Camping destinations abound if you know where to find them. The trick is determining where you are allowed to camp safely and legally. The other requirement is to strictly follow the Leave No Trace Seven Principles wherever you stop, especially in locations without designated campsites. To limit the traffic to fragile ecosystems, it’s always best practice to camp in designated campgrounds and campsites whenever possible.
The US and its territories are home to more than 400 National Park Service sites, which are areas of scenic, historical, or scientific value that have been set aside for protection and outdoor recreation. Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872, after Congress signed an act designating it as a protected public park. This then set a precedent worldwide for preserving important scenic areas for generations to come. The National Park Service, created in 1916 by President Woodrow Wilson, was given authority to manage and conserve these preserved areas. It was also given the responsibility of limiting human impact on these natural and historic spaces, while allowing people enough freedom to recreate.
The 84 million acres set aside as national parks feature dramatic landscapes, unique geology, and seemingly endless opportunities for exploration. Consequently, some of the more popular camping destinations are national parks. They feature established campgrounds and campsites that are available for car camping, RV camping, and van camping, as well as designated campsites in the backcountry areas that are ideal for backpacking and getting away from the bustle. To reduce the human impact on fragile ecosystems, some of the most popular hiking trails enforce a reservation lottery system that limits the number of people camping along the trails each night. However, national parks reserve a small percentage of permits for walk-ins, either the day of or before your planned trip. Just be sure to get to the park office early to get in line. Whether you’re frontcountry or backcountry camping, check in advance of your trip to find out whether a campsite can be reserved.
The National Park Service website has a “Find a Campground” page (www.nps.gov/subjects/camping/campground.htm), where you can type in your destination location and find the national park campgrounds in that specific area.
Free camping is also referred to as bandit camping, dispersed camping, boondocking, or wild camping. The essential idea is to locate a camping spot in an area where no fee is required to stay there. In some countries you can camp on privately owned property. Investigate applicable laws and ask for permission before pitching a tent. It’s inadvisable to camp right next to a main road or walking path. Instead, find a location hidden from view and near a water source, if possible. If you see any litter from previous visitors, pack it out.
You can sometimes purchase a book or find online sites that provide information about free campsites in your specific destination area. Free camping is a somewhat controversial form of camping because it creates the potential for irresponsible campers to damage wild areas. The benefit of paying an overnight camping fee is that the money helps pay for upkeep and maintenance of the campground and its facilities. These fees are especially important for government-managed park and forest systems that rely on a combination of user fees and tax dollars for maintenance and preservation.
Most designated national forests and grasslands in the US allow people to camp for free, even in a camper van. Before you head for one of these areas, be sure to find out what rules apply to the specific area and whether camping is prohibited due to safety issues or environmental protection. Nightly fees might apply when staying in established campsites or campgrounds. Camping in a national forest or grassland is a good option for backpacking, car camping, bikepacking, van camping, and RV camping. Although the camping is free outside of designated campgrounds, the time that you’re allowed to stay in any one location is typically 14 days. For tent camping, you will want to pull off along a forest service road and then haul gear on foot from your car to a level spot to pitch a tent, at least 200 feet from any water source. For van camping or RV camping, you will want to find a spacious pullout on a forest service road and set up camp there. National forest and grassland camping usually does not provide easy access to amenities, so you will need to bring your own water, unless you know where to find a nearby body of water.
When camping in national forests or where there are no established campsites and campgrounds, be sure you camp responsibly. Before building a campfire, you should check in with a ranger station to see whether you need to secure a fire permit and whether any fire regulations apply to your specific camping area.