First, Know the Basics of Free RV Camping
Where can you park your camper for free? Well, there are a number of places with free campgrounds. There are some things to consider when utilizing free space to park your RV. Making sure you have permission to park is most important.
First, let’s learn a few common terms when it comes to camping for free.
- Boondocking/Dry camping: Boondocking refers to parking your camper for free where there are no sewer, water, or electric hookups.
- Black water tank: This is where your wastewater is held.
- Blue Boy: This is a portable plastic container that holds your black water to be dumped at a nearby dump station.
- Bureau of Land Management Land: BLM land is found in a lot of western states. You are allowed to stay on the land, free of charge, for up to 14 days.
- Honey Wagon: For a fee, a truck (with a tank) will come and dump the contents of your black and gray tanks.
- Dump station: This is where you empty your black and gray water tanks when they are full.
- WallyDock: A term that means you are parked at a Walmart.
Parking your RV for free is a great option. Obviously, you can save money in campground fees, but there are a few things you might want to consider.
Can You Park Your Camper for Free? Yes!
There are many places around the U.S. that allow you to park your camper for free. Walmart, Cracker Barrel restaurants, Bass Pro Shops, Cabelas, and other retail outlets also allow RVers to park on their properties. Be sure to check in with the manager and follow any rules or requirements.
During our recent travel time, we called a Cracker Barrel to make sure we could park there. The answer was yes, but when we got there, the lot was nearly full and it was kind of scary getting our 37-foot travel trailer into a spot. You might want to have an alternative plan.
Lowes or Home Depot are also possible places to stay for free. Casinos are also great places to park your RV overnight. Some even have designated parking for RVs. As I stated earlier, talk to a manager so you know what the rules are, be courteous, and clean up your spot when you leave. If these places find RVers to be problematic, they will stop allowing them to patronize their parking lots, and everyone loses.
Truck stops are also a place you can park overnight, however, be courteous and stay in the RV designated spots only. Rest stops are usually a no to park overnight, but if you need to stop and rest for a few hours, you will probably be OK. Don’t open your slides, put out your chairs, or pitch a tent. Don’t park in a truck spot, either.
Other Free and Cheap RV Camping Options
State and National Parks are generally not free, but can be fairly inexpensive. These have limited hook-ups, but you can enjoy a spot far from crowds and might even have bathrooms or pit toilets which will save you from having to leave and dump your black tanks.
Harvest Hosts are a popular option. Technically, it’s not free because you pay a yearly fee, around $100-$150 depending on the plan you choose, but then you can park for free at some 2,000-plus wineries, breweries, farms, golf courses, and more. Boondockers Welcome, which was recently purchased by Harvest Hosts, is the same concept. You pay a yearly fee and can choose an appropriate site at your destination or on the way there.
You can find locations that offer free overnight RV parking, as well as other campgrounds and points of interest, while planning your route on RV LIFE Trip Wizard.
You can also park on a friend or family member’s property or on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land. Again, be sure and check the rules. BLM land usually has stay limits. Make sure you pack out your trash when you leave from any of these boondocking spots.
Generally, while off-the-grid boondocking, you will find a quieter atmosphere and plenty of dark sky to enjoy. That freedom is what draws many to a boondocking lifestyle. Parking at a Walmart or Cracker Barrel could mean you are near a noisy highway or road. This is also something to consider.
Why camp for free?
Boondocking is a great way to see the country and park for free. These spots are usually in the wide open spaces and you can have all the area you need. However, you might be miles from a grocery store, so be sure and plan for that. Safety could be an issue as well if there is no one else around.
Staying on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land is free. The isolation can be great, but there also may be others staying nearby with ATVs or other noisy off-road vehicles. States such as Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming are great places to visit and camp on BLM land. Sometimes, this is also referred to as dispersed camping. Either way, there likely are few people and RVs nearby to disturb your peace.
You are limited in how long you can stay on BLM land, usually to 14 days in a 30-day period, and you must be 100-200 feet away from any road, trail, or water source. Of course, at some point during that time, you will have to move to empty your holding tanks and get water. You can purchase a generator to keep your electric going. Some use solar power or rely on a bank of batteries.
Of course, internet access might be an issue if you are boondocking or camping for free. A cell phone booster can help you get a better signal when you don’t have a park’s Wi-Fi to access.
What do you need to camp for free?
It might take some effort and money, but boondocking can be a very satisfying way to use your RV. Boondocking does require some extra equipment. Consider what you might need for a power source.
Adding an extra battery or two can help stretch that out. A generator is a must-have if you plan to camp for free often. You can run your air conditioner on a generator. You can run the stove, refrigerator, and furnace on propane. Solar power is also an option.
What about water and sewer when camping for free?
When finding places to camp for free, you must use your onboard water and sewer tanks. If you are just doing a night or two of boondocking on the way to a destination, this won’t really matter. You won’t fill up in that short time. A long stay away from hookups will require you to drive to a dump station or make use of a Blue Boy or Honey Wagon.
When boondocking, make sure your water tanks are full, and you may want to carry extra water in containers for drinking, washing dishes, etc. Depending on how long you will be camping, you might also want to find ways to conserve water. Skipping showers or taking a sponge bath or using wet wipes might be an option.
Also, make sure your holding tanks are empty. Never empty either your gray or black tanks into the soil. A composting toilet can help to extend your black tank. Capturing dish water can help keep your gray tanks empty for longer.
No matter what method you use to park your camper for free, you will have the freedom and satisfaction of being able to do it on your own and save money in the process.
How to find places to camp for free
For help mapping out your route for your next RV getaway, look no further than RV LIFE Trip Wizard. This online planning tool makes it easy to plan an RV-safe route. It can also locate interesting sites along the way, all according to your travel preferences. Get RV LIFE Trip Wizard with its accompanying RV LIFE App, and start planning your adventure today!
- What You Need To Know About Walmart Overnight Parking
- The Secrets Of Free Camping
- How To Find Free Overnight RV Parking
Rene Agredano and her husband, Jim Nelson, became full-time RVers in 2007 and have been touring the country ever since. In her blog, Rene chronicles the ins and outs of the full-timing life and brings readers along to meet the fascinating people and amazing places they visit on the road. Her road trip adventures are chronicled in her blog at LiveWorkDream.com.
Skip Watson says
One caveat to add about Harvest Hosts is that you are encouraged to spend as much as $50 at the establishment you are staying at, and some of them REQUIRE that. That’s more than most campgrounds we stay at. Yes, a lot of what they offer are things we purchase anyway, such as wine at a winery or cheese at a farm, but if we were to stop at a winery, and the next day we go to another, and we spend $50 at each … well, we don’t drink that much wine in 2 days. And considering the annual cost to be a member, that is anything but FREE parking.
Frederick F Strout says
Ever since Harvest Host took over Boondockers Welcome they took a good thing and have ruined it. I tried to renew my member ship by entering information into there web site. The next notice I received was I was canceled because I did not fill the application out correctly. When it was BW shed took my information and completed the rest. Don’t be surprised when this company starts changing the whole concept of the program. They were failing at what they did and bought out BW thinking they could make it work at deceiving people .
Horace Cupp says
What about rest stops where RV’s are directed to then truck side of the facility? If there are plenty of places available and the 18 wheelers are not jammed up on the ramps, I have no compunction about napping in an available place.
RV TRAVELS says
With Harvest Hosts, besides the purchase cost of items, they generally offer no services. Therefore if you are going to spend 50 bucks on wine, you may as well spend 50 bucks on a campground and get electricity and water and possibly a good hot shower as well.
Tom G says
“Rest stops are usually a no to park overnight, but if you need to stop and rest for a few hours, you will probably be OK.”
It varies from state to state. Some allow it, others do not. Check state websites and look for posted signs.
Same for Walmart, Cabellas, Bass Pro and Cracker Barrel. Call the store, before and check them out via Satellite View. Not ALL Cracker Barrels have RV/Bus parking.
Walmart’s official stance is “Local store manager’s discretion”, but city and county ordinances may prohibit overnighting anywhere other than a commercial campground/park. Walmart will have posted signs if it is prohibited.
Once small note, although HH is inexpensive for the yearly fee and truly has many beautiful locations, it’s not free after membership is paid.
You are expected to purchase from the business owner, which is fair and as a member of HH I am happy to do so. It should be noted that you’re patronizing the business for a parking spot and most of the time get no services. Many times it can be less expensive to stay at a local state park and have a dump station, electric and water for 30 bucks. If you need a bottle of wine or some other spirit, play golf or want to visit a museum on their list more than dump your tanks or get water and certainly that can be the case… it’s a great option! Just be aware… it’s not free and you usually receive no hookups.
DENNIS FAGAN says
Great writings, I’ve been cross country a few times with parents. The big bend was cool but a windy road down and back up. Scuks raid your ice boxies. And deer come up to my sister of all things. Now retired I know most southern states and a few state and gov. Forests areas in Texas, Mexico and Nevada, some in California but most are costly now. Lived in Criad Colorado. That’s a great place in summer to steamboat springs. There are in Craig a free campsite just before getting into Criag on a mountain top area. Great views and deer and other animals. Well great to read your column again.
John Warren says
I am not sure if it is still true, but my wife and I have used the New Mexico state rest areas for overnight stays. We found their rest areas to be clean and easy to access.
Joy Graham says
Thank you for all the information, we are new to the RV world, planing on doing some traveling next fall 😁
I don’t believe we’ve ever spent $50 at any of the Harvest Hosts we’ve stayed at. I think our average is about $20-25. But where we stay, we would have spent money there anyway.
We’ve never stayed anywhere that “required” a purchase. You can preview the host and see what amenities are available and expectations are expected.
B. Hunt says
I see a lot of comments about Harvest Hosts, if you read their site, they mention a $20 patronage, not $50. It is correct most are dry camping, but many offer electric/water for a nominal fee. As an owner of a small business myself(not a Host), I love to support Small businesses, and when I make a purchase at a Harvest Host site, I have something to enjoy rather than just paying for a camping spot and have nothing to show for it. Many of the hosts have amazing things, that I buy from them online, long after I’m home.