3 types of free camping: pros & cons

We’re back in the West, logging more than 3,000 miles in a week. We camped at state parks, visited friends, and experimented with three types of free camping: dispersed camping, Walmart parking lots, and highway rest areas.

If you’re wondering how to camp for free, read on for some tips!

Dispersed Camping

 

Dispersed Camping Kaibab

Dispersed camping in the Kaibab National Forest in Arizona

 

What It’s Like: Dispersed camping on public land (U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management) equals nature and solitude. No noisy RV generators running five feet away. It’s like backpacking. Imagine pulling up to a clearing in a forest and living among the trees, cooking breakfast while birds chirp, listening to water from a nearby stream. Gorgeous! You typically pull off an access road for a flat spot to camp in, and it’s fine to be in a tent, van, or RV.

What It’s Best For: When you want some nature, plain and simple

Pros:

  • Quiet and beautiful scenery
  • Far from other noisy campers
  • Free (although some may charge a nominal fee) and no reservations required
  • Can camp approx. two weeks, depending on location
  • Campfires may be allowed, depending on location and permit requirements

Cons:

  • No toilets, running water, trash cans, or electrical
  • Access roads sometimes rough or unpaved
  • May be far from other towns or attractions
  • Little to no cell service

Tips and Resources:

Walmart Parking Lots

 

Walmart camping

Camping in the Walmart parking lot in Montgomery, Alabama

 

What It’s Like: This is about as far from nature as you can get. Suitable for vehicles or RVs only, camping in a Walmart parking lot is about convenience — not scenery. Don’t expect to linger or hang out outside. Rather, you pull in, purchase something inside as a courtesy, use the restroom, draw the curtains, go to sleep, and leave in the morning. You’ll need to look for signs saying “No Overnight Parking,” since some cities have ordinances against it. Park off to the side to leave prime parking for customers. You might see other RVs or semis.

What It’s Best For: When you need a free place to crash while passing through a town

Pros:

  • Free, although it’s a good idea to buy something like a snack as a courtesy
  • Well-lit and with security cameras
  • Restrooms, especially at 24-hour stores
  • Close to towns and highways
  • Likely good cell service

Cons:

  • Noisy and bright
  • Not particularly pretty
  • Sitting or cooking outdoors is frowned upon
  • Can be stressful if you’re not sure if overnight parking is allowed
  • History of issues with how workers are treated

Tips and Resources:

While we do not offer electrical service or accommodations typically necessary for RV customers, Walmart values RV travelers and considers them among our best customers. Consequently, we do permit RV parking on our store parking lots as we are able. Permission to park is extended by individual store managers, based on availability of parking space and local laws. Please contact management in each store to ensure accommodations before parking your RV. (Walmart Corporate FAQ)

Allstays, our favorite app for finding campsites, also has a smartphone app for finding Walmart’s that allow overnight parking, which you can find here. Or you can purchase their entire suite of apps which includes info about hotels, campsites, rv parks, and more by clicking here.

Highway Rest Stops

 

A video posted by Tamara (@taminacan) on

The thunderstorm that woke us up at 5:30am at a rest stop outside Pecos, TX

 

What It’s Like: Similar to Walmart camping, staying the night at a rest stop is about convenience. However, rest stops are set up for the traveler and it’s not out of the ordinary to spend some time there. You might pull in, park, eat dinner at a picnic table (or at a restaurant before you arrive), and use the water fountain and restrooms before calling it a night. Depending on where you are, the rest area may actually be quite scenic! They are managed by state transportation departments, so how well they’re maintained varies state to state.

What It’s Best For: When you’re traveling the interstate and need sleep before hitting the road again

Pros:

  • Totally free
  • Amenities, like restrooms, water, vending machines, wifi, picnic tables, and traveler info
  • Easy to get back on the road in the morning
  • Well-lit and patrolled by law enforcement
  • Trafficked by fellow drivers/travelers

Cons:

  • Some states don’t allow overnight parking at rest areas
  • Conditions and cleanliness vary
  • Cell service may be spotty since rest areas are usually in less-populated areas
  • Noisy, depending on how busy the highway is

Tips and Resources:

 

Do you have any tips or experiences with free camping? Please share!

In the meantime, here are some photos from our journey. We’ll be in California visiting friends and family for the month of June. Red Delicious hits the road again in July — see you then!

 

Louis Armstrong Park

Louis Armstrong Park in New Orleans

 

Spotted Cat

Spotted Cat Music Club in Marigny, New Orleans

 

Tamara Crescent Park

Bridge in Crescent Park, New Orleans

 

New Orleans

Looking across the Mississippi River to New Orleans

 

Nutty Brown

The Nutty Brown Cafe in Austin, where our friends took us for Thursday night steak and…

 

Tamara Courtney Karaoke

…Karaoke!

 

Carlsbad Caverns 1

Natural entrance to the Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico

 

Carlsbad Caverns 2

Cave formations at the Carlsbad Caverns

 

Carlsbad Caverns 3

The “Whale’s Mouth”

 

Four Corners 2

Four Corners is very remote, located on Navajo lands

 

Four Corners 1

A little underwhelming, but we’re glad we went anyway 🙂

 

Frybread

Frybread we bought from some Navajo teens in Teec Nos Pos — they taught us that it’s pronounced like TEESE-NOHS-POHS, which means “tree in circle”

 

Desert Wildflowers

These orange wildflowers were everywhere in the desert

 

Arizona

Driving by Vermillion Cliffs National Monument

 

Tamara Chris Grand Canyon

Who are these hobos?

 

Grand Canyon

North Rim of the Grand Canyon

 

Utah

A quick drive through Utah on the way back to California

 

Nevada

Followed by a quick yet blurry drive through Nevada

 

 

  9 comments for “3 types of free camping: pros & cons

  1. 2015-06-05 at 8:58 am

    Hey guys! The pictures are beautiful! Your Walmart camping definitely made me laugh audibly – I am just imaging what that must have been like. You gotta do what you gotta do. Looks like it was a great trip home and I am looking forward to seeing you soon and hearing about your travels.

    • Tamara & Chris
      2015-06-05 at 11:25 pm

      Sarah: We finally made use of our emergency pee jars. 🙂 See you soon!

  2. Carlene
    2015-06-18 at 8:15 pm

    Great blog… and videos… love your van, and I’m so sorry for your loss… Holly looked to be a great companion… no more goat head thorns for Her…

    I’m ready to launch around 8-1 if my house remains in escrow and closes 7-21… been planning for almost 2 years. I’ve got a 2002 dodge caravan, looking to add a “tag along” tent to the lift gate end of it. Also adding a cargo carrier as I already have one of the U-Haul hitches. From here, I’ll head west about 200 mile to the coast and head north thru NoCal, Oregon and Washington… it’s already mapped out.

    I’m retired, but I won’t be one of those grouchy ones you’ve encountered… I’ll be the happy go lightly old gal driving when I want and stopping when I need to!

    Take care and happy and safe travels!
    Carlene

    • Tamara & Chris
      2015-06-19 at 7:36 am

      Carlene: Thank you for the lovely note and we’re so excited for you and your upcoming journey! We’ll be heading to Oregon, Washington and Idaho next — we’ll keep an eye out for your Caravan and maybe we can swap stories by the campfire. Take care and happy trails! Tamara and Chris

  3. michael
    2015-11-01 at 8:20 am

    In the last six months of traveling 9 western states I spent less than $200 for camping. I stayed almost exclusively on BLM and dispersed camping in National Forests. Try camping in these areas near small towns. Most of my camps were just a few miles from a town, making a quick trip for stuff a snap. Many wildlife areas have free camping. On rivers look for launch and take out areas, many of these spots have campsites, almost always free. Lots of good info on your blog, thanks. Michael

    • Tamara & Chris
      2015-11-05 at 6:39 am

      Great tips, Michael! Yes, BLM, Forest Service and wildlife areas are a great place to camp free or inexpensively. Especially in the west!

  4. 2016-07-20 at 4:02 pm

    Thanks for the practical tips. I look forward to using them next year.

  5. Carole293
    2016-08-06 at 1:50 pm

    Ive been living in my van for almost two years. I rarely pay to park. Ive also parked in hotel parking lots and near nightclubs and bars (they are used to people leaving their vehicles so they dont drink and drive.) Churches are good too, i usually attend a wed. Night service or class and ask the pastor if its ok (ive even been offered hookups, coffee etc) i park at the beach a lot too because u have free showers.

    • Tamara & Chris
      2016-08-13 at 8:09 pm

      Great tips, Carole! Thanks for sharing with others.

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