Camp for free (or at least cheap)


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.

Zion, Utah's increasingly popular yet still hidden gem.

When I think of National Parks out West images of Yosemite, Yellowstone, and California's Great Redwoods  are what come to mind. Then there is Zion, the place you've heard of and yet are not exactly sure what to expect, or where it is for that matter.

In my mind I knew Zion had to be great, but with it being so close to the Grand Canyon of Arizona and the slot canyons which make their way between two states, I had lost it in my minds map until it practically fell into my lap. I headed up to Lake Powell after a work trip in Glendale. I arrived some time after 9pm, paid the fees to camp ($15 to get into Glen Canyon and $10/night to camp), strapped on my headlamp, raised the tent, and made a camp fire under the stars and full moon which illuminated Lone Rock which sat just a few hundred yards off shore. It wasn't until talking with the Sheriff, who was driving along the beach as his dog ran Powell's shoreline, that I decided to go to Zion. I had come up to hike Antelope Canyon, but learned there was a hefty fee and you were required to hike with a tour guide and could only be there an hour and a half. The sheriff told me of the Toadstools, slot canyons you could hike for free, the wave (which I didn't go to of the near impossible to win lottery/permit). The next morning I woke up and drove to the nearest Bureau of Land Management office just a few miles up the road. From there I learned about Wire Pass, a trail/canyon you can hike for over 30 miles, but it slotted up pretty nicely about a mile in. The only trick was getting through the ten mile impassible-when-wet road. Luckily the conditions had been dry and my car is all wheel drive.

After a quick hike to the Toadstools I made the drive, paid the $6 hiking fee with quarters, nickels, and pennies (I only had $20's and no way to make change) and hiked on in. It was amazing, and all in all I spent about 2 hours playing around in the canyon. The hike only went a few miles in before it was flooded, but was still well worth it.

From there I made my way up to Kanab and then got into Zion for the sunset. The week long pass was only $25 and there is free camping within 5-10 miles of the entrance on BLM land (just get an atlas and search for the yellow outlined squares on the map... public land = free camping). I opted to car camp so I could get up and drive into Zion for an early morning hike.

It ended up working perfectly. After a quick coffee at the convenience store just outside of Zion I made my way in, waving my week pass at the Ranger as I passed through the entrance, and then drove straight to the trail head of Angel's Landing. After reading the warning sign that 4 hikers have fallen to their death on this hike since 2004, I ran up the path. The hike said it is a 2-3 hour out and back, but with a steady pace and no breaks I made the summit in 45 minutes. I was told the hike was going to be busy. "Zion has no off season" the lady told me the day before in the gear/coffee/bookstore I stopped by to get some replacement batteries for my headlamp, but to my happy surprise I had seen just 3 other hikers on my way up and no one was on top of Angel's Landing when I got to the top... even better yet no one was there the entire half hour I spent running around, leaning over the edge, looking thousands of feet down to the canyon floor. These are the perks of being able to go at 8am on a Wednesday in February.

So when you are planning a trip to Utah, or any other National Park for that matter, consider going in the off season, because they do still exist, and being out in nature is much better when it's just you or a couple of other friends (especially when the hike includes single wide paths holding onto chains with nothing to stop you from tumbling a quick 2,000 feet should you lose your handle and footing).

+All in all the trip cost me $56 and gas money

+Sheriff's in Utah are the coolest Sheriff's I have ever met.

+With the states sharing many similar geographic qualities, national parks, and beauty all within 10 miles, there is a definite Utah-Arizona rivalry... Many I talked to on the Utah side had never been to the Grand Canyon or Antelope Canyon, and many on the Arizona side had never made the hour long trip up to Zion, which all blew my mind, but they seemed to think the other state didn't know what was up when it came to natural beauty.

+What I would have done differently - Scheduled more time to be there! This is almost always the case, but I could spend two weeks in Utah/Arizona and not get tired of it. Everything was so different and if you talk to the right people, you'll find endless secret local hikes and pointers sure to keep you busy as long as you want. Also, consider hiking in minimalist or water shoes as to not get stopped by flooded areas, but since it's the off season be careful of hypothermia. I also would not have minded a hiking partner to bounce ideas off of. I know when to pack it out but there's always a risk to doing things alone in remote places.