Wilderness Campsites – the Cheapest Roadtrip Option

truck in the desert with cactus and windmills
a truck  in the desert
wilderness camping in the desert

So I am a seasoned traveler. Mostly backpacking internationally, but also in the wilderness and camping and road trips and weekend warrior flights or ski days. I have got to say road trip camping is so much easier than any other form of travel I’ve tried. I don’t have to be on a schedule, I don’t have to worry too much about what will be available in the next spot or even what the next spot will be. It’s more challenging on the East Coast but still possible – there are many open forests, deserts and such where I can just camp.  Those random dirt roads off of remote highways? They lead to camping – legal and free. Often these wilderness campsites come with established fire rings, though I often don’t have a fire.

truck in a spring forest
my campsite outside Flagstaff

This most recent trip I had a “America The Beautiful – National Parks and Federal Recreation Lands Pass” – $80.  This got me free entrance to any National Parks or Monuments and counted as the Adventure Pass necessary for certain forests in Southern California. It’s the “Interagency Annual Pass” described on this forest service page.  If you know you’re going on a trip far enough in advance, I’d recommend getting the volunteer time in and get the volunteer pass.  A lot of the volunteer programs will also show you some wilderness skills and introduce you to cool people.   The passes generally let you park and adventure pretty widely, but the more amenities at a given campsite, the more likely you’ll have to pay.  You don’t need a pass at all for camping in most National Forests or BLM lands.

Wilderness Campsites

A rule of thumb: running water = additional payment.  Pit toilets are often available at free campsites, as well as fire pits and picnic tables but don’t forget your own water and you’ve still got other campers around.  Another alternative for free is to just drive out into National Forest or Bureau of Land Management land on the established dirt access roads – generally labeled with some obscure 3 or 4 digit number and look for a good spot.  The legality of fire will differ depending on the forest and weather conditions, often researchable from your phone or posted along these rural roads, so be sure to check that out.  If you have an iron fire ring you are pretty safe in having a fire, if it’s stone… well check it out. These are wild places so also be sure you practice fire safety – there’s no one else to clean up after you.  You’ll also have to pack in and out everything you need – eg bring enough water, bring good trash bags and take out your trash, a shovel for digging your own ‘cathole’, fire wood…

a campsite with the picnic table partially submerged in swamp
a flooded campsite in Delta National Forest

Also, something to be aware of – these campsites are somewhat off the grid(hence ‘wilderness campsites’) and unevenly maintained.  Often the maintenance is by volunteer groups, and as there are no camp hosts there is no one to make reservations with, or check the conditions with. As I drove through the Delta National Forest in Mississippi most of the campsites(and forest roads) were submerged by the delta. This was actually one of the drier spots, and notice the picnic table is still partially under water.  Relatedly, the mosquitoes were numerous and fierce, the snakes were out on what dry land there was in abundance, and I pretty much stayed in the truck. I ended up going to the higher and drier Holly Spring National Forest to camp. Don’t get too committed to any spot until you’re there – and even then I’ve ended up moving a few times.  For example, a rainstorm can make the mud factor difficult for the truck – so that campsite near Flagstaff had only a short occupancy.

dawn colors viewed through a screen of trees
Primitive campgrounds at county parks are another good option

Other, slightly less wild, options – county parks & other organizations

In many small towns there are county parks which offer primitive camping – this generally involves a nominal fee and is in a multiple use space.  Pictured above is some lake near Wesson, Mississippi with a primitive campground and disc golf course in the same space.  Yeah, better listen for anyone yelling ‘fore’.  I actually discovered several campgrounds set up like this in Louisiana and Mississippi, so be aware.  Other ‘sorta’ spaces I sometimes camped in were Wildlife Management Areas – not sure of the rules for these because basically this is hunting space.  I didn’t wander too far from the road, or go on hikes, and kept my stays in these spots pretty short, but they had some beautiful territory.

The forests of the West are still more open than the East – but there are still plenty of forests. They tend to be more developed so you do end up paying slightly more, though I was told to track down the Army Corp of Engineer campsites and Civilian Conservation Corp sites for good free spots along the Appalachians.  In the Southwest there are the “Lower Colorado River Association” campsites, also cheap and easy.  Generally for tent camping I tended to avoid RV campgrounds unless they explicitly mention tent camping, as the sites will often just be gravel…  So with that, I recommend you go camping – and don’t bother with reservations or paying for a campsite.

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