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Camping : Boondocking

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Yes, you can camp for free in your RV
By Chuck Woodbury

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Cut your RV travel costs by camping for free. There may be no such thing as a free lunch, but, yes, there is such a thing as free camping.

Some RVers camp for free every night, some only once in awhile. The price of a campsite these days in a commercial RV park is generally $25 to $45 a night -- and higher in the popular tourist areas. Even America's public campgrounds, those in State Parks and National Forests, cost more than in the good old days when a campsite was often free or less than a few dollars a night. Today it's not uncommon to pay $15 to $30. So finding a free place is a great way to stretch one's RVing dollars.

Where does an RVer camp for free? The best source is FreeCampgrounds.com, which lists more than 1,700 places to stay in an RV for free or nearly free. Most are not "campgrounds" where you spend quality time with nature, but nondescript places like the parking lots of discount stores or casinos. Campfires, pulling out lawns chairs or firing up the portable grill are "no no's" here. Blending into the surroundings is the rule. The most popular freebie spot in America is a Wal-Mart parking lot.

Thousands of Wal-Marts are "home sweet home" every night for wandering RVers, who pull into a quiet corner of the parking lot where they make dinner, sleep, then move on early the next morning. While there, many RVers stock up on supplies. The best source of information about Wal-Mart stores is the Wal-Mart Atlas, which provides driving directions to each store and GPS coordinates.

Alas, some Wal-Mart stores these days have posted "No overnight stay" signs, thanks to the bad behavior of a few RVers, who have dumped garbage or even sewage while there, leaked engine oil, or damaged the parking lot's surface with their RVs' automatic levelers. Some communities ban stays in any store parking lot, often after legal pressure from local RV park owners who would prefer the overnighters pay $35 to sleep with them.

OTHER FREE PLACES RVers ROUTINELY STAY are at factory outlet malls, other big discount stores like Kmart or Sam's Club, and even Cracker Barrel restaurants, although the company officially bans the practice.

Some RVers park overnight in highway rest areas. Even when "No camping" signs are posted, they usually refer to pitching a tent. Again, most RVers who stay encounter no problems. But there have been reports of crimes-- usually instigated by a knock on the door requesting help from a fellow motorist -- help emptying the RVer's wallet.

Many truck stops allow free RV stays. Flying J is the most popular. Some Flying J's provide a dedicated parking area for RVs. Like many other truck stops, Flying J has a general store, restaurants and may offer complimentary wireless Internet access or a dump station. The best guide to RVer services at truck stops is the annual RVers Friend Directory.

Casinos are also popular stopovers. A handful have traditional RV parks, but most others allow an RVer to sleep overnight in their parking lot, some even welcoming them with free gaming or meal coupons. A good guidebook about Casino Camping is available at RVbookstore.com.

Some creative RVers routinely hole up in the parking lots of churches, hospitals, schools (on weekends) and even along a quiet city street. Without obtaining permission to do so, an RVer may occasionally get the boot, especially if parked on a street when a local ordinance prohibits the practice. Police will seldom cite them for a first violation.

But not all free places are on pavement. There are still plenty of free federal campgrounds -- most often on government lands of the National Forest and Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Free Forest Service camping is usually found in remote areas, often along a dirt road. The BLM has created special Long Term Visitor Areas in the Arizona and Southern California deserts, where a stay of up to seven months costs less than $1 a day. Some services are available, typically a dump station, water and basic restrooms. The public lands of the Southwest are vast, and RVers can "boondock" in one location for up to two weeks for free on most of it, but some simple rules apply.

Perhaps the nicest free RV camping is provided by small towns in their city parks, most in the Midwest. Some are beautiful with shaded campsites and nearby swimming pools, tennis courts and playgrounds. Some of the most generous communities even provide water and electric hookups. Stays may be limited to a few days.

To learn more about where to stay for free in an RV, visit FreeCampgrounds.com, where readers post new locations nearly every day. The website RVbookstore.com sells an inexpensive eBook, available instantly, about how to camp for free or nearly free on the public lands of the Southwest. Don Wright's Guide to Free Campgrounds is the definitive source of free and bargain camping locations.

Copyright 2008-2009 by RVtravel.com

Best book on the subject
The Complete Book of Boondock RVing
Yearn to camp in the wild beside a babbling mountain brook or with a remote panoramic vista? This is the complete guide to camping without hookups (aka "dry camping").
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