The joy of travel and making your home wherever you park is a type of freedom seldom known. The reality, however, kicks in the moment you fill up your fuel tank. Suddenly you realize there are a lot of costs involved with living on four wheels. You can, however, drastically lower your costs if you choose to stay in free or inexpensive campsites along your route. These budget-friendly options can put cash back in your pockets fast.
Here are a few of my favorite places to camp and save!
#1 The Camper-Friendly Parking Lots
Traveling in an RV can be exhausting, especially if you have driven many miles. The good news is there are plenty of places that will allow you to park and sleep free of charge. Why pay for a full hook-up campground when many parking lots allow you to rest without a fee?!
Note: When camping in a parking lot, the same rules that govern normal campgrounds apply; that means clean up after yourself, call in advance to make sure they can accommodate you, familiarize yourself with the rules and laws of the area, empty your waste tanks and just generally be respectful. Also, in a parking lot, you are not camping; you are staying over, so don't put out your lawn chairs, BBQ and slideouts.
Casinos: Wherever you find casinos, you can find a safe place to park for the night. There's a good chance that you'll be able to stay overnight for free, but always call ahead to make sure that the casino will allow you to. Be sure to ask how much it will cost, if anything. When you arrive, always check in with the casino's security and let them know you're there, and as always, check the surrounding area to ensure that you'll be staying in a safe location. Some Casino's will ask you to get a free club card membership and place a parking pass in your window. For more information on Casino parking, check out CasinoCamper.com.
Retail Stores: Many stores allow RVers to camp overnight free of charge. Stores like Walmart, Kmart, Costco, Sam's Club, and a host of other large retail stores will let campers stay overnight. Just check to make sure there are no signs forbidding overnight parking and be sure to talk to management. I suggest calling ahead of time and asking if parking is allowed. While Walmarts are often crowded with RV's, KMarts and Home Depot's are often bare. Cabela's is another chain that offers free overnight stays at many of their locations. Again, your best bet is to call ahead and be sure to ask any questions you have before arrival.
Truck Stops: Many truck stops like Flying J, Love's, and Pilot let RVers stay the night. They are, however, partial to trucks first, and you will find the parking lots packed every night. Truck Stops work well in a pinch, but the noise of idling big rigs can be hard to sleep through.
Visitors' Centers and Rest Stops: Most rest stops allow guests to stay at least eight hours and in some states, up to 24. Check Frugal RV Travel for up to date state laws.
#2 Boondocking Or Dry Camping
Boondocking, also known as free or dispersed camping, means staying in remote, natural locations (the boondocks) without any hookups or amenities (dry camping). There are many RVers on the road who swear by boondocking and is the only way they will camp. Boondocking tends to be free or very inexpensive and promises some real adventure.
Pros of Boondocking:
- Inexpensive or free
- Less crowds
- More authentic camping experience
Cons of Boondocking:
- No bathrooms, but may have primitive facilities
- No hookups (no electricity, running water, sewage dump, etc.)
- Needs alternate source of power (generator, battery, solar panels, etc.)
Boondocking is usually done on public land or land that's managed by government agencies. Land overseen by the US Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Management, the US Army Corps of Engineers, and several other agencies offer opportunities to boondock for free or for a small fee.
If you decide to get out into the wilderness and do a little free camping, there are some unwritten rules to follow:
Stay at sites that already show signs of being camped at before like a campfire ring.
Don't leave any trash behind, no matter how small it is.
Bury any waste under at least six inches of dirt.
Observe any posted restrictions, primarily referring to fires.
Keep your stay to 14 days, then move on, which ensures that no one attempts to move on to the land and homestead there. There may not necessarily be someone there counting the days, but make an effort to move locations after two weeks.
US Army Corps of Engineers (COE) - The COE operates many well-designed, cheap campgrounds across the U.S. COE land is near bodies of water, and offers sites with full hookups. A few of the COE's campgrounds even offer free dry camping options.
Long-Term Visitor Areas (LTVA)- If you happen to be visiting the beautiful states of California or Arizona, the lands operated by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) offer RV campers the opportunity to camp cheaply for extended periods of time throughout the year.
RVers pay a discounted fee based on how long they'd like to stay, and can camp anywhere from a few weeks up to many months. The luxuries are few, with the only amenities offered being water, dumps and trash.
For more information on LTVA passes, as well as BLM land visit www.RV-Camping.org/blmcampgrounds.
#3 Join the Club
There are several clubs designed for cheap camping. RVers can join for a small yearly fee in exchange for some pretty good discounts on site fees. If you go camping enough during the year, the membership will end up paying for itself after just a few camping trips. Here are a few associations to consider:
National Park Service Senior Pass - If you love visiting national parks and are 62 or older, the Senior Pass is a godsend. It costs just $10 and gives pass holders free admission to the U.S. national parks, as well as federal recreation lands. They also offer 50% discounts on camping fees.
Passport America - Costing $44 a year, or $36 if you sign up for three years, members of Passport America can get half off participating campgrounds in the U.S., Canada, and even Mexico.
Happy Camper Half-Price Camping Club - Much like the name suggests, membership into this club, which will cost $40 a year, offers 50% discounts at more than 1,200 campgrounds across the Unites States and Canada. There's also a sweet referral deal where you'll get a year's free membership if you bring a friend into the club. Happy Camper is a small membership, so be sure you will be staying in the area where they have participating members.
Explorer RV Club- $45 a year will get you a 10 to 25% discount at select campgrounds.
#4 Online and App Options
Today everyone has apps to help you grab the best deals. Here are just a few:
Ultimate Campgrounds ($3.99) - This app shows you land owned and operated by some of the agencies mentioned above, like the Bureau of Land Management and the Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as others like land owned by Native Americans, non-profit organizations, towns, cities, counties, states, etc.
Ranger Park Finder (free)- This app's database has thousands of listings that are overseen by the various federal and state organizations mentioned above, like the U.S. Corps of Engineers and the BLM, as well as parks forests and refuges.
In addition to these apps, there are countless websites to guide you to cheap or free campsites. Do a little research and you'll find some incredible camping deals on the web.
There is no shortage of affordable and even free camping options – you just have to take the time to look. The good news is people love to share their finds. Follow a few full-timers online and learn how they find remarkable places on the cheap.
So before you head out in your RV for your next camping adventure, go online, download some apps, join a club or two and make camping not only the most exciting part of your journey, but also the cheapest!