ONE OF THE BIGGEST FRUSTRATIONS OF TRAVELING, CAMPING, AND GETTING OUT INTO NATURE THE COST AND AVAILABILITY. STATE PARK CAMPGROUNDS ARE CHARGING $15-$50 TO CAMP OUT ON THE GROUND FOR A NIGHT WHICH ISN'T A GUARANTEE WITH SOME CAMPGROUNDS BOOKING UP MONTHS IN ADVANCE. THIS SEEMS LIKE AN INJUSTICE TO THOSE OF US JUST LOOKING TO GET OUT AND AWAY, ESPECIALLY WHEN THERE ARE REGULATIONS WHICH MAKE IT ILLEGAL TO CAMP ON THE LAND AROUND.
This frustration comes to groups of every size, but usually peaks for those of us traveling alone and having to foot the bill solo. Even worse is paying for a spot where street lights are shining in your tent and car engines go by when the point was to get out to enjoy the outdoors. Good thing is there are ways around this. Here are 3 tips for free (or at least closer to free) camping experiences.
1 - Bureau of Land Management (The BLM)
When it comes to your desire to get out and get away, the Bureau of Land Management is actually on your side. They aren't just another park ranger's office. They actually manage and protect the public land which you have a right to use. There is such a thing as free- the key is finding it. The easiest way is to go to a BLM office and ask. The workers are usually very nice, nature loving, all around helpful people. The other way is to go old school and get an Atlas or find a map explaining the Public Land Survey System (a way of subdividing and describing land in the United States which is mapped out in most of the states excluding Texas and the East coast). On an Atlas, the land will simply be outlined in a faint yellow color. Once you've located that the land is BLM land, you know it's free to camp there. As long as you are hiking through or finding a legal place to put your car on the side of the road, the camping and use of land is free (obviously obey the fire laws and any other notices). Most BLM land will have plenty of service roads jutting off into the wilderness which you can drive up and park off of without another soul for miles. This is especially useful when near busy national parks and areas with high camper volume (such as Zion National Park) where it may not only be expensive, but impossible to find a campground to pitch your tent. Just a five minute drive in one direction from many national parks is BLM land where you can find peace, quiet, and free camp sites.
2 - Rustic Campgrounds
Another option for not-free but not-so-expensive camping are rustic campgrounds. These are the not-so-advertised and not-so-managed sites with less amenities. Pretty much, you're not going to find campers here. There are no hook-ups, water services, or electrical outlets, which is actually nice because, you know, you're camping and not staying in a hotel for a reason. At around $5-$10 a night they come it at a much more manageable price and there are usually a lot more available since there aren't defined spots and they exist a little bit further off the grid. Just double check your water stock and make sure you have a car capable of getting to the site.
3 - Buddy Camping - the last ditch effort.
So you just packed the car and drove, but the problem is there is no BLM land or rustic sites. This is often the case in developed coastal towns such as Southern California. There is no choice but to head to the paved state park cut out camp sites. The downside of having to camp in a parking lot can be easy access to surf and a cool atmosphere filled with friendly camping companions. The biggest issue here is how these sites, especially during peak season, are reserved months in advance. The best thing to do in these situations is to find a parking spot nearby and walk in with your pack/tent. It may seem weird, and it might be, but buddy camping requires you to throw on your social butterfly pants and schmooz the socks off of some more-responsible soul. The most important thing is to realize the power of asking and be blunt. It also helps to have a friend with you as to appear not so creepy, but if you scope out a group of people around your age you'd be surprised how many are willing to let you hop in on their camp site (given they have the physical real estate to accommodate you). The biggest thing here is to remember they are helping you out and you should make their experience of camping awesome, so respect them, and do whatever you can to make your stay a memorably good one. I have had some of my least favorite I don't even want to camp in this cookie cutter non-nature site moments change by meeting good people to share good times with. You'll need to bust out all your best jokes and lay the charisma on thick to get in, but things usually mellow out quickly. A gifted of a bottle of wine or case of beer is always in order, but it usually ends up being shared as people actually enjoy meeting good company... go figure. Make sure to pay your share (or above) for the campground, which is usually still a good price when splitting. More often than not you'll end up exchanging a fair amount of campfire stories at night and phone numbers in the morning. Buddy camping presents it's own adventure of meeting strangers and making friends. Go in with low expectations, but don't be surprised when you have a great time.
When it comes to camping you have a lot of options and even more loopholes. The typical google or state park search won't expose these secrets because they don't manage the free stuff, but this is America and we actually do still have honest-to-goodness free land, rustic reserves, or friendly people to make your best adventure possible.