A loud bugling throws my eyes open. I’m curled up in the back of my car, zipped tight into my sleeping bag. The windows have frosted over a little bit in the cold. The night before, I’d sped south from Yellowstone in search of some place to sleep before heading to Grand Teton National Park in the morning. It was dark when I pulled in, crawled in the back and fell asleep, but now, opening the back hatch, I can see where I am. I had backed up to the edge of a small knoll over the Snake River, and the bugling that woke me was coming from a small group of elk wading into the steaming water only a few hundred yards away.
Not a bad spot, I think.
For anyone van-lifing, road tripping out of their car, or living the climbing bum lifestyle, one perpetual stress is knowing, after a long day on the road or trail, where you’ll be spending the night. If you’re away from home for any extended period, paying much more than a few dollars a night—whether that’s for a cheap motel room, Airbnb, or in an established campground—is generally out of the question. Night after night, those expenses add up quickly, which makes finding a free place to pull over and get comfortable a daily priority.
Thankfully, especially in the Mountain West, finding a quiet, picturesque and free campsite is a lot easier to do than you might think.
Not Your Average Walmart Parking Lot
All overnight parking is not created equal. RV travelers and truckers have become accustomed to hopping between 24-hour Walmart parking lots and large, rumbling travel centers, which, for dirtbags, will certainly do in a pinch (just check with management at that location to make sure they follow the Walmart norm and allow overnight guests), but they’re definitely not ideal.
While plenty of random locations like local parks, some private land, and other municipalities and retail locations allow overnight parking, they’re far from reliable and the consequence for getting caught staying somewhere you shouldn’t could, in the end, make you wish you’d spent the money on a comfortable—and legal—hotel room. Even day-use areas, trailheads, and other seemingly vanlife-friendly locales typically don’t allow overnighters.
Luckily, the Mountain West is ripe with public land, chiefly National Forests, and as taxpayers, we’ve often already paid our campground fees. Dispersed camping is the general term for camping anywhere outside a developed campground, and it’s the bread and butter of the cheap road trip.
A dispersed campsite would be the National Forest equivalent of a backcountry campsite in a Wilderness Area, but because National Forests have roads running through them, a dispersed campsite doesn’t necessarily require a long trek into the backcountry, and they’re easy to find right off the road.
As you might expect, free dispersed camping doesn’t come with the amenities of established campsites. Even outhouses aren’t guaranteed at all but the heaviest-use sites. But what you trade away in luxury, you gain in solitude and a feeling of remoteness that’s hard to get mere feet from your vehicle.
Finding Your Campsite
Often tucked away down rocky Forest Service roads, a dispersed site could be anything from a small pull-off, to a spot tucked farther away, but they almost never have signs or can be found with a quick Google Maps search. Researching your spot beforehand is a must.
However, what you can find on Google Maps are the lands that might contain these campsites. Bureau of Land Management properties, National Forests, or Wildlife Management Areas are typically good places to start to look. Not all public land is open to dispersed camping, so be sure to check the rules and regulations for those specific properties. From there, scouring satellite imagery can be a good way to identify open areas, pull-offs and specific campsites. Check out Forest Service roads (typically identified only with numbers) first or use websites like freecampsites.net or campendium.com to crowdsource the work and look for locations that others have found.
Also pay attention to any other special restrictions or permits that might be required for specific areas.
The final step is to go check them out! Drive roads in search of pull-offs and offshoots. In many cases, sites will have obviously been used by others passing through. If you’re lucky, there will be a makeshift fire ring ready to go! Always keep an eye out for “No Camping” signs or other posted rules, which can be instated to help protect some places that have been used heavily.
A Few of Our Favorites
- Shadow Mountain Road (Bridger-Teton National Forest, Wyoming)
Is Shadow Mountain the best camping near the Tetons? It'd be tough to find a better alternative. Hidden around the backside of the National Elk Refuge, this rugged dirt road climbs Shadow Mountain to a collection of open grassy areas with unbeatable views of the rocky peaks across the valley floor.
- Kaibab National Forest, Arizona
Get away from the summer crowds swarming the campgrounds within Grand Canyon National Park without sacrificing an inch of scenery. A number of prime camping spots dot this forest just 15 minutes south of the park, offering some of the best dispersed camping in the Southwest. You’ll stay shaded among the some of the densest ponderosa pines in the country, and you'll likely have your pick of the litter when it comes to campsites.
- Blankenship Bridge (Flathead National Forest, Montana)
Another gem just outside a popular national park, this pull-off is just minutes from the collossal mountains of Glacier NP. Pull right out onto the spectacular rocky banks of the Middle Fork Flathead River and fall asleep listening to the water just footsteps from your car.
Things to Keep in Mind
- Bring your own water, or water treatment equipment. Dispersed campsites don’t come with running, potable water.
- Dispersed campsites are always first-come-first-serve and can not accept any reservations. If you find what you think could be a busy area, get there early or have a backup plan.
- You can’t live here, but you can hang out for a while. Dispersed campers are allowed to stay a maximum of 14 days in any 30-day period.
- Always practice Leave No Trace. You won’t find any trash cans at dispersed campsites, and most receive minimal maintenance, so be sure to pack out everything you drive in with, and leave the site cleaner than when you arrived.
- Forest roads can be rough in the Mountain West, so a high-clearance vehicle that can handle rocks and mud will always make you more comfortable in the woods.