Free Camping in Florida – The Ultimate Guide -National Parks Service – Part 4

Everglades NP Camping at Flamingo

The National Parks Service (NPS) needs no introduction! With over 130 camping areas to choose from nationwide, families can spend a lifetime exploring the great American outdoors in the NPS.

Unfortunately, there are only a handful of NPS camping opportunities available in Florida.

In this article I cover National Park Service camping in Florida. Please note – NPS camping is NOT FREE. In fact, it is NOT CHEAP either with rates up to $42 (electricity) per site! But National Parks campgrounds are very popular and for this reason I decided to include them in this camping series.

(Feature Image – Flamingo Campground – Everglades National Park)

Organization of Public Camping in Florida

Organization of Camping in Florida
Organization of Public Camping in Florida – source: Eben Schoeman (click to enlarge image)

As described in the first article of this series and in the org chart above, there are three National Parks in Florida with drive-up camping facilities.

Dispersed drive-up camping is NOT ALLOWED. You must camp in developed campgrounds as listed below:

National Parks Service (NPS) Campgrounds in Florida (click to enlarge)

Everglades National Park – Information and Booking

I will soon post a video review of each campground. In the meantime, here are the two best sources of information:

  • Flamingo Adventures – the official booking site for the two drive-in locations Long Pine Key Campground and Flamingo Campground in Everglades National Park. Guest Services, Inc. is an authorized Concessioner of the National Park Service to provide retail, restaurant, lodging, campground, boat tours, boat rentals, kayak and canoe rentals, and bike rentals.
  • Everglades National Park – official website with detailed background information about the Park.

Big Cypress National Preserve – Information and Booking

I will soon post a video review of each campground. In the meantime, here are the two best sources of information:

  • Recreation.gov – excellent website with detailed information about campgrounds in Big Cypress National Preserve including maps and photos. Official booking site for NPS campgrounds.
  • Big Cypress National Preserve – official website with detailed background information about the Park.

Gulf Islands National Seashore – Information and Booking

I will soon post a video review of each campground. In the meantime, here are the two best sources of information:

  • Recreation.gov – excellent website with detailed information about campgrounds in Gulf Islands National Seashore including maps and photos. Official booking site for NPS campgrounds.
  • Gulf Islands National Seashore – official website with detailed background information about the Park.

Recreation.gov

If you are unfamiliar with Recreation.gov, do spend some time exploring the site. It is the official portal for reservations, venue details and descriptions of 12 Federal Participating Partners: Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Federal Highway Administration, National Archives & Records Administration, National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, National Park Service, Smithsonian Institution, Tennessee Valley Authority, Fish and Wildlife Service, US Army Corps of Engineers and US Forest Service.

Free or Cheap Camping Map of Florida

This map shows each of the campgrounds or areas, grouped by color. For example, State Park Campgrounds (fee required) are shown as Orange, National Park Campgrounds (fee required) are shown in Red.

In Part 5, I write about National Forests in Florida and camping opportunities.

YES, Take me to Part 5!

Free Camping in Florida – The Ultimate Guide -US Army Corps of Engineers – Part 3

Ortana South Campground - Source Recreation.gov

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is a large federal provider of outdoor recreation with more than 400 lake and river projects in 43 states! Their campgrounds are extremely popular with campers. Unfortunately, there are only 3 recreation areas in Florida.

In this article I cover Army Corps of Engineers camping in Florida. Please note – USACE camping is NOT FREE. In fact, it is NOT CHEAP either with sites costing $30 and more for electricity and water. But as stated above these campgrounds are beautiful and much loved by campers nationwide. For this reason I decided to include them in this camping series.

(Feature Image – Ortana South Campground – Courtesy Recreation.gov)

Organization of Public Camping in Florida

Organization of Camping in Florida
Organization of Public Camping in Florida – source: Eben Schoeman (click to enlarge image)

As described in the first article of this series and in the org chart above, there are three Army Corps of Engineers recreation areas in Florida. They are:

USACE Campgrounds in Florida
USACE Campgrounds in Florida (click to enlarge)

Information and Booking

I will soon post a video review of each campground. In the meantime, here are the three best sources of information:

  • USACE Lake Okeechobee – informative website describing the USACE Recreation opportunities at Lake Okeechobee. Here you will find directions and information about facilities and amenities.
  • USACE Lake Okeechobee – The USACE Lake Okeechobee Mission Pages. Detailed background information about the area.
  • Recreation.gov – excellent website with detailed information about the campgrounds including maps and photos. Official booking site for USACE campgrounds.

Recreation.gov

If you are unfamiliar with Recreation.gov, do spend some time exploring the site. It is the official portal for reservations, venue details and descriptions of 12 Federal Participating Partners: Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Federal Highway Administration, National Archives & Records Administration, National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, National Park Service, Smithsonian Institution, Tennessee Valley Authority, Fish and Wildlife Service, US Army Corps of Engineers and US Forest Service.

Free or Cheap Camping Map of Florida

This map shows each of the campgrounds or areas, grouped by color. For example, State Park Campgrounds (fee required) are shown as Orange, National Park Campgrounds (fee required) are shown in Red.

In Part 4, I write about National Parks in Florida and camping opportunities.

YES, Take me to Part 4!

Bushnell Shield Series Instant Cabin Tent Set Up

Bushnell Shield Series Tent

In this video I demonstrate how to set or pitch my current camping tent – The Bushnell Instant Cabin Shield Series Tent. I chose this tent for several reasons:

  • Easy set up and take down
  • Light weight
  • Compact packing for easy storage
  • Tall enough (6″ plus) so I can stand inside
  • Large enough for two people and plenty of camping gear
  • Large vestibule (veranda) to enjoy the outdoors
  • Openings for electric cables
  • Opening for a portable air conditioner
  • Affordable

In a future video I will show the take down and packing – often the most challenging part of camping!

A few things to consider

The tent is not perfect! Before setting out to camp, do consider the following:

  • Waterproofing! My tent leaked quite a bit at the seams. I sealed all the seams and sprayed the fly sheet with water-repellant.
  • Close the windows when it rains. The design allows for plenty of airflow and great views but zip the windows closed or you will take in water!
  • A good ground sheet to protect the tent floor which is quite thin.
  • It has little hanging space inside and the design does not allow for hanging heavy items from the center hooks.

Where to Buy

You can order the tent from Amazon.

My Youtube Set Up Video!

Pitching my favorite tent – Bushnell Shield Series Instant Cabin

Free Camping in Florida – The Ultimate Guide – Bureau of Land Management (BLM Land) – Part 2

BLM Website Search

When you arrive in Florida after camping on BLM Land in the Western part of the USA, you may find the free camping opportunities confusing and rather disappointing. In fact, some folks still think free camping in Florida is a myth! Well, BLM Land camping in Florida is non-existent. But you have plenty of other opportunities to explore.

While talking about camping in Florida, there is no need to discuss BLM in depth but I want to point out a few important things just as a comparison to the public land management in Florida.

What is the Bureau of Land Management (BLM)?

Simply put, it is an Agency within the Department of the Interior responsible for administering public lands as shown in the diagram below.

The diagram also shows the States where BLM operates (including all the Eastern States) as well as two websites – one for information and one for booking.

BLM Organization
BLM Organization

Where does BLM operate?

Nationwide as shown above but in terms of camping most of the opportunities are west of the Mississippi River.

The image below illustrates the distribution of BLM land quite clearly.

Bureau of Land Management Map
Bureau of Land Management Map (Source – Department of the Interior)

How to find BLM Campgrounds and sites?

There are mainly two types of BLM camping styles –

  • Campgrounds – developed camping areas with amenities of some kind! Most are fee-based. Many (most?) are first-come-first-serve, meaning you choose an available campsite and pay a nightly fee. Some sites can be pre-booked online (link below)
  • Dispersed – Mostly free. You scout the BLM land and set up camp away from developed campgrounds. As long as you follow the rules for that particular land you can generally stay free for 14 days.

To find developed campgrounds, you have two options:

BLM Camping Search
BLM Website Camping Search

To book a reservable site in a developed campground, Go Here to Book Using Recreation.gov

Recreationgov Booking
Recreation.gov Booking website

Experienced campers often go straight to Recreation.gov because they know what they are looking for and how to navigate this useful site! I will write a future article to share tips and tricks!

To find dispersed campsites, the third-party websites mentioned above are your best friends. The dispersed camp sites listed on their maps often have fire rings and you can expect these sites to comply with local rules (such as distance from water sources, etc). Unfortunately when sites are easy to find and listed everywhere they tend to get busy!

Many full-time road warriors use free dispersed camping and their Youtube videos are fun and informative if your’re interested. Some say they have not paid for camping in 5 or more years!

To avoid the crowds, experienced gypsys do their own research using Google Maps and Google Earth to scout for new dispersed camp spots in advance. To avoid getting into trouble with rangers, they educate themselves with land boundaries and local rules. If you want to do the same, please adhere to “Leave-no-Trace” principles and don’t unintentionally “develop” new campsites.

BLM areas have this signage:

Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Logo
Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Logo

Free Camping in Florida – The Ultimate Guide to Public Campgrounds and Dispersed Sites – Part 1

Florida River Island Campground

YES, FREE camping is possible in Florida!

At first glance, finding free camping in Florida is an easy process. Simply go to one of several websites or camping phone apps and browse an area of interest. But that’s when things get interesting because the State of Florida is host to a variety of free (or cheap) camping possibilities and many ways to book a site!

In this article I discuss the overall management or organization of public camping (free or not) in Florida. It is important to understand this Organization Chart because ultimately you are required to have a solid understanding of the rules and regulations of each wildlife/outdoor department or branch of the State of Florida.

Free Camping Resources

Here are the two best websites to research when looking for free or cheap campgrounds in Florida:

  • Freecampsites.net
  • Campendium

Other websites/apps to try:

  • The Dyrt
  • FreeRoam
  • Allstays
  • iOverlander
  • Boondockers Welcome – a free host stay but token gifts are standard

It really depends on what you are looking for and your experience level. If you are familiar with an area it is best to go directly to the relevant website, for example the National Forests in Florida – https://www.fs.usda.gov/florida

Regardless of the source of your information, it can be incomplete/missing, dated, vague or plain wrong! In addition:

  • Every season in Florida brings new camping challenges and site reviews can be misleading. For example, a camp site gets 5 stars in January but go camp there in June and you may encounter swarms of biting yellow flies and aggressive mosquitoes.
  • Hunting seasons present more challenges and campers are expected to know and respect the many different hunting timetables and rules.
  • Vague directions can get you lost and you cannot depend on cell phone service to assist you!
  • Road conditions vary greatly depending on seasons and rainfall. Florida remote camping is often on swampland and roads flood easy. High-clearance 4WD vehicles do provide peace of mind.

For these reasons (and others), I ‘ve decided to do some research and author a series of articles explaining the options for free (or cheap) camping in Florida.

Free versus Cheap Camping

Free camping is available in Florida but with strings attached! I will get into the details of this in future articles but for now just be aware there are different procedures and rules in place when camping for free on different lands.

For example, some free sites require an online booking. Others are available on a first-come-first-serve basis, meaning you can just show up. Most have stay limits (14 days usually). Some free sites are closed in hunting season or other times of the year.

Unfortunately, the most popular free camping locations in Florida are often fully occupied in winter when snowbirds flock to the area. At times you may have to opt for a fee-based site. For this reason I include cheap campgrounds and sites in my articles. How much is CHEAP you wonder?

  • $1 – $10 per site per night – CHEAP camping in my opinion.
  • $11 -$20 per night – AFFORDABLE camping.
  • $21 plus per night is generally beyond my budget except for special occasions. These campgrounds are mostly in State Parks and a lack of privacy can be an issue despite the high rates. It is a shame that some Florida State Park campgrounds are poorly planned and overpriced.

Terminology – Dispersed Camping

If you camp on public land away from a designated campground, you are doing dispersed camping! Generally, this means no services; such as trash removal, and little or no facilities; such as tables and fire pits. Some popular dispersed camping areas may have toilets – either seasonal or permanent.

In Florida, dispersed camping is allowed on some (not all) public land and during certain times of the year. I will discuss this in future articles but hunting season (“general gun” in particular) is not the best time to disperse camp! In most areas you are then required to utilize designated campgrounds (often called “hunt camps”).

Terminology – BLM (Bureau of Land Management) in Florida

It irks me when folks talk about free BLM camping in Florida because BLM Camping does not exist in Florida! BLM is huge out west but not so in the East.

I will say a lot more about BLM in future articles but for now let’s stop using the term “BLM Camping in Florida“. Please folks!

Terminology – Boondocking versus Dry Camping

I use the term “boondocking” rather loosely! In my writings it covers all types of overnight stays as long as it’s free. A Walmart parking lot can be a boondocking spot, or a truck stop, or a pullout along a dirt road in the middle of nowhere. These are short-term stays and you generally do not set up camp. At times you must park stealthily in order to avoid law enforcement officials!

Dry Camping refers to actual camping but without hookups of any kind. You camp at some basic level without available water sources, power or sewer. It can be challenging especially in the heat or cold but it is often the most rewarding style of camping.

Free camping in Florida requires a dry camping setup – you have to be self-efficient and self-contained! Water and even the occasional toilet and/or dump station are available at a few free camp sites but you cannot depend on it because these may be locked for some reason or another. I will point to these sites in upcoming articles.

Organization of Public Camping in Florida

Organization of Camping in Florida
Organization of Public Camping in Florida – source: Eben Schoeman (click to enlarge image)

The State of Florida has 3 departments that are of great interest to outdoor enthusiasts. These are marked in blue in the chart above. I will discuss them in more detail in upcoming articles:

  • Department of Environmental Protection
  • Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC)
  • Agriculture and Consumer Services

The State of Florida also has stewardship of the lands of 4 national organizations (most of these are well-known and very popular destinations) and dotted-line connections to local county and city governments:

  • National Forests
  • National Parks
  • Army Corps of Engineers
  • Bureau of Land Management
  • City and County Parks in Florida

Looking at the chart above, there are many “owners” of public camping lands in Florida with many different booking procedures and rules. As stated earlier – in upcoming articles I will explain them all!

To prepare for my future articles, please study my map below.

  • The campgrounds or sites of each Department or Division are shown in different colors. Click on the Table of Contents icon (top-left) to see the Index.
  • Nightly rates are provided in most cases but this is a work-in-progress! I show both FREE and FEE-BASED campgrounds.
  • If you find a missing campground please let me know!
  • Only campgrounds accessible by vehicles are shown. Walk-in sites are not shown unless next to a parking area.

Free or Cheap Camping Map of Florida

This map shows each of the campgrounds or areas, grouped by color. For example, State Park Campgrounds (fee required) are shown as Orange, National Park Campgrounds (fee required) are shown in Red.

In Part 2, I write about BLM and its presence (or lack thereof) in Florida!

YES, Take me to Part 2!