Saturday, December 9, 2023


Free waterfront camping

Waterfront camping is great when you can find it. Free waterfront camping is even better!

It’s that time of year again. Reservoirs are nearly empty! With farmers having watered their crops all summer long, reservoirs are at their lowest level of the year, exposing thousands of acres of often easily accessible shoreline / lake bottom suitable for waterfront camping.

RV waterfront camping
Waterfront camping on Lake Keechelus. This spot is underwater most of the year

Since many reservoirs are on public land, the shoreline is most always open to public use. This often means free dispersed camping is allowed via the agency (federal, state or county) that oversees operation.

Benefits of free waterfront camping on a reservoir

  • As mentioned, there is no cost to disperse camp. Free is good!
  • Often provide a scenic view
  • Anglers can enjoy their favorite sport just steps from their RV
  • They are typically located along major highways, paralleling the rivers that they impound, providing a convenient spot to spend just a night. Quieter and more scenic than a Walmart or Cracker Barrel!
  • You can join the water activities like swimming, paddle boarding, etc.
  • The chance to see waterfowl and other wildlife
  • No reservations needed! In this day of crowded campgrounds, that should get any RVer’s attention.
  • The sun rising or setting over the water can be spectacular.
Rye Grass Reservoir

Waterfront camping on a reservoir is not just for fall travelers

While opportunities are at their prime in the fall when the maximum amount of shoreline / lake bottom is exposed, many reservoirs offer free camping year around:

  • Some reservoirs in the West haven’t been at full summer pool for years due to lingering drought.

    Little Camas Reservoir hasn’t been full in years
  • Many land agencies offer free waterfront camping via primitive campgrounds, designated dispersed camping areas, boat launches and water access points above the highwater mark year-round. This is especially true with the Corps of Engineers and state fish and wildlife lands, and some federal wildlife areas too.
    Waterfront camping
    Dispersed camping area on the shores of Columbia River compliments of the COE

    Note: The bottoms of freshly exposed reservoirs can be soft and unable to support the weight of an RV. If in doubt, walk the area first to determine if it is suitable for your rig.

Other public waterfront camping opportunities

  • Ocean beaches, where allowed
  • Exposed river sandbars and benches during low summer flow

    Camping on a river bench just outside Glacier National Park

Finding waterfront campsites

Start by performing an online search for the body of water you would like to camp on along with the words “dispersed camping.”  Next, check the websites for the governing agencies like USFS, BLM, Fish & Wildlife, COE, USBR and others.

Some of these waterfront camping locations can be accessed easily by any size rig, while others may be better suited to smaller rigs as this video demonstrates.

If you are the free-spirited type, get out and try some free waterfront camping this fall. They’re quiet, scenic, and tranquil. Best of all, they are free!

Dave will be speaking at the FMCA Convention in Tucson, AZ, March 25th and 26th. He would love to meet readers that will be attending. Feel free to introduce yourself after one of his seminars.


Dave Helgeson
Dave Helgeson
Dave Helgeson has been around travel trailers his entire life. His grandparents and father owned an RV dealership long before the term “RV” had been coined. He has served in every position of an RV dealership with the exception of bookkeeping. Dave served as President of a local chapter of the RVDA (Recreational Vehicle Dealers Association), was on the board of advisors for the RV Technician Program of a local technical college and was a board member of the Manufactured Home and RV Association. He and his wife Cheri operated their own RV dealership for many years and for the past 29 years have managed RV shows. Dave presents seminars at RV shows across the country and was referred to as "The foremost expert on boondocking" by the late Gary Bunzer, "The RV Doctor". Dave and his wife are currently on their fifth travel trailer with Dave doing all the service, repair and modifications on his own unit.



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Heather (@guest_149516)
2 years ago

This is a tempting option…but why do I feel guilty considering it?
It feels akin to Nero fiddling as Rome burns…

Dennyg73 (@guest_148592)
2 years ago

One point of caution … if it is raining when you arrive, be aware that water levels can come up quickly. On one outing along the Russian River in California, we parked a good 50 yards from the river, only to wake up “in the river”, as the level had come up quickly overnight. I had to wade in 1-1/2 foot deep water to disconnect power, which was under water, by the way. We made it out, but everything we had outside was gone, down the river!

Tommy Molnar (@guest_148583)
2 years ago

My only complaint with most waterfront camping? BUGS! Lotsa bugs.

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