However, we only went camping a handful of times when I was younger. So, when I graduated college I decided it was time to make all my camping dreams come true. That said, campsites can expensive AF, especially here in the US, and I was coincidentally broke AF. I needed to find a solution.
And then I stumbled upon BLM land. More about that below. First, some story time! If you hate stories feel free to skip to the “Why I Love Free Camping” section.
I remember the first time I went camping for free. My boyfriend and I were driving my car from California to Arizona while I was in the conservation corps, and made a pit stop in Joshua Tree as we’d both never been. We were both still broke AF and since it was so last minute that we decided to go, we didn’t even bother trying to find anything still available.After a quick Google search, I determined that there was free camping outside the north and south entrances to Joshua Tree National Park. We rolled up after dark, and slowly drove through. Most of the sites were already taken, and I began to get worried that there wouldn’t be any left…But then, we saw one! We pitched our tent from the light of our head lamps (my least favorite way to set up tbh, it’s so hard to see) and I kept thinking police would drive up and tell us we weren’t ACTUALLY allowed to sleep there for free. But nothing happened, we woke up in the morning, and from then on I was hooked on free camping!
Actually, that’s a lie. The first time I camped for free was for my 15th birthday. My dad, brother, his girlfriend, and her son all went camping in Big Sur. My dad, a free campsite aficionado, knew we could just camp off of Nacimiento-Fergusson Road for free. We drove up into the winding hills, found a nice pullout, and laid out a blow up mattress next to the car. We didn’t even use a tent!
It was AWESOME. My birthday always happens around a meteor shower, so I fell asleep to stars streaking across the sky.
So, here’s what you need to know about free camping in California. Most free campsites are “dispersed camping” – more on that below.
WHAT ARE DISPERSED (FREE) CAMPING SITES? WHAT TO EXPECTDispersed camping sites are free camping spots with little or no facilities. This means you usually won’t find bathrooms, potable water, tables, trash cans, or fire pits. However, this isn’t always the case – some will have a mix of them, and I’ve often at the very least seen a fire ring.
Sometimes there are only one or two sites to actually camp on, so be sure to get there early. However, there are some spots with campsites a plenty!
When there are only a few spots available, we usually leave rather than ask if we can camp with the people already there if they’re taken. However, you can always ask.
These sites are often located off of dirt roads so it’s helpful to have a high clearance vehicle and/or 4 wheel drive. Not always necessary, but certainly helpful. I used to take my CRV everywhere until it got stolen (RIP) and it didn’t have 4 wheel drive but having high clearance was really nice!
So, be sure you bring your own toilet paper and several trash bags. It’s good to have extras as back up! Also take lots of water (you may need more than you think, especially if you have to wash dishes etc.), a washbin, and biodegradable soap.
WHY I LOVE DISPERSED CAMPING
- It’s free! There’s really nothing more to add to that lol.
- Peace & quiet & PRIVACY – Most of the time, you’re completely alone! Most people either don’t know about them, or don’t want to stay somewhere without bathrooms and a potable water source. And, even if there are other people around, like the case at Joshua Tree, I’ve found that the free sites tend to be more spaced out than traditional campgrounds. This means you’re probably likely to spot more wildlife, too!
- No paperwork or registration – There’s no need to apply for these sites (at least not that I’ve ever had to do). They’re pretty much all just first come, first serve. This means you can also decide on a last minute trip and not have to worry about snagging a spot before you go!
- Helps prevent overcrowding – Having access to free, often less used sites, gives overly popular places a bit of a break!
- Pets abound – There aren’t as many rules (if any) regarding pets in dispersed camping sites, so you can bring Fido with you. Some do state that you have to keep them on leashes, so be sure to pay attention to that.
TIPS FOR BEING A RESPECTFUL CAMPERBefore I go into more detail, I need to be very clear: PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE be respectful of the areas you camp on and recreate in.
Please pack out EVERYTHING you bring, and be sure to bring a trowel so you can dig a hole if you need to go #2. Dig a hole at least 200 feet from water and 6 inches deep. Then you can either bury your TP, too, (if it’s plain & unscented) although I recommend bringing a plastic bag with you if you can.
Please also pay attention to fire laws and notices, as some places only let you have fires during certain times of the year due to awful wildfire seasons (looking at you, California). You can just Google the county/city you’re in along with the phrase “campfire regulations” or call the nearest ranger station and ask.
Be sure to camp at least 200 feet away from water to avoid eroding the land at the shore.
Try and camp on land that looks like it has already been disturbed by a tent or car.
It’s up to us to take care of the land and love our planet, ya dig? Leave No Trace y’all.
HOW DO YOU KNOW IT’S A CAMPSITE?I’ve definitely rolled up to a campsite before, had no one around, and wondered…Wait, is this really a legit spot? Or am I parked illegally on private land by accident?
Here are some telltale clues that you’re good, bro:
- Fire ring – If you see a fire ring (usually a pile of rocks made into a circle, with a spot in the middle for a fire) you KNOW it’s a site.
- Spot for a car – Some sites have a little spot for a car to park in, made very obvious with a cleared area surrounded by other vegetation. You may even see tire tracks.
- Spot for a tent – Some sites have an obvious spot for a tent with a little square dirt patch surrounded by vegetation. Look for a patch of land that looks disturbed or like it’s been flattened.
Sometimes, a campsite won’t have any of these signs and is still legit, but these are things I look for just to be sure.
So now, let’s talk about how you can even find free camping.
HOW TO EASILY FIND FREE CAMPING IN CALIFORNIAThe holy grail of finding free sites, for me, is freecampsites.net. Yes, it looks a little outdated but it’s got an easy to use interactive map. You can either look up your location or zoom in on the map. Easy peasy!
You can use this website to find free and dispersed camping in Southern California, Northern California, even the Bay Area or off of Highway 1. The world is now your oyster. You’re welcome.
And, probably my favorite feature: THE REVIEWS! You can read reviews and helpful tips of each campsite from previous campers. So useful!
I’ve camped in or near Mammoth/the Eastern Sierras several times, outside Joshua Tree & in Death Valley National Parks, all around Oregon, and near Lake Tahoe using this site. I’ve never had it lead me astray!
I’ve heard that the app iOverlander is helpful, especially for boondocking (RV camping without being connected to water, electric, or sewer), but I’ve never used it myself.
Here are the different types of places that allow free camping:
BUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT (BLM) LANDAll hail dispersed camping on BLM land.
What is BLM land you ask? It’s public land owned by the Bureau of Land Management. You can camp on many dispersed camping sites on BLM land for up to 14 days.
There are some areas that will have ‘no camping’ signs so pay attention to those, too.
Here is info on camping in California. I’ve honestly never found their site that helpful in terms of finding campgrounds, so I just prefer to use freecampsites.net as it lists BLM land sites, too.
Yes, unless otherwise stated, most national forest land is free to camp on! Similar to BLM land, it is also public land, but owned by the Forest Service or another organization.
And keep in mind I’m not talking about National Parks – they are totally different entities. I’m talking National Forests, like Stanislaus National Forest or Las Padres National Forest. You can go into Google Maps, type in “National Forest” and see what pops up near you!
Oftentimes, camping spots in National Forests will be located just off of a service road. Look out for pullouts, or dirt spots, and evidence of a site as written above. But to be honest I just use freecampsites.net because I don’t want to have to blindly search, haha.
National Forests are similar to BLM land, and you can camp for free for up to 14 days. And look out for those ‘no camping’ signs. But again, freecampsites.net has always had accurate info for me.
NATIONAL & STATE PARKSMost sites within National & State Parks are paid, but you can certainly also find free ones. Simply Google “free camping (whatever national park or state park you want to visit)”. I camped for free in Death Valley, as well as right outside Joshua Tree National Park!
Many National Parks have free camping and/or and abundance of BLM land right outside the park. So, instead of sharing small campsites packed with other loud campers, you can enjoy peace and quiet just outside the entrance. Much better.
Not the most scenic option, but many places like good ‘ol Walmart parking lots allow free overnight stays. You can even stay overnight at some rest stops.
Again, I use freecampsites.net to search for these as they’re listed there, too!
BEACH CAMPING (NOPE)
Unfortunately, as far as I know, there is no free camping allowed on California beaches. You can, however, pay to camp at many of them, but they usually fill up fast. It is illegal to just set up a tent on the beach, so definitely don’t do that!
I hope you’re ready to go out and find free camping all over California this summer! Have fun. 🙂
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