Day 37: Free, Legal, and Available Van Camping In Southwest Florida

Robert Gibb
My Van Year
Published in
2 min readFeb 6, 2022

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Campgrounds on state parks and forests in Florida often cost more than scenic Hipcamps. They are also often overscheduled. To get a good spot, you have to schedule months in advance. But one man I met when staying at Picayune Strand State Forest Campground told me about free camping on state preserves in the southwest Florida area.

These campgrounds are managed by the Southwest Florida Water Management District. In addition to being free, they are not as popular as state campgrounds, making them easier to book closer to the time you want to stay there. I don’t plan my stays ahead months in advance so this was nice to discover in addition to the freeness.

Took a walk today in Gator Creek Reserve near Lakeland, FL

To find and reserve spots on free and public campgrounds in Florida, here are the steps to follow:

  1. Open Google Maps in a browser tab.
  2. In another tab, open this page on the Southwest Florida Water Management District site. This page shows all of the available public land run by the state with free camping sites.
  3. On this page, scroll to the section titled: Camping, Equestrian or Day-Use Reservations.
  4. Click the Check Availability link on some of the places. Note: Don’t be discouraged if the first few places you click are booked out months in advance. You’ll find some hidden gems with available spots further down the list. I found a lot of availability for the Hampton Tract place.
  5. When you find a space with availability you desire, open Google Maps and see where it’s at. If it’s close to where you want to be, click the calendar box on the SFWMD website and make your reservation.
  6. After you do, you’ll receive an email confirmation like the one below. Within this email will be a code to a lock on the gate to the campground. Free and somewhat safe. That’s cool.
A confirmation email from SFWMD for a free camping reservation

I’m interested to see what the camping area vibe is like. It will be nice to be in a gated area on a free space with the ability to come and go as I please. Compared to the rule- and fee-heavy state and forest parks, this seems too good to be true. Let’s see.

I choose to be happy.

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