This becomes a very personal decision, one you’ll learn with experience. When the option exists I’ll take dispersed camping over a public or private, developed or undeveloped campground.
This is an area on public lands where you can camp for free in primitive conditions. Sometimes there may be well-used spots that include a fire ring and a picnic table; more frequently it’s a pull-out along a dirt road. It’s best to ask for a map and recommendations from a local visitors center or ranger station to determine rules for a particular area. Be sure to disclose type of vehicle as that will affect accessible roads especially after recent rains (i.e. high clearance 4×4 vs baby 4×4 or low clearance sedan). In Death Valley, you can camp “along dirt roads at least one mile away from any paved road or ‘day use only’ dirt road, and only in previously disturbed areas.” A federal recreation pass may be required on many roads. States such as Washington have their own pass for state-owned back roads. Some areas require free permits such as Grand Staircase-Escalante.
Sometimes you don’t have a choice. In many National Parks, dispersed camping is not allowed and there aren’t any nearby options. Be sure to carry either checks or cash in various denominations to pay at unattended campgrounds, which in my experience has been 99% of the time. Few take credit cards. There are tons of online resources and phone apps you can use to find campgrounds that suit your needs. Since I don’t plan very far in advance I can usually obtain the necessary information from a nearby visitor center or ranger station, or sometimes I’ll just check out places while in the vicinity. This can be more problematic during peak season.
If you are traveling through more urban areas and want to sleep in your vehicle for free, there are online resources and phone apps which provide options such as truck stops, retail stores, casinos, parks, rest stops, etc. I’ve never used this option.
Mark your map with names and numbers so these spots can be considered as potential overnight parking locations. I’ve slept in my vehicle in driveways when it’s a better option than sleeping inside.
Tip: I use removable tape on my maps to mark not only contact info but also potential destinations, etc.
Don’t be a schmuck, show your appreciation for their hospitality!
Tip: Carry thank you cards and budget for generous giving.
Most likely at some point you’ll want this option. I’ve found most frequently this has been my choice when weather is inclement and I want to stay in an area, or when I’m exhausted and I need to regroup. Budget for it. Find a chain you like and that seems to be available along the route you’ll be traveling, join their membership program (free) and reap a few rewards. Obviously there are tons of ways to obtain discounted rooms. I had pretty good luck with Hotwire last year.
- USFS OHV Roads
- USFS Campgrounds
- US Campgrounds
- Free Camping