I love camping. I have always loved it, and I will love it forever. On our cross-country road trip, we mostly slept in our tent or in the back of our good ole 73’ Station Wagon. Since we had a tight budget, we tried different things while camping in the U.S. We stayed in national parks, state parks, camped for free, and slept in the car. Everything I learned I want to share with you in this ultimate guide for camping in the U.S.
Campgrounds in national parks
Let’s start with the most popular and usually most expensive one: The campgrounds in national parks.
The price is not without reason, sleeping in national parks means that you are nearby the attractions of the park. Although you sometimes have no flush toilets or showers at these campgrounds, you won’t have to go/drive far to explore the park.
Some campgrounds inside national parks have flush toilets, but no showers. Often you have one public place for showers, e.g. at the Rising Sun Motor Inn in Glacier National Park.
Summer is the peak season and national parks get crowded – especially the “Top 10 National Parks”.
This results in you having to use more planning skills or patience if you want to camp in the national parks. You have basically two options:
- Reserve your campsite before: This is the option for the planners and organizers. It’s obviously very inflexible for road trippers. However, some of you might like to plan ahead on a road trip. Anyways, most national parks have certain campgrounds that are only or partially for reservation and the rest is for first-come, first-serve.
- First-come, first-serve in the early morning: This is for people that like to get up with the sunrise anyways. Go to the campground super early and wait until people leave. Sounds weird and can be annoying, but worked out for us. Don’t worry about the signs at the entrance of the national park, which says that all campgrounds are full. In peak season, they never really change them, because the campgrounds gonna fill up anyways. Exceptions are campgrounds, which don’t offer flushed toilets or drinking water, or campgrounds that are located further away, e.g. Cosby Campground at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I also met one person who was lucky and found a campsite at noon or even in the afternoon. That’s just very very unlikely.
Camping in state parks
There are thousands of state parks in the U.S. Some are smaller and unknown, and others super busy. So it basically depends on the one you pick.
Custer State Park is difficult to get a camping site inside the park when you visit in peak season.
Some others like Watkins Glen or Graham Cave State Park are easier to get a spot, even in the afternoon or evening.
Campgrounds outside national and state parks
There are obviously many campgrounds outside the national and state parks.
Many are around the parks, especially around those that are super busy in summer. We often stayed in those, because the prices were lower and the amenities better.
However, there are exceptions. At St. Mary (outside Glacier National Park), you can only get a campsite for $30, whereas it only costs $20 inside the national park. It’s actually a smart strategy because you gotta stay somewhere when the campgrounds inside Glacier are full…
Sometimes it’s better and calmer to stay outside the national or state park. At Custer State Park, we enjoyed the peace of our campsite outside the park. At Yellowstone, we loved the quietness and view but hated to drive 60 miles every day to get to the West entrance.
So I would always suggest staying inside Yellowstone and Glacier, because of the convenient conditions.
Cheap option for camping in the U.S. – National Forests and BLM
My favorite every now and then: Camping in national forests. Camping in the U.S. can get very pricey. It actually was a surprise to me because I believed camping had to be cheaper than hotels and motels, but some campgrounds actually cost $30 or more.
National forests offer a cheap alternative to other campgrounds. On designated campgrounds, you will pay between $5 and $12. The price depends on the area and the amenities (if they have a pit toilet or flush toilet). They usually all have fire rings, water sources, and picnic tables.
Another cheap option would be the campgrounds on BLM (Bureau of Land Management). The price range is $4 to $10 but also varies between the states. We haven’t been on BLM land, so I cannot share any experiences, but here is some more info.
Free (dispersed) camping in the U.S.
Another option to save money is dispersed camping or boondocking. When I read that you can stay in national forests for free, I was super happy. It’s finally a way to save a little money every now and then. However, you – of course – have to play by the rules:
- Only camp at places, where there already is a visible campsite. It’s mostly on the side of some roads – looks like coves.
- Don’t build new fire pits. Use the ones that are already there. That’s not a problem at all – believe me!
- The campsite has to be 100 to 150ft away from major roads, campgrounds, or trails.
- Check other rules at your specific national forest. Some have fire restrictions because of the dry season, etc.
On BLM land you are also allowed to camp for free. However, you have a 14-day limit within 28 days. The BLM rules can differ throughout the country, so make sure to check the BLM website of the certain state you want to travel to.
On both lands you can park your car, RV, or pitch your tent – it doesn’t matter.
My favorite resource to find free campsites
On freecampsites.net you will find a lot of free or cheap campsites. There are many campsites registered, which make free camping in the U.S. much easier. You will always find a description. It can be anything: national forest, forest, parking lots, etc. You will see that you can also find paid campgrounds on this websites. It’s really handy!
You can also contribute by reviewing the camps and submitting new campsites.
Alerts & Safety
Please, always look up alerts and safety precautions on the websites.
The flora and fauna of the U.S. are diverse and so are the safety precautions that you should know about before you pitch your tent somewhere. It might just be warnings about bears and instructions where you should keep your food.
However, it could also contain hazardous alerts or a forest fire evacuation. So stay safe and inform yourself about regional or seasonal warnings.