After living a life on the road for around 3 years, we now consider ourselves experts in finding the best free campground. If you add the fact that we have only paid for about 4 nights of accommodation – boondocking is our specialty. There are many aspects you should factor into your decision about where you should spend your time in the woods.
Whether you are looking for a new unplugged experience, or just want to find some of the most secluded campgrounds, going off the beaten path works wonders for your mental health. Since we travel with dogs we prefer public sites rather than private ones where we don’t have to keep them leashed all the time. We have been asked so many times how we find the sites we stay at so we thought we’d let you all in on all of our secrets.
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This is for weekend warriors and Vanlifers alike. No matter where in North America you are these tips will help you find the best campground near you. Some places are going to be easier to camp in than others. Depending on where you are going, there are certain things you should know.
Not in North America? Check with local bylaws for rules on camping. When we were road tripping through Scotland they have a freedom to roam act that allows you to camp on any public land.
There are tons of land that you can camp on for FREE in North America. If you are in Canada most “Crown land” is free to camp on as well as any forest service roads. For example, 94% of land in British Columbia is considered Crown Land. This means the government owns the land. The USA has a similar thing called BLM land. This is land that isn’t owned by a single person. It is owned by the government, considered public land, and is free to use.
Not all maps will show you where this is or how to get to it, but trust us it is some of the best land to camp on. Some of this land is simply that, bare land that you can set up a tent or park your van on. The cool thing about this land is that you will find campgrounds that have everything provincial, or state, parks have. This can include picnic tables, fire pits and even outhouses. Don’t expect electricity or running water though.
* A few things to consider:
- Do your research to see if there are any fire restrictions in your area. If there are you can be fined for starting a fire. It is your responsibility to find this out. This is especially true in Canada where there are fire restrictions every single summer in most places.
- For both Canada and the USA, there is usually a stay limit, typically around 14-21 days. This, at least in our experience, isn’t strongly enforced but rather a way to keep it fair for all campers to get an opportunity to experience the site.
- There are no garbage services at these sites. It is your responsibility to pack out what you pack in. Keep in mind that someone has been at your site before you. If they left the site a mess you’d be upset, so treat your space with respect. One thing that is great to leave behind is the extra firewood you didn’t use. This is always a welcomed surprise for the next camper or RV.
- Rangers and police do not usually patrol these areas. This doesn’t mean that they are dangerous, it just means you have to be courteous to your neighbours. For example, don’t party until 2 am right beside a family with young children.
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Recreation Sites (Canada)
Provincial Parks (Canada) & State Parks (USA)
These are the sites that you are going to have to pay for. They are typically closer to larger cities and come with more amenities (but not always). We rarely stay at these sites since there are plenty of free ones. Paid campgrounds can range from $15 all the way to over $50 – and that’s without hookups.
In Canada Provincial Parks (and State Parks in the US) will always cost you money. Most people think these are the nicest, and easiest, places to get to but that hasn’t been our experience. However, they are well maintained and supervised by Park Rangers, and usually have showers, RV hookups, Wi-Fi service and flush toilets.
The downside to these sites is that they are strictly regulated. If you bring an extra car or have more than 4 people in a site be prepared to pay extra fees. Pets are required to be on a leash and stay in the designated area; you can’t bring alcohol to the beach, and you have to be quiet by a certain time.
It has been our experience that even with these rules Provincial and State parks are usually louder and more cramped than free sites.
If you are on a road trip or need a place to rest a Walmart or Highway rest stop is a safe place to stay. In our experience, both of these places are welcoming (unless otherwise posted) and allow you to catch up on some sleep. It’s not recommended to stay for longer than you need, or set up lawn chairs, but are a real option if you are desperate. We only ask that you are respectful of everyone around you. If you take over their parking lot the establishment will change their rules, ruining it for everyone.
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How to find these spots
Finding your ideal free campsite can be a bit of a challenge if you aren’t familiar with how to do it. There are many different ways of searching for the best sites.
We talk to everyone we can and ask them their secret spots. Driving an old Volkswagen van draws a lot of attention. People come up to us and strike up conversations nearly every day. You do not need an old van in order to start talking to everyone and getting all the insider secrets of where to go. Listening to the locals is an excellent way to find out the best spots.
We try to use this one the least however it is often the most reliable. Spending time on our phone or computer trying to find a site, especially at night, can be a frustrating task. Trying to find a reputable website is not the easiest. Some campgrounds close down, don’t look like the pictures or cost significantly more than they say online. Coupling this with not having a phone plan makes it even more difficult. If you are planning to look online, a simple free campsite website should help you find what you are looking for.
AllStay and FreeRoam app
We saved the best for last! These sites and apps are our secret gold mine and the thing we rely most heavily upon. While the AllStay app isn’t free it will undoubtedly be the best purchase you make for an extended road trip or camping experience (note: this is not a sponsored post, it is just that good!). This is a smartphone app that has proved to be one of the best purchases we’ve made. It works much the same as the Maps app on your phone but shows you every single campsite around you both free and paid.
Just keep in mind that this app is only available through the Apple App Store.
There are lists of search categories to choose from. If you are wanting to opt for free campsites only there is a button that will allow you to filter and view only the free campsites in your area. It has information like toilets, by a creek, elevation, how many sites, fire pits – everything you need to make your decision. It also gives you detailed directions on how to get to the sites. We have found that it is completely worth the $13 which is less than one night’s stay at a paid campground
The FreeRoam app is a free option that has done a great job of compiling many free, and paid campsites. Their app is available for Android and Apple devices and is easy to operate. Many listings through the app will have links to government sites that contain information about the site including how many sites, toilets and even the vehicle you need to access the site. This is an easy-to-use application that even has an option to sort sites by cell signals for all of you digital nomads.
All of the photos in this post have been from free sites. How do you find a campground near you? Let us know, and post your photos, in the comments below.
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