If free camping was as easy as parking on the side of a road overlooking the Grand Canyon, or simply driving in Yosemite and pitching under the half dome, everyone would be doing it. Unfortunately for campers these spots are most definitely illegal and will have you moved on by Park Rangers or Police pretty quickly.
Yet for some paying to spend the night next door to a family reunion of loud campers and sharing sticky facilities isn’t the alternative they dreamt of for their road trip. I count finding free camping spots as a life skill that I intend to practice annually and consider myself to be a master free camper of the West Coast of America (including California, Arizona, Nevada and Utah).
Nothing beats waking up to sunrise in the middle of a meadow with deer running past, or being the only ones pitched up lakeside. Luckily America provides us road trippers with a few choices of where to stop for the night without paying a penny, all you need to do is learn the tricks and factor them into your planning!
LEGAL CAMPING IN THE USA
Any campsite that sits in a National Park, State Park or is privately own will cost you to spend the night. There will be moments when all you need is a hot shower but for the most part opt for the adventure of wild camping. Legally you can sleep in your vehicle within any federally designated lands which basically means all land labelled: National Forests, Wildlife Management Areas, Bureau of Land Management and National Grasslands.
Finding these areas provides an entertaining task for the passenger road tripper plus all you need is Google Maps and a Road Atlas.
The light green shaded area of a Road Atlas is National Forest land and when you enter you can park up anywhere off the road. Once you have picked a suitably located National Forest and are on route, whip out Google Maps and zoom in to see if you can find the perfect overnight base. We tended to hunt for water views and followed the road into the National Forest aiming for a blue area on the map.
Entering a National Forest feels slightly odd at first in that, the entry road is often a dirt track leading into the middle of nowhere and you question whether you should be there. But don’t worry! As long as your map reading (Google direction following) skills are correct you have every right to be in that National Forest.
More often than not, we would drive 20 minutes off the main road into the forest and not pass by anyone. However, some National Forests have designated free camping areas which contain bins, compost toilet and site marks from where previous camper vans have parked. Make sure you jump out here to check any signs about camping, as National Forest land greatly varies and will have different rules on BBQ fires depending on the local area.
Top Tip: it may be the last thing you want to do after a long drive, but do take the time to reverse and re-position your van for the optimum view – you won’t regret it come morning!
When travelling to the Grand Canyon we assumed we would have to pay tourist prices to stay at a campsite nearby. But the handy atlas showed us an area right opposite Grand Canyon Village called Kaibab National Forest, which gave us private lake views, shared only with a herd of deer and a 15 minute drive from a Grand Canyon viewpoint.
When travelling through America and visiting the National Parks you will no doubt pass by Ranger Stations. Whether you are hiking in the middle of Sequoia National Park or stopped off for petrol in Yosemite, Ranger Stations are found all over and worth popping into. The local Rangers can offer you all sorts of advice including where to find wild camping and recommend the best spots to maximise tranquillity.
Seeing as we are in the twenty-first century it seems fitting that I include an App to help you with your free camping mission. Campendium allows you to search the area you want to camp in and recommends locations based on other users’ rating. You can scroll through to see where other campers have stayed, browsing their photos of the camping spot and finding out exactly how to get there from the main road.
IF ALL ELSE FAILS
Yet what to do if you find yourself away from the forest, but in need of free place to stay? Wal-Mart (the American Asda) allows free overnight parking for camper vans, caravans and RVs at the discretion of the store manager. Technically you need to check with the manager but if you turn up super late in the evening it’s likely no one will be in so I would park up and nap away assuming all is good. The added bonus of clean bathrooms in store and an abundance of dinner options are traded for a car park view at sunrise.
What you should try your hardest to avoid, is parking on the side of the road for the night. Not only does this make a rather uncomfortable night’s sleep but you run the risk of being woken by police and may owe a fine if there are clear ‘No Camping,’ signs nearby.
THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO WILD
- Bears: certain parts of America are home to bears and when wild camping you are staying on their land. Paid campsites provide you with bear lockers to store food and scented items but when you’re on your own you have to do this yourself! I would recommend grouping all scented items together to store under your bed – do not leave them exposed in the van nor outside.
- Rental Insurance: if you are renting a car or camper van read the small print about insurance. We learnt that we were not covered by insurance if we were off a paved road. So if you notice the road slowly turning into a dirt track think twice about how much of a risk you are willing to take. Breaking down in the wild and paying extortionate price to be rescued vs. beautiful camping spot, your choice.
- Fire Tracks: when driving through National Forest land road are labelled using the term ‘Forest Service Road 123,’ which refers to the roads fire engines would use to deal with wildfire. So if the numbers don’t make much sense, don’t worry it’s for the fire service not campers!
- Permits: some areas require permits so if you are in forest land and pass an information sign, do stop and check you can stay here. Although it is free, you may have to swing by a Ranger Station for your permit first.
CAMPING WHEN HIKING
Wild camping is often the only choice you have when on multi-day hikes. In parks such as, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park you need a Wilderness Permit to be able to legally camp on a hiking trail. These permits are limited and so need to be applied for in advance (which doesn’t always fit with the spontaneous nature of road trips). Although annoying for last-minute hikers, it is beneficial for the environment and ensures a limited number of campers are on the trail each day during busy months.
Whether you are wild camping to save money, wake up to the most surreal views or simply want to leave the tourist chatter behind, it really is worth it and can turn those bucket list dreams into reality for a fraction of the price.
Have you been camping in the USA? If you have any additional tips for our readers or questions please leave these in the comments below.
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Read More About Camping:
- Camping In The Sahara Desert, Morocco
- Camping In Antarctica
- 9 Ways To Find The Perfect Campsite In The Wilderness
- 4 Of Australia’s Coolest Sleepover Spots
We Are Travel Girls Contributor Sarah Bryant
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