5 Boondocking Locations and Free Campsites in Michigan



Four Great Lakes, nineteen million acres of forest, two national lakeshores, and one national park — where are you? Michigan, of course! It’s the dream vacation of so many mid-westerners and a truly underrated one for the rest of the country. So how do you explore the vast wildlands of Michigan? One of the best ways is with an RV rental. Getting around in a fully-equipped RV is a whole lot cheaper than hotels, and you get to spend your nights in nature’s grandeur. 

The Great Lakes State, the Wolverine State, The Mitten State — whatever you choose to call Michigan, it is one of the best states for boondocking with an RV.

Is Boondocking Legal in Michigan? 

Boondocking is legal in many parts of Michigan, particularly in the sparsely populated upper peninsula. Michigan has plenty of wide-open spaces, but unlike some states out west, most of it is not government-owned, and there are more restrictions. Generally speaking, you can do dispersed camping on any state-owned land, except state parks, recreation areas, forests, and game areas. Fortunately, those state-owned areas are likely to have developed campsites available — though they probably won’t be free.

The state doesn’t put too many restrictions on parking lots either. While you should always be discreet, Michigan law allows for overnight parking at rest areas. A few cities also limit private businesses — like Walmart — from allowing it in their parking lots.

Your Guide to the Best Boondocking in Michigan

Finding a good free campsite is fairly easy in Michigan; you just need to know where to look. Below are some of The Mitten State’s very best boondocking locations, and most of them won’t cost you a dime.

Boondocking Locations in Michigan

As a general rule, there’s very little public land suitable for boondocking south of Flint. This part of the state includes most of its urban areas — Detroit, Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor, and Lansing. North of Flint, there are several great places to camp that are still on the lower peninsula, and almost all of the upper peninsula is open for boondocking. 

Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Area

5-Boondocking-Locations-and-Free-Campsites-in-Michigan-5.jpgThis 3,500-acre wilderness on the western shore of Lake Michigan is about two hours north of the Grand Rapids and an hour and a half south of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. It’s the perfect place to start your RV rental adventure. 

The wilderness area has dispersed camping sites, allowing you to set up anywhere 200 feet from the lakeshore and 100 feet from a trailhead. You’ll need to be completely self-sufficient here, so stock up on water and use the closest dump station before you get here. Next door is the Lake Michigan Recreation Area, which has a 102-site campground with vault toilets and drinking water. Those campsites will cost you $25 per night, though.

Nearby Activities: There are ten miles of hiking trails within the wilderness areas, four miles of shoreline for beach lounging and swimming, along with endless paddling opportunities in Lake Michigan.

More Information: Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Area 

Hovey Lake Campground

5-Boondocking-Locations-and-Free-Campsites-in-Michigan-1.jpgDeep in the heart of the upper peninsula and the Hiawatha National Forest, Hovey Lake Campground is the place to go to get away from it all. That’s even though it’s less than an hour from UP's largest town, Marquette. There are only five campsites here, but each has a fire ring and picnic table. There are also vault toilets and drinking water on site. 

Nearby Activities: The lake is popular with anglers, thanks to its abundant supply of northern pike, trout, Black Bass, and Panfish. It has no boat ramp, but there is an area for putting kayaks in. 

More Information: Hovey Lake Campground 

Marzinski Horse Trail & Campground

5-Boondocking-Locations-and-Free-Campsites-in-Michigan-4.jpgTwo hours north of the Grand Rapids — in the central part of the lower peninsula — Marzinski Horse Trail and Campgrounds may be designed for horseback riding but is great for anyone that wants to enjoy the peaceful interior of the state. There are 21 campsites available, with picnic tables, toilets, drinking water, and posts for hitching up horses.

Nearby Activities: The trails around the campground are quite flat, so none are particularly strenuous, and they’re well-marked. The Manistee Non-Motorized Trail Park is a few minutes down the road from the campground and features five and a half miles of mountain biking trails along with a few miles of easy hiking trails. 

More Information: Marzinski Horse Trail & Campground 

Lake Perrault Campground

5-Boondocking-Locations-and-Free-Campsites-in-Michigan-3.jpgThe upper peninsula is all about leaving civilization behind, and nowhere is further from city life than Lake Perrault Campground. It’s almost two hours from the small town of Marquette on the Keweenaw Peninsula. The campground has five sites, with rudimentary fire rings and no other amenities. Come prepared because services are a long way away.

Nearby Activities: Though not especially close by, Lake Campground can serve as a jump-off point for visiting Isle Royale National Park. It’s an island and requires a three-and-a-half-hour ferry ride from Copper Harbor, which is itself over an hour from Lake Perrault. However, this incredibly remote park is one of the least visited in the national park system. It also has endless opportunities for kayaking, hiking, and wildlife watching. 

More Information: Lake Perrault 

Little Beaver Lake Campground

5-Boondocking-Locations-and-Free-Campsites-in-Michigan-2.jpgThis one is located just outside Pictured Rocks National Seashore — the crown jewel of the upper peninsula. There are no campgrounds inside the national seashore boundaries, so this is your closest option. There are eight campsites, and the fee is $20. Amenities include fire rings, picnic tables, a vault toilet, and potable water. 

A mile-and-a-half-long interpretive hiking trail starts at the campground, and there are connecting trails that can link you up with the North Country Trail, a 4,600 mile-long trail stretching from Vermont to North Dakota via the Great Lakes states.

Nearby Activities: Picture Rocks has over 100 miles of hiking trails and some of the best kayaking in the state along its limestone cliffs. There are a few interesting historic buildings along the shoreline, including Au Sabre lighthouse — an 86-foot-tall beacon built in the 1870s.

More Information: Little Beaver Lake Campground 

5 Tips RV Boondocking in Michigan

Camping the mitten is actually fairly easy, especially in the lower peninsula where services are more abundant. However, these are a few things you should know before you start boondocking in Michigan.

  1. Get a Recreation Passport. You’ll need one to enter state-managed parks, recreation areas, boat launches, and forests. Michiganders can get one with their vehicle registration ($12) or pick one up at a state-owned property ($17). Out-of-state travelers can pick one up for $34, which will save some money if you’re visiting several parks, as the day pass for each is $9.
  2. Dress for warmth in the UP. Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is surrounded by water on three sides. The air coming off of Lake Superior is especially cold, making the area quite a bit chillier than the lower peninsula.
  3. Be bear aware. While the lower peninsula doesn’t have too many dangerous animals to contend with, the UP is a totally different story. There are around 10,000 bears living in the upper peninsula, so bring bear spray and hang your food or keep it in a locked car at night.
  4. Avoid the bugs, if you can. With so many lakes, rivers, and ponds, there are a million places for mosquitos and other biting insects to breed. Black fly season is usually May through June, making it one of the worst times for camping and hiking. Insects are present throughout the spring, summer, and fall, though, so it’s best to bring repellent, wear light clothing, and keep your RV’s screen door closed.
  5. Don’t dismiss winter camping. Michiganders are famously tough, willingly venturing onto frozen lakes to sit for hours at a time or waiting for the fish to bite. Many are intimidated by the idea of winter camping, though. Fortunately, with an RV rental, it can be downright luxurious with a heater, indoor cooking, and dry bedding.

RV Rental for Michigan

It doesn’t get better than camping in The Mitten State — with astoundingly beautiful lakes, some of the tallest sand dunes in the country, and dense forests where you can just lose yourself to nature. To see all the state has to offer, you’ll need a place to stay. Pitching a tent is always a hassle, while hotels and Airbnbs get booked up months in advance of peak season. But what about an RV rental?

Cruise America’s customer experience is unbeatable, with multiple locations in Michigan and the most reliable RVs on the market. Cruise America staff can also guide you through the inner workings of your RV so that everything is as easy as possible when you’re at the campsite. Do you see a trip to The Mitten State in your future? Check out Cruise America’s RV rental page to make a reservation today!