Boondocking (“free camping”) – How to find free RV campsites

There is nothing like the feeling of freedom of setting up camp an ideal, secluded, picturesque campsite out in the hinterlands somewhere. Not in a campground, and not in an RV park, but camping somewhere on the gorgeous public lands that have been set aside by the government for recreational purposes.

RV boondocking with a fifth wheel trailer in Wyoming

Boondocking in Wyoming

RV boondocking camping in a trailer in Idaho

Boondocking in Idaho

Boondocking” refers to this kind of camping (also known as “dispersed camping”).

Some people call it “free camping” or even “wild camping” because it doesn’t cost anything and many sites are far out in nature somewhere.

Whatever name you give it, it falls under the category of “dry camping” because you are living in your RV without hooking it up to city water, sewer or electricity.

This post describes the different kinds of boondocking spots that are available and how to locate them.

If you are interested in tips for how to live off the grid in an RV (i.e., tips for how to save electricity, how to conserve water & propane, how to boondock safely, etc.), see this page: RV Boondocking – Tips for Living Off the Grid in an RV

WHAT IS BOONDOCKING ALL ABOUT?

Generally, boondocking is a very different way of traveling than staying in RV parks and campgrounds, because it is very free spirited and spontaneous. Nothing can be reserved in advance, and often you have no idea what kind of site you might find.

RV boondocking in Montana

At the end of a rainbow in Montana

Many days we have no idea where we will be staying until late in the afternoon.

Learning to be this flexible takes time, especially after years spent in structured, workaday routines, and not everyone ends up liking it.

We find the freedom from rules and restrictions and the beauty of the public lands is intoxicating, and we wouldn’t travel in our RV any other way.

We have been camping this way every night since we started full-timing, and to date we have boondocked a total of over 1,600 nights.

PUBLIC LAND

Camping in a fifth wheel RV in utah

Lakeside in Utah

The US Forest Service (USFS) the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and other government agencies all manage vast tracts of public land.

Many of the ranger districts allow “dispersed camping,” that is, camping wherever a spot seems suitable.

Usually they prefer that you stay in a site that already has a campfire ring, rather than clearing a new site, and there are also districts and areas where dispersed camping is not allowed.

There is a ranger’s office for each district within each of these agencies, and a stop at the ranger’s office is often worthwhile to pick up maps and to ask about dispersed camping opportunities, rules and regulations.

BOONDOCKING ETIQUETTE

Usually you can’t stay longer than 14 days, and they ask you to “pack it in and pack it out,” meaning: don’t leave the place a mess. Generally an RV won’t leave a footprint behind, but sometimes we arrive at a site and end up filling several grocery bags with trash, some of it 20 years old or more (rusted tin cans with flip tops!).

I’d rather pack out someone else’s trash than leave that legacy for our grandchildren to find when they go camping with their RVs decades from now.

View from RV window in Utah

View from our window in Utah

Our feeling is that if we can stay for free for two weeks on a gorgeous piece of property, surrounded by hundreds of acres of natural beauty, with a multi-million dollar view out our windows, the least we can do is to pick up a little trash so the campsite is nice for the next visitor.

We also want to keep the USFS, BLM and other land management agencies happy with RVers so they continue to allow boondocking on their land. Florida’s Ocala National Forest doesn’t allow RVs to boondock any more because the winter visitors trashed the forest for so many years. What a shame that those thoughtless people ruined it for the rest of us.

In addition to picking up whatever garbage is around your site, it’s important to respect the neighbors, if there are any. Most people boondock to get away from it all, and respecting that quest for peace and quiet is simply common courtesy.

Whether it’s loud music or a loud generator, nature is not nearly as tranquil when a neighbor is making a lot of noise.

HOW TO LOCATE BOONDOCKING SITES

 

Fifth wheel trailer camping in Oregon

Sunset in Oregon

RESOURCES FOR FINDING A CAMPSITE

We find about 40% of our boondocking campsites using the resources below. The other 60% of the places we stay are campsites we found on our own by scouting an area by bicycle or in our truck.

Our primary resource is the Day’s End Directory which is available to members of the Escapees RV Club.

Fifth wheel trailer camping under a rainbow in Oregon

An overnight stop in Oregon

This is a mammoth database of free and inexpensive boondocking campsites and dry camping campground sites that is maintained by all the people who subscribe to it.

Free camping in a trailer in California Death Valley

One of our first boondocking experiences in Death Valley California

It is downloadable in several forms, and an online map is available that shows the locations of many of the sites.

Besides the $29 annual fee for joining Escapees, there is a nominal fee to subscribe to Day’s End.

If you actively participate in offering new boondocking sites that you have found on your own, or if you validate existing ones to help keep the database up to date, then the annual Day’s End subscription fee is waived.

Escapees is a really worthwhile club to join for anyone that enjoys RVing, regardless of whether or not you subscribe to Day’s End. Not only do they have a terrific magazine, but they do a lot of advocacy work on behalf of all RVers that benefits us all.

The directions to the sites in Day’s End is very much abbreviated, but once you get used to it, there is no better resource. It is our only travel guide, and we boondock 100% of the time.

An example location (disguised with a wink) is the following:

 

FD, PARADISE: BD area (NF). No facilities but stone firerings. Free. 14 day limit w/in 30. Go E from town 3.2 mi on US-79A, TL (N) on FR-357 at MM 526. Keep R, 0.2 mi. Before cattle guard, TR on FR-287 (fence on L). On R room for 1 or 2 RVs. Big rigs okay. 42.9411, -122.1043. Janet Lynn #177595 Jul 09. Reval by Katia & Sergei Grinkov #205261 May 13. Updated by Toller Cranston #199408 Jun 14

Translation: This is a boondocking location near the city/state of “Paradise, Found.” It describes a boondocking area in the national forest that has no facilities except stone fire rings. Camping is free with a stay limit of 14 days within every 30 day period.

The directions are to go east from town 3.2 miles on US-79A. Then Turn Left (north) on FR-357 at mile marker 526. Keep Right for 0.2 miles. Before the cattle guard, turn Right on FR-287 (there’s a fence on the left). On the right you’ll find room for 1 or 2 RVs in a site that is okay for big rigs.

The GPS coordinates are given, as are the names and Escapees membership numbers of both the person who first reported it in 2009, a couple who went back and verified it in 2013 and a person who updated the listing with some new information in 2014.

boondocking with a fifth wheel trailer in Idaho

Camping under a big open sky in Idaho

Day’s End is a very precious resource that has been painstakingly developed over several decades in the true spirit of sharing among people with like interests. It was created by Bob & Viva Lee Ed and is now managed by Guy Gipson. Many people have kindly submitted sites they’ve found over the years, and its custodians have spent countless hours editing and assembling the information and putting it online.

RV camping in the Oregon woods

Tucked into the woods in Oregon

Because it is in a digital form, it is easy to spread it around. It’s also easy to give to a friend who is neither an Escapees member nor a Day’s End Directory subscriber.

It’s super easy to take all the contents and create a new paid membership program offering boondocking campsites for profit or to write a book listing these boondocking campsites and profit from that.

Hopefully RV boondockers have scruples and will respect the collaborative nature of this resource and see the value of becoming subscribers and helping it grow.

After subscribing to the Day’s End Directory, please do not post the listings online or distribute the list to non-subscribers.

OUR METHOD FOR FINDING BOONDOCKING SPOTS

We use Day’s End in conjunction with the Delorme State Atlas Books and the Benchmark Atlas Books and Google Maps. These map books show where the public lands are, and we have one for every state we travel in (and for a few states we have two, one from each publisher!).

Sometimes it is hard to get the precise detail of the smaller forest roads in these map books, but it gets you close. Google Maps is also limited when it comes to small forest roads. Toggling between “map” and “satellite” mode helps.

Before traveling to a new area, I read all the site descriptions given in Day’s End, using the PDF form of the directory, and I use the “Highlight” feature of Mac’s Preview software to highlight the places that look promising. For us, the most important thing is that a site is “big rig friendly” (which is usually notated in the description) and that it is not too far down a rough road.

Camping under a rainbow in Wyoming

A rainbow crosses the sky in Wyoming

If we are going to a state I don’t know very well, I’ll mark up a paper road map of the state with notations of where all the good boondocking sites are.

Each state produces a free paper road map, and visitors centers usually stock them for all the states in the region, so it’s easy to get your hands on a road map before arriving in a new state.

Mapping out the campsites gives me an idea of which parts of the state are RV friendly and where the good sightseeing probably is. It also a great geography lesson!

Some areas are rich in boondocking campsites and some have very few. If there aren’t a lot of potential sites, then we have to evaluate if there is enough of a draw to go there even if the camping is going to be challenging.

We like to line up two or three potential sites before heading out to a new place we’ve never been before. If there aren’t that many in Day’s End, then we come up with a backup plan using the other resources listed below.

Camping in an RV in Arizona

Full moon at dusk in Arizona

Once we arrive in the neighborhood of where we want to camp, if the directions specify that it is easy to reach, we get bold and drive on in.

Otherwise, we pull over somewhere nearby, unhitch the truck or grab the bikes, and scout it out to see if we’ll fit in the spot and whether we want to stay there.

Sometimes the site doesn’t work out. Either the person describing it has a different definition of “big rig friendly” than we do, or something has changed at the site that makes it unusable, or someone else is already camping there. Then we move on to Plan B.

Often, we simply aim for a site that is acceptable for a night or two. Then, once we are settled (and if we like the area and want to stay), we scout more intensively for a better site using our bikes or our truck.

Scouting like this is how we usually find the best spots, because the most special campsites are frequently not listed anywhere. For us, that is the true joy of RV boondocking: finding a place that is wonderful and unknown. It makes us feel like adventurers and explorers, and it’s very satisfying.

OTHER RESOURCES

Here are some other resources we have found helpful on occasion:

FreeCampsites.net – An online database of campsites reported by the public that is searchable by city/state
Guide to Free Campgrounds by Don Wright lists inexpensive and free campsites.

There are a few additional resources available that are really popular with many RVers. We don’t have personal experience with them yet, as we haven’t needed them in our own travels so far. They are:

US Public Lands App (download from Google Play or the App Store) – A phone/tablet app that shows the boundaries of all public land!!
Allstays RV & Camp App (download from Google Play and the App Store) – A camping phone/tablet app for tenting to RV parks
Boondocking.org – An online database of campsites reported by the public that is searchable by GPS coordinates
Harvest Hosts – A membership program of wineries that offer a free one night stay on their grounds.
Overnight RV Parking – A membership program with a database of camping sites
Boondockers Welcome – A membership program that connects RVers (and former RVers) who own property big enough for an RV (check how big!) with RVers that are looking for a place to stay.

Overnight at a scenic lookou at Washington Pass in the North Cascades

One of our earliest boondocking experiences in Washington

In general, the biggest limitation to any list of boondocking spots is the quality of the reports.

If the person reporting the site is traveling in a van, or in a car with a tent, and has never driven a big RV, their campsites may be totally inappropriate for a big rig.

In addition, not only is one person’s definition of a “good dirt road” different than another’s, the site may have become unusable since the report was made. That’s where having a large group of participants actively validating campsites as they travel around is really valuable.

 

PARKING OVERNIGHT AT COMMERCIAL PARKING LOTS, TRUCK STOPS and CASINOS

RV camping in the boondocks in Oregon

Exotic skies in Oregon

Walmart is famous for being very RV-friendly, and they sell a Rand McNally Atlas that lists all the addresses of every Walmart in the US as well as its interstate exit number, if it is near one. However Walmart is not always in control of their land, so staying overnight in their lot is not always legal.

Although most Walmarts would allow RV overnight parking if they could, when the building is on leased land with a landlord that forbids it, or when it is located within city limits that have an ordinance against overnight parking, then you can’t stay there.

Usually there are signs in the parking lot if overnight parking is not allowed. It is advisable to check with the store’s security department to find out whether or not they allow overnight parking.

Here is a list of No Overnight Parking Walmarts. Of course, sometimes rules are flagrantly ignored, and we have arrived at Walmarts where RVs and semi-tractor trailers were lined up between the signs prohibiting overnight parking!

Even more-so than on public land, the boondocking etiquette at a commercial parking lot like Walmart is really important.

We try to keep a low profile, usually remaining hitched to the truck and often not even putting the slides out. Obviously, camp chairs, patio mats, grills and other outdoor paraphernalia is strictly forbidden.

5th wheel trailer Boondocking in Colorado

Surrounded by gold in Colorado

We have seen people treat a Walmart parking lot like a campground, grilling steaks, enjoying cocktails in their camp chairs, and playing ball with their kids in the parking lot (and hitting car windshields with the ball!).

No wonder city ordinances against overnight parking in commercial lots are on the rise!

How serious is this business of proper overnight parking etiquette?

Years ago, when we first started full-timing, we stayed at a casino that was very popular among snowbird RVers migrating down I-15 to Arizona for the winter.

While walking around the lot at sunset, we saw a lot of RVers setting up a big circle of camping chairs right in the parking lot. These more experienced RVers told us “it was fine” to have cocktail hour in the parking lot and that they did it whenever they came through.

Free camping with a fifth wheel trailer in Wyoming

Camping on a lake in Wyoming

“The casino management doesn’t care if we do this…” these RVers told us. So we accepted their invitation to join them. It looked like fun! Well, apparently management did care, because now overnight parking is prohibited, not only at that casino but at most of the others in town.

Along with this casino, we have seen quite a few other commercial parking lots that were once popular overnight spots close their lots to RVers. So again, be respectful of the special places that still allow it so others can enjoy it in the future!

Fifth wheel trailer RV boondocking in Arizona

Camping amid the cactus in Arizona

Cracker Barrel allows overnight parking at many locations, and they have a map that lists the addresses of their stores. However, we have yet to see a Cracker Barrel with a parking space big enough for our rig!

Camping World allows overnight parking in some of their lots. Get their store locations online and give them a call to find out which ones allow it.

Casino Camper gives descriptions of casinos that offer overnight RV parking, either in RV parks for a fee, or in a back lot for free.

Truck stops are another option in a pinch, although that rarely makes for a good night’s sleep.

Small businesses will sometimes allow an RV to stay in a back lot if you patronize them and ask permission. Some visitors centers allow it too, but generally only the ones in less busy areas.

GETTING A GOOD NIGHT’S SLEEP in a COMMERCIAL LOT

Most commercial lots are very well lit, so it’s almost impossible to find a spot in the parking lot where the street lights won’t be shining in the windows or down the bedroom hatch.

Using a vent hatch insulator in the bedroom roof hatch and putting Reflectix in the windows will block the light and make it easier to sleep. Choosing a spot that is far away from any trucks is important too, as they tend to come and go all night long. Refrigerated trucks run loud generators to keep their contents cold. Parking next to one overnight is no fun at all!

Camping by a brook in Idaho

Our own private Idaho

REST AREAS and PULL-OUTS

Some Interstate rest areas allow overnighting and some don’t. Generally, if it is not allowed, then there are signs that say so. Like truck stops, finding a spot away from the trucks is vital.

Vermont doesn’t allow sleeping in their rest areas between 7 pm and 7 am (what are they thinking?), while Texas offers free wifi at all of theirs! One rest area in Mississippi is set up like a campground with individual campsites and a water spigot at each site!

Many secondary roads have large pull-outs where you can be far off the highway and get a good night’s sleep.

ASK AROUND

The best boondocking resources are often fellow RVers and other people we meet in our travels. However, as with the online and printed reports of campsites, it helps to verify that the person has actually been there and done it.

RV boondocking in Arizona

Beach camping in Arizona

Many forest rangers will say there is dispersed camping in their district, yet despite being “legal,” it is totally impractical. Find out if the ranger you are talking to is an RVer with a rig your size.

Also, whoever you talk to, find out what kind of rig they actually took to the campsite they are describing and when they last went. They may own a big rig now, but if they took a Jeep and a tent to this site twenty years ago, it doesn’t count.

Lastly, size up the person and their thirst for adventure as compared to your own. We have several RVing friends who happily take their big motorhomes to places we’d hesitate to go.

Most of all — have fun with it. For us, half of the excitement of boondocking is in the searching. We always have an eye out for prospective camping sites as we drive around, and when we find a really good one it’s a total thrill.

RV camping and boondocking in Arizona

Red rock camping in Utah

Recap of the tools we rely on for virtually all of our research:

RV blogs with good info on boondocking:

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13 thoughts on “Boondocking (“free camping”) – How to find free RV campsites

  1. Thanks for the great post! We will be heading out from our kids’ in Idaho soon, headed for Arizona and Utah, and are hoping to do as much boondocking as possible, so the timing is perfect.

  2. Thank you for your useful leads for Motorhoming in USA. We are longtime motorhome free campers in Australia. We are very fortunate in Australia because we have a wonderful book titled CAMPS7. It list over 3,900 free or near free campsites. Each listing is marked with a site number (shown on their map) satnav/GPS coordinates, a rout description and road condition. Then unique symbols are attached covering everything that is available at each site like Toilets, Disabled toilets, Shade, Fireplace, Big Rigs, Powered, Outlook or Vista, Mobile Phone, Pets, No Pets, Dry Weather Access, Showers, Water, Non Potable Water, Picnic Tables, BBQ, Max Stay, Dump Point, Public Phone, Close To Road, Tents, Caravans, Campers/Motorhomes, Boat Ramp, Day Use Only, Overnight Camping/Parking. This book is locally called “The Bible” and is also available with a photograph of of about 80% of the listed sites.
    We will be Motorhoming in Canada and the USA mid 2015, is there any similar publication for us? Regards, Kevin and Kathleen.

    • How nice to hear from campers Down Under. We just spent 5 wonderful days boondocking with a pair of Aussies who have also camped all over your beautiful country before crossing the Pacific to check out the sites here in North America. Someday we hope to be using your Bible on a daily basis as we explore Australia in a camper. I spent 3 months there in 1991, and that was the biggest tease imaginable — I’ve been wanting to get back ever since!!

      As I mention in this post, the only Bible we use is the Days End directory from Escapees RV Club. You could join Escapees now and get access to the directory so you can start your planning before you arrive in the US. Good luck with your travels and have a blast in our pretty outback!!

  3. Hi there, thanks for this enormously helpful article. I’m travelling on my own in a 2 berth camper van for one month in August. Any advice about Boondocking in peak season? I imagine it is difficult to find seclusion and isolation during the summer months? Some of the pictures you posted in the article is exactly what I’m looking for! I want to be totally alone in the wilderness…

    • ps: I’m starting in Los Angeles and am planning on visiting Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana (time permitting), Utah and Nevada. I know that rather ambitious in one month!

  4. I just discovered your blog this morning on Escapees. We have been following Wheeling it for quite some time now and have picked up a lot of ideas. I sure wish you had a list of the sites by state where you have boondocked. We have sold our house and are heading out the 1st of the month to start our full timing experience. Our trailer is about the same size as yours and from past experiences we know that can be a problem sometimes. We do camp hosting for different NW states and that has been a good way to visit an area with the idea of exploring. Thank you for all the useful ideas and time that you have spent sharing with the rest of us.

    • Congratulations on selling your house and starting your full-time RV travels. What a thrill for you! There are many ways to live this lifestyle, and you will find what works best for you, whether it is work camping or other methods. I’m delighted you found our blog and hope you will enjoy reading more here. We are active participants in Days End and many of the sites we stay in can be found there.

  5. Great, informative article!

    hey by the way do you know the etymology of the word ‘boondock?’ It actually is a Filipino term for ‘mountain.’ It’s ‘bundok’ originally but when adapted to the English language, it became boondock :)

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