For many, camping in the great outdoors is a staple of the summer months. Not only is it a great way to explore the beauty of nature and learn new skills, it’s also inexpensive once you have your core equipment.
However, camping can have a lot of variable costs. Many campgrounds have nearly all the amenities of home, from Wi-Fi to on-site restaurants, but they’ll be more expensive. At the other end of the spectrum, unfinished campgrounds get you right into nature, and for many campers, that’s exactly what the doctor ordered. Many of these camping locations are free or inexpensive. However, they can be tricky to find if you don’t know where to look.
Here are four valuable resources for finding low-cost and even free campsites across the United States. Some are run by cities and states, while others are run by the federal government. Some are right where you might expect, while others are unusual in both location and setup. All of them can be perfect for a camping trip and light on the wallet to boot.
1. FreeCampsites.net is exactly what you might expect – it identifies places throughout the U.S. where you might find free sites to camp. What’s the catch? Many of the sites are fairly difficult to access, as they’re intended for use by people who are canoeing or going on long hikes. Some sites are also associated with large stores that have nearby camping areas intended to support customers.
The website lists some campgrounds that aren’t free, but are usually well under $10 or offer occasional free sessions.
If price is your top consideration, FreeCampsites.net will find you exactly what you’re looking for. However, the sites often lack convenience and amenities, and are sometimes located in unusual spots.
2. USCampgrounds.info is a comprehensive database of 13,000 public camping areas in the U.S. and Canada. It includes state and national parks, forests, reserves and monuments that allow citizens access to camping areas.
If you’re using this tool, keep an eye out for any and all white symbols on the map, as those indicate campsites that have a basic rate of $12 or less. In my experience, the white symbols do not indicate a lower-quality campsite; however, campgrounds that offer lots of amenities tend to have a higher price.
3. Boondocking.org is devoted to the art of “boondocking,” which is all about finding free, off-the-beaten-path places for camping. The site is compiled by an active boondocker who maintains a database of free camping spots nationwide.
This is an interesting listing of local camping sites that you really have to “know about,” as they’re not listed in other databases. Some of them are quite unusual, such as abandoned private campgrounds where they just leave the gate open for anyone to use and city parks with campsites that have signs that say “limit three days.” These kinds of campsites can end up making for a very interesting trip, but they aren’t what you’d find in a typical database.
As with any of these databases, you should either use this as a starting point for more research and understand that such databases are constantly updated and used by people with different ideas on land use than you may have.
4. “Camping America’s Guide to Free and Low Cost Campgrounds” by Don Wright is an excellent book to pick up from your local library for browsing. If you prefer to find interesting and inexpensive camping sites by leafing through a book, this is the one you’re going to want to read.
This book stands out because it includes a lot of additional information about each location, like proximity to destinations such as national parks, national monuments and other spots that might be of interest to campers.
This book weighs in at around 850 pages, so it’s definitely a reference book – and one that will become outdated over time as campsites open and close. However, a recent edition of this book will be a valuable tool for the frugal camper.
If you’re planning a camping trip in the near future, these tools will provide you with ways to find campsites that will keep your camping cost low and might just help you find some unexpected locales along the way. Happy camping!
By Trent Hamm