Guidelines for where camping is allowed and where it is not

A tent warmed by a crackling campfire, the bracing smell of a far-off thunderstorm and the allure of a snug sleeping bag make camping an enticing activity for nature lovers. Countless sites everywhere offer a private spot in the woods, a group setting for a few good friends or a remote mountaintop space.

Can you camp anywhere?

The logical answer is that yes, technically, you can camp anywhere if you have permission. But campers needn’t limit themselves to improved campgrounds. Dispersed campsites scattered across public lands provide an isolated place to pitch a tent. Some small towns have citizen-owned campgrounds right in town, and RV owners spend nights in state rest areas, big-box store parking lots and truck stops. Boondockers – folks who set up camp out in the middle of nowhere with no nearby water source, electricity or bathhouse – get away from it all with careful planning. Private landowners might welcome campers, but be sure to get permission before setting up camp.

State and national parks

Most national and state parks allow camping in developed campgrounds or in the backcountry. Some have unusual obstacles for campers. Sites at Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota, for example, and Mary Island State Park in New York, are only accessible by boat. Dispersed, or backcountry, camping rules vary from park to park, but generally require hikers to register so someone knows where they are and who their car belongs to. Some charge a registration fee, but all ask that hikers pack out anything they’ve packed in and that they do the least harm to the landscape. RV enthusiasts should check in advance to see if park roads are wide enough and whether campsites accommodate big rigs.

More about camping Joshua Tree National Park

Southern California's Joshua Tree National Park is a good example of federal lands that accommodate all sorts of campers. Eight semi-developed campgrounds, some open seasonally, welcome tent, RV and equestrian campers, though none have full hookups. Keep in mind that campgrounds fill up quickly in this popular park. Backcountry camping is free, but hikers need to fill out a form at a backcountry registration board before heading into the wilderness for an overnight stay. Pick up a park map at a visitor center and head for one of the 14 backcountry staging areas. Camp on durable surfaces away from water and trail heads and respect the local wildlife.

Are there free campsites?

Thousands of acres of public land are open to free camping. National forests, Bureau of Land Management areas and some national parks allow dispersed camping – camping away from developed campgrounds – at no fee. Keep in mind that many national parks charge an entrance fee. Consider purchasing an America the Beautiful pass for free entry into almost all public lands. Most free camping areas set a limit of around 14 days for camping in a single spot, but campers are free to move to another site. Some state-run rest areas allow free camping. This is not an invitation to set up a tent and start a campfire, but it does allow self-contained RVs to park overnight.

Backcountry considerations

A special set of considerations applies to backcountry campers. Having sufficient water means carrying a filtration system or packing water. Food needs to be light but hearty. Rain gear, a tent or hammock and clothing appropriate to the season – as well as basic equipment like a camp stove and a means to light a fire – should be lightweight. There is no garbage collection service in the backcountry, so campers must pack out everything they pack in, including trash. Common sense, along with state and national park rules, suggests that campers handle human waste by digging what’s known as a cathole latrine.