How to find free dispersed camping on public lands

 
  • You’re headed out for a dawn start for a hike or climb, and want to find a spot near the trailhead to sleep for the night. How do you find a good place? 

  • You want to visit a popular national park in the summer, but of course all the campsites in the park are booked. Where could you camp for free just outside the park and visit for day use? 

  • You’ve embraced some version of “van life”, and never want to pay if it all possible when you're sleeping in your rig.

Car camping can be great. Secluded car camping for FREE on public lands that allow it is even better.

For the most part, land managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and the US Forest Service, (USFS), allow free camping pretty much anywhere unless posted otherwise, provided you don't need amenities like a gravel parking pad, running water, picnic table and a toilet. (The government-speak term for this is “dispersed camping”. RV folks might call it “boondocking”. )

This policy also mostly applies to state owned forest land in Oregon, owned by the Oregon Department of Forestry, or ODF, and in Washington, on land owned by Washington Department of Natural Resources, or DNR. Your state may have a similar system.

But, sometimes it’s hard to know whether you’re actually on public land that allows free camping, or not.

Good news is, there’s some good desktop mapping software and phone apps that can answer the question, hopefully leading you to a secluded, free overnight spot with no hassles. 


Disclaimer #1: As cartographers like to say, ”the map is not the territory.” Meaning, what’s really on the ground is the truth, not the printed map or phone app in your hand. If the map says you’re on public land, but the sign on the tree says no trespassing, or there are some grumpy locals who are giving you bad vibes, use your common sense and move on. 

Disclaimer/observation #2: The federal lands map layers in general seem to be more correct and consistent in these map tools / apps than the state land maps, at least for where I am in Oregon. In Oregon, it’s pretty easy to tell in the Coast Range whether it’s public or private. Privately owned lands almost always have a locked gate at the access road, and public lands do not. 

Observation #3: Rural gas station attendants are often good sources for good free campsites. A small tip offered for your gas before asking can work wonders.  =^)

Observation #4: I’d like to think I hardly need to mention this, but Leave No Trace principles of course apply. Don’t camp in meadows, near waterways or other fragile areas, leave zero garbage, toilet paper or fire rings behind, be VERY careful with campfires (if you even choose to have one) and observe all rules regarding campfires, and ideally have a walk around and pick up somebody else's trash before you leave.


Desktop: Caltopo

For this example, let's look for possible camping spots near the Crater Lake National Park in southern Oregon.

Go to CalTopo.com, my favorite backcountry mapping software, and zoom into your area of interest; here’s Crater Lake NP. Choose a map layer. I like “Mapbuilder Topo”, the default.

Then, mouse over the map layer menu in the top right corner, and check the box next to “Land Management”, under the “Map Overlays” section.

crater lake camping 1.jpg
 

Now, your map should look something like this. Note the clear boundary between the National Park land around the lake, and the green tinted National Forest lands around the park.

crater lake camping 2.jpg
 

Now we’re talking! Look at all those logging roads (in the red box) just outside the main road that leads into the park from the west, all on National Forest land. Most of these should offer some decent, free dispersed camping options, just a few minutes away from the park boundary.

crater lake camping 3.jpg
 

and here’s one more. This is just outside the main entrance station at the southwest corner of Mt. Rainier National Park. Check out those roads on the green Forest Service land; looks like a good place to camp for free and then go into the park the next day.

USFS camping near Mt Rainier.jpg

Phone apps - Gaia GPS

Phone based apps of course have the big advantage of showing your real time location AND the land ownership around you. Here are two that I like. 

On the “professional version” of the app, which is $40 a year, Gaia GPS has a map overlay option called “Public Land US”. With the “pro” version, Gaia has an advantage of being able to adjust the opacity of the map layers with a slider bar, which can be a big help in seeing smaller roads and pull outs.

 

Here we have the map layers “USFS 2016” and “Public Land (US)”. We see a pinkish tint for the National Park, and a green tint for the surrounding Forest Service land.

crater lake Gaia 1.jpg
 

Zooming into the same area where the main western access road enters the park, we see all of the forest service roads, many of which should offer some good camping options.

crater lake Gaia 2.jpg

Phone apps - FreeRoam 

I'm sure there are several other apps that do this, here's a plug for one that I'm familiar with.

FreeRoam is a phone app designed to show camp options and public lands. It’s free! It shows BLM and USFS land, some but not all roads, existing public campsites, and occasionally user added “dispersed camping“ sites. The app does not have all the whistles and bells of Gaia GPS, but as far as showing your location and whether you are or are not on federal land, it does a decent job.

As a side note, in my brief time using it, it shows some state owned lands, but not all. It seems to be geared more toward federal land ownership.

 

Back again at Crater Lake NP. (Note the bounty of official $$$ campsites around Diamond Lake in the National Forest land north of the park, if that's your thing.)

free roam 1.jpg
 

And again, zooming in just outside the park to the west near Highway 62. Note the app shows just the primary forest service road leading south of the main highway, and not all the smaller secondary roads.

free roam 2.jpg
 

Well, that ought to be enough to get you started. Of course, you can mix and match some of these sources as well if you really want to get creative.

For example, you could use your nice big desktop screen at home and Calopo to scope possible campsites, maybe even using a satellite view, mark some way points, and then transfer those over to Gaia GPS on your phone to use when you're actually driving.

Hey, you pay your taxes. Get maximum use out of your public lands, and if you don't need a picnic table, go camp for free whenever you can.