US and Canadian national, state, and provincial parks may be beautiful, but if you’re planning an extended camping trip, the cost of campground fees can quickly mount up. Wouldn’t it be great if there were free areas you could camp?
There are, and their existence has led to the development of a culture of free camping enthusiasts. Known variously as boondocking, dispersed camping, dry camping, and wild camping, free camping offers a chance to take full advantage of nature’s bounty without those pesky fees.
Rules of Boondocking
Boondocking has its own unwritten rules. The first, and perhaps most important, is only to camp where it’s legal to do so. Failure to follow this rule makes other dispersed campers look irresponsible, and could get you into serious legal trouble.
Most wild camping sites are just that—wild. You won’t normally have access to any amenities, or even a handy garbage can, so practicing Leave No Trace camping is essential for the environment. Depending on where you camp, you may or may not be allowed to build a fire with a fire permit. Check local fire restrictions with the organization that controls the land before heading out.
Remember, boondocking is often synonymous with backcountry camping, so you’re going to need to come prepared, with your own water, food, and emergency supplies.
Bureau of Land Management Land
The US Bureau of Land Management oversees publicly managed land most often found in the western states, and usually (not always—check before you camp) allows free camping outside of developed campgrounds.
Much of the BLM land in the western states covers arid to desert environments, and the BLM may allow cattle grazing or mining depending on the specific area. Research the area first to be sure it’s appropriate for camping. Some areas may be gated. Gates shouldn’t be locked, but please leave the gate in the same state you find it (you don’t want to have to explain to a justifiably angry ranched why forty head of cattle are now roaming free).
Within BLM land, you can backpack into the wilds to find a campground, use pullovers, or find a spot just off an access road. Most areas allow you to camp for fourteen days, but some allow for longer stays. Camps should not be set up closer than 200 feet to a stream or water source. You’ll need to check fire regulations and pack out your waste.
Camping rules for county parks vary from county to county, and even change from park to park. Finding information on county park camping can be difficult to track down, but as a very general rule, the more remote the park, the greater the chance it allows camping. Sites may or may not be free, so call the county with questions before you go.
Crown Land (Canada)
89 percent of Canada is designated Crown Land, and available for free to Canadian residents for public use. If you’re visiting form out-of-country, you’ll need to pay for a permit.
The rules for Crown Land use are varied, and camping isn’t allowed in many areas. In areas where you can camp, it’s often backcountry camping, with access by canoe or kayak. If camping is allowed, you can often stay for up to 21 days. Provincial websites will often have information on Crown Land use.
National Forests and Grasslands
The US Forestry Service oversees 175 national forests and grasslands, which can easily be found on Google Maps. National forests are not national parks, but many national forests border the larger (and more expensive) parks.
Each national forest has its own rules, but in most cases you can camp anywhere outside recreational areas and developed campgrounds for free, usually with a fourteen-day limit. Follow similar guidelines as for camping in BLM land, and check the ranger office before you head out for specific rules and fire restrictions.
Wildlife Management Areas
Wildlife management areas are run by individual states, and may be used for hunting, fishing, or wildlife preservation. WMAs offer opportunities for boondocking, but the rules for each site differ. Some allow camping, others forbid all access, and some charge for day use or seasonable permits. The best way to find possible WMA camping is to type “WMA” and the state name into Google, and then to call the land’s management team to inquire about camping.