My parents just bought an RV and asked me to help them find places to camp as they travel. I’m all about finding free campsites not just because it’s a cheap way to see the US, but more importantly because our public lands are a national treasure. Dispersed camping is an amazing way to truly get out in nature, explore beautiful places off the beaten track, and truly benefit from and bask in the natural beauty of the United States.
- use google maps to find national forests, national monuments, or other conservation areas near where I was going
- google the name of the conservation area to get to its BLM or USFS site
- look to see if the site mentioned any actual campgrounds or specific areas for dispersed camping
- poke around on the site to find and download a geospatial PDF map of the area
- if that doesn’t work, look to other sources like freecampsites.net or apps (I used freeroam during my trip, which was decent)
The geospatial pdf’s are especially useful to have, since they’ll often show more detail about roads than google maps has and they work with GPS even when there isn’t service so you know where are you and where you’re going.
Example 1: Sedona, AZ
Let’s do an example! My parents are looking to spend two nights someplace near Sedona, AZ.
First step: google maps. Great news! Sedona has lots of green space nearby, an excellent sign.
Looks like Cococino National Forest is the closets, so let’s start with that one. Googling it takes me to the forest’s site, after which I can go find camping info under the “Recreation” section in the left side-bar.
Funnily enough, clicking on this gets me to a page that has information about a “Digital Travel Map,” which sounds intriguing. But clicking on the “Maps and publications” sidebar gets me to an empty page, womp womp. But sure enough, looks like that Digital Travel Map link takes you to a very useful page where you can download GPS-enable pdf maps of the forest! Huzzah!
Actually, this map is one of the best outcomes of this type of search. The map itself is huge and has a lot of detail, including specific “dispersed camping” indications. I never really understood these because technically dispersed camping is allowed in all National Forests, but I always felt more comfortable camping along roads that were explicitly indicated for dispersed camping. From reading the FAQ on the page where we got the Motor Vehicle Use map, it sounds like these roads are where you are allowed to drive off the road up to 300 feet in order to camp. I’m guessing that other roads allow dispersed camping, but that you just can’t drive off of them to go to your campsite. Given that my parents are gonna be in an RV and not a tent, these are probably their best bet.
Does this restrict where I may camp?
The MVUM does not restrict where visitors may camp on National Forest System lands. However, it does restrict where motor vehicles may be used for the purpose of camping. Use of motor vehicles away from designated roads for the sole purpose of camping is permitted on National Forest System lands up to 300 feet from the edge of a designated road where indicated by the MVUM’s “dispersed camping” symbol . Also, visitors may park alongside any designated road’s edge and walk to their campsite anywhere on National Forest System lands, except where specifically prohibited as indicated in closure orders. When parking along a designated road, drivers must pull off the travelled portion of the roadway to permit the safe passage of traffic.
Anyway, honestly at this point the map is more than sufficient. If you wanted to be extra safe, you could do some cross-checking with google maps satellite view to pick the nicest spot but generally any of the forest service roads marked for dispersed camping will likely be good options.
Just for completeness, let’s also go see what the forest service has to say about campgrounds in this forest. Wow - this forest is well-described! The camping page has so much information about campsites as well as dispersed camping. I especially appreciate the “Sedona Dispersed Camping Guide” pdf – it always made me feel so much better to see dispersed camping explicitly called out (though, of course, I always knew it was allowed).
Example 2: Quartzsite, AZ
My mom told me they also need to find a place to stop for the night around (or east of) Blythe or Quartzsite, AZ.
Again, first stop google maps. This one looks like it might be a bit harder to find spots – I see some green area around the river and then that brown box that’s the Kona Wildlife Refuge. Let’s check both out and see if we can find more info or maps.
First try, the Colorado River Reservation. Seems to be Indian Reservation Land, so probably won’t have any camping available. Let’s poke around their site for just a few minutes and confirm though. Sure enough.
Ok, back to google maps - looks like there’s some green below Blythe. Seems to be the Cibola National Wildlife Refuge. Nothing obvious about camping on their website, so I next googled the name of the refuge plus “camping”. I saw some websites saying that there should be dispersed camping, but I tend to poke around until I find an actual BLM or Forest Service page or map about the place.
So let’s put that on the backburner and keep going east, to the Kona Wildlife Refuge. Same story here, no clear indication of campgrounds or dispersed camping in this area.
This is a situation where I turn to the aggregator websites. Looks like freecampsites.net has a few options in this area, so let’s go through them and see if any look good for my parents.
Clicking around the different free sites, the first thing I look for is if there’s anywhere that’s a BLM campground. Again, these just feel more legit and like less of a wildcard. Looks like there might be one, “Hi Jolly BLM”. So my next step here is to google the campground name itself and see if I can find it on the BLM site. I didn’t ind anything on the BLM site, but the next best thing is there! Looks like there are photos of this site (e.g. on this website), with clear BLM signposts indicating that it’s a legit campsite. It doesn’t look like it’ll be particularly scenic, just a flat dirt parking lot with a bunch of RV’s, but given that my parents will just be passing through this is more than sufficient!
At this point, I would google this campsite and add a star on my google maps, zoom in to the map to see if I can tell if there are roads, and read up on the reviews and descriptions of the camp so I know where to go. That said, I always like to have a couple of options when I’m not equipped with a map of the area of I’m going to, so let’s look for at least one more.
Back to the freecampsites.net site, looks like there’s a spot off of I-10 on Gold Nugget Road. The trick to finding these sorts of sites is to just google the road name that they’re talking about, read reviews, and look at pictures to get a sense for how sketchy or not it might be. In this case, it looks like Gold Nugget Road goes just off of I-10 and then meets up with it again. There are also a handful of reviews on the internet for this road, so I feel like it’s pretty legit.
If you wanted to be EXTRA sure, you could also always try to find the BLM map of the area directly. Avenza has a marketplace of maps, and while it can be a bit painful to find what you need there is often a BLM map of each area that’s available for download. Some maps on Avenza cost money, but all the BLM and Forest Service ones should be free. A search for BLM maps near Quartzsite, AZ yields a few hits that seem to be what you’d need. The goal with these maps is to (1) have a map that works even if you don’t have service and (2) get some more information about the land you’re on. Some BLM land is interspersed with private land, which you don’t want to camp on. So having a map that clearly shows the public land is a great comfort and tool to have!