Is Free Camping Actually Free? All the Hidden Costs

This article is reader-supported. We may earn affiliate revenue from qualifying purchase made through links on this page. Learn more.

RV parked in the woods at sunset.
Madden Peak Road Dispersed Camping | Hesperus, CO – Photo by: Adventurous Way

Pitching a tent or parking your camper in a free spot is always an enticing idea to cut expenses when traveling. National forests, Bureau of Land Management sites, and other places with free camping can be found throughout North America, and enjoying them can be one of the best ways to save while traveling.

But, free camping isn’t always free. You may think it’s a ridiculous statement, but there are costs to free camping that can sneak up on you if you aren’t ready for them. You may find that paying for a site can save money in the long run and that all depends on a few certain hidden costs.

So, let’s take a look at what you’re really paying for, even at a free campsite.

Permits

In some locations, permits are required for free camping. For example, some national forests will require you to stop in the ranger’s office and collect one before you even head out. This is a step that, when forgotten, can result in a fine that will no longer land that site in your “free” pile. Even when you do remember to snag a permit, occasionally, it can cost a little something. It’s not typically more than a few bucks, but that isn’t free.

Discover pass hanging from rearview mirror.

As a real-world example, the state of Washington’s Department of Natural Resources has 80 different campgrounds that we list as “free” on our site. They’re first-come, first-served, and you don’t pay for camping at each site individually, but a Discover Pass is required for staying here. Again, these aren’t going to break the bank, but the permits do cost money.

Facilities

When you head out to public land to camp for a night, one of the first things you may notice is the lack of facilities. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a pit toilet that’s available for public use, but that’s about it.

When there aren’t facilities on site, that means you need to have a plan for storing water, washing dishes, handling human waste, and disposing of garbage. This may require a bigger camper and/or the right accessories to take care of all your own needs while camping.

Power

When you’re paying for a site, especially when RV camping, you’re often renting a spot to plug in and run all of your electronics and appliances. With free camping, you aren’t getting that space to plug in and charge up. If you still want to use electronics, you need to find different ways of doing that because there’s a shortage of outlets in the backcountry.

Airstream with solar panels in the desert.

Solar panels, batteries, and even full generators are a great fix to getting power when you need it while boondocking. These systems have come a long way from when they first came on the market, but they still can cost a good amount of money. The systems require setup, installation, and further expenses such as gas for a generator.

Power choices run the gamut from supporting an air conditioner to just charging a cell phone, so it pays to be familiar with your camping style and what you’ll require when far away from the nearest plug.

Connectivity

As remote work has skyrocketed over the past couple of years, more people are taking their vans and campers to work while on the road. Many free camping sites are placed way out where getting internet access isn’t as easy as going up and asking someone for the password. Whether you’re working from 9 to 5 or just want the freedom to watch some Netflix before bed, you’ll need a strong and stable internet connection.

Cell booster on the roof of an RV.

There are a couple of different ways to get a connection when you are at a dispersed campsite. You can look into hotspot devices, bulk up your cell phone plan, buy a signal booster, or wait for Starlink internet to come to your area. Each of these options can get you a better signal, and possibly effective internet, in places where you would least expect it. They also all cost money, and sometimes a lot of it.

Wear & Tear

Your rig may be made to take on some of the roughest roads, but over time it’s going to wear down. Even the initial improvements you need to make to a rig can cost a lot before you ever head out for the campsite. If you look at the costs of free camping on a long-term basis, it’s necessary to look at the wear and tear you are putting onto your camper.

Not only may you be paying for extra maintenance time with a professional, but you may also be paying more in your time to take care of the rig so it can keep going out on these epic adventures. If you’re drawn more to the dirt tracks filled with holes, rocks, and exploration, be aware that you need to make an investment in your rig over the short and long term.

If this gives you pause, staying on the beaten path—and on paved roads—may be a better fit for your camping lifestyle.

Getting Stuck in a Remote Area

The cost of getting a quick tow to a garage that’s right down the road surprises you every time it happens. Now, imagine the cost of getting your car towed when you’re in a dispersed camping site that’s miles and miles from town. A single ride to the mechanics could easily cost you the equivalent of a month’s worth of paid campsites.

Shredded RV tire

Being far out in the backcountry comes with its inherent risks. Getting emergency services that far out can be a challenge, and the cost often reflects that risk. It can be easier than you think to get stuck out in these places. You’re driving on rugged roads that not all cars are made for. Come prepared with a wealth of knowledge for your rig and the proper tools to fix things yourself.

The Hidden Costs

All in all, free camping can be a glorious way to help you vacation on a budget. If you do it right, all of these costs can be avoided or seen as an investment for long-term free camping, especially if it’s a lifestyle you enjoy. By getting out ahead of the risks, you can properly budget for the true cost of free camping.