Wild Camping Guide: What is it? How to camp for free! And much more!

As established campgrounds become more and more popular and booked out, camping can be harder to come by for many people. Gone are the days of deciding on a Wednesday you want to camp in a National Park that weekend. Thankfully, wild camping still exists!

Wild camping, also known as dispersed camping to many, allows you to camp on public lands outside of an established campground and sometimes (usually?) free from other people. It is an opportunity to cut ties with the world and reconnect with nature.

But, because you’re not in an established campground, you only have what you bring and what nature offers. Due to this, you need to come prepared.

And that’s precisely what this guide will help you with. So, if you want a more rustic and natural camping experience without the crowds, keep reading!

This article contains affiliate links. I may receive a commission when you purchase through these links.

The vast Denali highway in Alaska. Lots of wild camping opportunities here.

An Ultimate Guide to Understanding Wild Camping

As a late high schooler, my parents began doing more wild camping throughout Arizona. I think this was my dad’s progression n life to avoid the nuisances of typical campgrounds. Thankfully, across Arizona and the western United States, you have many options to choose from due to the vast public lands network.

What you need to know first about wild camping!

What is wild camping, and how does it work?

Wild camping is the art of setting up camp (tent, RV, or campervan) on public lands without an established campground. This is usually done in the National Forests, State Forests, BLM Land, and others via the array of forest road networks.

Simply choose a spot that looks great, pull in, and set up shop. It’s that easy. Odds are, you’ll see some other vehicles in the area, and camping spots will be pretty obvious.

A peaceful waterfall. Being close to destinations like this is what makes wild camping so awesome.

Why should you start wild camping?

Wild camping is like backpacking, but you take your car! It allows you to get further into nature, away from the crowds, and experience a lovely night (or more) under the stars. It also allows you to get to some really cool places that will never have the infrastructure for an established campground.

A campervan drives toward the mountains in Alaska.

Keep in Mind Road Quality

The further you are from society, the higher the chance the road will be cruddy. Due to this, do your best to check road conditions before heading out. While many forest roads are totally fine for low-clearance cars, having something with clearance and AWD/4×4 will help you reach more destinations as your wild camping urges spread!

Unless otherwise noted at your location, yes, it is. These are public lands, and they are free to use (respectfully) as you wish. Just follow local and federal guidelines and have an incredible time!

I recommend checking a map to ensure you’re on public land and not private. In saying this, almost all private land will have it marked to avoid confusion!

Foggy conditions in Canada.

Is it safe to wild camp?

It’s likely safer than sleeping in your own bed. Being outside, surrounded by almost no one, is incredibly freeing and safe.

One thing to note, if you’re camping in bear territory, make sure to put your food away in secure locations to ensure bears or other animals don’t dine on your food.

A coastal brown bear in Alaska.

Please recreate responsibly

This is HUGE. With fire dangers soaring throughout the western US, it’s crucial to abide by all local regulations. And yes, this does mean most places will have a fire ban in effect over the summer months.

So, if you still want to have a cozy experience, check into these propane fire pits. (Still, make sure these are allowed.)

Additionally, follow the Leave No Trace principle and leave your campsite better than you found it!

Wildflowers in bloom in Washington's Mount Rainier National Park.

What restrictions are there?

14-day max stay

There are few restrictions when it comes to wild or dispersed camping. Most notably, you can only be in the same place for 14 days. Now, this is one of those rules that will be enforced 1% of the time.

For one, odds are a federal worker won’t find you, and if they do, they won’t know how long you’ve been there. The point of the rule is to basically keep people from living on public lands for free forever.

The loophole here is you can literally move 50 yards away and be there for another 14 days. Unless you’re literally trying to live off the grid, this doesn’t apply to you.

National Parks Are Off Limits

Wild camping in the National parks is prohibited, and overnight camping is only allowed in established campgrounds or backcountry sites.

America the Beautiful Pass

Again, odds are you won’t run into anyone. But you should have the America the Beautiful Pass to recreate on public lands.

Cooking over a fire in Arizona.

What to pack for a wild camping trip?

Wild camping is just like normal camping, minus you’re not in an official campground. This means you (likely) won’t have a bathroom, table, water, or hookups. So, you have to supply all of these, or you’re not going to have a great time… or you’ll be eating off the ground or your car’s hood.

How to find the best wild camping destinations in the USA

What apps and tools you can use to find wild camping locations

There are quite a few resources for you to find excellent wild camping destinations. Let’s dive into them below:

Quick ways to find dispersed camping spots

  • General Maps: Look at a map and find where it says national forest or BLM land. Usually, it’s green (forest) or beige (BLM).
  • Call the Forest Service: Give the Forest Service a call and ask them about destinations they recommend or are easily accessible. They are more than happy to help.
A green fern in Washington. being surrounded by these as you go wild camping is perfect.

Apps to use to find awesome wild camping sites

  • TheDyrt: This is an incredible app with thousands of camp locations to camp. I recommend the Pro version, which allows you to download maps offline along with other great discounts. The offline mode is key because, odds are, you’ll be out of cell range for your trips!
  • iOverlander: This was designed for serious overlanding but has evolved into great dispersed campsites
  • Campendium: Not one I use often, but it has good options.
  • Gaia GPS: Just a great overall app with A+ Maps to ensure you’re going where you want to go. You can also download these offline.
  • OnX Maps: This was built to help hunters avoid private lands, so it’s incredibly detailed and has also evolved into offroading, hiking, and camping information. This has a free 7-day trial, but after that, it’s either $30 a year for Premium or $100 for Elite.

Destinations that will impress you

I’m going to attempt to control myself and not provide a list of 100 places. But here are some of the favorites I’ve experienced.

The milky way in Sedona, Arizona

FAQ: Things you might wonder about Wild Camping

Where do wild campers go to the toilet?

The woods! You’ll have to get used to pooping in the woods if you’re going to go dispersed camping. Now, some places might have an outhouse, but most of the time, you’ll squat. The first few times might be scary, but you’ll get used to it.

Fog along the coast in Squamish, BC.

What you need to know:

  1. Make sure you dig a hole. You’ll want a shovel to make it easiest
  2. When you’re done, cover it up with the dirt you previously dug. This ensure animals can’t easily access it.
  3. If there are some rocks around, place a rock on top to ensure animals stay out.

How do you shower when wild camping?

While you won’t get a nice hot shower like at home or a hotel, there are some options to clean.

First, you can jump into a lake or river and rinse off naturally. Secondly, you can use a shower pressure system like this.

Lastly, using the classic baby wipe shower is a quick and easy way to clean up while camping.

A tent in Kofa Wildlife Refuge in Arizona. This is an example of wild camping.

How do you wash clothes for wild camping?

You could rinse them out in a nearby stream, but most of the time, you don’t do laundry until you come home. Next, head into the closest town and do laundry there!

How do I ask permission to wild camp?

That’s the beauty of wild camping, you don’t need permission to do it. Thanks to public lands, you’re free to camp to your heart’s delight!

Can you camp on the side of the road in the US?

It depends.

In Alaska, if there’s no sign, you’re allowed to. Additionally, I believe you’re okay in most places if there’s no sign prohibiting camping. However, pulling over and sleeping in your car or van is a bit different than setting up a tent.

I recommend getting off the main road and finding someplace tucked away for privacy.

The Big Sur coastline in California.

Can I sleep in my car on Highway 1?

The Big Sur area is one of the prettiest places in America and also one of the least suitable for camping. Yes, there are a handful of established campgrounds, but these fill up at a moment’s notice. Furthermore, they don’t allow wild camping along Highway 1 throughout the Big Sur area. (I saw a guy get ticketed.)

There are some spots in the mountains above Highway 1, but these usually require AWD and some clearance to reach.

Final thoughts on Wild Camping

I really do enjoy wild camping. It allows you to have more fun with the people you are with, without other distractions. Plus, it makes you plan, think, and rely on everything you need for the camping trip.

If you’re looking to push your boundaries a bit, try this approach and see how it goes!

Until next time adventurers, take care and be safe.

You can follow along the journey on TikTokFacebook, and Instagram.