State Parks Booked? Camp for Free Instead

Camping for free is easier than you think

The fall and spring are prime backpacking and camping times. As a result many state and national park campgrounds book solid well in advance of those times. If you didn’t book ahead what can you do? Well, if you’re willing to do a little research and to go further off the grid, you can not only find places to camp, but also do it for free.

I used to be under the impression that camping was only allowed in designated parks. I had no idea how wrong I was. The reason we know about camping in paid areas but not free areas is simple. Because campgrounds charge fees, they can pay someone to advertise, to make a website, and to put out roadway signs. If you want to camp for free you will have to a spot, and make sure you aren’t trespassing. When you camp at a designated campground, you are paying for the convenience of not figuring it out yourself. For those willing to research a little, the reward can be spectacular.

How to find a free camp site?

There are two very good resources for this that I have personally used. The first is provided from the very people tasked with making sure our national forest stay nice, the United States Forest Service. You can visit their site by following the link here.

The Forest Service doesn’t just manage national forest, they also manage public use campgrounds. So while you can take advantage of camping for free within the national forest, paid sites will probably exist.  This means you’ll have to research if the area you are camping is free or if they expect a use fee. Also pay attention to any posted signs prohibiting camping in certain areas or during certain times of year, such as hunting season.  Some of the national forest require you notify the rangers prior to camping, in case you, or someone in your party, doesn’t return.  This is especially true where the forest is known to host animals such as mountain lions, bears, and wolves.

Another amazing resource for free campgrounds is the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), their site can be visited here. The BLM, manages pubic land typically used for the public good, such as for grazing or mining. This land often sees regular grazing by livestock, or the land may be culturally, or environmentally, sensitive. You may have heard of the BLM from from controversial standoffs. The BLM typically is a better resource in the western half of the country but can be a great resource in locating a free camping area. Thanks to maps like this from the BLM, we identified a stretch of the Red River for off-road vehicles and camping, that is free to the public. This land also happens to border the controversial 160 miles of Texas/Oklahoma border that recently catapulted it into the national spot light.

Finding a free place to camp is a little harder than driving to the local KOA campgrounds.  However, if privacy, backpacking, and getting back to nature, are your goals, then the extra leg work is definitely worth it.

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