The RV lifestyle can be very enticing, with promises of waking up every morning on the shore of a pristine mountain lake, eating out at lavish restaurants nightly, and sitting poolside in a posh RV resort in the desert. But all of that can cost money, and if you don’t want to spend your retirement fund or the proceeds from your nest egg in one felled swoop, how can you still have that lakeside experience and keep your savings account? The answer is to save money by free camping!
It can be easier (and actually more enjoyable) than you think. Consider “Free Camping.” No, you will not end up ‘in a van down by the river’ unless that’s your choice! But you can stay in some of the most stunning locations in the country without spending a dime; you just need to know how to find them. Let’s take a look at a variety of ways to save money by free camping.
Free Camping on Public Lands
If you are strictly looking for just a campsite, America’s National Forests and open lands overseen by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) offer some of the most scenic, secluded, and free campsites available. These types of sites are referenced as “dispersed” or “dry” camping, meaning there are no amenities or hookups. Generally speaking, you must have a self-contained rig. There are also some campgrounds within public lands that do charge a fee, so do your research beforehand and know camping rules for the region. Staying at these are the easiest and most beautiful way to save money by free camping.
Located mostly in the western part of the country, BLM land has some organized campgrounds near developed recreational facilities (most charge a small fee), but also have thousands of acres of land where dispersed camping is allowed. Sometimes these sites are marked, but many times they are not, so look for previously used campsites along secondary roads to set up camp. Refer to the BLM website to look at specific regions, with campsite descriptions and charges.
There are some National Forests east of the Continental Divide, but the bulk of them lie in the western states. You will find national forest campgrounds with fees, as well as plenty of dispersed camping in each forest region. Campers are allowed to stay up to 14 days at one site within a 28 day period, then you must move at least 25 miles away to another site. Visit the National Forests website to find the region you are interested in, then look up specific rules and restrictions for that region.
Walmarts, Casinos, Cracker Barrels, Cabela’s, Rest Stops
Many businesses see the value in allowing RVers to stop overnight, staying in their parking lots to get some rest before moving on. Remember, this is not a campground, just a resting area. RVers should not put down leveling systems, open slides, or start-up their grills in these areas. Utilize the business’s offerings, like purchasing breakfast after a stop at Cracker Barrel or stocking up on camping supplies at Cabela’s or Walmart.
ALWAYS call and speak with a manager before arriving at any of these businesses, asking permission and for a requested location to park. This is a privilege that is quickly disappearing because of thoughtless and rude campers, so be helpful. Many RVers pay back this kindness by collecting carts or picking up trash in the parking lot, leaving their overnight stop a little better off than when they arrived.
Family or Friends Houses
Comically referred to as “moochdocking,” this practice is a great opportunity to spend more time with friends and family by parking in their driveways when visiting. If your rig is set up to run on solar, there is no need to ask for a plug-in, but it is considered rude to run your generator, as the neighbors might not appreciate it! Agree on a set number of days before you arrive, so as not to outstay your welcome.
A topic unto itself, workamping involves trading your time working for a campsite. For instance, an RV park may need someone to help out in their office 20 hours a week. In response to your labor, you are assigned a campsite in their RV park. If you agree to work for more than 20-24 hours per week, you may also earn pay for every hour over that amount.
There are a variety of types of jobs available for workampers. You might wait tables, become a campground host, docent at a museum, do landscaping, plan activities at an RV park, sell Christmas trees, work in an Amazon warehouse or pick beets as your workamping gig. One of the best ways to find these opportunities is through a website and newsletter called Workamper News
Many different campgrounds offer membership programs with discounts, saving you anywhere from 10% to 100% off your camping fees. Here are the most popular programs:
Boondockers Welcome – For an annual fee of $50, you can stop at other member’s homes and camp overnight. Most members are RVers themselves, so they have a site at their home ready to accept campers. Some even have hookups, and the night’s stay is free of charge. There are currently over 2,600 spots across the country!
Harvest Hosts – For an annual fee of $79, you can stop at vineyards, museums, orchards, breweries, and farms and stay overnight for free. If you want to stay at participating golf courses, as well, the cost is a total of $119. You must have a self-contained vehicle and it is suggested that you purchase something at the host’s property (like wine or a round of golf!)
Passport America – For an annual fee of $44, you can save 50% of your campsite fees for up to 4 nights’ stay at any of 1,600 campgrounds.
Good Sam Club – For $29 per year, you can save 10% on campsite fees at over 2,600 campgrounds around the US, as well as saving 5 cents per gallon on gas a Pilot and Flying J truck stops, with discounts also offered at Camping World and Gander Sports.
Utilize Public Campgrounds
Some small towns offer free campgrounds as a service to those traveling. Although hard to find, using a website like Free Campsites (listed below) can make it easy to discover these little gems across the country. These are some of our favorite ways to save money by free camping and they sometimes even provide free hookups!
Find campgrounds within state and county parks at nominal fees by using the Campendium website (listed below). The campsites will be listed by location, with fees charged, amenities available, and reviews by previous campers.
Army Corps of Engineers (COE) campgrounds are usually located on lakes that the COE have created, so they are generally quite scenic and usually budget-friendly in price.
How to Find Free Camping Locations
There are quite a few websites and apps that identify free camping locations. Here are some of the best:
- Allstays Camp and RV – Website and app that has not only free and paid campsites but camping supply locations like dump stations, propane providers, and businesses that allow overnight stays.
- Free Campsites – Look for free campsites around the country by city, state, or region.
- Campendium – Find free and paid campsites listed with prices, amenities, and reviews.
- RV Trip Wizard – Use this mapping application to find free and paid campsites and mark them on your travel map, along with attractions, gas stations, travel hazards, etc.
As you can see, there are dozens of ways to keep your camping budget low. You can enjoy that mountain lake without spending a cent on campground fees, then splurge on an occasional resort stay with the money you saved! Mix and match any of the suggestions listed above to come up with a game plan that works for you, so that you can enjoy the RV lifestyle without breaking the bank.
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