Camping by the side of the road


New member
I live in northern California. A friend of mind told me you can camp for free in National Forests (it's our land...). Does anyone know if this is true? I'm curious about the laws regarding pulling off onto a deserted road and setting up camp for the night. Where can I find camping information/regulations for different states? I tried going to the CA government website and could not find anything ... unless I just don't know where to look. Also can you recommend any good camping books? I have a good one that's pretty old that I think is titled "Camping the US for less than $5 a day" or something like that. Thanks for your help!!!



New member
Look for "California Camping" by Tom Stienstra. It lists 50,000 camp sites in California. I bought it from We have always camped in national forests at campgrounds, beside the road and off logging roads. I think it is legal to camp but you should abide by campfire regulations.

Sunnyvale, CA
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Capt. Mike

That an area is designated National Forest does NOT mean that it is government land. Most of the land in National Forests is privately owned, just under NFS forestry control. You could be prosecuted for tresspassing!

There are so many legal camp-sites, and so little wide-open undeveloped spaces in the US, that it doesn't make sense to camp unauthorized. NFS,, has many legal camp-sites, as does Corp of Engineers (most reservoirs) and the various state & local rec areas. Game lands OUTSIDE of hunting season are often available. Timber companies, power companies (especially around dams) and other holders will also allow camping with restrictions.

You'd also be surprised at how many camping areas and small unpublicised parks exist in the National and State park systems. Also check the designated 'scenic' routes. Many have nice public and commercial sites that cater to our type of camper. I, too, cringe at the Good Sam's and others that cater to the 3 bedroom-bath & a half crowd with their 40 footers, but some of the commercial ones have quiet camper sections.

(Joke: What's the difference between a Good Sam & a Wal-Mart parking lot? A: Wal-Mart's sometimes have trees.) :p

There are dozens of books, each with it's own specialty. Woodall's is probably the biggest & best known. AAA Tourguides do a pretty fair job. The various agencies have their own information. GORP publishes a guide to the NFS grounds or contact NFS direct.

:cool: Don't be the Ugly American (in a Westy). Camp legal -- it's the squatters that get camping banned for everyone.
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New member
As Capt. Mike stated you really shouldn't camp where it is not allowed, especially on private land. But this doesn't mean you have to stay in a campground.

If you are looking for as remote an experience as possible, but don't want to be away from your vehicle I would suggest looking into dispersed camping sites. There are many on Nat'l Forest land. You can generally camp anywhere in National Forests as long as it is not private land or expressly prohibited. The same is true of BLM land. BLM land is all owned by the government (in other words us.) But BLM land often has pockets of private land in it so be careful. If you are not 100% sure you are on public land, do not camp there.

It can be very very difficult to know if you are on public or private land and the distinction is very important. This is why dispersed sites are so great. If they are a designated site then you know camping is allowed, but you also are not in a campground. Good maps should show dispersed campsites. The fine folks at visitor centers should be able to help too.

Another possibility is campgrounds in National Monuments. In my experience they tend to be quite primitive and this keeps the crowds down. If I have to stay in a campground I always try to find one with no running water.


You can camp anywhere on federal land unless specifically prohibited - which is usually posted or near high volume areas. However, you cannot drive anywhere on federal land and shouldn't as automobiles can make lasting impacts.
I agree with the Capt that there are plenty of barely used federal campgrounds that are free or a minimal fee all over. I have found free forest service campgrounds near Yellowstone NP practically empty in the middle of the summer! You just have to drive a for extra miles on a dirt road.
However, if you do find yourself on federal land and need a place to camp be a zero impact camper- always carry a small shovel for pit stops, a grey water recepticle and take more trash with you than what you arrived with.

The big problem many land owners have is what people leave behind as they are tired of looking at trash, fire rings, listening to the noise, etc. I would agree that if you have any concern about private land, don't camp there. It isn't cool and some people have been violated to their breaking point and no one may care you didn't know or are a respectful camper at that point.
Another note of interest:
When going to small county campgrounds, check for closing times. I recently headed to one on a Friday that closed at 9pm with a gate. We got there at 10 due to traffic but nothing we read online or in books mentioned this closing. The gate was guarded and we were refused entry. We were in a pickle as we were tired and the next spot was a ways away and our arrival there would have been really late. We finally just snuck in between a large camper and a truck in the town's car sale lot (county land I believe). It was silly as the campground was almost empty as we found the next morning and didn't spend a penny in that town for the hassle and won't in the future as I don't see how I'll ever beat the closing time. So, you may want to call if possible even though this information should be more readily available.

Back to your question- Use the FS and BLM websites, state websites and community bulletin boards. These are great as many people are much more interested in helping you out before you arrive than helping you off their land after you arrive. I also use books that aren't too old so the prices and availibility are some what accurate and I always talk with fellow Westy travellers on the road about the dos and don'ts in areas they've visited.

[ 07-03-2001: Message edited by: 86Syncro ]


New member
I just wanted to add something to this thread. First of all, you can camp anywhere in our national forests that you want as long as it is 200 feet from a major road such as a highway that runs through the national forest. You can stay in one spot for up to 14 days, but from my experience that is never really enforced. Second, you can stay up to 14 days in a national recreation area, such as the Smith River recreation area there in N. Cal. But the camp grounds are so cheap and nice, it hardly pays to look for a place to stay for free. I have lived in the west my entire life where the majority of land is owned by us, and managed by the Department of the Interior, and the Department of Agriculture. I have never know a National forest or BLM managed area to be off limits (except where private land is within the borders of a national forest or goverment managed area) to camping. Of all the years of camping we have done, I can only recall once when we paid for camping with in a nation recreation area or National forest, and that was at an established National recreation area campground. Just to give another example, at Lake Powell national recreation area you can stay on the lake, camp where ever you want for up to 14 days and never have to pay for it. This priveledge, is a little known fact that will remain free to all of us as long as we respect our national treasures and shepard their existance through dilegent practices that keep them clean and in pristine condition.

Also, on another note, Wal-Mart will let you stay in their parking lots for free, and not kick you out.


New member
I have crisscrossed the country in my orange '74 many times over the last few years, and have camped just about everywhere imagineable - except for paysites. The key for me is good maps (DeLorme's Atlas and Gazateer), that allow me to get far enough off the paved roads, on public lands of course, to not be seen by police, rangers, or locals driving the highway. I always properly dispose of my waste, and only have a small fire if a fire ring is previously there. Only twice, have I been awoken by law enforcement apologizing for waking me, but saying that it is their job to make sure everything's OK.

Walmarts work too, but you are supposed to be fully self contained. When stuck in a town without a Walmart type option, I've found that trying to hide only draws suspicion. Instead, I wait until bed time, drive to a previously selected spot where other cars will be parked overnight, crawl into bed without shutting the curtains (suspicion, again), and get up and leave before anyone else in town awakens.

Asking law enforcement before setting up camp has worked well too, if I can find them. I was once even allowed to sleep in a pullout on Hwy 1 in Marin - just because I'd asked first, he would've otherwise made me move on. Ranger's and police will often ignore 'no camping' rules if they know whom they are dealing with. Some of the best sites I've found were recommended by National Forest Rangers.

Happy travels,



New member
i have put together a quickee modification
that allows me to draw shut the front
curtains behind the front seats instead
of drawing them in behind the front and
side windows... of course the whole inside
is curtained shut, except the front passenger
and driver seats.... not quite as obvious
as having a completely curtained camper
in a non-wal-mart parking lot.... i have
used this method with moderate success....
HOWEVER the one gas station i pulled the stunt in got me an earfull the next morning but they were a bunch of useless twits anyway....the week before when buying gas there they did not have a water hose for the tap so that i could fill the chemical toilet. i will NOT mention location or gas company at this time but it REALLY riled me. SERVICE station????? no water hose ???seems nowadays the only service they want to provide you with is a lottery ticket
and some classic junk food. this is not the
last mention of this gripe by gar !


New member
Hello from a new member! On this thread, I will offer up a couple stealth camping tips I learned I believe from the site:

1. Rather than close ALL the curtains, where your sink is, keep that curtain open and instead put a bag casually there - like its something that someone put there are forgot about. Curtains open, but bag blocks light and provides some privacy.

2. On the front, rather than use curtains, hang a jacket or shirt off your latch which provides another way of less than 100% privacy, but effective enough to passersby that does not look like a camper but just "stuff".


New member
I have seen several people with their windows down both sides tinted. No curtains, yet some privacy. They did have the rear window, as well as drivers & passengers door clear too. Seemed good for stealth camping, say on a city street.


New member
If I'm really concerned about being 'caught', I put the bed down but sleep on my thermarest on the floor with my head under the bed, a sheet hanging over the edge of the bed as a curtain, and various bags arranged around me. 'They' shine their lights in, see the empty bed and move on.

In moderate areas, I hang towels and shirts (and the bag trick) to only conceal my torso and head. I've found that it works a lot better than curtained windows in avoiding suspicion.

You know how every town seems to have an overgrown lot by the highway with cars for sale in it? I carry "For Sale" signs with me and join the crowd for a peaceful night's sleep.


PS I didn't find a good spot in Rhinelander, WI last July. The cop who found me actually pulled his gun on me. I guess I was too close to the Rainbow Gathering...

Hank Springer

New member
For California (I'm also a Northern Californian like Catherine) I have found that the first thing to do is to pick up an annual fire permit from the state dept of forestry. This allows campfires, and also outdoor cooking when desired.
Next, keep an eye out for the burn information signs. generally the state and federal lands where roadside or non-developed camping is popular, they will post warnings about need for a burn permit, and also if "all fires" have been suspended. I find this is the easist, most comfortable way to find roadside camping, without having to be concerned about the stealth factor, mid night wakeups from rangers, or other unwanted visitors.
Whenever I visit Yosemite on a whim, and cannot get a site within the park, I just drive north of the 120 boundary. you will quite often fnd tent campers along the south fork of the tolumne river, where they just park on 120 and hike in a few hundred feet. A quarter mile north is Evergreen road which leads to Hetch Hetchy. Anywheres along this road is fine, and there are a number of fire roads to get you away from the traffic. My last night spent out there, I was heading out in the morning and saw another westy that had pulled off along the oadside to the edge of a meadow that is always gorguos with morning fog, deer and a perfect spot for the sunrise. Made a mental note to head for that spot next time.
Also, along hwy 70 through the feather river canyon are many spots for legal roadside camping. there's plenty of services along the route, and if you so dare, you can visit the developed camps close by for the facilities.
Happy trails