Imagine parking your RV near a lake shore with magnificent views of the water and forest beyond it or on a beach next to the Gulf of Mexico. And one of the best parts is that this beautiful campsite is free.
Free RV campsites actually are not difficult to find. Besides Wal-Mart, casino and truck stop parking lots for overnight stays, scenic free campsites also can be found on federal land in wilderness areas.
Free camping, also known as boondocking, usually means camping without electrical, water or sewer hookups and allows campers to choose their own sites in areas where free camping is permitted.
Good planning is the first step to finding a great free campsite in a wilderness area. Detailed maps are essential either in a printed atlas or on a good GPS system. In addition to area roads, the maps should show boundaries of federal land.
With some planning, campers can find terrific free sites that rival the scenic views of paid campgrounds. The difference is that they usually have no facilities.
At South Padre Island in Texas, for example, a major destination for snow-birders, camping is free on North Beach for RVs or tents. Campers can choose their own location between the dunes and the water’s edge of the Gulf of Mexico. Permits must be obtained from a nearby visitors’ center.
The size of the camping vehicle is a major consideration in locating free campsites. A 36-foot motor home, for example, won’t be able to get into some wilderness areas as easily as truck or small pop-up campers.
Camps also should be set up no closer than 200 feet from a river, lake or other body of water. While camping within a few feet of river or lake may seem romantic, it exposes campers to flash floods and they can more easily damage the environment.
Free camping is permitted with some restrictions on most federal lands except national parks, where camping is limited to designated campgrounds. A restriction is that free campsites must be within 300 feet of a road, which prevents campers from driving deep into the woodlands and destroying the natural habitat.
Popular national forests also may have restrictions such as limiting stays to a maximum of three nights or they may have a nominal fee. On most lands under control of the federal Bureau of Land Management or the National Forest Service, campers are allowed to stay free for up to 14 days. When the time is up, they must to move to another site at least 25 miles away or stay away for at least 48 hours.
Besides federal lands, local city and county parks sometimes offer free camping and free sites also can be found on private land, often just by asking the permission of the land owner. Some farmers or ranchers are used to having RVers ask them about camping and have set aside certain areas of their lands for that purpose,
For quick overnight stops, Wal-Mart or truck stop parking lots offer free camping. Some Wal-Mart stores post signs that read “No Overnight RV Camping,” but many still allow it. The company recommends that campers check in with the store managers.
Flying J and Union 76 truck stops also allow RVs to park overnight in designated areas and offer other services to campers such as propane, water and fuel. Some Camping World and Kmart stores also allow free overnight parking for RVs.
Some casinos offer free camping or charge a nominal fee. Unlike other free sites, some of these sites include free water, sewer and electrical hook-ups.
Highway rest stops sometimes allow free overnight parking, although some RVers have reported that they did not feel safe staying in rest areas.
Free camping sites can be found both online and in printed publications. Several <a href=http://www.forestcamping.com>web sites</a> provide information about National Forest camping or list free sites by state. The Trucker’s Friend is a national truck stop directory that designates truck stops that welcome RV camping.
As with all camping, RVers who take advantage of free sites should take care to leave the site as they found it. They should not empty waste tanks on the land or leave trash behind.