How to Find Free Camping spots on an RV Road Trip
Updated: Jun 2
Boondocking or Freedom camping is when RV travelers take advantage of free accommodation while on their road trip.
With the cost of campgrounds ever-increasing, especially in major cities, a lot of RVers are searching for ways to find free overnight RV parking.
Boondocking is different from camping. Often you just use the parking spot as a place to sleep. You don’t get the grill, table and chairs and awning out to set up camp. You are almost always dry-docked, which means you are not plugged into a power source, freshwater hose or sewer dumping station.
When we began boondocking we were always nervous we were parked somewhere we weren’t supposed to or somewhere unsafe. It’s a little tricky getting the hang of freedom camping, but after spending more time doing it we have become a lot more confident and love our boondocking adventures. It adds to the excitement of an RV road trip when you are trying to find the best free places to camp.
In our guide to finding free camping in an RV, we will show you the different types of free camping. How to make sure you don’t get in trouble or get fined, how to prepare for boondocking and how to find free camping spots. Plus, we give you some of our favorite free locations we have used in Oregon and California.
Types of Boondocking
This is the form of overnight camping that we used the most during our USA road trip. Stealth camping is easier if you have a campervan or a smaller motorhome. It's hard to be stealthy in a 40ft Class A RV... We had a 23ft Class C and it was perfect for parking on the side of the road and in residential areas.
It’s basically parking somewhere that does not have any no-parking signs. This can be a little risky, as even if there is no sign. You may still not be allowed to stay overnight in a motorhome there.
Be smart when looking for parks and hope that security or police don’t wake you in the middle of the night, asking you to leave.
This type of camping is more suited to short stays, mainly overnight ones but up to 72 hours seems to be accepted in a lot of residential areas in the US.
The options for dispersed camping vary from state to state. There are State forests, State Parks, and State trust lands. Each state has other options for dispersed camping, such as State Trust Land and State Forests.
When dispersed camping, you don't have any services or facilities which is dry docking. There are no marked campsites, so it is on a first-come-first-served basis.
Check the rules and regulations of the camping area you are going to before you arrive.
Some businesses that have large outdoor parking lots like Walmart, Casinos and large malls offer free overnight parking. Not every store allows this so check online or call their store before you arrive. For a full list of Walmarts in the USA that allow free overnight parking, check here.
You can use these and other rest stops like picnic areas or truck stops and good options for free short term overnight parking.
This is where you ask friends or family if it would be okay to park in their driveway or in front of their homes.
This is a handy way to ensure you don't get in any trouble while still getting free camping. You may even get to fill up your freshwater tanks and plug into the house's power source.
Is it Legal?
This all depends on which option of freedom camping you choose. Stealth camping may not always be fully legal, but if you are parking in a spot that doesn’t have any no-parking signs then you should be okay. A parking or police officer may come and tell you to move. Or worst case you will wake up to find a parking ticket on your windshield.
Boondocking out in nature is usually legal as long as you do not park on someone's private property.
Government-owned public lands like national parks and forests are allowed. Just make sure to check each camping site's rules and regulations. You’ll want to check that the area allows freedom camping and how long you are allowed to stay there.
Free parking in cities or towns is legal in some areas. Parking lots at Walmart’s and Casinos sometimes allow it. But it is becoming harder to find overnight parking at places like this.
We often parked overnight our 23-foot motorhome on city or suburban streets. Just look out for no parking signs and street sweeping signs. Often you can park on residential or city streets free for up to 72 hours. Once again just check the rules and regulations in the area to avoid fines.
How to Find Free Camping?
On our West Coast USA road trip the best way we found to find free camping was to drive around until you found the best spot, especially when you are staying out in nature.
There is so much freedom to this, we would look for places next to freshwater, this would allow us a place to swim and avoid using our freshwater. If you are respectful of the area and keep your makeshift campsite tidy you won’t have any issues.
Websites or Apps for Free Camping:
Ultimate Campgrounds has over 40,000 camping locations available to the public. They have free and paid sites on their app. They also show you dump-station locations. This app is such a great resource and shows you all the campgrounds in your area, what utilities/facilities are offered at the campground, images of the campsite and directions to it.
Free Campsites Whether you just need to know where to camp nearby or you want to plan a free camping road trip, they have got you covered. You can simply use your smartphone's GPS to find free camping locations near you. Free Campsites is a community-driven website and they encourage you to share locations of free campgrounds and campsites that you have discovered.
All Stays this app is like Ultimate Campgrounds, but it is more comprehensive than just free parking or camping. They have over 60,000 spots on an interactive map, it shows you everything you’ll need on the road – gas stations, rest areas, stores, RV dealers, etc. They also show you businesses like Walmart that offer overnight parking.
Google Maps When staying in cities it gets a little harder to find good parking spots. Especially in popular spots in California, like the beaches. Here we would use google maps while driving round to look for residential streets that were a couple of blocks away from the beach or main business area. Google maps satellite or street view helps you find suitable street parking areas.
Tips for Freedom Camping
Be prepared to go dry docking or off-grid and not being connected to water, power or a dump station. You’ll need to ensure you keep your freshwater tank topped up when possible and conserve water where you can.
Conserve water by using recyclable paper plates and cups to save on dishes when you are freedom camping.
This can also be done by avoiding showering in the camper van and swimming in the ocean or freshwater you can find. This is especially easy to do when road-tripping in California in the Summer because the water is almost always warm.
Use free dump-stations whenever you can. There are dump-stations all over the US. If you can, avoid using the RV toilet, this will save you the hassle of constantly going to dump stations.
A trick that we like to do on our road trips is to have a week of boondocking and then reserve 1 or 2 nights at an RV campground in between our free camping nights. This allows us to fill the tanks, dump and plug into the electricity.
Getting Power, there are a few ways to get power in your RV when you aren't plugged into an electricity source. These include an Onboard Generator, Getting Solar Panels, or Improving your RV batteries. You will need to know which type of power source when you go off-grid. We just used a camping lantern and charged our devices while we drove, so we did not need a generator or solar panels.
Boondocking vs Campgrounds: How Much Money can you Save?
Prices per night of campgrounds vary a lot but we found that campgrounds located in or near popular cities on the West Coast of the USA like San Diego or San Francisco cost over $100 a night depending on the size of your vehicle.
Staying in campgrounds in smaller towns or away from cities is often a lot cheaper. Prices vary widely and depend on the size of your motorhome or what type of docking you want, you can find spots for anywhere between $20-$100 USD. If you have to pay for camping, be sure to shop around and see which campground in the area has the best rates.
By avoiding using campgrounds, you will save a lot of money on accommodation, sometimes over $100 a night. If you are planning a two-week road trip you could save over $1000 just by boondocking!
When you stay at campgrounds, you pay for a little extra security and luxuries like being plugged into running water, electricity, having wifi and shower and toilet facilities available. But if you prepare for freedom camping in your RV properly, you won’t miss these luxuries and you will save a lot of money on accommodation.
Perks of Boondocking are obviously first and foremost the savings. It's free… Another benefit is that you get to be away from civilization for a while and get closer to nature, it’s amazing being able to drive around admiring beautiful scenery and park wherever you want. The freedom of boondocking is a big motivation for campers, being more self-sufficient and less wasteful.
Some of our Free Camping Locations on US West Coast
Crater Lake, Oregon - If you are heading south towards crater lake you will be taking Highway 138, as you near crater lake there are lots of great free camping spots near Diamond Lake, which about 30 mins drive from Crater Lake. Just get onto one of the side roads off the 138 and find a spot on the lakefront.
Yosemite Valley - In the very middle of Yosemite Valley we parked with a view of El cap, Half Dome and Yosemite Falls. There are flat stretches of the road on the valley floor that have areas where you can pull off and park for the night.
Santa Monica, LA - We stayed for several nights beachfront Santa Monica, just a block from the pier. There are some free parking spots along Ocean Ave that we used. They fill up quickly though, so you have to get a little lucky.
Hermosa Beach, LA - Hermosa Avenue has some free overnight parking, you just have to move by 8 or 9 am. This free spot is amongst million dollar Los Angeles mansions and only one block back from a beautiful golden beach.
Pacific Beach, San Diego - We stayed for free in our RV for 3 weeks in Pacific Beach, completely dry-docked. We would be one or two blocks back from the beach and move our camper every one or two nights. You can find free parking all along Thomas Ave, Felspar Ave, and Garnett Ave. Once again these are often full so you’ll have to drive around for a while to find one, especially in a bigger motorhome.