Running for-fee campgrounds on public lands often gets us into some controversy. For example, many people wonder, sometimes in a fairly excitable manner, why they have to pay for camping on public lands when they have already paid their taxes. The simple answer to this is that Congress and administrations of all flavors have consistently ruled for years that fees rather than taxes should support developed campgrounds. Read this post for more, or call your Congressman if you don't agree. Also, here is my company's FAQ on camping fees and private companies operating on public lands.
However, there ARE many free camping opportunities on public lands, but because of Forest Service terminology, these are sometimes missed by the public. In most cases, when the Forest Service has a named campground, it requires a fee because it has a number of minimum features for the facility:
- Graded, and sometimes paved, roads and spurs
- Bathrooms, and sometimes showers
- Picnic table, tent pad, and fire ring / grill at each site
- On-site host / security to enforce rules (e.g. quite time)
- On-site operator with property and liability insurance
- Water supply that is frequently tested and treated when necessary
- Hazard tree removal
- Trash and (for campgrounds not on a sewer system) sewage removal
- Leaf blowing from trails and roads, site raking, painting, etc.
This stuff does cost money, and so the typical campground we run charges $12-14 a night, with 50% off for Golden Access patrons (i.e. senior citizens). Heck, the insurance alone costs about $1.50 per night's stay, thanks to our friends in the tort bar.
However, most National Forests offer what is called dispersed camping. This is camping out in the wilderness, without any amenities, and, at least in most cases, is totally free. Most of these camping areas don't have names, just locations and boundaries. Expect to give up all of the above amenities, and be ready to pack your trash out, but you can still pitch your tent out in nature without charge. And in many of these locations, you can get far away from other campers. Just call the local ranger district (contact info here) and ask them for information on dispersed camping.
One proviso - the biggest problem with these dispersed, non-hosted areas is, if they are heavily used, they can be a worse experience than the paid campgrounds. They can accumulate trash from thoughtless patrons, and they can get very rowdy. Dispersed campgrounds attract the best of campers - those truly trying to get a natural experience; and the worst of campers - those who don't want to follow rules, don't clean up after themselves, and who don't want to shut down their loud partying just because it is two in the morning. Many people who initially opposed paid camping are now big believers, since they have learned to value campgrounds with rules and security after a few late nights listening to loud generators and drunken parties. Talk to the ranger district to know what you are getting into at a particular site.