There’s lots of ways to camp—from reserving a highly coveted campsites in national parks to camping on private lands. If you’re willing to forego basic campsite amenities, a whole world of free and legal camping awaits you on your public lands. Here’s where to look.
The Bureau of Land Management is an agency within the Department of Interior that is responsible for 250 million acres of publicly-owned land. This is close to 1/8 of the total landmass in the US and most of that land is out West.
You can camp on most BLM land for up to 14 days, even if there are grazing or mining claims (just watch out for cow pies), unless otherwise posted.
Most BLM lands are in these 12 western states: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.
Are you an expert at BLM camping in these states? Let us know!
The US Forestry Service is another government agency that is responsible for 175 national forests and grasslands. They maintain developed campgrounds (which typically cost under $20) and are responsible for logging, grazing, mineral rights, road and trail maintenance and law enforcement in the area.
Similarly to BLM land, you can camp for free on most National Forest land for up to 14 days as long as you are outside the vicinity of developed recreation areas (campsites, picnic areas, trailheads) or an area specifically restricted to camping and 100-feet from any stream. Rules and regulations vary by district, so it’s important to do some research before you pitch a tent just anywhere.
Dispersed camping is typically allowed on state-owned land, other than state parks, recreations areas, state forest campgrounds or state game area campgrounds, though rules vary state to state. Sometimes states require permits or small fees. Again, do your research—state forest land is typically a bit harder to navigate than federally-operated land.
Many National Wilderness Areas require permits for hiking and camping, but often only during peaks recreation seasons. For example, the super popular Enchantments Wilderness Area in Washington only requires permits May 15 through Oct 31. If you don’t mind throwing on a few more layers and trying out cold weather camping, you’re home free to camp in many (but not all) wilderness areas in the off-season.
*A quick note: We’re all for permitted camping, especially during peak seasons. It’s important to manage the traffic in these special areas to preserve their biodiversity for generations of species, including humans, to come. We’re also all for supporting our State and National Park Systems, which are loosing funding, even while demand for their use continues to rise. There’s a time and a place for dispersed, permitted or private land camping for everyone. ?
If you do your homework (aka talk to friendly Park Rangers), you’d be surprised that it’s possible to find last-minute, free (or really cheap) backcountry permits within national parks. Some of my best nights camping have been at a backcountry area in Arches National Park, where we set up camp less than a mile from the road and isolated from the park’s crowds—completely for free. (But don’t tell anyone ?.)
Lots of campgrounds within parks get reserved months in advance (and can be expensive), but ask the Park Rangers if they have any recommendations for National Forest or BLM Land just outside the park. They often do!
There are all sorts of hidden gems within the National Park System that you may only hear about if you talk to the Rangers working and living there. For example, a few years ago I went on a road trip through Utah during peak spring break season. We had no plans or reservations, just a couple of college kids winging it. We talked to a Park Ranger at Canyonlands and said, “We’re here with no plans, but this place is amazing. How do we experience it without the crowds?”
She directed us to the Horseshoe Canyon Unit, a small designation of the park way out by the remote Maze Entrance where there is a deserted canyon, amazing wall art and virtually no people. While the canyon is technically on park grounds, the rim of the canyon is BLM Land, so we were able to camp there for free. It was the only stop on our road trip where we stayed for two nights. Moral of the story = Park Rangers rule.
When you’re dispersed camping, you must be well-practiced in Leave No Trace Principles. For the most part, it will just be you, your tent and the land—no bathrooms, no showers, no trash cans. Pack out what you brought in, and pick up any additional trash you find for extra credit.
You also have to accept more risks. While there may be USFS Rangers in the area, outside of a designated campground you lose the “safety in numbers” factor, especially with regards to the elements and wildlife. If you’re camping in bear country, bring your own bear canister and spray. If you’re in the desert, bring extra water and appropriate shade. If there’s a fire ban, it’s your responsibility to know about it before you go and to obey it at all times.
That being said, there are lots of benefits to camping on public lands. For one, it’s free! (Yay!) There’s also a good chance you and your crew will be the only ones out there—you’ll have lots more privacy than in a developed campground, and a lot more freedom.
(Queue your dad’s voice): But with that freedom, comes responsibility.
You’re camping on public land—your land. It’s your responsibility to take care of both the land and yourself while you’re out there. Happy camping!
Dispersed camping not your thing? You can still find greater privacy camping on privately-owned lands listed on Hipcamp. Search for campgrounds “Bookable on Hipcamp” near you.
Julie Kukral is the Social + Content Marketing Coordinator at Hipcamp. She loves a good free campsite just as much as she loves glamping—and isn’t afraid to let anyone know it. Follow her on Instagram.
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