The sun flares through tree branches of a large mossy oak over a white campervan parked in a campsite

How to Find Boondocking Sites | A Guide to Free Camping

There's free camping all around. Realize the full potential of being a nomad by learning to find boondocking sites anywhere. 

Updated February 2024

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With more than a year of full time vanlife under our belts and more than 90% of that time spent boondocking for free, we've learned a thing or two about how to find a spot.

We’ve also somehow avoided the dreaded ‘knock’ - being awakened by a knock on your vehicle and told you have to move on - all but one time.

In complete honesty, finding free places to spend the night where we, ideally, also have high speed internet can sometimes be very time consuming. It was also a point of stress for us when we began full time travel.

We’ve come to find a system that works for us and we want to pass along what we’ve learned through trial and error so that you can learn how to find boondocking spots and truly enjoy the benefits of life on the road. These tips will apply whether you're in a car, campervan, or RV but you may need to adjust slightly depending on the size or stealthiness of your rig.

A white campervan parked in a barren landscape covered in tire tracks with a huge butte in the distance

Where Can You Boondock For Free?

When we talk about how to find free boondocking sites, we're going to group them into three main categories: public land, private property, and public streets.

Some types of public lands are those overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, National Forests, and even some Army Corps of Engineers property.

There are lots of opportunities to spend the night for free on private property. You just need to know where to look and be sure that you have permission. Below we'll give you a whole list of places where we've had success.

Lastly, depending on local laws, you can often park for free overnight on public streets. But where do you find good locations and how do you know if it's allowed? We'll cover all of that.

Federal Public Lands

Bureau of Land Management

If you’re boondocking out West you’ll find an abundance of free public land managed by BLM. Staying on BLM land outside a developed campground is referred to as dispersed camping and existing campsites can usually be found on secondary roads throughout public land.

You’re usually permitted to spend up to 14 days at a time before moving on. Rules can vary depending on the particular BLM office though, so check for details if you’re unsure.

Rather than navigating through the official website, looking for good places to camp, we prefer to find BLM sites by using crowd-sourced apps, which is something we'll go over in much more detail.

There are some incredible places located on BLM land, including some of our absolute favorites in Utah like Moonscape Overlook and Factory Butte.

A white campervan parked in front of a massive red rock formation with a dirt drive leading toward it surrounded by scrubby brush

National Forests

Another great option for boondocking that you’ll find throughout the entire US is on National Forest land. This is where we park our van the majority of the time.

Again, details vary from one location to another but generally you can spend 14 days by finding a pre-existing campsite along designated Forest Service roads, away from developed recreation areas, including campgrounds, picnic areas, and trailheads.

Specific regulations can be found on the Forest Service's website by first selecting a location, then navigating the menu as follows: ‘Visit Us’ > ‘Recreation’ > ‘Camping’ > ‘Dispersed Camping’.

Again, this method of finding information is a bit cumbersome, so apps are what we use to find the best locations. The Forest Service does have its own app, called 'Visitor Map'. You can download it for Apple or Android, but you can also use it on desktop.

It's not going to help you find the exact location of a dispersed campsite or give you valuable crowd-sourced info, but it is useful for taking a closer look at forest service roads, which can be really confusing and poorly mapped elsewhere.

Boondocking on National Forest land opens up some of the best outdoor recreation opportunities and it's a great way to do things like chase Idaho hot springs.

A panoramic view of BLM dispersed camping land near Sedona with lots of green shrubs and cactus and multiple vans and campers spread out

Other Federal Lands

Some less common public lands that allow dispersed camping are managed by the Army Corps of Engineers. They focus on projects that create lake and river recreation opportunities. There are 942 COE camping areas across 35 states, but not all of these are free.

Once again, the federal government has made it difficult to quickly find information, so there's no point in searching through their website. The best way to locate free campsites on COE land is to buy a copy of this printed guide.

Another type of federal land that isn't talked about much is the Bureau of Reclamation. Again, they manage projects that develop water recreation areas. And, again, information is especially hard to come by. You may stumble across a Reclamation site that someone else has tagged on an app. Otherwise, your best chance of finding a place to boondock here is by contacting the local office and simply asking where it's allowed.

Private Property

Laws vary widely about where you can stay overnight in a vehicle. Depending on the local ordinances it could be illegal and each private property owner will have their own policy.

That being said, we’ve had little to no trouble finding safe and legal options for spending the night in both major urban areas and smaller towns. Crowd-sourced information via free apps is the best way to find these spots.

But, there's nothing stopping you from asking for permission. Almost all the private property listings on these apps exist because someone stopped in at a business and respectfully asked about parking for the night. If you've already patronized a business it can't hurt to ask the manager if they'd allow you to stay one night in their lot.

Here's a list of the types of locations where you could find a free place for the night:

Truck Stops & Rest Areas

Many times when we're on a long drive somewhere we'll look for a rest area along our route. Most of them allow at least an eight hour stay, but we've found that a few prohibit overnight parking. It usually depends on the state law. These make a great place for vans and RVers alike, but a couple of downsides are proximity to highway noise and semi trucks idling all night.

On that note, we've personally avoided truck stops, but they might work in a pinch. Some are free and others require a fee to spend the night, but might include some other amenities, like water fill up and showers.

Visitor Centers

Another hit or miss option is visitor centers. We've encountered some with large lots that allowed overnight stays and some where it's prohibited. Be sure to check for any clearly posted signs or ask inside.


Large, spacious trailheads can make a great place for the night because they're generally quieter and darker than other urban locations. Some will have clearly posted hours or a 'No Overnight Parking' sign. However, it's common on some trails for hikers to do overnight thru trips, which means vehicles can be parked for a day or more.

We find that if there's a trailhead that doesn't prohibit overnight parking, it's still best to arrive after sunset and leave first thing in the morning, to make sure we're not taking up space for others using the trail.


Some businesses that commonly allow overnight parking are: Planet Fitness, Cracker Barrel, Walmart, Bass Pro Shops, and Cabela's. We’ve also had success in large shopping centers or movie theaters.


Another great option would be churches, which often have medium or large sized lots that are empty during most of the week. We've contacted churches in the past, usually when our other go-to spots aren't available, and received permission to stay on a weeknight.


Speaking of large lots, most hotels have ample parking. This isn't one of our first choices, but if we really needed a place to stay it's an option. We'd stop by the front desk in the evening and ask if we could take up a parking spot for the night.

A white Ford Transit campervan parked in an otherwise vacant paved lot with its sliding door open

On-Street Parking

This one doesn't require a lot of explanation, but here are a few tips. Look around the area you'll be staying on Google Maps on satellite view. Find some obvious on-street parking and then either drive the area yourself or use Street View to take a look at any parking restrictions signs. If overnight parking isn't prohibited, it's probably an option.

We'd recommend looking in areas that are more commercial in nature, rather than residential streets. We've done it, but it can feel awkward to park in front of someone's house or apartment. If feels a lot less strange to be parked in an area full of warehouses or other businesses.

On-street parking that surrounds a public park is also popular for stealthy boondocking.

Keep in mind that even if there isn't a law against it, or if it isn't regularly enforced, you could still have a disgruntled local call and complain about you being parked in front of their home or business.

So, it's always important to be discrete, if not stealthy, and to be very respectful of the area and the people who live and work there. Great public parking spots are being ruined all the time because of disrespectful people leaving behind trash, playing loud music, cooking outdoors, etc.

Apps To Find Boondocking Sites

Without other like-minded travelers tagging locations and providing details, the process of finding free boondocking sites would be extremely tedious. Here are the apps we use to make it much easier:


Both the mobile app and the website provide a platform to browse formal and informal campsites just as easily as using Google Maps. This is our most used app, since both urban and more remote locations are tagged.

Every listing will show the original description, plus any other reviews, photos if they’ve been uploaded, and the most recent date someone has stayed. In the mobile app you can easily click on the GPS coordinates to copy and then paste them into Google Maps to navigate or save it for later.

Our only real pet peeve on this app is that anyone can upload a new site with any name and location they choose, so you’ll often find that for one location there are upwards of a dozen pins, all describing the same place.

iOverlander is completely free, which is amazing for the amount of information it provides and ease of use. It does rely on donations in the form of both money and volunteer time improving the app.

A screenshot on a cell phone of the iOverlander app showing icons for dispersed camping sites on a map


Another free mobile app and website we use regularly is FreeRoam. This is suited more for true boondocking in remote areas. Urban areas are sometimes tagged, but much less common than iOverlander.

You’ll get the same info, but in addition to reviews and photos FreeRoam shows the average temperature and precipitation by month, reported cell phone signal strength, and other factors such as crowdedness, noise level, and cleanliness, filtered by season.

Our favorite features of this app though are all of the available map overlays. You can browse locations while seeing cell phone coverage maps, BLM and National Forest land, elevation, and even smoke or forest fire hazards.

A screenshot on a cell phone of the FreeRoam app showing icons for dispersed camping sites on a satellite map


A third back-up option we’ve used on occasion is Campendium. It’s geared more toward RVers looking for hookups at paid campgrounds, but it can be a good resource for finding water or dump stations.

It’s free to use the basic features, but others that you’d get on FreeRoam, such as map overlays, require a Pro subscription.

Harvest Hosts

We’re including this option because it’s the next best thing to finding free campsites and, to be honest, depending on where you stay, the cost can go toward things you want or need anyway.

If you haven’t heard of Harvest Hosts it’s a membership program that gives you access to all kinds of unique locations throughout the country, including farms, wineries, breweries and even golf courses.

The first tier annual membership costs $99 and currently has over 5,000 locations. There are two other membership options that bring that up to over 9,000.

The middle tier ($169/year) includes a membership with Boondockers Welcome. This is a network of people, separate from Harvest Hosts, who have opened their private property to boondockers for free. Usually, they're fellow RVers or part time travelers who have some extra room to spare.

Once you find a host you’d like to stay with, you submit a request through the app and, depending on availability, they’ll approve your request and provide more details.

During your stay, you’re encouraged by Harvest Hosts to spend at least $30. That could mean buying fresh fruit or eggs from a farm, beer or wine at a brewery or winery, or making a tax deductible donation to a non-profit location.

We received our membership as a gift and have used Harvest Hosts multiple times. They’ve been some of our best overnight stays and the value you get with a safe, guaranteed place to park is well worth the $30 spend in our opinion. It’s an especially good option for the eastern portion of the US, where BLM land is non-existent and other free options can be more difficult to find.

If you’re interested in joining Harvest Hosts, sign up through our affiliate link and you’ll get $15 off.

A white Ford Transit campervan parked in front of Wendover Airfield with the historic control tower in the background

onX Offroad

We haven’t used this app extensively, but we did test out a free 7 day trial while off-roading in the Capitol Reef area and we noticed some benefits that could come in handy while finding boondocking sites.

The map view is more detailed than any of the other apps we’ve used and shows color coded boundary lines for property. So, for instance, you can see whether the spot you have in mind is on National Forest land, BLM, or if it’s actually private property.

This is more useful if you’re looking to stay in a general area and don’t have a specific site in mind. In our particular case we were traveling along 4x4 roads that crossed in and out of the national park, BLM, Utah State land and even some private property.

We knew we wanted to stay just outside the park boundaries and had a good idea of where that was, but a quick check of the map verified that we’d be able to camp on BLM close to where we wanted to be for sunrise.

A screenshot on a cell phone of the onX Offroad app showing 4x4 trails on a map through BLM and National Park land

Google Maps

Back to Google Maps, which can serve as more than just a navigation app. As we mentioned above, it's a useful tool for taking a closer look at a location such as on-street parking.

The Street View is extremely helpful when you want to visualize an area before actually driving there. We almost always pull up Google Maps after finding a potential spot on one of the other apps, just to double check that it looks suitable.

We've even found our own, previously unmarked boondocking sites just by browsing around in satellite view. Once you get the hang of it, you can look around on public land and find clearings and open areas that are usually established dispersed camping sites.

Other Apps

There are numerous other apps available that serve the same purpose, such as The Dyrt, AllStays, and US Public Lands.

We’ve tried a few of them and for one reason or another didn’t feel that they satisfied our needs or offered anything more than the apps we’ve detailed above. Most are either paid or have a significantly limited free version.

Since we’ve been able to find all the info we need so far on free apps we don’t see any reason to use Pro or paid versions.

Word of Mouth

It’s worth repeating again that without others sharing their experiences it would be extremely difficult to find worthwhile boondocking spots. Of course, we can’t fault anyone for keeping their personal favorites a bit of a secret.

There’s some controversy over ‘gatekeeping’ locations, but we can completely understand the sentiment of guarding some of these hidden gems. Not simply because it’s beautiful and you want to keep it to yourself, but in order to protect undeveloped and sensitive areas, especially those without any infrastructure to handle crowds, which includes many boondocking sites.

Sometimes word of mouth is the only way to learn about the best spots. Whether it’s in person, with fellow campers familiar with the area, or online via social media or forums - ask around and find out what others recommend. This may actually be the quickest way to finding a premium site, instead of having to dig through mounds of location tags and descriptions.

Personally, we would never withhold a location we’ve stayed. We might not always geotag a location online or publicly share it with the world, but if someone is doing enough digging and research of their own to find the best places we’re happy to share what we’ve found.

A white Ford Transit campervan parked on public BLM land during sunset with bushes in the foreground and mountains in the distance

Other Considerations

Location and scenery only make up part of a great boondocking site, so there are a few other important factors we consider when we’re looking for the best places to stay for free.

Access to food & water

We know how long a full tank of water should last the two of us, but we always plan our stays based on how far we’d need to travel to fill up. We’ve found iOverlander to be the most useful app for finding free water.

If we intend to be off-grid for an extended period we’ll research the nearest grocery stores, make meal plans based around non-perishables, and stock up when we do our shopping.

Cell phone coverage and internet

In the past our internet access has depended on cell phone coverage and we work remotely from our computers, so this is just as important to us. Checking our carrier’s cell signal coverage map is one of the first things we do when researching boondocking sites. We also find FreeRoam’s cell signal map overlay helpful and we’ll browse through reviews to see what others’ actual experience has been with getting bars.

Now that we've wired Starlink into our 12V system, we have to worry less about cell coverage. Now, having a clear view of the sky where we'll be parked is more of a factor.


Another really important factor, since we don’t like to be hot and we really don’t like to be cold. We plan our travels to maximize time spent in mild climates. Mainly for the temperature, but we also like to avoid rainy seasons and dangerous weather patterns like tornadoes and extreme winds, tornadoes, hurricanes, etc.

This may take a bit of extra planning and research on your part, but it may be worth checking seasonal weather trends for the area you’re considering.

One resource we’ve found helpful for long term planning is the NOAA’s Divisional Mapping page, where you can see a map of each state or the contiguous US color coded by average temperature. Changing the month and year allows you to visually gauge what the temps will be like during your visit.

Length of stay

We’ve never maxed out our length of stay at a free camping spot, but we’ve come pretty close. Again, the general rule on BLM or National Forest land is a maximum 14 day stay within 28-30 consecutive days. After that you’re required to move, sometimes a specified distance (30 miles for BLM).

A white Ford Transit campervan parked in a rocky area alongside a road on BLM land with a woman sitting down and looking at it mountains in the distance

Back-up Plan

No matter what, we always have a plan B. If we’re in an urban environment that probably means choosing multiple business parking lots that are suitable. If we’re on public lands, we like to have at least two sites within reasonable driving distance.

You never know when you’re going to pull into a location and it’s completely full of RVs, vans, and other vehicles with no space left for your rig. Or you get settled in for the evening only to have a security guard let you know that overnight parking is prohibited.

Having a second or even third option available will pay off at some point.

Leave No Trace

We couldn’t end this article without at least mentioning the importance of Leave No Trace. Any time we go outdoors we’ve got a responsibility to leave nature the way we found it. This is especially important while boondocking, since these locations aren’t as closely protected or managed as other destinations, such as our state and national parks.

They’re also being visited more frequently and with that comes a greater impact on the environment. It’s been really sad for us to arrive in a beautiful outdoor space, only to find it littered with garbage or even worse, human waste.

Let’s commit to doing better, so that we can continue to enjoy the outdoors and preserve them for the future. Here are the seven principles of Leave No Trace, which we’d encourage you to read about and adopt for yourselves anytime you venture out:

Plan Ahead and Prepare

Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

Dispose of Waste Properly

Leave What You Find

Minimize Campfire Impacts

Respect Wildlife

Be Considerate of Others

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The sun creates a flare through the branches of a mossy oak tree with a campervan parked in the foreground with a text overlay that says How to Find Free Places to Camp

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