The “top ten places to camp” posts are great. But sometimes they take you to overcrowded destinations and leave out some of the best options. What if you could find your own location, somewhere you can camp for free, and have a good idea of what to expect before you go? How to find campsites is not a secret anymore.
In this post, we’ll dive deep into finding unique campsites with the features you personally desire. These tools and tips are best suited for dispersed camping, also known as wild camping or boondocking.
With a few free tools and these techniques, find your own top ten list away from the crowds and stay at spectacular campsites for free!
Areas with Dispersed Camping
Dispersed camping in the United States most commonly takes place in federally-owned public lands: national forests, wilderness areas, and land owned by other federal and state institutions, such as Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Many of these areas have a light green shading to them on most maps, including Google Maps.
Don’t confuse National Forests with National Parks. Generally speaking, National Forests are areas where you can camp for free in essentially limitless locations. While there are many beautiful National Parks, they usually require camping developed campgrounds, often under reservations or permit systems, and may have a lot of restrictions.
Wilderness Areas are often located inside of National Forests and place additional restrictions against things like motor vehicle use. They can also require permits or other equipment, such as bear cans.
Are you looking for the best campgrounds and camping areas in National Parks? Then our post on the best camping apps and websites might be a better place to start. Since those types of campsites are often visited, they are included on lists and have reviews from past campers in a variety of spots across the internet.
Still here? Good. This information listed below can help you discover some of the best campsites you can find. Find isolation and spectacular areas far off the beaten path.
Start to scour maps for general areas you might want to visit. Take note of the National Forest or Wilderness Area name.
Satellite and Topo Maps
In order to find the ultimate campsite, check out the maps that can give you an idea of what the region looks like: satellite and topographical maps.
It takes time to get used to scouring maps for this information. But the more you use them and investigate, the more you will understand the area and find locations where camping is allowed. Spending the time looking over the maps for these pieces of information can be completely worthwhile.
Once you have a general idea of the location or National Forest you’d like to visit, switch over to satellite view to see what the area looks like. If you want to camp in a forested area or a water source, search for them! We are very fortunate to have this information at our fingertips and it’s up to us to find what we’re looking for.
Also study the satellite images for the roads you’ll be traveling on. It isn’t easy to determine the exact difficulty, but if you see spots that look like the road stops, or multiple downed trees blocking the roadway, you might want to think twice (or bring a chainsaw). If you see a lot of vegetation on the roadway, it could be a completely deserted road.
There are off-road websites that rank trails by difficulty and show a lot of detail. TrailsOffRoad.com is a popular one. If you’re venturing off path, you likely won’t find a review of the specific trail. But it might give you an idea of what the area is like.
Topographical maps are also key to understanding an area before you visit. One of the biggest challenges about dispersed camping is finding a level spot for you sleeping arrangements. While you may find campsites that have been used by previous visitors, quite often you may be setting up camp in an area with no developed tent pads or parking spots. Use topo maps to help determine where flat areas might be located.
Make sure to practice leave no trace principles while camping: Plan ahead and prepare; travel and camp on durable surfaces; dispose of waste properly; leave what you find; minimize campfire impacts; respect wildlife; and be considerate of other visitors.
The topo maps can also be studied to see if there is a good view or to find hiking points in the area. You’re looking for a nice flat area to set up camp, perhaps with a steep incline or decline around that area so you can go for a hike or get a nice view of the surrounding area. High altitude lakes are our favorite locations for backpacking and camping deep in wilderness.
Motor Vehicle Use Map
On most National Forest websites, you can find motor vehicle use maps (MVUM’s). These are the golden tickets to dispersed camping. They can also be a big pain in the ass to work with.
Some of them are split into many files, which can be so large they make a mobile device crash. Guessing which map correlates to your area can take some time.
Here is one example of a MVUM for the Pike and San Isabel National Forests in central Colorado.
Sometimes it can be difficult to know what map covers the area you are considering camping in. Finding large landmarks such as a large body of water, mountain peak, or other identifiable aspect is the best way to know what the area covers.
Use the combination of Google Maps (with satellite and topo) and MVUM’s to decide on precise locations for campsites. Some people will just wing this part and start driving in an area they know they can camp, until they find something nice. But spending a little time studying the map beforehand puts you in a better position to find the best campsites.
Compare the forest road map (MVUM) to Google maps to spot any differences. Usually they’re basically identical, but there are differences at times. It’s usually because Google doesn’t have great detail in some off path locations. Trust the forest road maps.
Would you rather look through lists of campgrounds and campsites that other people have already visited? Then you should probably skip this post for now and head over to our post covering the Best Camping Apps and Websites. Many of those tools offer a robust catalogue of camping locations with reviews from fellow travelers.
Secret Weapons to Find Campsites:
Now you know how to use satellite and topographical maps to find a general area to camp in. Then find the MVUM on the National Forest website to drill down the roads and specific areas you can camp in.
Is there anything else you can do to check out the area before you arrive? Absolutely! Here are Off Path Travels’ secret weapons to finding great campsites:
(1) Strava Heat Map
We want to camp in areas that are not visited by many people. It’s a great way to keep nature pristine and it’s also nice to have the peace and quiet. So how can you check to see how popular specific areas are?
That’s where so-called heat maps come into play. Companies are using GPS data from all types of devices to create heat maps. These maps show you how much traffic hits a location by using a thermal imaging scale: the hotter the area, the more times a GPS device has tracked through there.
Big cities are easily visible and offer the best way to orient yourself while looking at these maps. The most popular recreational areas will also be evident since most people camp with some type of GPS-enabled device.
For example, if you search within a 1.5 hour drive from Denver, you may notice that many areas have a ton of GPS tracking and show a lot of people visited the areas. But if you stretch out the drive to 2.5 hours, the popularity decreases dramatically and you may be able to find more seclusion.
Strava Heat Map is our favorite. Check it out if you want to find the areas that are less crowded.
(2) Google Street View (Off Path, of course)
Most everyone knows of Google’s street view and images to check out storefronts and the view from roads. But did you know this same feature can allow you to view tons of places away from roads?
Users from all over the world upload 360-degree photos with GPS information to Google Maps. Using these, Google allows you to see the view from the mountain tops, hiking trails, dispersed campsites, and just about anything you can imagine.
And like most 360-degree photos, you can adjust the view to change directions in whatever way you want (hence 360-degree, duh).
Here’s how: On the desktop version of Google Maps, there is a yellow person icon at the bottom right corner of your screen. That is the toggle for street view AND these images.
Toggle that on to see (1) street view locations marked by blue lines on roads and (2) all of the 360 degree photo locations marked by blue dots at the precise location where the photo was captured.
GPS Maps: CalTopo, Gaia GPS, AllTrails, and Motion-X GPS
When the precise destination or area is known, it’s time to create the map to bring with. There are plenty of different maps and GPS resources to use.
Most people are now using some type of GPS-enable app or dedicated GPS device (such as the Garmin inReach) while camping in remote areas.
The truth is, however, that you should never rely solely on electronic devices when your life depends on it. By using a combination of physical maps and phone apps, you can be safe in the backcountry and do so without spending a ton of money.
Once I know the area I will be camping or backpacking in, I use an incredible free tool to build a map which I can print out for free: CalTopo.com.
It’s a free mapping resource with tons of different options and plenty of customization. It has everything you need to create amazing maps and GPS markers.
To start building the map, drop a pin in Google Maps to get the precise GPS in latitude and longitude. Take those coordinates and plug them into CalTopo. Create a waypoint, line, or area, then name it and provide a description. You can adjust the marker color/shape to identify different things.
I like to go crazy with waypoints and markers. I create secondary ideas for the roads in case any are blocked; I drop markers for backup campsites in case my first choice is taken or otherwise no good; and I like to create waypoints for potential hikes and mountain summits.
CalTopo maps can be printed off to a PDF or to a printer. I recommend sharing the PDF with your entire camping group, and printing a couple of copies of the map and the list of GPS coordinates.
Take this a step further by transferring the GPS data to your favorite GPS app. The GPS waypoints can be downloaded from Caltopo in a GPX file. Gaia GPS, AllTrails, and Motion-X are three of my favorites.
National Geographic Trail Maps
At this point, you might be asking why you’d go through the trouble of looking at so many maps instead of purchasing a good professional one for the area, like the incredible ones from National Geographic.
There are two reasons: (1) These maps are great for a generalized view, but lack close-up detail and very specific GPS coordinates, and (2) they usually cost around $15 each and may not be worth the cost if you don’t visit an area often.
But don’t get me wrong, the NatGeo maps are excellent resources and can be a great addition to your camping or backpacking gear.
How to Find Campsites
If you want to find spectacular campsites, study those maps! Start off by finding a general area by using Google Maps and its satellite and topographical information. Use Strava Heat Map to see how popular an area is.
Then hunt down the motor vehicle use maps issued by the National Forests. And finally, make sure to bring multiple maps and GPS coordinates along with your camping gear.
Want to read more about camping? Check out our essential camping gear list (with free downloadable PDF checklist) to make sure you have everything. If you’re a big foodie, then our post on the camping kitchen gear is right up your alley. Or take your camping game up a notch with the best camping solar panels. Like cool gadgets? Head over to Cool Camping Gadgets for a unique list.
Do you use other resources to find the best campsites? Leave us a comment below to share the knowledge!
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