How to find free camping in the U.S. and Canada
Whether you're traveling long term for camping on a budget, learning to find free camping is an essential skill. Typically one has to pay the $20-$30 per night to stay in established campgrounds. Some call it dispersed camping, Boon docking, dry camping or wild camping. No matter the end goal is the same, a place to enjoy the outdoors without having to pay a daily fee. There are a ton of free camping options out there you just need to know where to look.
National forests and grasslands allow you to camp for free in U.S. national forests and grasslands, unless otherwise marked. Each national forest has slightly different rules so check them out ahead of time. You have lots of options when camping in a national forest. You can find a nice pullover, backpack into the woods to set up camp or find an attractive spot along a Forest Service Rd. You will need to be self-sufficient as there will be no amenities. No restrooms, trash etc. In some places you need to obtain a fire permit is there are no fire restrictions. Make sure you adhere to the principles of Leave No Trace while camping. National forests are well marked on maps. There is usually a 14-day limit and you can only set up camp 200 feet away from any stream or water source. This does not apply to National Parks but many National Parks are bordered by National Forests.
BLM or Bureau of land management are publicly managed lands found in the western part of the U.S. and typically allow free camping outside of developed campgrounds. You might need to do a little research but they are suitable for camping. The majority of this land covers desert topography. You can stay at pullovers, backpack in or find secluded spots along access roads. Again there is no trash or restrooms. You can find BLM land on Google maps. Camping must be done outside of developed campgrounds with a 14-day limit and again practice Leave No Trace.
89% of Canada is designed as Crown Land and available to Canadian residents for public use. You are allowed to camp for free on Crown Land for up to 21 days but there are many areas where camping is not allowed. There is an enormous amount of Crown Land that function like traditional campgrounds. Some of them are very remote and Canadians use public waterways to canoe or kayak in. Locating Crown Land is more difficult but some provinces have interactive online maps. The recreation sites can be accessed by vehicle and most Crown Land resembles backcountry camping.
Walmart is another gray zone of what is considered camping. Walmarts allow RVs, trailers, vans and other self-contained vehicles to stay overnight in their parking lot. Few people consider this camping. But it can come in handy at times. The general rule is to be courteous and be as low profile as possible. No tents, no chairs, no grills. Everything must be done within your vehicle. Not all Walmarts allow overnight parking but most often are found in major urban centers. Check the Walmart No Stake List. You must park away from the entrance of the store and arrived late and leave early. Bathrooms are available during store hours.
Other non-camping options are many casinos and truck stops such as Flying J, Pilot Travel Centers, Travel Centers of America and designated rest stops are locations specifically designated for drivers to be able to pull over and rest. Finding a rest stop that allows overnight parking can require some digging as rules differ by a state-by-state.