If you are new to camping and backpacking you may think the only place to go is campgrounds and your equivalent of state/national parks. This is only scratching the surface. Once you know where to look you will see there is more free camping than there is pay. My way of remembering it is if it's P(ark) you pay and if it is F(orest) it's free. Start from there and you will grow your database of free camping locations.
Benefits of free camping
It's free, duh.
This can come in handy on longer trips where the cost of a site really adds up. If you are paying $25 per night then you are looking at $175 for a week, which could go a long way towards some cool gear.
Freedom to make your own schedule
Even in the backcountry, you are often a slave to the schedule of the campsite. If you have #4 booked and you make it there by noon you don't have the option of putting in extra miles. When you are in an area that is free, campsites are first-come, first-serve. So if the site you want is taken, keep going until you find one. The plus is the further you get into the woods the less likely you'll find competition for campsites.
Choose your own adventure on the fly
I've had many trips where the plan didn't survive the first contact with the enemy. When you are in an area that allows free-roaming and camping you can make up the route as you go. Longer or shorter doesn't matter.
Since areas that are free have no incentive to advertise, most people go to pay campsites because that is all they know. All of the free areas I go to are far less crowded than any park I've camped at. The further your campsite is from the trailhead, the less likely you are to see a lot of people. That escape is there for the taking if you are willing to put the work in.
Downsides to free camping
You are on your own
This may be the goal but you are also on your own as far as safety goes.
Do you know how to navigate?
Do you have a way to communicate with the outside world if you get hurt?
What about your first aid skills?
Do you know how to store your food to minimize the risk of animal encounters?
Like a boy scout, when you are going camping in free places it's all up to you so you better have your gear and skills on point.
Do you want a hot shower in the morning? Too bad. A cold shower under a waterfall might a possibility but the usual luxuries at a pay campground of showers, toilets, potable water, and firewood for sale aren't an option in free areas. If you are lucky, there may be an outhouse.
You aren't guaranteed a site. I've had many times that we start a hike late Friday night after a long drive and the near campsites are all taken. What was supposed to be an hour hike by headlamp turned into an epic that led into the wee hours of the morning before we found a place to camp. It was fun though so I'm not complaining. But if you don't like things not going the way you planned then keep this in mind.
Resources to find free camping
Free Camp Site Website
This website is like the wiki of free camping. Users submit free camping locations and give a write-up about them. Don't just go with what you find here. Do a search to see if camping is actually permitted but it is a good starting place.
I use both Google Maps and Open Street Maps to learn about the layout of an area. Google shows parks, forests, and wilderness areas and then I will zoom in to that area on Open Street Maps to see the trails and potential camping. Then Google the park to find out what the rules are.
Provincial or State forest websites
There are too many to list here but once you have an idea of the area you want to go to, look it up on the official government site for the area to find out what the rules are.
In the US, every National Forest I've researched has some free camping. The interactive map allows you to explore areas looking for trails and campsites.
National Scenic Trails
The Appalachian, Pacific Crest, and Continental Divide Trails are all predominantly free camping. The AT has a few sections that you pay to camp but for the most part, you are free to camp all along the trails.
My favorite free camping locations
Adirondack Mountains, New York
I go to the Adirondacks for backpacking and rock climbing and there are great camping options for both. Backcountry campsites are plentiful with Appalachian Trail-style shelters at many campsites. Lots of tent sites and of course many trees for hammocks. The camping is free but you need to fill out the registry when you enter the High Peaks Region. Additionally, you need an approved bear canister when in the High Peaks. When climbing we use a number of the roadside campsites such as South Meadows Road or the climbers camp on Hwy 73 near Chapel Pond.
Queen Elizabeth Wildlands, Ontario, Canada
I live in Ontario, Canada so I need a place close to home for little weekend getaways. We don't have a lot of places for free camping in Southern Ontario so this place is a treat. Think of it as a mini Algonquin Park. Lakes and exposed Canadian Shield make for a truly wild experience. There are trails and many canoe routes.
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
If you are looking for the exotic, then the mix of high desert and deep canyons is calling you. Unlike the better-known national parks in Utah, this area is off the grid and free of tourists. You need to fill out a permit at the trailhead but it is free. The point of this is so the rangers know if they have to go looking for you, as you put your expected finish date on the permit when you drop it in the box. Be aware you need to carry out your poop in wag bags.
Best practices when free camping
Research the area you are thinking of going into and find out what the rules are.
Always practice "Leave No Trace". Carry out your garbage. While you are at it, if you see other people's trash left behind, grab that too. Leave the area better than you found it.
If you have a fire, make sure it completely put out. I use my cooking pot to make many trips to the stream so that the firepit is completely soaked. You don't want to be the one to burn down the forest.
Learn to poop in the woods. Go well off the trail at least 200 feet from water, dig a hole at least 8" deep and bury it after you are done. If you are in a more sensitive area like the desert, carry wag bags and carry out your solid waste.
The Wrap Up
Understanding how to find free camping spots is important for any adventurer. Whether it is impromptu campouts on a road trip or just trying to save money, there is a lot of free camping out there once you know where to look.
Cover Photo Credit: Catharine Gerhard