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A Guide to RV Camping for Free or Cheap

Stephanie, her hubby, and their two cats enjoy living and traveling full-time in their RV, often camping off-grid to stretch their budget.

Free camping on public lands

Free camping on public lands

Camping Styles

There are numerous opportunities to save money camping in an RV, but first, you will need to decide on the level of comfort and amenities you want. I've divided camping opportunities into 3 categories:

  1. Full hookup camping. This is the most expensive type of camping, but there are bargains to be found. Full hookups usually include connections to electric, water, and sewer, but some campgrounds will also provide cable TV, telephone, and other amenities. This is the most expensive way to camp, but you can still find cheap camping. Most private campgrounds that provide full hookups also give you the choice of partial hookups only (electric or water and electric, but no sewer) for a cheaper rate.
  2. Boondocking. Boondocking, also referred to as dry camping, refers to camping in natural areas without amenities. Boondocking is one of the least expensive kinds of camping as you are not paying for utilities, clubhouses, or a lot of amenities. Boondocking is common on public lands like the Bureau of Land Management lands in the western states. There are sometimes boondocking opportunities in National and State Forests and other public areas. Many boondocking sites are free or very inexpensive.
  3. Overnight Parking. This is sometimes referred to as parking lot camping. It is free, dry camping that is usually only appropriate for overnight stays. Town and county ordinances, as well as businesses, will regulate overnight parking in store and business parking lots, but experienced RVers know that certain businesses welcome overnight RVers as long as there are no town ordinances against it. Many discount stores, truck stops, some restaurants, and many big box stores will allow free overnight parking. Some of the ones we've used have been Walmart, Sam's Club, Costco, KMart, Flying J truck stops, and Cracker Barrel restaurants. It's always a good idea to get permission from the manager before parking overnight.

How and Where to Find Cheap Campgrounds

Discount Camping Membership Directories:

One way to get great discounts at full-service campgrounds is to buy a membership in Escapees (15-50% discounts on participating campgrounds), Passport America, a 50% discount club, Camp Club USA (50% off camping), or another discount club. Memberships cost in the $50-$75 range and are usually well worth it. We belong to Escapees because we love their club and Passport America because they have many participating campgrounds all over the country. All of the clubs will provide a campground directory of participating campgrounds. Although they offer great deals, many participating campgrounds have restrictions on when the discount can be used, i.e., Monday thru Thursday or off-season only. Some also have restrictions on how many days you can use the discount. This is especially true of discounts at resort-style parks as they use the discounts to draw campers in to try their facility in hopes that they will stay longer at the full price.

Camper at LaPosa BLM Long Term Visitor Area near Quartzite Arizona. $40 for 2 weeks

Camper at LaPosa BLM Long Term Visitor Area near Quartzite Arizona. $40 for 2 weeks

What Is Dispersed Camping?

For those unfamiliar with the term "dispersed camping", it refers to camping where there are no designated sites. Campers just find a spot they like within the area and set up camp. This kind of camping is most often done on Bureau of Land Management or National Forest land. Check guidebooks or with the management offices for regulations before setting up camp.

Bureau of Land Management Free or Cheap Camping

Camping on BLM land usually means boondocking or dry camping. I recommend buying a copy of Adventures on America's Public Lands published by the U.S. Department of Interior and Bureau of Land Management to get locations of and directions to BLM (Bureau of Land Management) campgrounds and dispersed camping. You can also find this information on the internet, but having a hard copy is handy when you are out of cell tower range. We also like to make notes in our directory about the area. Boondocking on BLM land is one of the cheapest ways to camp and thousands of RVers spend their winters in Arizona or California for just a couple of dollars a day. For example, the LaPosa BLM Long Term Visitor Area (LTVA) near Quartzite, Arizona charges $40 for two weeks or $180 for seven months of camping, and you can move from one area to another within the LTVA on your permit. There's even a place where you can fill up with water and dump. In other areas where dispersed camping is allowed on BLM lands, camping is free.

Yellowstone National Park

Mudpots at Yellowstone National Park

Mudpots at Yellowstone National Park

Elk crossing the road at Yellowstone National Park

Elk crossing the road at Yellowstone National Park

Camping in National Parks

Camping in National Parks is a wonderful way to see the most incredible, scenic wonders of the United States. The National Park Service has inter-agency permits which are good at these participating agencies: National Park Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Bureau of Reclamation. If you are a senior age 62 or older and you are a U.S. Citizen or Permanent Resident, you are eligible to purchase the America the Beautiful – National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass – Senior Pass. For a $10 fee, you get a lifetime membership which allows you free admission and discount camping (usually 50% off) at the participating agencies listed above. It's the world's best deal!

Dixie National Forest, Red Canyon, Utah

Campsite at Dixie National Forest, Red Canyon Campground. $6 a night.  Campground is near Bryce Canyon National Park

Campsite at Dixie National Forest, Red Canyon Campground. $6 a night. Campground is near Bryce Canyon National Park

Free and Cheap Camping in National Forests

National Forests are another place to camp for free or cheap. Many National Forests have free places to camp as well as regular campgrounds. Most National Forest campgrounds honor America the Beautiful passes, but even without them, their campsites are a good buy. National Forest campgrounds may be in areas off the beaten path, but they are cheap and often have surprising amenities like electricity and water.

Even if the campsites are dry camping only, the National Forest campgrounds usually have a dump station and water available. There are several guides available to help you locate National Forest campgrounds, but the one published by the National Forest Service is probably the most extensive. Because some of the camping areas are in remote areas, it's a good idea to make sure that your rig will fit in the campsites before you go. Call ahead!

Free Overnight Parking at WalMart

Many WalMarts, like this one in Dodge City, Kansas, allow RV's to park overnight for free

Many WalMarts, like this one in Dodge City, Kansas, allow RV's to park overnight for free

Free Overnight Parking

Many businesses, big box stores, discount stores, and truck stops allow free overnight camping in their parking lots. Walmart is a popular place for travelers to stop overnight, but you should be aware that there are some towns that regulate overnight parking. Always ask if it's o.k. Also, please don't abuse the privilege of parking at businesses: Do ask permission. Do patronize the business where you park. Don't stay more than one night. Don't bring out grills and chairs. Do park out of the way of regular customers.

Many truck stops also allow RVs to stay overnight. Be sure to park in designated areas and don't take up space in areas reserved for tractor-trailers.

In some states, you are allowed to park free in rest areas and roadside pull-offs. If you choose any of these options, be sure that you are legally parked and in a safe place. If in doubt, don't stay.

Another option for good overnight or longer parking is city and county parks. These are sometimes not listed in directories, but the city Chamber of Commerce or Visitor's Center can give you information.

Free camping at Casinos

Casino camping is often free or very cheap. Many casinos have separate parking lots for RVs and allow campers to stay free for overnight stays or for several days. Some casinos offer free electric and dump stations, others have more amenities.

To take advantage of this great deal, either call ahead or check with security when you arrive and ask if overnight parking is allowed and where they would like you to park. There are several websites listing casinos all over the country that allow RVs to park overnight or longer. (Google "Casino Camping" for information sites). In return, most RVers will go inside to dine or gamble a little, but it's not required. There are Casino camping guides in hardcover as well as on the internet.

More Cheap Camping

When looking for great places to camp, don't forget to check out Core of Engineer campgrounds which are often near water. COE campgrounds are usually well designed and have sites with full hookups as well as electricity and water. Holders of the America the Beautiful National Park senior or disabled pass can get a 50% discount on camping fees. Some COE areas have dry camping areas that are either free or very low cost.

Town and city parks and fairgrounds are also places to check out in your search for inexpensive camping options. They are sometimes harder to find, though we've found that city and state information centers have a wealth of useful camping information.

Even those on very tight budgets can usually find camping to fit their needs and lifestyles. Trying new places and new styles of camping can open doors to scenic adventures that you never dreamed possible. Happy Trails!

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

Questions & Answers

Question: Where in the United States can I find the cheapest long-term stays for travel trailers with water, electricity, and sewer included?

Answer: Many campgrounds offer seasonal prices for those who want to stay long-term. I would check in the southern states because they are most likely to be open year around. I can't give you specifics, so you'll have to do that research on your own by calling individual campgrounds.

Question: Dry RV camping sounds good. But where do you take on water and pump out waste?

Answer: When dry camping, you may have to spend a little time investigating the area in order to find sources of water and dumping sites. Some truck stops and gas stations have dump stations where you can also fill freshwater tanks. In Quartzsite, there is a dump station and fresh water fill-up at the long-term visitor camping area. If you are not registered in that area, you can pay to dump and get water. Also, in Quartzsite and some other places, there are companies that run "honey wagons", portable septic pumpers will empty your tanks on-site, and water trucks that will come to you to fill your fresh water tank. These are convenient because you don't have to break camp, but can be costly, so water conservation is extra important. There are also places in town to dump and get water, some charge a fee. When you are dry camping on BLM land, there is often a dump station available in a central location. Some places we've dry camped don't have dump stations or water stations. In that case, we've usually been able to find what we need in nearby towns by doing a search on the internet.

Question: Doesn't it get a bit uncomfortable inside the RV without heating and air conditioning when you are not running the generator?

Answer: Depending on the heating system in your RV, you can usually run it without the generator, at least for a while. We purchased a small propane heater that we use when it's really cold. As for AC, you can't run it without a power hookup or generator. Open windows! :) If it's really hot, we spend time outdoors and run the generator for a couple of hours at night with the AC on to cool off the rig before bedtime. Then open windows. Dry camping in places where nights don't cool off can be uncomfortable. In that case you have to decide if your comfort level is worth paying the price for a campground with electric hookups. Sometimes the answer is yes.

Question: Are there any campgrounds near Myrtle Beach, SC where we can find full hook up camping for under $300 a month?

Answer: I don't know of any camping around Myrtle Beach that would be that inexpensive. We've found that the campgrounds/resorts are pricey and even the state parks top $30 a night. You can call campgrounds in the area and see what their seasonal rates are, but I doubt that you'll find anything in that price range.

Question: Are there any cheap RV hookup overnight places in or around Watsonville, Ca? For instance, no more than $700 a month?

Answer: You could check on the website for ideas on where to look for camping on public lands. If you are looking for a campground with hookups, try a search on the Passport America site. If you join PA, you get a 50% discount on participating campgrounds and many of them are quite nice and very reasonable.

© 2010 Stephanie Henkel