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 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
- 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
- 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:
- U.S. Forest Service: Dispersed Camping Guidelines
- Bureau of Land Management
- This site is a little tough to navigate. Find a state in the left sidebar. It’s probably better to just Google “BLM camping in [STATE]” to find locations.
Walmart Parking Lots
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
- 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
- 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:
- Etiquette for Car-Camping in Walmart Parking Lots
- Walmart Locations by State with Reviews
- List of Walmarts with No Overnight Parking
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
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
- 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
- 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 in New Orleans
Spotted Cat Music Club in Marigny, New Orleans
Bridge in Crescent Park, New Orleans
Looking across the Mississippi River to New Orleans
The Nutty Brown Cafe in Austin, where our friends took us for Thursday night steak and…
Natural entrance to the Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico
Cave formations at the Carlsbad Caverns
The “Whale’s Mouth”
Four Corners is very remote, located on Navajo lands
A little underwhelming, but we’re glad we went anyway 🙂
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”
These orange wildflowers were everywhere in the desert
Driving by Vermillion Cliffs National Monument
Who are these hobos?
North Rim of the Grand Canyon
A quick drive through Utah on the way back to California
Followed by a quick yet blurry drive through Nevada