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Camp for Free

Camping doesn't have to break the bank; in fact, you can do it for free. Here's how.

Via Staff
Alabama Arch in the Alabama Hills with the snow-capped Sierra in background, image
Photo credit
Photo: Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock
Photo caption
The scenic Alabama Hills on the eastern side of the Sierra is one of the places where beauty has no price tag.

Not all car campers need a numbered and priced plot. The U.S. Forest Service ( and Bureau of Land Management ( often allow "primitive" or "dispersed" camping without charge. Together the agencies oversee a third of California and three-fourths of Nevada.

  • Know before you go Call the agencies' field offices to confirm local conditions and locations for your tent or RV.
  • Pack a map The U.S. Geological Survey sells topo maps, handy for route planning. In BLM areas, a land status map, available at the nearest office, will keep you off private land.
  • Ask if campfires are OK If fires are allowed, a free permit may still be required.
  • Camp lightly Don't expect trash bins, water, or bathrooms. Taking out what you bring in, even human waste, is becoming the norm. Wag Bags, sold at REI, are helpful. Leave No Trace ( offers guidance.

This article was first published in September 2013. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.