There is a time and a place for everything, and right now, RVing is having its moment.
Think about it: Though much of the world is currently off-limits to U.S. travelers, there is plenty of wide open land right in our own backyard to explore. RVs, or recreational vehicles, equipped with living accommodations provide an ideal means of escape in a time when limited social contact is ideal. Broadly speaking, RVs can include motorhomes, campervans, truck beds, and pop-up trailers. No worrying about a clean hotel room here.
Online marketplaces such as Outdoorsy, Cruise America, and RV Trader offer thousands of RV rentals, and though the driving takes a bit of practice (smaller RVs and campervans are much easier to maneuver for beginners), the advantages, such as your ride being your bed, are endless. One of the best, in fact, is the ability to simply pull over and park for free!
Thankfully, a whole slew of both RVers and campers (we haven't forgotten you tent folk!) have already done the research to show us the top spots for waking up near the Colorado River or in the middle of a towering aspen forest. There are also government websites with tips for setting up shop on public land without paying a dime.
Though there's always a Walmart parking lot in a pinch, though who can turn down that classic experience?, for a real off-the-grid experience, here are the best websites to research the next spot on the road.
Finding a free “home away from home”
RVing and camping is allowed on most U.S. public lands overseen by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S Forest Service (USDA). Although they each provide details on developed campsites, which typically include electrical hookups and (if somewhat primitive) restroom facilities, these places cost money, typically between $10-30 per night.
Instead, look for info on “dispersed camping” for an overnight fix. This self-contained type of RV camping is known as “boondocking,” or dry camping. It refers to getting into the “boonies” without access to pumped water or external electricity. In a nutshell, dispersed camping offers more physical and financial freedom to roam.
(This being said, most RVs are equipped with a deep-cycle battery that stores enough energy to keep things like the lights and the fridge running and, more importantly, the laptop fully charged for a couple days.)
There are so many places to RV and camp for free, that in fact, it's hard even to know where to begin. This is where user-driven sites like Free Campsites come in. Simply type in the destination, click the “free” icon to display an array of gratis RVing and camping sites. These are individually reviewed, on a one-to-five stars rating system.
For example, a quick California search brought up Ballarat, a privately-owned ghost town on the edge of Death Valley that's both a free camping area—although a $5 donation is suggested—and an artistic space that encourages movie-making. There's even a five-day weather forecast, as well as the spot's GPS coordinates along with its 3.5-star rating.
Campendium is also another great user-driven site, one that provides info on for-pay RV parks and national parks (for splurging) as well as its own section for free camping and RVing locations: These include sweet spots like the golden sands of Padre Island National Seashore in Texas, South Dakota's spectacularly scenic Buffalo Gap National Grassland, and Sedona, Arizona's stunning red rocks.
Along with an overview, reviewers provide specific details on cell-phone coverage and often break it down between carriers (Verizon and T-Mobile both have the best coverage at the Sedona site).
Splurging on private lands
Though it’s not exactly free, sites such as Boondockers Welcome and Harvest Hosts offer access to hundreds of RV sites on private lands—everything from a city driveway to a lavender farm in Vermont—for a nominal annual fee.1 From anecdotal evidence, those that have used the sites—and sights—say they are absolutely addictive.
They're also a great way to meet other RVers (the majority of Boondockers Welcome hosts are RVers themselves), get personalized insight into the local dining scene, karaoke bars, and watering holes (both the swimming and drinking kinds).
In the case of Harvest Hosts, it's also an opportunity to discover new beers, wines, and spirits across the U.S. while setting up shop on the properties that make them. That includes sprawling vineyards, whiskey distilleries, and even an airplane museum in Pueblo, CO.
Honestly, they're worth fronting a bit of cash for the variety of offerings. Pandemic life may not be easy but sites like these (and the ability to park your ass pretty much anywhere, within limits, of course) sure make it a hell of a lot better.
- Boondockers Welcome charges $50/per year and Harvest Hosts charges $79/per year. ↩