Do you feel like getting away from it all and retreating into your own little bubble of nature and solitude? If so, you’re definitely not alone; RV and camper-van sales have skyrocketed ever since the beginning of the pandemic. During a time when we are told to socially distance and avoid public transportation and hotels, it’s not surprising that we all collectively feel a calling to get out in nature.
No doubt, there is something euphoric about waking up to a beautiful mountain view or filling your lungs with fresh air after being cooped up for so long. You won’t have to worry about going to a restaurant—a campfire and some hot dogs will do just fine. You won’t have to worry about inhabiting a busy hotel either—you’ll have your own bed with you. With nothing but the stars above you and soil under your feet, it is still possible to have a relaxing vacation.
So, if you find yourself with the travel bug but aren’t really sure where to go, look no further. In this article we discuss all there is to know about camping on public lands in the Deep South, including seven amazing free campsites that are calling your name.
Public Lands in the South
Whether you’re in an RV, van or even a tent, America’s South is rich in history, natural beauty and, yes, free camping. Most of the public land you’ll find in the South is managed by the USDA Forest Service, which oversees 14 different national forests in the Southern region. These include the beautiful Ozark-St. Francis National Forest of Arkansas, the historic George Washington and Jefferson National Forest of Virginia, the tranquil Osceola National Forest of Florida and so much more.
Lucky for us, much of these 13.3 million acres are available for all to explore, hike and camp to our heart’s content—as long as we follow a few simple rules.
Leave No Trace
According to the USDA, there are seven principles of the “Leave No Trace” philosophy to help minimize our impact on the natural environment:
- Plan ahead and prepare
- Travel and camp on durable surfaces
- Dispose of waste properly
- Leave what you find
- Minimize campfire impacts
- Respect wildfire
- Be considerate of other visitors
It is also important to note that most public land campsites have a 14-day rule. This also follows the principle of Leave No Trace by preventing the natural land from being altered by prolonged human activity, as well as allowing others to enjoy the area.
So without further adieu, here are seven free places to camp in the South:
Little Fort Campground
George Washington and Jefferson National Forest
Fort Valley, Virginia
Coordinates: 38.867405, -78.444282
This is a great little campground that is open all year long. There are 11 campsites that include firepits and tables; believe it or not, a couple sites are big enough for big rigs. However, if you’re in a tent or van, no worries. There are plenty of small, private sites as well.
The area also has beautiful hiking trails and meandering streams, including a short hike to a fire tower that overlooks stunning farmland.
Fires Creek Hunters Camp
Nantahala National Forest
Hayesville, North Carolina
Coordinates: 35.087011, -83.866779
Fires Creek Hunters Camp is a beautiful place to camp if you like true, dispersed camping. The campsites surround Fires Creek, giving you first-row seating to amazing fishing and swimming opportunities. There are about 12 sites in the area that may be able to handle a van or small RV. Tent campers will be very happy here, as well.
This free campground also has a vault toilet and fantastic hiking trails in the area.
Elmwood Recreation Area
Francis Marion National Forest
McClellanville, South Carolina
Coordinates: 33.202858, -79.467037
This beautiful, free spot is located in Francis Marion National Forest. It accommodates both tents and small RVs and even has a water spigot nearby for campers to use. Located close to the Atlantic coast, this would be a great opportunity to explore the small fishing community of McClellanville and South Carolina’s gorgeous coastline.
Hickey Gap Campground
Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest
Coordinates: 34.894130, -84.672463
If you’re looking for a free, rustic campground in northern Georgia, look no further. The Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest offers a plethora of outdoor recreational activities such as fishing, hunting, hiking and horseback riding.
This campground has approximately five sites that will accommodate small RVs, vans and/or tents. Amenities include a vault toilet, trashcans and grills at the campsites.
POW Lake Recreational Area Campground
Desoto National Forest
Coordinates: 30.636947, -89.005283
Located in Mississippi’s beautiful Desoto National Forest, this pristine camping spot is a true hidden gem.
When you arrive, you’ll find plenty of open sites surrounding a large pond. You’re welcome to park your camper or pitch up a tent—this campground accommodates vehicles of any size. There’s also a dumpster for you to unload any trash you’ve been holding onto, as well as beautiful fishing opportunities and trails to explore.
It’s hard to believe this spot is 100 percent free!
Wolf Pen Hunters Camp Campground
Bankhead National Forest
Double Springs, Alabama
Coordinates: 34.282647, -87.436002
Are you an avid hiker looking for some unique trails to explore? If so, this one’s for you. Wolf Pen Hunter’s Camp is true primitive camping, and sites are limited to tents, vans and maybe some small RVs.
Located in the Sipsey Wilderness, you will feel truly immersed in nature. As with most primitive camping, there are no amenities, but instead, you’ll have nothing but peace and solitude. Not to mention some amazing hikes in the vicinity.
Osceola National Forest
Cobb Hunt Camp Campground
Lake City, Florida
Coordinates: 30.246463, -82.410679
Free camping in Florida? Yes, it exists. And it’s located in the beautiful Osceola National Forest.
Cobb Hunt Camp is primitive, dispersed camping. This area seems to cater to tent campers, but judging by the pictures from other visitors, you may be able to fit a small RV into some of the sites. Located near Ocean Pond, there are plenty of opportunities to hike and view wildlife as well.
Enjoy Life Off the Beaten Path
We know the last two years have been challenging for us all. Fortunately, there are ways to soothe our tired souls that don’t involve large crowds of people. America’s Southern public lands offer the solace we are all looking for, and the amazing part is, you don’t have to spend a dime to enjoy them.
So, get out your camping gear, load up your car (or van, or truck, or RV) and start exploring.