RVing on a Budget: RV Camping Free or Cheap
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:
- 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.
- 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 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.
- Overnight Parking. This is sometimes referred to as parking lot camping, and 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 on 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.
What is Dispersed Camping?
For those unfamiliar with 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.
Best Book to Find BLM Camping
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
National Park Service Camping
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
Free and cheap camping in National Forests:
National Forests are another place to camp free or cheap. Many National Forests have free places to camp as well as regular campgrounds. Most National Forest campgrounds honor the America the Beautiful passes, but even without it, 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 electric 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 -- do call ahead.
Free Overnight Parking at WalMart
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 which regulate against 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 Commerece or Visitor's Center can give you information.
Camping with the Corps of Engineers (COE)
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 electric 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!
Copyright ©2010 Stephanie Henkel