Camping for free certainly has benefits. You don’t have to pay daily rates, you are not close to other campers in a crowded campground, and you don’t have to follow campground policies. However, you cannot set up camp just anywhere.
So, is it illegal to camp in a public park?
In most cases, you cannot camp in a public park. Although it is public and free, most parks have rules and regulations regarding their use. Many have closing times and do not allow overnight stays much less camping.
However, there is a group of campers that love stealth camping. For more information on stealth camping, we have a great article that we wrote for you here.
Although city parks and public parks usually have quite a bit of open space and even bathroom facilities, they typically do not welcome tent campers. On rare occasions can you camp in a city park, while in most instances it is not advisable.
When Is It Free To Camp In a Public Park?
On occasion, the local city or township will open a public park for camping. This generally occurs when there is a popular event, such as a concert or celebrity guest.
Still, even during an event camping may be illegal in a public park. When the famous K-pop band BTS performed in Central Park fans began pitching tents days prior to the group’s arrival. The NYPD quickly shutdown the camping situation reminding campers that camping in the public park is not permitted.
Public parks in larger cities often crackdown on individuals staying in their city lands. This is due to their attempts at keeping the homeless population from staying in the parks. Therefore, they may patrol more frequently and be less kind if they do catch you camping in the park.
Small-town city parks are generally more accepting of campers.
City Park Campgrounds, a Compromise
A few city parks throughout the country offer camping. It is almost like a mini campground within a public park. They may have fire pits, dump stations, and even bathroom facilities.
Unlike campgrounds, they usually don’t offer extended stays. Your camping reservation may be limited to only a night or two. However, also unlike campgrounds, they are often a great deal averaging around only $10 per night.
As mentioned above, most of these city park campgrounds are found in small towns. Kansas is notorious for allowing free city park camping. Many of their parks will have signage that states campers are welcome.
Most of these parks are along the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail and cater to bicycle campers who are passing through. If you cannot find a sign or posting check with the local fire or police departments.
Park Camping Etiquette
- Make sure that you are legally allowed to camp in the park, check with local law enforcement if necessary
- Don’t start a campfire, most parks do not allow open fires
- Don’t have or consume alcohol, most parks do not allow alcohol either
- As with all dispersed camping, leave no trace. Do not litter and take everything you brought in back out when you leave
- Don’t damage city property. This can mean not digging holes, attaching items to trees, or anything else that could leave a mark on the natural or manmade features of the park.
- Choose a spot that is out of the way. Not hidden, but also not an area that will attract attention.
- In case of inclement weather either move to a picnic shelter or local church or community center in the case of a severe weather emergency.
- If law enforcement does approach you, be cooperative and respectful.
If you are asked to leave the park, there is really nothing you can do. You should respectfully pack up your gear and move on.
What Happens if I Illegally Camp in a Public Park?
If you illegally stay overnight in a public park and you are caught, you will likely face fines. Many public parks close around 10 pm and have explicit rules regarding camping.
For example, the city of Cupertino, California says the following regarding their public parks “Set up tents or another temporary shelter for the purpose of overnight camping, nor shall any person park or leave in a park, after closing hours, any vehicle or movable structure to be used, or that could be used, for such purposes, such as a horse trailer, camp trailer, pickup camper, or the like”.
Failure to abide by these rules could result in you being fined, cited, or even arrested.
For example, in Tacoma Washington shelters are banned from parks. Their rule bans “structure or shelter, including but not limited to any temporary makeshift dwelling units, lean-tos, shacks and/or trailers, comprised of tree branches, wood, plastic, metal, nylon, tarp or any other materials.” This includes tents, and camping in a public park can land you with a Class 1 civil infraction and a fine up to $250.
At that cost, it would be cheaper to pay the campground fee.
How Else Can I Camp for Free?
Designated vs Dispersed
If you want to camp for free then dispersed camping is for you. While designated camping occurs in a campground at which you can reserve a spot, dispersed camping is a bit more laissez-faire.
There are no set camping areas, no amenities, and fortunately no daily rates when you are dispersed camping. You can choose your own spot and “check-in and out” on your own schedule.
However, with dispersed camping, you will need to be self-sufficient. You will need to bring your own water, supply your own fuel (whether it be wood or propane), and don’t plan on using any electricity.
There are a few different places in which dispersed camping can be done, and the best part is that most of them are free. Occasionally, you may have to pay a one-time entrance fee, such as at national parks.
National Forest camping is one location in which campers can usually camp without charge. Searchable online registries, like Google Maps, contain the location information for National Forests. A simple search can return many wonderful destinations either near to you or across the country.
The US Department of Agriculture owns and manages most National Forests. These lands are protected, like National Parks, but they usually allow dispersed camping. A bonus is that they usually accept pets as well.
Like public parks, National Forests do have rules and regulations regarding land use. Prior to setting up your tent, it is best to make sure you are aware of all of their rules. Talking to forest rangers may also be beneficial.
A similar free camping opportunity for dispersed campers is the Bureau of Land Management lands. They are owned and managed by the US Department of the Interior.
Similar to National Forests, an online query will locate the Bureau of Land Management held lands available for camping. Additionally, a book entitled “Adventures on America’s Public Lands” is published by the Bureau of Land Management. The book outlines available locations and directions on how to find them.
Camping on the Bureau of Land Management property will often be free unless otherwise noted. Again, be aware of any rules and regulations before setting up camp.
Because dispersed camping does not have any designated camping spots you will need to plan on hiking in, boating in, or even using a pull-off or fire road to access your selected spot.
It is advisable to pre-select your campsite using a map in order to determine the best location to pitch your tent. Again, no designated spots mean no reservations, therefore there is no guarantee that your spot will be available when you arrive. Arrive at your selected site early so that if you have to find a plan B you can do so in the daylight; finding a suitable area and pitching a tent in the dark can be difficult.
The final free camping option is staying in a parking lot. However, you will want to check with the lot owners prior to staying. Typically, you won’t want to set up a tent but stay in your car or motorhome. Though not secluded, parking lots can be a could option if you need to pull over and rest for the night.
The Dangers of Staying in a Public Park
Aside from incurring a fine or ending up with jail time, staying in a public park can be risky for other reasons.
You risk people approaching you, stealing your belongings, or just drawing unwanted attention.
Because of the risk of others approaching you, as you are camping out in the open, it may be beneficial to camp in your car if you are staying at a public or city park. Keep all of your belongings out of sight and securely stored. Do your best to stay safe and vigilant.
Parking It in a Park
If you plan on staying in a public park be sure to check the local laws and ordinances. Be wise about setting up your tent and securing your belongings. Your best bet would be opting for a city park campground for safety and access to amenities.
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