Tuesday, March 21, 2023


The ABCs of free and low-cost camping on federal land

The world of RVing is full of acronyms. Those include: RV (recreational vehicle), FW (fifth wheel), TT (travel trailer), FHU (full hook up), BH (bunk house), and many more. In these days of rising campground costs and campground crowding, there are a host of other acronyms RVers should know about. Those are the acronyms of federal agencies that oversee millions of acres of public land which offer free and low-cost camping.

Free and Low-Cost Camping on Federal Land
Federal land in the United States

Here are the acronyms of those federal agencies

  • USFS (United States Forest Service)
  • COE (Corps of Engineers)
  • DOD (Department of Defense)
  • DOE (Department of Energy)
  • NWR  (National Wildlife Refuge)
  • TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority
  • DOI (Department of the Interior) – oversees the following federal land agencies that will be of interest to RVers. Their acronyms are:
    • BOI (Bureau of Indian Affairs)
    • BLM (Bureau of Land Management)
    • USBR (Bureau of Reclamation)
    • NPS (National Park Service)
    • FWS (United States Fish and Wildlife)

What those agencies offer for free and low-cost camping

Let’s take a closer look at what each agency offers in the way of free and low-cost camping options:


USFS (United States Forest Service). The USFS, an agency of the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture), oversees the nation’s 154 national forests and 20 national grasslands consisting of 193 million acres of land. Each of the forest and grasslands offers developed campgrounds and dispersed camping opportunities. Visit the “Camping and Cabins” page on the website of the area you would like to visit. There, you will be given the option of “Campground Camping”, “Dispersed Camping”, “Group Camping” and possibly “RV Camping”.  USFS campgrounds are typically very reasonably priced and some offer hookups. Dispersed camping (aka boondocking) is typically free.

Look for this page on USFS websites to find free and low-cost camping


COE – Officially the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). The Army Corps of Engineers controls more than 450 campgrounds along reservoirs and rivers in 43 states. COE campgrounds offer low-cost nightly rates that are a bargain compared to private RV parks in the same area, making them a favorite of RVers. Free dispersed camping (aka boondocking) is often permitted along accessible areas of the shores, as well. Click here to view COE areas across the country. Visit the Corps Lake Gateway website to find COE areas that offer camping. Once on the website, go to the state where you want to camp. Then check the “camping” box to view a listing of COE areas that offer camping. Click here for an article offering more in-depth information on COE free and low-cost camping.

Author’s Favorite COE Campground


DOD (Department of Defense) and DOE (Department of Energy). I lump these two together as wherever you find DOD land it will typically be co-managed with the DOE. (Think nuclear testing for the “energy” portion of the acronym.) Most DOD/DOE land, like the Nevada Test Site aka Area 51, is closed to public access. However, some DOD/DOE land, like the Barry M Goldwater Bombing Range and the Yakima Training Area, allow free dispersed camping with a permit. Another option for active duty and retired military personnel are military campgrounds across the country which have very reasonable rates.


NWRS (National Wildlife Refuge System), under the direction of the FWS, manages more than 560 refuges spanning the country, some provide camping opportunities. Examples: Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge, in Nevada, offers a free first-come, first-served lakeside developed campground. The KOFA Wildlife Area in Arizona allows free dispersed camping.

Free NWR Campground


TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) manages nearly 293,000 acres of public land to explore along with free and low-cost camping opportunities. Click here to learn more about campgrounds and camping “in the wild on undeveloped TVA public lands.”

Public lands agencies under the DOI umbrella that offer free and low-cost camping


BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs). For decades the BOI has encouraged tribes to provide recreational opportunities on tribal land, as this older press release demonstrates, including camping opportunities. I am not aware of a national listing of campgrounds on tribal land. However, individual tribal websites will typically list developed and non-developed camping opportunities on their reservation under “Recreation”. Options range from full hookup RV parks, free overnight parking in casino lots, primitive campgrounds, and even dispersed camping.

Pyramid Lake tribal camping


BLM (Bureau of Land Management) manages 245 million acres of public land, offering some of the best free and low-cost camping in the West. Options range from developed campgrounds with hookups, to long-term visitor areas (LTVA), to literally tens of thousands of places to disperse camp (boondock) for free. Learn more here. Hands down, the BLM is the go-to land agency for free and low-cost camping options.

Free BLM Campground


USBR (Bureau of Reclamation) is similar in nature to the COE. The Bureau of Reclamation is primarily a supplier and wholesaler of water to farmers. The Army Corps of Engineers is the authority of waterway infrastructure. The Bureau is focused only on the Western states, while the Corps manages projects throughout the entire United States. Bureau of Reclamation projects include approximately 6.5 million acres of land and water that is mostly available for public outdoor recreation, including camping. There are 187 developed recreation areas managed by Reclamation which offer a total of 549 campgrounds. Typically, like other federal land agency campgrounds, overnight fees are very reasonable. Free dispersed camping is also typically available along the shorelines of USBR projects. However, they might be under the jurisdiction of another state or other federal agency.


NPS (National Park Service) manages national parks along with national monuments and national recreation areas (NRA). It currently oversees 63 national parks, 129 national monuments and 40 national recreation areas. Campgrounds operated by the NPS are some of the most coveted campsites in the nation. They are low-cost and located at ground zero for exploring the iconic sites parks and monuments are known for. When planning to camp in or near a national park, be sure to check out the park’s website to see what other camping options might be available. A few offer free dispersed camping / primitive roadside camping within the park. Some national parks and monuments websites list free / overflow areas outside their boundaries. Other units operated by the NPS, like national preserves or monuments, allow free dispersed camping within their boundaries. The Mojave National Preserve and Lake Mead National Recreation Area are two examples.

Free dispersed camping in the Mojave National Preserve


FWS (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service) oversees the operation of NWR units across the country. This is what their website has to say about camping. As mentioned under the NWR listing above, what they offer is typically free.


One final acronym: LIBTYFI (Leave It Better Than You Found It). Okay, I made this acronym up, but it is one that every camper (RVer, tenter, backpacker, etc.) should know and follow. Public lands are our lands and it is our responsibility to take care of them. If we abuse them by leaving trash or vandalizing the facilities, governing agencies have little choice but to close them or raise fees enough to cover the cost of garbage removal and restoration. Carry extra trash bags with you during your travels and help keep public lands open by picking up after less-thoughtful campers. Please take their trash with you and properly dispose of it onsite or at your next stop, as this article covers.

Make low-cost camping even lower with a Senior Pass!

Many of the federal managed campgrounds mentioned are already low-cost. However, those of you 62 and over can obtain an America the Beautiful Senior Pass. That typically provides a 50 percent discount on amenity fees like camping, reducing the cost of a $6 per night campsite at a BLM campground like Rainbow Basin/Owl Canyon to $3 per night!

By employing the ABCs of free and low-cost camping, you, too, can discover a cornucopia of camping options on public federal controlled land across the United States.



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BILLY Bob Thronton
9 months ago

Just the sound of; The Barry Goldwater Bombing Range warms the heart 🙂

Id drive a 100 miles out of the way, just for the photo op at the entrance!

9 months ago

When you founded the AZ Air National Guard, pushed Congress to fund the construction of the AF Academy and served on its Board, and retired as a USAF major general, you get rewarded with your name on a USAF installation.

9 months ago

I should have read the comments.
America the Beautiful/Interagency passes are available at almost all visitor centers of the agencies you listed. Please remember the passes are issued to an individual. Your granddaughter can’t use your senior pass.

These passes can also be purchased through recreation.gov with a $10.00 handling fee – they cost $10.00 more if you do it that way.

Go to https://store.usgs.gov/pass for all the info for the passes.
*Annual Pass for those under 62 – $80.00/year
*Access Pass for those with a permament disability – free, life time
*Active Military, includes their direct family, annual – free
*Veterans and Gold Star Families, life time, free
*Senior Pass, for those residing in the USA and 62 years old, there are 2 ways to do this, just bite the bullet and pay $80.00 and it’s good for a life time.
*Every Kid Outdoors for those entering 4th grade in August and good through the following July. Youth can obtain on line or show on their phone.

9 months ago

The Interagency/America the Beautiful passes that can be used at the agencies you listed started a new pass last December. All veterans, with proof that they are a vet-like their vet card or their driver’s license if their state puts that on their license now will get a life time FREE pass. This also applies to Gold Star families, members of the family with proof of being a Gold Star family member, also get a life time free pass.

And they also get a big Thank you for your service!

10 months ago

Excellent summary article.

10 months ago

Some Tribal land requires a special permit. Respect the sovereign nations.

10 months ago

Does anyone know if the discounts mentioned for Senior Pass apply to the Military/Veteran’s Annual/Lifetime Passes? Also, they need a central system people can go online then enter a preferred location and any options amongst all of the above would come up.

Tom H.
10 months ago
Reply to  John

Recreation.gov covers most of those areas. Many that used to be “first come first served” are now listed with it.

10 months ago

I believe most of the darker green (TVA) in eastern California should have been colored blue (DOD). Miles and miles of off-limits area like bombing ranges, unexplored ordinance, test sites and military maneuver areas.

10 months ago

Please inform the brothers and sisters that clean up crews are NOT provided. You invite everybody in the country to camp in free areas but you say nothing of camp etiquette, campfire safety or leave no trace. Public lands are being shut down (at least temporarily) because of an abundance of trash. Please please please HARP on these things as well. Don’t just invite every slob in America to camp on public land until you teach them how to respect it.

10 months ago
Reply to  Bill

Well said.

10 months ago
Reply to  Bill

Thought that was the job of their parents.

Jim Prideaux
10 months ago
Reply to  Crowman

They are the parents.

10 months ago
Reply to  Jim Prideaux

Apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

BILLY Bob Thronton
9 months ago
Reply to  Crowman

Looks like a good number dropped the ball!

BILLY Bob Thronton
9 months ago
Reply to  Dave Helgeson

Taught by the BOY Scouts of America, as a basic in camping.

RV Staff
10 months ago
Reply to  Bill

Bill, thanks to your excellent and very important reminder, Dave has inserted a paragraph about LIBTYFI (Leave It Better Than You Found It). Thank you! Have a great day. 😀 –Diane

10 months ago

I believe that there are even lower rates for Disabled Veterans at most all of the federal sites as well as most all military bases which would make it even more worthwhile for a lot of RVers out there.

10 months ago
Reply to  Jerry

It is too bad the military camp sites are only for retired (lifers!) or active duty, and exclude those of us Veterans who served honorably. The VA does not discriminate, why should the military bases who offer camping, and from what I hear, are often vacant!

10 months ago
Reply to  Chuck

I agree.

10 months ago
Reply to  Chuck

The Purple Heart and Disabled Veterans Equal Access Act of 2018 allows some veterans to use military Exchange, Commissary, and MWR facilities. I think if you have a disability rating, even if it is zero percent, you are now eligible, as well as anyone with a Purple Heart (combat injury) or having been a POW. However, getting access to the on base areas can still be a problem, paper-pushers are kings.

Joan Richardson
10 months ago
Reply to  Chuck

I agree, too.

9 months ago
Reply to  Chuck

Not sure where you heard that military campgrounds are often vacant because it’s usually hard to get reservations. If you work for a company for 2-4 years, you don’t get full retirement benefits. It’s not discrimination, it’s a retirement benefit.

Michael Galvin, PhD
9 months ago
Reply to  Chuck

If all veterans were accepted, the campgrounds would be Overrun. There are too many of us.

9 months ago
Reply to  Jerry

Jerry, As a Disabled Vet I can tell you that I have never received an “even lower rate” than any of the other 50% discount rates programs offered out there. Yes I am eligible to stay at military bases but no additional discount for disabled. This is NOT a complaint just a comment for clarification.

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