When we decided to spend 6 weeks touring the USA in a van, we didn’t know exactly where we would park but we figured that we would work that out along the way. We found out about a thing called Dispersed Camping, and since then we’ve stayed in the most incredible places, often without paying a penny! Scroll to the end for some of our favourite free or almost free spots near National Parks.
What is Dispersed camping?
In a nutshell, it’s camping for (usually) free outside of campsites in National Forest Land. Typically these sites are bare bones – at most you might have the odd picnic table, fire pit or pit toilets. You usually need to bring your own water, pack away your trash, and be ok with having a nature pee, but in return you get to escape the crowds and sleep in some incredible places.
There are lots of things to keep in mind when you’re dispersed camping. When I was researching it I found a brilliant blog post from Escape Campervan that I would recommend having a read of for tips and considerations.
How to find somewhere to stay?
We’ve found the Campendium app absolutely indispensable for finding places to stay. It’s a user curated directory of free and paid campsites, parking lots and dump stations.
The user reviews are brilliant at figuring out whether it’s worth driving down that dirt track for 5 miles or whether there’s cell signal.
Top Tip | One thing to note – it doesn’t work when you don’t have signal, so plan ahead – cache your google map, choose a few campsites incase the first choice doesn’t work out, and star them.
A few dispersed camping tips
- Sites usually don’t have restrooms, water or trash so prepare before you arrive. Find a nearby restroom beforehand and arrive with a full water tank and empty grey water.
- There are often fire pits but no places to buy logs – we usually picked some up when we bought groceries and kept a store in the van.
- Cell signal is often hit and miss, so download anything you need like maps or podcasts in advance.
- The dirt tracks to the sites can be pretty terrible – especially if the weather has been bad. It’s much more difficult to navigate and find a spot when it’s pitch black, so if that doesn’t sound like fun, arrive before sunset.
- Sometimes we ended up being in a city late at night and we didn’t want to find a dispersed camping site in the dark. Love it or hate it, many Walmarts will let you stay the night in their car park. Not all mind you, so after finding a potential Walmart, check Allstays for reviews on whether they all it and for reviews. You’re also meant to check in with the store manager on arrival.
Some of our favourite free campsites
Free campsites near Yellowstone, Idaho
For visiting Yellowstone we stayed just outside of the park on the West side at a lakeside dispersed camping spot called Romsett Beach. We were the only ones there and had a lakeside spot with a fire ring. No toilets and a bumpy dirt track to get there, but we’ll worth it.
Free campsites near Zion, Utah
For Zion we stayed at Smithsonian Butte, about 20-30 minutes from Zion’s entrance. Stunning views and fairly busy. Limited shade – we spent a few nights here and it was pretty warm come morning, but it was absolutely worth it for the night time skies and morning views.
(Almost) Free campsites near (ish) Glacier, Montana
Not quite Glacier National Park, but we stayed in a stunning fishing spot called Spite Hill in a town called Craig on our way from Yellowstone to Glacier. It wasn’t free, but it was very cheap (around $10 per night) and had a pit toilet and spectacular views over the river.
Free campsites near Arches National Park, Moab
We didn’t try any of the sites closer to Arches but this site was about 30 minutes drive away. Klondike Bluff was fairly quiet and free. Apparently there was a toilet somewhere though we never found it.
Free campsites near Yosemite National Park, California
Bonus one – this wasn’t on Campendium and we found it after taking a chance of sleeping at Glacier Point, but getting kicked out by the ranger. It’s called Goat Meadow Trailhead. We arrived in early October after sunset and still managed to find space.