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How to Camp for Free: Where and When to Wild Camp

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I love to camp.  I especially love wild camping: seeking out and creating your own campsite in an area with no services, no provisions, and no other people for miles in any direction.  Being in the middle of the desert, under a vast sea of stars, surrounded by the prickly harshness of unrefined wilderness and ghostly outlines of distant mountains, enveloped by a complete lack of man-made noise…  It’s mind-bending and life-changing.  There are very few natural experiences left in America that can rival wild camping.  You’ll definitely see the Milky Way.  And hey – it’s free!

Living on the East Coast makes camping for free …. difficult.  Most of the land is either privately owned or regulated government property.  Finding wilderness that is available for use can be a real challenge.  

A silver Porsche 911 and green REI tent look tiny in comparison to the sprawling desert and mountains surrounding them. A free wild campsite is a great way to take a beautiful and enjoyable cheap cross country road trip.
Our campsite looks tiny (far left side of the image) in comparison to the stunning landscape surrounding us

How to Wild Camp

There are plenty of campgrounds all throughout the East, but to truly wild camp in America, it’s much easier to go West of the MississippiArizona, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico and California play host to millions of acres of open land.  They have minimal regulations and are free for all to use.

If you’ve ever dreamed of pitching your tent miles from the nearest human being, this guide to camping in the wilderness is a great place to start!

SKIP TO:

  1. Where to Wild Camp
  2. How to Find a Great Campsite
  3. When to Wild Camp
  4. Selecting a Vehicle
  5. Fire Safety
  6. Wildlife Pointers

Looking for a comprehensive list of camping gear?  Click HERE

A green REI tent in a wild campsite is tucked up into an evergreen shrub in the Arizona wilderness. Brick red dirt, bright green shrubs, distant mountains and a bright yellow hot air balloon round out the scene.
Our free campsite near Sedona AZ had a pretty spectacular view!

Wild Camping Disclaimers

Wild camping is an adventure in the truest sense of the word.  Being miles from the nearest human also means being miles from help if an emergency should arise.  

With this in mind, it is wise to begin our guide with a few disclaimers:

Wild Camping is NOT for beginnersIf you’ve never pitched a tent before, this is not a good place to start.  If you don’t have a solid base of camping and survival skills, take more time to master them before you attempt wild camping.  If you are uncomfortable with the potential for danger, there’s no shame in staying in organized campsites.  

This is NOT a hike-in or backpacking guideThere are plenty of articles discussing the details of how to complete a multi-day wilderness hiking adventure.  These instructions are intended for utilizing off-road capable vehicles to access free campsites.

If you do not have experience driving a vehicle off-road, wild camping is NOT a good time to start.  There are already a number of things that could go wrong on a wild camping trip, so why add the risk of damaging or disabling your vehicle?  Being unable to drive when you’re 20 miles from town is NOT a situation you want to be in.   

The desert is a stark and dangerous landscape.  There are a LOT of things that can injure or kill you in the desert.  Animals and creepy crawlies are the obvious ones, but the plants and the weather can do a number on you and your crew as well.  This is likely the driest place you will ever visit:  the desert will literally draw moisture out of your body 24 hours a day. Circumstances can change in the desert – and fast.  Be prepared to face a multitude of conditions

A withered and dried out old Joshua Tree doubles over in the foreground, leading the viewer's eye to the vast and harsh desert landscape beyond. A hazy row of mountains line the horizon.
The harsh beauty of the desert is an easy reminder: take this landscape very seriously!

Do NOT go alone.  The pitfalls of being alone in the desert are plentiful.  Make sure that you go with at least one other person, and that both of you are skilled campers.  Even if you are an experienced camper, do not go with someone who is inexperienced unless there are other knowledgeable campers with you.  

Make sure someone knows where you are every day.  This isn’t always easy, given how far from civilization you will be.  As much as possible, stick to your stated itinerary, and have your location sharing on at all times. Be sure that someone knows at least the general vicinity where you will be sleeping every night.  This will drastically tighten the area for search and rescue crews should something go awry.  

Treat the land with a lot of respect, especially with regards to your campfire.  Leave the land in better condition than you found it.  The next people who camp on your site should not be able to tell you were there.  Pick up any litter that you see.  Use EXTREME caution about when and where you have a fire. We’ve all seen the stories about massive wildfires – don’t be responsible for starting the next one.  

Now that we’ve gotten the unpleasant stuff out of the way, let’s dig into what you need to know to wild camp for free!

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A grey Porsche 911 sits in front of a green REI tent in the Nevada desert. Sharp mountaintops split the horizon in the distance. What a cool wild campsite on our cheap cross country road trip.
All of our wild campsites on the cross country road trip were accessible in the antique Porsche 911

Where to Camp for Free

As I mentioned before, California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona are covered with countless acres of wild land available for off-roading and wild camping.  Much of this wilderness is owned by the Bureau of Land Management,  an agency within the Department of the Interior.

A high percentage of the 240 million plus acres owned and managed by the BLM is west of the Mississippi, and most of it is free to access at any time.  BLM land is by far the best option for wild camping, as it has the least regulation of who can camp where.  And, of course …. it’s usually free!

State and National Parks and State and National Forests all have restrictions, regulations, and registration fees for people who want to camp.   Virtually all will force you to camp within designated areas instead of dispersed and far from neighbors. Conversely, most BLM public lands allow to you to camp wherever you want.  

For more info about camping your way cross-country, click HERE
A harsh desert landscape stretches for miles towards the horizon. Cacti and other scrub litter the landscape, with bleached white stones in the foreground along a lone unpaved trail.
I wonder if we’ll be able to find a quiet spot….?

BLM property is fairly easy to find.  The map page is an obvious place to start.  It gives you an excellent overview of places that are open for use.  Note – you will see that there are designated campgrounds on some of the maps.  It’s worth pointing out that in many of the locations, you are free to camp wherever you want.  You usually are not obligated to camp within the marked sites.  

Wilderness areas and National Preserves (like the Mojave Desert) are also good places to consider wild camping.  Be sure to do a little research ahead of time regarding regulations and restrictions.  However, in general, most offer plenty of free space to pitch your tent. 

Trail heads aren’t always well marked, or marked at all, so keep a sharp eye when you’re driving on-road.  Be well aware of your surroundings, and spend time learning the terrain.  A glance at satellite view on Google Maps, or even better, Google Earth, will be immensely helpful while you’re learning to find off-road trails.

A Joshua Tree in the foreground looks out over a vast and desolate sandy desert valley, stretching for miles towards low mountains along the horizon. A solitary dirt road winds off in the distance.
Now THAT is an isolated location…!

This is, however, one instance where it is critical to read and follow all of the various signs that are posted

Private property is clearly marked and often fiercely guarded, so don’t venture anywhere near it.

Mines can present deadly hazards that you aren’t aware of until it’s too late.  You also REALLY don’t want to be an unwelcome guest on a military base. And so on… As I already mentioned, the desert is a stark and dangerous landscape, providing a plethora of risks!

Once on the trail, take some time to explore the area.  Get to know your surroundings very well. We’ll cover items to consider when picking your campsite next, but make sure to explore the area for a couple hours during the daylight.  Not only will this be an incredibly enjoyable experience for you, it also allows you to get the lay of the land and start spotting potential campsite options.  

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A faceless man stands in front of a bright campfire in the desert. He is surrounded by moonlit desert scrub with a blue starry night overhead. A tent and two camping chairs stand nearby.
This was the very first night I ever wild camped. I feel deeply in love with it!

How to find a great wild campsite

We addressed some of the characteristics you should look for in a wild campsite in our blog on how to take a cheap road trip.  Some features will already be all around you: beautiful scenery, an abundance of nature, and plenty of space to spread out and have privacy.

Here’s a short list of some of the key features we look for when finding a wild campsite:

  1. Flat and level ground – ensure you have enough space to pitch your tent and have your chairs around a fire.
  2. Little to no natural features that will be damaged – we are very careful to – aside from the ashes from our fire – leave no trace that we were there.  If an established site exists, camp there.  If not, look for a site that is grass, open dirt, or sand.  You don’t want to damage flowers, seedlings, lichen, or other potentially crucial flora.
  3. Shelter from the wind – it can be a small valley, or a site surrounded by trees or shrubs.  If no natural features will shelter you, park your vehicle close to the tent against the prevailing wind (if possible) and make sure to secure your tent firmly.  We would have been blown off the hillside in Big Sur  had we not secured our tent properly!
  4. Dead wood (sticks, brush, branches, and trees) to be used for firewood – as much as possible, don’t transport firewood from state to state.  Take some with you as backup in case you can’t find any near your site, but use it up before you cross state lines.
  5. Rocks to be used to build a firepit.  There are usually rocks everywhere which you can stack to make a nice firepit – but you might have to search, especially if you’re in the woods (Yes, there are forests in some of these incredibly dry, remote areas).
  6. An incredible view – It seems obvious, but once you’ve found a safe and spacious site, spend a bit of time exploring what’s nearby to ensure you’ve found the best spot available.  This concept saved our bacon in Big Sur, enabling us to find one of the best campsites in America.  However, we didn’t do this before setting up our camp in Gila National Forest.  Instead of camping near a cliff with a jaw-dropping vista, we camped down in a well-sheltered valley – peaceful and calm, but not the lifelong experience it should’ve been.

Yes, the list is simplistic.  Honestly, finding a good wild site is not much different from finding a good primitive campsite in an organized campground.  The biggest difference is the lack of organization and establishment of prepared sites.  By combining the tips for exploring BLM property, and the factors above for picking an individual site, you are highly likely to find yourself in a life-changing camping experience!

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When to Wild Camp

This is going to be the shortest section, because the advice is the easiest and most straightforward to give.  I’ll be blunt – you probably shouldn’t even consider doing this during the summer months. It’s far too hot, there are way too many critters active at night, and summer storms are a distinct possibility.  

Winter is certainly feasible, IF (and that’s a big if) you are prepared for very cold (below freezing) temperatures overnight.  Add in the fact that winter is often the least “pleasant” time of year in the southwest, and it’s just not a great option.  

That leaves spring and fall.  Your best options, weather-wise, are likely to be mid-April through late May, or mid-September through mid-October.  Temperatures, both during the day and at night, are the most manageable… though it will often get chilly at night.  In fact, those cooler temps at night (typically in the mid- to low-40’s Fahrenheit) are your friend, as many of the critters will seek cover and stay underground to keep warm.  Rain can still crop up, especially during the spring months, but by fall, it’s often extremely dry for very long stretches.  

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A white Ford F150 crew cab pickup truck sits in the foreground, surrounded by a harsh desert landscape.
Our ideal wild camping vehicle

Choosing the Best Vehicle for Wild Camping

This is not a post that teaches you how to drive off-road.  My primary goal here is to give you some suggestions based upon the experiences that we had on our camping trips out west.

We usually fly to our destination and rent a vehicle once we arrive.  Here are some suggestions on how to choose the best rental vehicle for your wild camping adventure.

  • Enroll in rewards programs with several rental car companies.  This will give you higher priority when selecting your vehicle, and often offers discounted rates.  Download their apps and/or bookmark their websites.
  • If you fly into a major city or tourist destination, do NOT book your vehicle ahead of time.  I know this seems counter intuitive, but most large airports have a massive selection of vehicles on hand to choose from – especially since you are likely travelling during the off-season.
  • Take a stroll through the rental car garage.  Every major airport has a garage where all rental car companies store their vehicles.  The garage is open to the public, so spend a half hour or so after arrival walking around perusing the available inventory.
  • Select two or three vehicles you are interested in, note the companies renting them, and attempt to rent them in order of priority.  Once you’ve found the vehicles that will be the best fit for your needs, attempt to book the vehicles online using your phone.  Make sure you know the applicable class of vehicle – here’s a useful reference chart – and make sure the vehicle you select has 4WD.  If it’s not stated on the listing, it almost certainly isn’t.  Double-check before you leave – we were given a two wheel drive truck once by accident.
  • Once you’ve booked the vehicle, go inside to the rental desk to get the keys.  Make sure to clarify to the person at the counter exactly which vehicle you were attempting to book.  If it’s already reserved for someone else (a rarity, but certainly possible), provide your back-up options.  They want your business – so they’ll do the best they can to keep you as a customer!
A white Ford F150 pauses on a sandy trail in a desert valley, situated under a perfect blue sky with white clouds.
Pausing for a photo op on one of the trails in Joshua Tree National Park

Choosing the best vehicle for free camping

Here are a few things to think about while walking around the rental garage or making selections online:

  • How much space do you need?  How many people are in your party, and how much gear do you have?  Will everyone (and their stuff) fit comfortably?
  • Consider clearance and tires.  Does the vehicle have good all-terrain tires, or are they highway tires?  How’s the tread depth?  When checking clearance, make sure that there’s nothing hanging low anywhere on the vehicle – and that the tires have enough room to articulate up and down as you are bouncing along the trail.
  • What type of vehicle will best suit your needs?  Do you want something that has a sunroof or convertible top (like a Jeep), or would you rather have a pickup truck to be able to throw stuff in the bed?
  • Check the interior for useful features.  Most rental companies leave vehicles unlocked, so open the doors, pop the trunk, and check out your selections before ranking them.
    • Are there cupholders and other spaces for storing loose items?
    • Are there enough ports to charge everyone’s devices?
    • Many vehicles now provide a two- or three-prong outlet;  does yours?
    • Does it have a navigational system?
    • A spare tire and jack?

In my experience, a mid-size (like a Toyota Tacoma) or full-size (like a Ford F150) four door 4WD pickup truck is the most useful vehicle for wild camping.  There is plenty of space inside for all your companions and their stuff, and the bed is quite useful for hauling firewood, stones, coolers, and other supplies.  Yes, they cost more, but considering you will spend nothing for your overnight stays, you’ll still be way ahead budget-wise!

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Fire Safety and Wild Camping

For an up-to-date list of Fire Restrictions by state, click HERE.

Who doesn’t love a nice fire when you’re camping?  In addition to providing a flavorful cooking surface and warmth on a chilly evening, a smoky campfire is a window in time.  The wavering glow and crackling wood melds with the desert around you, transporting you back to the days when cowboys roamed the west.

A fire can quickly race from dream to nightmare, though, if a few simple precautions aren’t taken.  The last thing you want is for your free camping experience to end in costly fines, damage to your vehicle and gear, or even worse – an out-of-control wildfire.  By following these basic steps, you’ll do a great deal in preventing things from going bad.

Before you go camping, check the link above for fire restrictions

  • Only use firewood that’s completely dry.  The popping and hissing that often sounds so relaxing is a sign that your wood isn’t completely dry.  A errant pop can shoot an ember several feet beyond your fire ring, starting a fire in the dry grasses or shrubbery nearby.  If you’re unsure of a couple pieces, set them on the rocks around your fire to heat and dry them – or don’t risk using them.
  • Dig slightly into the sand or dirt, or stack your rocks more than one course high.  This reduces the wind that reaches your fire, preventing sparks from blowing out.  It also creates a barrier to block and channel the sparks.
  • Clear the area around your fire ring of any flammable materials.  Rip out any grass or scrub.  Clear away any pine needles and other detritus that can catch fire.  Have at least 2 feet of cleared space surrounding your campfire.
  • Have a shovel, water, and fire extinguisher on hand.  If something does go wrong, be prepared and be proactive – don’t presume the spark or ember will just go out – extinguish it immediately.
  • Make sure you’ve fully extinguished your fire before you go to bed or leave your site.  Don’t just dump some water on it and spread the coals around.  Put your fire out completely.  It’s easiest and most reliable to shovel dirt or sand onto the coals – that way if it’s not fully extinguished, the dirt prevents it from sending sparks up and away.  Plus, you’re not wasting water, which is a valuable resource in the desert!  No matter how you do it, make sure your fire is 100% extinguished.

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A man prods a small campfire in the desert, kicking numerous sparks up into the looming darkness
Even a small campfire can kick up a lot of sparks!

Dispersed Camping and Wildlife Safety

(Mountain) Lions, Spiders, and Bears… Oh My!  As a massive area with a dynamic range of ecosystems, the American West is home to a substantial amount of biodiversity.  Though the desert is a harsh landscape, it’s still home to a fair amount of wildlife, especially during the rainy season.  

To be completely honest, in all the times and places we’ve been camping, we’ve only seen a wild animal near our campsite one time – and that was in the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas.  We’ve never seen, and rarely heard, any animals at all out west – and I count myself lucky for it!

It’s not all luck, though, as we’re always extremely cautious when we’re camping.  A few simple steps, very carefully executed, make a world of difference.

  • Do not leave a single crumb of food outside.  Everything – and I mean everything – should be secured in your vehicle long before you go to bed.  We double seal all food – double bagging chips and other dry goods, and cold foods in jars inside a cooler … all locked inside our vehicle with the windows all the way up.  If we have any scraps or food we aren’t eating, we burn it in the fire.
  • Sit opposite, or nearly opposite, each other across the fire.  This precaution sounds silly, but facing opposite directions reduces the probability of an animal sneaking up on you.
  • Avoid decaying or recently killed animals.  While scoping out campsite options, keep an eye peeled for “fresh meat” – you don’t want anything near your site that might draw a predator.
  • Look for clues of a predator den nearby.  In addition to fresh kills, look for tracks, scat, crushed vegetation, and other signs that predators either live nearby or pass through frequently.  This book is an excellent resource for predator identification.
  • Have bear spray or mace on hand at all times.
  • Don’t wander off alone.  
  • Wear high ankle boots or other similar hiking footwear, especially if you’re going to be hiking.  Long pants are probably a good idea too.
  • Tuck your pant legs into your socks.  OK, this is half joke, half serious – but if you have legitimate concerns about creepy crawlies getting inside your pant legs…. it’s an option!

Fortunately, as I mentioned before, we never have experienced any wildlife near our desert campsites – so I don’t have any good pictures to share!

A peaceful campfire flickers within a natural stone fire ring.

How to Camp for Free:  Essential Equipment

Coming soon to Take Back Roads!  

A comprehensive list of the essential pieces of gear you should have before you attempt to camp in the wilderness.

Looking for help with planning your next road trip?  Click HERE
Looking for a great road trip playlist?  Click HERE
Want to know how I took those awesome night-time shots?  Click HERE

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