• Marina Neal

How to Find Free Camping Sites (Hint: Public Lands are Key)

Updated: Aug 17

You’ve heard your friends talk about it, a mystical land where there are limited people, you can camp for free, and get the comfort of sleeping out of your car. Dreamy, but where are these places and how might one find them?

Camping at night, public lands
Photo courtesy of Alexa Romano

Public lands take up about 28% of the United States or 680 million acres. These lands are open to the public but managed by the government. All of this public land is paid for with the taxes that US citizens pay, but it can be really difficult to know how to find it!


What are Public Lands?


Setting up a tent, sunset, public lands
Photo courtesy of Marina Neal

There are several kinds of public lands, including but not limited to: wilderness areas, wild and scenic areas, city parks, and national recreation areas. The ones we are going to be focusing on are the ones you can camp for free on, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and National Forest (USFS). Dispersed camping, or free camping, is a great way to explore beautiful and remote places away from the crowds of national parks. They typically have 80% fewer visitors!


USFS and BLM cover a lot of land in the

States. USFS manages 168 million acres of public land, and 1 in every 10 acres of land in the U.S. is managed by BLM. That’s a lot of exploring options!


One thing to keep in mind is that there are zero amenities on public lands. This means no toilet, no clean water sources, and limited cell service if there is an emergency. This is why it’s so important to be prepared. Here are some of the most important things to keep in mind when searching for a dispersed camping spot.


Car camping on public lands
Photo courtesy of Marina Neal

How to Camp Responsibly in the Backcountry


It’s important to follow some of best practices while dispersed camping to respect take care of the land. Some important ground rules are camping at least 200 feet away from a source of water, staying on roads (and not tearing into meadows), and when using the restroom, follow LNT rules for burying human waste. This means cat holes: a hole dug 6 inches deep with a 4-6 inch diameter, at least 200 feet from water, trails, and camp. Check out this article to learn more about LNT principles and how to best practice them!


With the fire ban in most Western states right now, it’s illegal to start a fire. But if you happen to camp in a place where it is legal, make sure it is absolutely put out before you leave it. A helpful practice is to move the coals around with a stick while pouring water onto the pit.


It's also important to consider that many public lands are the ancestral home grounds of Indigenous peoples, who have since been forcibly removed. It’s a great practice to acknowledge and educate yourself on what people lived on the land when you visit.


How to be Safe in the Backcountry


There are no amenities when backcountry camping. It’s important to come prepared with enough water for your group and some to spare, food, and a garden shovel for cat holes. Water jugs can be found at every gas station, and it isn’t too hard to find reusable giant jugs at most outdoor stores.


Most of the time dispersed camping is out of cell range. This means it’s important to come prepared with the things you might need and an emergency plan for when something goes awry. Tell a friend where you are going and make sure you stick to the plan. Another thing to be aware of is that the road to these campsites is often dirt or gravel and can require a high clearance vehicle. If you don’t have a high clearance vehicle, you can check reviews of the camp spot if it’s listed online and make sure to drive with care.


Woman eats soup, public land
Photo courtesy of Nahla Gedeon Achi

How to Find Free Camping Sites

Woman sets up tent, public lands
Photo courtesy of Marina Neal

You may be wondering, but how do I find a magical place like this? Well, there are a few ways. I often use GAIA GPS on road trips. This is an app that shows trails, USFS roads, and BLM land. It’s free and has led me down a lot of funky roads but beautiful campsites. If you are planning in advance, you can simply google dispersed camping in that area, or go to sites like Free Camping, in order to find a great spot for the night. If you are willing to pay a small fee for car camping, there are also sites like Hipcamp, which allow you to camp on private land and not be in total isolation!


All in all, be respectful and have an adventure! If you need any gear, Requipper is a great place to look for used tents, cooking equipment, and more.