How To Camp For Free (Almost)
Are you looking to try your hand at free camping? This is article is written for people who like the peace and solitude of camping where there are few people, beautiful views, and a wild imagination. You are not going to have the creature comforts of running water, flush toilets, and electric outlets. If you have a vehicle that is equipped with a cigarette lighter, you can run most of your electronic gadgets.
You are not going to need a GPS or electronic devices. A simple road map that also shows where the national forests usually does the job. I use AAA maps that are given away for free as part of my annual membership fee. These maps show every national forest and often show campgrounds. Most national forest campgrounds almost always have a fee if they are shown on the map. I like to ask local people and forest rangers if they can direct me to free campsites. Camp a short distance from most fee campgrounds and you will legally safe. National forests are America’s best free campgrounds on the planet as long as you play by rules. If the area is posted as “no camping” then don’t camp anywhere near the sign.
I have noticed a large portion of National Forest campgrounds on the West coast are being managed by private companies. The fees are much higher and the people running the camp grounds are very strict about paying. However, many will tell you where the best free sites are especially when their camp ground fills up.
You are not going to need any special vehicle either. Although a high clearance vehicle is advised if you are going to be traveling on national forest roads that are designated for off-road vehicles. I have a Subaru Outback and I don’t travel on 4×4 roads as this is a passenger vehicle and I don’t want to get stuck. The ideal vehicle for this mode of travel is a nondescript white cargo van that blends into the surrounds. It’s not 4×4, but offers high clearance, good power, and spacious enough to sleep in total privacy. If you really need more traction, you can have a locking differential installed-these are commonly referred to as “lockers”. With lockers installed, you will be able to navigate most 4×4 rated dirt and gravel roads.
The Vanabode Travel Method Of Free Camping
There are plenty of books available on Amazon or online that will detail the best free camping areas on the planet. To be honest, I have not used too many of them as they are often outdated or they will tell you the same thing that I am telling you-drive into the national forest and pitch your tent or sleep in your vehicle.
However, I did come across an eBook that describes in detail how to camp for free-Vanabode authored by Jason Odom and his wife. What on Earth is a Vanabode? Is this a cross between a hippie and a surfer dude? Possibly an alien? I will let you be the judge on what a Vanabode is. I am fast becoming one myself. This ebook and website will make your eyes bulge when you realize that you have been driving by the best free camp sites in the world. I have camped all over the US for free, but this guy takes free to another level. I wish that I could shut him up and tell him to stop selling his book before every finds out. I am not serious because most people will find his method too convenient. This leaves all the free campsites for us adventure seeking types.
Vanabode is an amazing eBook written by a guy named Jason Odom who lives on the road mostly full time. I got a copy of the book and have put it into immediate use for planning my next road trip. I am looking at both eBay and Craigslist for used cargo vans to turn into my camping machine.
When you read the book, you are not going to say “this guy sure is a genius”. You will be thinking to yourself “Why didn’t I think of all these easy ways to live on the road for next to nothing”! There is nothing new in the Vanabode book other than he puts everything together for you in an easy to read package.
When you see a picture of his white Chevy cargo van, the light bulbs will go in your head. I see these ugly white vans all over town and never think anything about them. Contractors, painters, roofers, and just about every tradesman uses cargo vans. They seem to blend in like cracks in a sidewalk. This type of van (Vanabode) is the key to camping anywhere in the US for free. Jason is like a ghost traveling the byways and highways of America. You probably have driven or walked by him without ever noticing him.
The biggest advantage of Vanabode style of camping is free camping! There still is plenty of free camping if you’re willing to drive,walk or ride your bicycle off the beaten path. The majority of camping that I have done in my life has been for free. I also need to clarify that I was a very young man between the ages of 16 and 30 years old when I did all my free camping. It was very easy to do as I was usually camping solo or with 1 or 2 buddies. I have slept under the stars hundreds of nights-in a row. My old 4×4 Toyota pickup truck provided me with a free hotel on many occasions on national forest logging roads. Whether hitch hiking, bicycle touring or traveling back roads in your car, pickup, van, or SUV, there is always a place that you can legally sleep for free.
Before you make an attempt at free camping ala Vanabode style, I must advise you to never camp on private property-ever! I once had a shot gun pointed at me while camping in Missouri. My buddy John and I were hitch hiking to Mardi Gras in New Orleans. As we were pulling down the tent at sunrise, a young man came barreling down the road in a 4×4 pickup and jumped out with a shot pointed at his. He “politely” asked us to leave and we complied without any other words than “yes sir”! It’s not worth the risk. That was the last time that I ever camped on private property without permission.
The big key is to not draw a lot of attention to yourself. Setting up a tent near populated areas sends a telegraphing message to the world that you are camping as opposed to resting. Trust me, I have received citations in 2 National Parks for illegally camping. I was guilty and knew it. In both cases, I had set up a tent. If you don’t pay the fine, a bench warrant will be issued. This is not good. Never camp outside of developed campgrounds in our National Park system. You will get a fine. On the other hand if you want to camp for free legally, the US National Parks allows you to back pack in and camp for free at back country country camp sites. I have camped many times this way in Yosemite National Park. It’s the only way to camp during the busy season unless you like camping with thousands of people with gas fired generators running all day and traffic jams everywhere.
How did I camp for free on so many camping trips? Very carefully. In most national forests, you can camp just about anywhere that is not marked. You have to be aware of the regulations. National forests are huge. Most are not regularly patrolled. If you are far enough away from major roads, you can pitch your tent and even have a fire (check first). If you have access to the Internet, you can get information about every national forest in the United States. BLM (Burea Of Land Management) land is another untapped resource. I have camped a few of their free and $3 a night campgrounds to use their facilities. Go online and research an area that you want to visit to see if their is BLM land for camping.
Best Places To Camp For Free
Another rarely used method by most travelers are county fair grounds and city parks. Many offer free or low cost over night camping. My wife and family love the quietness of city parks as they are mostly visited by locals. Usually the local police will roll by and wave or stop by to say hello. Some even have free showers! I stayed at the park in Lander, Wyoming which is the gateway to the Wind River Mountains. The showers were hot and free. It was one of the nicest local free city park that I have ever stayed in. My kids played for hours in the miniature western city playground.
Camping anywhere inside of a national forest that is flat enough to sleep and park your vehicle will work. I like to camp near national parks where I can take advantage of the beauty of the surrounding area without paying all the expense of nightly fees. Additionally, I don’t have to deal with a zillion tourist, who like myself, want to enjoy in the splendor of our national parks. I ease the congestion of the park by camping outside the park.
The key to my free camping was to be in stealth mode at night. I rarely if ever put up a tent. I slept in city parks under awnings and pavilions. I would sleep anywhere that kept me dry and safe. I made sure that I rolled into my chosen sleeping spot after dark.
I was never harassed by law enforcement. But I was questioned a few times that ended with pleasant results. I can remember waking up to a patrol cruiser driving across a grassy field in Texas with all the emergency lights flashing. The police officer asked me why my eyes were red. I explained to him that I had been sleeping. He searched all my bags and then asked what I was doing. I explained to the officer that I was traveling cross country by bicycle and that I was extremely tired and needed sleep.
Be creative in your search for free and alternative camping. Go to online forums. And of course, don’t forget to visit the Vanabode method of camping!
How I Camped For 6 Months Without Ever Paying For A Camp Site
I am not advocating breaking any laws. I was able to do this because I was traveling across the United States on a bicycle for 6 months. I did not have the money to pay every night night for camping a spot. A single person without a tent can sleep just about anywhere in near privacy. In fact, I did not pay for one night of camping in the six months on the road. I never received a citation for illegal camping because I never really “camped”. I had a bivvy sack that I occasionally slept in, but usually I just threw my bag and self inflating Therm-A-Rest air mattress in area that would keep me dry. Thank God (literally) for churches and elementary schools. During the summer months when I knew that school was not in session, I made use of open shelters camping near the entrance to the school building. I just made sure that I vacated premises before sun rise. I would make a b-line to the nearest city park and have my breakfast. City parks make a great camp site as long as there are no posted signs. Again, just make sure that you are not advertising that you will be camping for the night. Scout out your camping spot and then leave until it’s dark.
When I was staying inside national parks, I would bicycle around and start chitchatting with people until I found someone willing to share a campsite with me. Although, this was not really free, most people were more than happy to split the cost of the campsite. However, most were so intrigued by my riding cross country on a bicycle, that they begged me to spend the night at their campsite for free!
Is Hitch Hiking Still A Good Way Of Traveling?
Additionally, I hitched all over the western United States from Minnesota to Montana and down to Mexico. Would I recommend doing this today? It really depends. Mostly, it’s not because there are so many weird people that may pick you up. You are basically a volunteer prisoner until you are let out of the vehicle. Hitch hiking on the West coast from San Diego to Seattle still works. I had a shot gun pulled on me in Missouri and another crazy fool was shooting a .357 Magnum out of the driver side window in Colorado at road signs. Both of these situations caused great concern about hitch hiking. Hitch hiking is a risk that I would not suggest to anyone. Buy a good bicycle and ride if you want to see the country for cheap and camp for free.