There are a lot of options when planning a van camping trip, but one of the best ways to do it can be to do free/dispersed camping in a van. If you’re camping on a budget, then knowing a few simple principles for finding free/dispersed campsites for van camping will allow you to find unique, off-the-beaten-path locations that will be a bit more adventurous than hitting the KOAs.

Many people are not even aware that there are so many places to camp for free, scattered throughout the nation’s national and state parks, and other public lands. While dispersed camping is not for those who want full amenities or the sense of safety that comes from camping near others, for the more adventurous, and especially when amenities are taken with you in a van, it can be a fantastic way to see the more remote spots in the nation’s wilderness.

What It Is, and What It Isn’t

Dispersed camping, also sometimes referred to as wild camping, dry camping, or boondocking, is not about luxury or comfort, but adventure, and finding the most peaceful natural locations possible. Although there is an element of luxury that comes with having a van, there will be no fancy restrooms, showers, wifi, or anything like that, as you would have at larger campsites. It’s important to keep this in mind.

Also, while you can and should make a plan, also be aware that the nature of this kind of camping is not as neat, tidy, and clear-cut in terms of finding the right camping spot. These campsites are not always clearly marked or delineated, and you’ll need to be open minded and roll with the punches when it comes to them living up to your expectations.

Preparation for a Primitive Camping Trip

While this will be much the same as for normal camping, there are some factors that are slightly different for dispersed camping. Firstly, you’ll want to make sure that your destination has free camping. There are various internet resources you can use to find such spots, including the national parks and BLM Land websites. There are also sites that have gathered databases of free camping spots, such as Compendium or Freecampsites.

Once you’ve found your site(s), make sure you purchase paper maps for the relevant destinations, and mark the sites on the map. This is important because you can’t count on getting phone reception at these remote locations sometimes, so it’s important to have this as a backup, and not rely completely on your maps apps. They may still work offline, but often there are also details in the map that Google maps simply won’t provide.  

You can get quality maps from National Geographic’s State and National Parks Maps, the Benchmark Road and Recreation Atlas, or simply picking up the free maps from the nearby ranger stations. It’s also important to arrive early in the day, afternoon at the latest, to have plenty of daylight to find the right campsite for you.

Things to Look Out For

There are some important things to look out for in dispersed camping that are more important here than they might be if taking a more mainstream approach to camping. This includes things like fire permits, whether or not you are required to have one at your destination. Also, are there seasonal restrictions of any kind? All of this can be referenced at the national parks or BLM websites listed above. It’s also a great idea to speak to the local ranger in charge of the area you’re planning to camp, even if just over the phone.