Is your budget feeling a bit stretched by the high cost of long-term camping?
Then you may be surprised to find out that there are huge areas of the American West where you can simply pull off the road and camp for free. And when I say "huge," I mean HUGE!
All you have to do is look at your map to find areas marked as National Forest or BLM land, and you'll see that they literally are everywhere. These lands are owned by the Federal Government. (BLM stands for the Bureau of Land Management). And you have the right as a citizen to politely pull off the road and set up camp, so long as there isn't some local ordinance against it. It really is that easy.
Many of the cheap and free campgrounds listed on FreeCampsites.Net are within BLM or National Forest lands. Some are hardly more than a picnic bench and a fire ring, and maybe an "iron ranger" box for you to honorably deposit your small camp fee. But the simple fact is, that if are a self-sufficient boondocker, you don't need to spend any time at all researching official campsites. You can simply drive into a pretty area, find a spot you like, and camp as long as you like.
There is usually just one rule that you should check on, and that is the one about the "dispersed camping" time limit. Typically the rule is that you can't spend more than 14 days in a row in the same spot. After 14 days you'll need to drive to a different location at least 30 miles away until a certain amount of time has passed (usually 14-76 days) before you can return.
Note: Some experienced boondockers will tell you that the farther you get off the beaten path, the less likely a ranger will even know you're camping out there. While it's cool to know that one could actually get away with a much longer stay, I prefer to keep to the "honor code". (And after 2 weeks, I tend to get excited to check out new areas anyway.)
The other rules of dispersed camping are the usual ones that any mindful camper follows: 1) Always pack out your trash. 2) Avoid camping within 100 feet of springs, so that water is accessible to wildlife. 3) Don't leave campfires unattended.
Other good guidelines to follow are:
- Minimize your ecological impact. Choose to camp at a previously used site, if possible, and stay on existing travel routes rather than trample existing vegetation. Don't make new fire rings. Just clean out the old one. Use already-dead wood for the campfire. Living trees are what makes campsites appealing, so leave them be.
- Be nice to future campers. Don't ruin the fire ring by adding cans and bottles or throwing dirt onto it. The next person will just have to clean it up.
- Leave no trace. Use a fire pan to contain your fire and easily remove all evidence you were there once you're done. Bury your human waste 6-12 inches deep, away from waterways and campsites. Pack out your trash and pay forward a few good deeds by picking up a bit more.
The best way to find out the specifics of BLM land in your destination area is to search http://www.blm.gov for the state and local region and request information from the local offices.
If you prefer a more do-it-yourself approach, you can also purchase BLM maps that cover a whole state, or zoomed-in topographic versions if you want to scope out potential camping sites from a birds-eye view.
(You can also find other cool information like mining claims by searching the site or Google.)
UPDATE: Over the past months full-timing in the Southwest USA in my home-built off grid truck camper, I've personally gotten A TON of great leads on FreeCampsites.net. But over time I've noticed that the sites listed tend towards the "standard" sites that anyone can find, if you just go to the local forest ranger's office. What you won't tend to find listed there are THE BEST Free Camping Sites in an area, simply because regulars aren't likely to advertise their favorite boondocking camps for the whole internet!
If you're interested in a list of personal Top Free Campsites in AZ, NM, TX, UT, CA, and NV -- including favorite destinations like the Grand Canyon, Zion, and Sedona -- you'll want to check out this collection of Free Campsite guides from Frugal Shunpickers: