A Beginner’s Guide to Free Family Camping
We’re paying off student loan debt very aggressively, so we want to keep our family vacations inexpensive. We also have small kids so until recently this has mostly looked like unplugging for a few days to a week at a time at our family’s cabin. Which has been amazing, and we will continue to take advantage of that on a regular basis! But we want to see more of the country, and we don’t want to wait until our debt is completely paid off to do it. We decided we could spend $200 on a family vacation. But that will get you maybe two nights in a hotel and nothing else. Even camping can get expensive fast.
But did you know you can camp for free in many places? Known as dispersed camping, primitive camping, undesignated camping, wild camping, backcountry camping, or boondocking, there are many names and many options for some free overnight lodging. Free camping isn’t for everyone. If you want to know for sure where you’re sleeping before you hit the road, have access to showers and toilets, etc. reserve a site. You can often find very cheap sites if you do your research. I had a list of nearby campsites that charge a fee in case we couldn’t find a free spot (anywhere from $12 to $45+ per night). If you do decide to try free camping, here are some tips to help you out.
Finding a Spot
Check out websites such as Free Campsites, Campendium, and Ultimate Campgrounds to start your search. Check out public lands such as National Forests, Bureau of Land Management, State Forests, and Wildlife Management Areas. Note: there’s a big difference between national/state forests and parks when it comes to free camping. Call the regional office for wherever you’re headed to get their suggestions for free camping and find out any specific rules/regulations for the area.
What this looks like practically:
- I found this spot on Free Campsites and we hoped to camp there, but it was (not surprisingly) full when we arrived. If we had camped there we would have filled out this form which includes the main rules for camping in Michigan State Forests.
- I knew we could check out this spot in the Hiawatha National Forest, but it didn’t look like the best so we stopped by the Ranger Station in St. Ignace and talked to one of the rangers there. She was super helpful, providing us with maps and suggestions for spots to camp. We also asked about the rules regarding fires and such just to make sure we had the correct information. It can get confusing when there are so many different properties managed by different entities.
- We drove around the Hiawatha National Forest until we came to one of the spots the ranger suggested. It was a backcountry site and not accessible by vehicle, so we parked and walked about 200 yards. It was perfect.
It was worth the search and the walk:
We were as close to a lake as you’re allowed to camp, there were no noisy neighbors, and the kids were able to roam freely without bothering anyone. The lake was great for swimming: shallow very far out with a sandy bottom. It was also cold. Very cold. We were right by a dam, so we were serenaded to sleep each night by the sound of running water.
But What About…
- Drinking Water? We brought our own in a 5 Gallon water jug that we already owned. We also brought extra water in reused milk jugs for putting out fires/washing hands, etc. We found we didn’t even need most of the water because we only had a campfire one night, and we filled up our water bottles every time we could while out and about. But you can never go wrong having extra water.
- Trash? You must pack out what you bring in. This means absolutely every item of trash (unless you burn paper items when having a campfire). Since we left the campground every day, we put our trash items in small grocery bags and disposed of them in trash cans at roadside parks, gas stations, etc. As long as it’s a small amount, this shouldn’t be a problem.
- Food? We brought mostly finger food to eliminate the need for too many cooking supplies, utensils, etc. So we ate a lot of sandwiches, carrots, cucumbers, cheese, granola bars, crackers, etc. We did buy ice everyday to keep things cold. We also cooked hot dogs and made hot meat and cheese sandwiches over the campfire on our last night.
- Gear? We used a tent and a screen tent, both of which we bought from Aldi a while back when they had them in stock (it seems like they have them in stock late spring/early summer each year). I used this list as a basis for my own camping list which I printed and then edited on the way home based on what we used/didn’t use/wished we’d had.
- Rain? Most tents aren’t actually waterproof. They may stay dry through a couple of hours of drizzle, but there will be puddles inside your tent if it downpours. There was a good 12 hour downpour while we were camping. Thankfully we had a heavy duty tarp with grommets over our tent in anticipation of the coming rain. We only had minor leaks, and all our clothing and bedding stayed dry.
- Animals? Depending on where you camp, animals can be a simple nuisance or downright dangerous. We were in bear country (though bears in Michigan tend to leave you alone), so we took the proper precautions: we took no food in our tent, food all went back into our vehicle at night or anytime we left the campsite, etc. In some places out West, you can’t even keep food in your vehicle overnight. Depending on where you’re camping, there are also snakes and other animals to think about. Be sure to research safety precautions for the areas you’re visiting.
- Bugs? Upper Michigan is known for its mosquitoes, and ticks are becoming more numerous all over Michigan. Across the country there are scorpions and bees to think about as well. To deal with mosquitoes and ticks we used Sawyer’s Permethrin Spray on some of our clothing and gear, used insect repellant with DEET on exposed skin, wore pants, hoodies, and hats when possible, and burned citronella candles when at our campsite. All in all, we saw one (unattached) tick and got about eight mosquito bites between the four of us, which was impressive because there were a lot of mosquitoes around.
- Going to the Bathroom? This is what everyone is most curious about. And I’ll admit I was a bit nervous myself. But it turned out to not be a big deal. At all. We simply brought along our kids’ little toilet training toilet, used it when we needed to (yes, even the adults), and then properly buried the contents according to Leave No Trace principles. It was simple, a whole lot cleaner and less stinky than many camp bathrooms or vault toilets. Since no one was around we used it in our screen tent, but you can also buy or make a special area just for that.
- Showers? We didn’t take any. You can get special showers for camping, and we may do that in the future, but for this trip we decided we could make it 80 hours without a shower. (Yes, I counted up the hours when I was enjoying my much needed shower within five minutes of arriving home.) We used wet wipes and took a dip in the lake which sufficed (don’t use soap in a lake: natural soap is great for camping, but none of it is good for marine life). Also, I wore a hat the whole time.
- Safety? Our cell phones worked where we were, so we sent a location pin to a family member when we arrived. However, this won’t always be the case, so be sure to leave a basic itinerary/location possibilities with someone you trust. Practice common sense and research safety precautions for animals, campfires, etc. in your area. Know where the nearest ER is, carry plenty of water, watch the weather, bring appropriate clothing, and don’t forget the sunscreen. For more safety tips, check out the US Forest Service Outdoor Safety Tips.
- Other People? One of the best things about primitive camping is you’re less likely to have neighbors. We saw a ranger who came to check the dam twice, but other than that we saw no one at our campsite until the last night, when a man who had been hiking the North Country Trail for three weeks came out of the woods. He’d been hoping to camp in this spot that night, and we told him he was more than welcome to. (When primitive camping, it’s polite to share your site if someone is hiking through or comes late in the day.) Our kids loved interacting with him, and since he hadn’t seen another human in four days he didn’t seem bothered by their enthusiasm. We shared our dinner with him since we had extra and we were sure he was sick of trail food. He was gone the next morning before the kids got up.
- The Kids? The kids did great. They thought nothing of using the little toilet or not taking a shower. They just enjoyed the fact that they could play in the dirt and do all the things we were able to enjoy because we hadn’t spent the money on lodging. Speaking of which…
Find Out What’s Nearby
While we spent a day on Mackinac Island (which isn’t exactly cheap), we also found some fun places to hike and a lighthouse we could go up (for free). I love TripAdvisor for less touristy, more off-the-wall things to do. Check out some pictures we took along the way.
So what do you think? Is a free camping trip in your future? Any suggestions from those of you who’ve been there, done that?
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