I am a Boy Scout leader, and we don’t exactly have a big budget, so I’ve been scouring resources looking for places we can camp for free. And I’ve found some cool stuff.
If you’re in the west, you are in luck… BLM land is public land. What this means is that you can do just about anything that isn’t destructive on blm land. You can even stake a claim and mine for minerals if you get all the right permits.
Camping on BLM land? Yup. 4 Wheeling? Yup. Having a Camp Fire? Yup (as long as there aren’t any burn restrictions in place).
Another option, is National Forest land. The rules for each national forest / park are unique, but most out here allow you to practice “dispersed” camping A good example is Tonto National Forest. You have to obtain a pass ($8) to use any of the established recreation facilities, but you can go a distance from them and setup camp without a problem. (While there aren’t any set limits, a good rule of thumb is to be at least out of site of any established area.)
So, now the question is, how do you find BLM land or a national forest near you? You can go here: http://www.geocommunicator.gov/blmMap/Map.jsp?MAP=LAND or use Google Earth, with a “Network Link” (a fancy name for putting in a url to pull map data from) to view BLM land. To find a national forest, it’s built into Google Earth, just go to “More” click on “Parks / Recreation” and select National Forests.
Ok, so, let’s say you want to be 100% sure and not trust these maps to be 100% accurate (Trespassing Charges can be a real pain). First, figure out what county the place you want to camp at is in. Next go to the counties website, and look for the assessors area (One good thing about property taxes, the counties REALLY want to keep track of who owns what property). Most counties have an online map tool you can use to find the spot you are interested and view the ownership information.
Another option here in AZ is State Land Trust land. While NOT public land, you can get a permit to use it (for all the usual outdoor recreation stuff) from the state. It is $15 / yr for a person, $20 / yr for a family, and some amount for a group pass (but the group pass is only good for 5 days).
Anyways, now that you know how to find a place to camp for free legaly. Go enjoy the privacy and solitude camping in the middle of nowhere provides.