Five tips to finding free overnight camping

Disclaimer: Boondocking, or the art of finding free places to park an RV without hookups, can be addictive. You have been warned!

When we bought our RV, we had dreams of being parked in the wilderness with no one around and waking to spectacular sunrises with no other sound but singing birds and the coffee brewing. After a couple of years and many months on the road, we realized this dream was possible. We got hooked on the boondocking lifestyle. Some may call it “Off the grid”, “Dry camping”, “Dispersed Camping” or “Wild Camping” but the idea is the same…it is about heading out there in the wild and having fun camping… for free.

There is something liberating about finding a place to park for the night or even for a few days for free, especially if you find a spot like this!

So the question is how do we find these places? Travelers like to share their stories and if we are lucky, some will disclose their secret locations with us only if we promise not to tell anyone! Who wants to return to their favorite location only to find it is full of fellow RVers? Maybe we won’t be that lucky so where can we get that precious information?

Where can we find free overnight parking?

To us, the real question is: Where can we park safely overnight for free? Safety is the number one issue for Joanne and I. Although we feel relatively safe in a Wal-Mart parking lot (convenient but this is the last resort choice) we would not feel comfortable parking on a city street or in a city park without feeling safe about it. We would be on the lookout for either a police or security presence or other RVs parked there as well. Otherwise, we would choose another location.

We use a few tools to help us with our quest.

Harvest Hosts has been a very useful resource for us. This is a membership-based service where you can stay overnight (for one night) at host locations such as wineries, farms, and museums. You must call ahead to make arrangements (and arrive during business hours) and it is normal etiquette to thank the host by making a purchase at their place of business. There are hundreds of hosts scattered in the US and Canada and you are likely to find one on your itinerary. We have made wonderful discoveries this way. Furthermore, we have always felt safe at every place we stayed.

Nice and quiet at a southern Arizona winery.


A little fun under the stars at the same winery location.


We love staying at Harvest Host wineries. This time we are in Fredericksburg, Texas.


Boondockerswelcome is another membership-based service, but this time you are staying on a fellow RVer’s property. In this case, a little more planning is required because you must contact the potential host through a secure messaging system, which sends an email to the potential host. We have found that it is best to contact hosts a few days or even a week ahead of time to get a response. Many hosts are travelers like us and may not have access to emails. This has been more difficult to manage because we are often the type to decide on a destination as we go. But once we got a positive response back, it has always been a memorable experience. We enjoy visiting cities and like to be parked near the action, and this has been an excellent option, assuming there were hosts in the area. You may consider leaving a small token gift to your host, especially if a full hookup was offered. Have a look at the “resources” tab on the website for other very useful links. The next tip happens to be on that resources page.

Frugal-RV-Travel is a sister site to the “boondockerswelcome” website. We have saved hundreds of dollars in camping costs by using their guides to boondocking locations. If you are traveling to Arizona, Southern Utah, Southern Texas, New Mexico, or California (2 guides), you will find (very) detailed directions to some spectacular locations such as this:

Free and low-cost campgrounds is a guidebook to free or under $12 campgrounds. Although we have had less success with this guide, we often use it as a reference and it has provided us with directions to nice free sites. We have found some of the information in our 2014 edition to be out of date. Some GPS coordinates took us down a long dirt road at a private residence, not at all what we expected, or in another case, the coordinates were for the middle of a lake! Also, some campsites were closed for business. Now we cross-reference the information from the guide with Allstays, an indispensable camping app for mobile devices. If you do not have this application, get it now.

The guide took us to this abandoned campground converted to a dispersed camping site and managed by the state of Arizona.


Bureau of Land Management also known as BLMs manage public land mostly in the western US states. There are some campgrounds managed by the BLM that are fee based ($10-$15 usually) but there are many dispersed camping sites that are free of cost. Those can be discovered by visiting a BLM office, the BLM website, and some visitor centers offer information. In addition, the “Allstays” app can display BLM sites, and other online sources too. In many cases you will need a permit to stay at a dispersed campsite, which is available at BLM offices. The permit is free, but you will need to list names of the people in your party, vehicle information, the area where you will be parking and the length of your stay.

Some other useful apps like Campendium and Ultimate Campgrounds are regularly updated with free locations. Another useful resource is the community-driven

Camping on public land near Natural Bridges National Monument.


Other places where to boondock

When in a bind, we sometimes have to resort to parking on asphalt, most often at a store or other business that usually allows for this practice. Make sure you ask for permission because some cities have bylaws that restrict overnight parking. By calling the non-emergency police line at the local town, you will know whether it is legal or not. You may even get some tips on where to park legally and safely for the night.

This time we’re at a New Mexico winery


Here are few of the spots popular with travelers (again – if in doubt, ask for permission):

Have you ever gone camping in the wild? This is what we love to do and it gets better if you also have friends with you. For us, it is the ultimate thing in camping not only because of the money we save, but because it fulfills the inner explorers in both of us.

Do you have other ways to discover boondocking sites? Let us know in the comments below.

Taking a stroll at an Ontario winery where we parked overnight

Fort Casey State Park, WA

Only 40 miles from home, one of our favorite fair weather campsites is at Fort Casey State Park, on Puget Sound’s Whidbey Island.

casey2Located right off the beach, next to the Washington State ferry terminal and public boat launch, one never tires of the many activities available. Walking through Fort Casey offers a historic glimpse of Coastal Artillery defenses a century ago. Beach combing, salmon fishing and the Keystone Scuba Dive Site are a stone’s throw away. If time permits, one can walk on the ferry for a half hour cruise to downtown Port Townsend for a bit of shopping. Or just relaxing at our campsite, listening to and watching the world around us, makes this a great weekend getaway.


Organ Pipe, AZ

Birds for a Snowbird.

It’s a mid January, 2013 morning, a degree or two below freezing, and we are headed south on the Alaska Highway. We’re going hunting for birds. Just leaving our home in Whitehorse, Yukon, my wife, Joyce, myself and two dachshunds, are in our 2012 Serenity Leisure Travel Van, taking advantage of the warm-weather window to make a dash for sunny Arizona.

Road Runner at Dead Horse Ranch, Cottonwood, Az

Road Runner at Dead Horse Ranch, Cottonwood, Az

I am a retired photographer and now take pictures mostly for my own pleasure. Bird watching is the number one sport in North America. I am not a true “birder” but a photographer who enjoys taking pictures of birds. I take the photo of the bird then check its ID in my bird book. Bird watchers seem to do it the other way around.

We have made this trip 6 times before to avoid winter months. I guess this makes us “snowbirds”. Most of these trips were in a truck and camper, and last year, on the winter shake-down cruise for our RV, it had been a chilly 30 degrees colder. This year we want to make miles before any change in the weather. The pavement is sanded on curves and hills, and we have a pleasant first-day run to Liard Hot Springs.

The Serenity is toasty warm.

Liard is a beautiful natural hot spring with swimming winter and summer. The campground is snowed in so we choose to spend the night with the semis in the rest stop just across the road. The pull-out has out houses. We don’t water-up until further south, when temperatures get high enough to prevent frozen water lines. We have dinner, throw an extra comforter on the bed, turn off the furnace and doze off to the purr of the idling trucks. They come and go all night.

Sandhill Crane at Whitewater Draw, Az

Sandhill Crane at Whitewater Draw, Az

Morning arrives. It is even warmer (about +13C) and is pouring rain. The highway has been amply sanded and after an hour and a half we arrive at Toad River Lodge. We top up our fuel (always a good idea traveling in winter). Although diesel is expensive on “The Highway”, I almost enjoy fueling up as the Serenity is getting close to double the mileage of the truck and camper. At the lodge we are told that the sanding truck has broken down, the highway is icy to the south with trucks in the ditch, and it is recommended that we don’t go any further that day.

“Just find a spot to park out back, no charge, and spend the night.”

We drink lots of coffee, read everything in the camper, eat a nice dinner in the lodge, and make the bed. The motor home is mud from front to back and it is raining even harder.

Morning brings a different day. The torrent that came down all night has stopped and our home has been washed sparkling clean. We have breakfast in the lodge and by 10 a.m. trucks are getting through from the south. The sander has done its job. Truckers tell us the highway is now good all the way to Dawson Creek, but a storm has come in behind us. There is a foot of snow on the road to Whitehorse and at least one truck is on its side in the ditch. Good thing we are headed south!

The trip is uneventful down through British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley and we cross into the USA at Osoyoos. In winter it usually takes us about 24 hours of actual driving time from Whitehorse to the border. We spread it over several short days. We head south through Omak on Highway 97, through Moses Lake to Pendleton (Walmart parking lot) and then cut east on Highway 94 to Ontario. We travel on down into Winnemucca, Nevada, where we hit the coldest temperatures of the 2013 trip; -17C when we leave in the morning and -22C only half an hour later. Down Highway 95 through Fallon (use the car wash) , Tonopah, and on to a little RV park just north of Beatty. Temperatures are now up to +10 C. We water up, spend a warm night, and go west into Death Valley. Temperatures climb by at least 15C more and we take a week to photograph the sand dunes and warm up.

On to Quartzsite where there are thousands of RVers camping in the desert visiting the huge annual rock and rv show. This little town of a few hundred swells to upwards of a million and the show is advertised as the largest gathering of RVs and RVers on earth.

We overnight then move on to Yuma, AZ, spending a few weeks relaxing with friends and relatives. Yuma is my first real opportunity to do some bird photography. I have spent hours in the Hummingbird Park along the river that separates Arizona and California and more hours with the Long-billed Curlews as they feed near the Sunny Sands RV Park on their northern migration.

On east to Organ Pipe National Monument. We never miss a chance for a date shake at Dateland. It sounds like a strange drink but is absolutely delicious.

Looking into Mexico, over Organ Pipe Campground

At Gila Bend, before heading south to the park. You might run into a fellow that will tell you “H—-No! Don’t go down there! The Mexicans will shoot you or the military will bomb you (the Barry Goldwater Bombing Range is in the area).” This is what he told us on our first trip and I have met several others who have heard the same story. I don’t know what his problem is or if he owns an RV park in the area, but disregard everything he says.

We go anyway and feel safe doing it. Thousands spend weeks every year, camping among the cactus in the area, some on the public BLM lands in the desert, some in private RV parks in small towns along the route, and many, like us, go straight to Organ Pipe National Monument.

Organ Pipe is one of our favourite spots. The rustic campground is full of birds, cactus, and (when the weather and rainfall is right) flowers. It has lovely trails and I have spent hours and hiked miles searching for Cactus Wrens, Gila Woodpeckers, and Sage Thrashers. In February these birds are in their early nest-building stage and are quite easy to approach.

Camping at Organ Pipe

Camping at Organ Pipe

One thing that many desert parks don’t promote is the fact that Pack Rats like to build nests on, and chew the wiring of, RV motors. It helps to keep the hood up at night. We were having a glass of wine with friends about 10 pm when we heard a noise. I opened the hood to find one of the rats chewing on the firewall of my brand-new Serenity. Apparently the wall is soy based and the rodents think it is a great late night snack. Rats like dark places so even starlight helps keep them away if the hood is open at night.

Southern Arizona is full of bird-watching areas and bird-watchers. Some of our other favorites are Dead Horse Ranch State Park (where I shot hundreds of photos of Great Blue Herons and other water birds, as well as hundreds more of Roadrunners), Lost Dutchman State Park (where I have spent a good deal of time with Cardinals, Pyrrhuloxia, and the Vermillion Flycatcher), Cave Creek (for Acorn Woodpeckers) and Whitewater Draw, near Tombstone, where thousands of Sandhill Crane and other water birds stage before heading north. We also usually spend couple of weeks at Lost Dutchman each trip. It is also a great park for scenics when the Mexican Poppies are in bloom.

The Elegant Trogon at Patagonia State Park

The Elegant Trogon at Patagonia State Park

The single bird I have had the most fun with is the Elegant Trogon at Patagonia State Park. This parrot-like bird lives primarily in Mexico and points further south. I am told there are fewer than six individual birds in the United States, but I have managed to find and photograph this one on six different trips. In 2013 I got great shots of him again, before we were forced out of the park by a late blizzard. We pushed more snow between Patagonia and Tucson than we did down the Alaska Highway.

The male Elegant Trogon is a gorgeous specimen with reds and greens and I love to get new photos each time I find him. I keep hearing there may also be a female in the park. She has more drab colouring, but beautiful as well. It would be great to have a picture of both.

Maybe next year.
By Wayne Towriss