For those on a budget, perhaps one of the most difficult questions to answer is, “But where can I sleep for less than I’d have to pay in a hotel?” It can be fairly simple to buy your food from a grocery store, visit inexpensive destinations (no theme parks, for example), or check the internet to figure out where the best gas prices are to cut down on traveling costs, but it isn’t quite as easy to find inexpensive or free places to spend the night. In this article, I will describe several methods on how to find free places to camp that will hopefully keep you from getting tossed out in the middle of the night.
Occasionally you will be able to find a free campground. For example, the campground at Navajo National Monument, Arizona, is free, as is the campground at Angel’s Peak National Recreation Area, New Mexico. This is the simplest and nicest way to camp for free. However, realize that many free campgrounds are at the end of dirt roads (the campground in Navajo National Monument located on a paved road, but this is the exception rather than the rule). Some of these dirt roads, such as the one to Angel’s Peak, are in fairly good condition and could be accessed by a passenger car. Others are very rough and can only be accessed by a 4×4 enabled vehicle. Campgrounds may be noisy or quite, depending on how many other campers are staying at the campground.
National Forests/Bureau of Land Management (BLM)
Probably the easiest free campspots to find in the western US are off of roads in areas owned by the National Forest or the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Both of these entities have a policy that campers are free to camp anywhere in the National Forest, provided that they are mile from a paved road and don’t break any of the laws of the National Forest/BLM. For example, to get to this campspot, you’ll have to drive down a dirt road, as off-road driving is severely restricted in these areas. Also, you cannot trample vegetation or sleep in a place that has signs about “no camping”. You also cannot sleep in a National Forest Service campground without paying if a fee is charged. All other National Forest/BLM rules must be followed when camping in these areas. This is probably the quietest option mentioned in this article. If you’re looking for peace and quiet, this is a good way to get it most of the time.
A few parks allow free-range camping, which basically means that you can pull off of park roads (especially dirt roads) to camp. Each park will have its own rules; be sure to check out these parks’ websites or talk with a park ranger before you set up camp in one of these parks. Parks that allow free-range camping include Death Valley National Park and Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Again, this can be a very quiet way to camp, unless you have noisy neighbors.
If you camp in a camper or sleep in your car, van, or truck, there are more free-camping options available to you. One of these is parking lots of stores that allow overnight parking. Specifically, Walmart, Kmart, and Flying J truck stops allow campers and those sleeping in their vehicles to stay one night for free. However, not all of these stores allow overnight parking; check for signs forbidding overnight parking: they’re usually pretty obvious. This is a very noisy option, as vehicles will likely be driving past you the whole night long. Also, night is when most stores send street sweepers to clean their parking lots, so it’s not uncommon to be woken up in the middle of the night by the truck cleaning up the parking lot.
Some states allow those in campers and vehicles to park overnight in rest areas; other states have a maximum stay limit (for example, no more than 48-hour parking-one night’s sleep is well within these bounds!), and some specifically state that overnight parking and camping are not allowed. Currently, Arkansas, Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, Utah, Texas, and Washington allow travelers to stay in rest areas. However, individual rest areas within these states may prohibit overnight parking, while individual rest areas in other states may allow it. Always follow the rules of the rest area. Again, these can be quite noisy, as trucks and other vehicles are driving in and out of the rest area at all hours. The highway is also often close by, adding to the racket. However, the other trucks may block out much of the noise.
Truck Parking Areas
Some states offer truck parking areas as an alternative to trucks using rest areas. Many truckers spend the night in these parking areas (usually just an open gravel area near the highway without any facilities), and those who want to park overnight can do the same. However, be aware that illegal and quasi-legal activities often occur in these parking areas, so it may not be the best place to go if you are alone. The noise of trucks idling all night usually cuts down on the overall noise from the highway and other vehicles.
Whenever you’re camping, follow the rules. This will hopefully keep you from being evicted in the middle of the night, or even the next morning. Also, use common sense when dealing with others while you are camping: don’t open your door to anyone you don’t know, don’t camp alone if possible, tell someone where you will be going, and take a cell phone with you for emergency situations. And, lastly, enjoy a vacation that doesn’t break your budget!