helps me rule out any campsites that state "hike in" or "tent" only. If you need a toilet, I would definitely make sure you read the reviews, comments or description to find out the logistics. I opt for campsites with photos over ones that do not contain photos which helps give me an idea of what the campsite looks like before showing up blindly. (Looking up a satelite image of the campsite also helps determine what kind of terrain you are dealing with.)
Know before you go:
You never want to show up to your campsite after dark. Give yourself ample time to scope out your site during daylight, not only to ensure safety but also to ensure you have extra time to move to another campsite if the first is full/unavailable.
Scoping out a few campsites in the same area helps if the first campsite isn't all you imagined it would be. (Another reason to show up early.)
Camping on weekends is tough. Showing up late on a Friday or anytime on a Saturday makes finding an available site more difficult. Keep this is mind when planning your trip.
Not every opening in the land is a campsite. Only camp in designated campsites. The last thing you need is to try camping for free but ending up with a fine from a Park Ranger.
Leave no trace. Leave the campsite better than you found it by packing out what you pack in, appropriately burying any bathroom or food scraps (at least 10" under packed dirt) and leaving nature alone. Don't show up, cut down some trees, make a mess and leave trash in the fire pit. Someone has to clean that!
Use biodegradable soaps, toothpastes and toilet papers. Be kind to nature and it can continue giving back to us in the future.
Camping must haves:
Hatchet/striker for campfires. Remember not to cut anything down, there is a lot to scavenge for on the ground.
Rubber mallet (if you have a tent, some campsites have hard packed dirt and you want to be prepared).
Biodegradable toilet paper, soap and toothpaste unless you have a tank for grey (dirty) water that you can properly dispose of.
Plenty of water, you definitely don't want to run out.
Warm clothes including gloves, hats and extra socks...anything to keep you warm on those chilly nights. You may not need it when you go to bed but around 4-7am, the temperature drops significantly.
Ready to go??
Hopefully this article has helped you realize a camping trip doesn't have to break the bank or even cost you a penny for stay. Consider checking out my article:
Road Tripping for Beginners to help you plan your trip before you hit the road and as always, safe travels!