Would you believe me if I told you that in 594 total days on the road we have only paid for campgrounds twenty-three times? It’s true! Only in times of no other options have we shelled out for a place to stay. The main places we have ended up paying for camping have been along the West Coast, where free camping is almost nonexistent, or in national parks, where staying within the park boundaries was the most convenient option. Otherwise, we have traveled nineteen months and counting without paying for any form of lodging.
Why, you might ask? One of our goals in full-time RVing was to cut our expenses down and live as cheaply as we could. We wanted to reduce our expenses to bare bones and save additional income or use it to pay down debt. So, with the plethora of free camping to be had, why would we pay rent when we don’t technically have to? (To read more about why we love boondocking, check out this post).
There are way more places than you may think where you can camp completely free, and we didn’t learn about many of them until after we had hit the road. Keep in mind that none of these places provide hookups or standard campground amenities, so if you decide to live the off-grid life full-time, you will have to make some sacrifices and compromises on the utility front. (Check out this post learn more about HOW we make full-time dry camping work).
I will also note that staying at many of these places entails some form of blacktop boondocking, which is basically just off-grid camping in a parking lot.
Here, I’ll discuss some of the various free places to camp and the pros and cons of each type of site. I’ve listed them in a sort of hierarchy that numbers our first choices for free camping down to our last, least desirable choice.
Public Land (national forest land, BLM, etc)
Camping on public lands is by far our favorite means of free camping. Often called boondocking, this refers to camping on undeveloped roads and in undeveloped campsites, usually located on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) or NFS (national forest service) roads. Here, we find beautiful, unobstructed views, along with silence, solitude, privacy, and tons of space. We absolutely love camping like this.
We find all of our boondocking locations through a few useful resources, such as Campendium (our top favorite), freecampsites.net, AllStays, and the iOverlander app. All of these websites/apps provide photos and location-specific information, as well as cell data info for several carriers, max stay allowed, site accessibility and road conditions, and much, much more. (Check out my post on resources used to determine WHERE to boondock and my post on factors we use to decide which site is best for us).
Casinos are our second choice when looking for a free place to stay. These tend to be found closer to metros and/or desirable vacation towns and cities. When we were traveling through the Pacific Northwest, we stayed at so many casinos, and our experiences were primarily good. These casinos were in a variety of locations, including nearby Seattle, along the Washington coast, in Northern California, in Coastal Oregon, and a variety of other places. There were even locations right on the beachfront in some really beautiful places. Although the bulk of our experiences lie in the PNW casinos, there are casinos all over the country that allow free camping. You can usually find these sites listed on Campendium, but there a few other resources that also list free casino camping information.
If you choose to camp at a casino, be sure to learn the rules prior to visiting. These include where specifically to park, how long you are allowed to stay, whether or not you are expected to check in with security, and what hours you are allowed to run your generator (if there are no hours, default to 8am-10pm for general politeness to neighbors). Keep in mind that these places are a business, and they do not want you to set up camp or leave your barking dogs tied up outside.
In addition, consider spending some money in the form of a little gaming or a meal in exchange for your stay. While this is not necessarily required, casinos allow RVers to stay for free in the first place in hopes that we will spend some money. If a majority of RVers do not make the free stay worth their while, these free stays could become paid stays.
Cabela’s, Cracker Barrel, Bass Pro Shops
In my opinion, these three are generally created equal. As nationwide establishments, Cracker Barrel, Cabela’s and Bass Pro Shops allow RVers to stay free in their lots. We have stayed at each of these at least once, and overall, we had great experiences. Cracker Barrel tends to be a bit louder and busier than the two outdoor gear stores, but they are still a pretty good place to stay for a night’s stopover. Be sure to grab breakfast in the morning to thank them for the site.
Cabela’s and Bass Pro Shops will typically allow you to stay 2-3 nights. We once stayed at a Cabela’s in Olympia, Washington, for three nights in what was likely the quietest blacktop boondocking we have ever found. It even had water and a dump for RVs, as well as a dog run. Don’t be afraid to stay at one of these for a night or two somewhere along your travels.
It is a well-known fact that most Walmarts allow overnight RV camping for one night, or maybe even two with store permission. Certain counties do not allow overnight parking in non-campground locations, and in these counties, you will find no-overnight Walmarts. This list details which Walmarts do not allow overnight parking. If you aren’t sure if overnight parking is allowed at a certain Walmart, you can typically tell by the signs posted around. Walmarts that do not want you to stay will make it very clear with signs posted every few feet in their lots.
As with casino camping, be respectful of these places that allow you to stay for free by parking politely, not setting up camp outside, not blasting your generator outside, and buying something. Purchases aren’t totally necessary, but, again, we try to follow the rule of reciprocity when it comes to free camping.
Although it is not commonly-known, many Home Depots will allow RVers to stay a night or two in their lot if they call and get the go-ahead from a manager. We have stayed in Home Depot lots while renting tools to work on a DIY project or even in situations where we had no other choice on where to stay.
These are the least ideal places to spend a night, and we essentially avoid them at all costs. They are typically loud, brightly lit, and a tad sketchy. However, they are also usually convenient, right off the highway, and perfect for a quick stop when you are driving all hours of the day and night to make it to a far-away location quickly.
While not technically completely without cost, Harvest Hosts are one of our favorite “free” places to camp. These are a collection of farms, wineries, breweries, museums, and more, that allow self-contained RVs to park on their property for a night. This requires a yearly membership ($50), and there is also the expectation that you will purchase something from the business in exchange for your stay. Still though, I would prefer to support a small business by buying berries or a delicious bottle of wine instead of just paying for a spot to park.
We have not yet used this service as a way to camp, but we have heard many good things from friends who regularly use and love this website. Boondockers Welcome is a collection of people’s private homes where RVers are invited to stay for free. Some places even provide full or partial hookups. These locations can be found all over the country, with many locations located in and around cities. Some sites have length restrictions, expected number of days notice, and a max length of stay, which are all to be respected if you decide to use the service. There is even an online booking and site requesting service! We plan to stay at a few locations during our impending trek back east this fall, so I will come back and update this with more details when the time comes.
With some proper research and properly utilizing this list of free places to stay, you should be able to travel in an RV without ever having to shell out for camping. Occasionally we treat ourselves to the full hookup life (which often goes hand-in-hand with a nice jacuzzi), but, for us and our travel style, campgrounds just are not a priority. We do love a nice campground, but we also love saving money. If you plan to travel similarly to us, check out these free places to stay to choose and determine your favorites. We love living rent-free, and we see it as one of the greatest benefits of the flexibility that comes with this lifestyle.
Do you camp for free often? Where are your favorite places to dry camp? Are there any places we left out? Feel free to share in the comments below.