(Today we have a guest post from Marshall Ellgas who is one of my East Coast readers. Marshall is a vandwelling snowbird who spends his winters camping for free in Florida, Since I have many East Coast readers, I thought you might find this helpful. Most of the camping is on Water Management Utility Company land who provide campgrounds as a free service. While they are free, you do have to make reservations at most of them and he gives you the link to do so. I’m going to mix in some of my photos with some of his)
Warm sunshine, endless beaches, palm trees and friendly people make the State of Florida a wonderfully warm winter destination for people from all over the world. Florida has a little something special for everybody from the rich and famous to the middle class vacationing family and even the penny pinching senior. However, it’s the amazing vandweller that truly hits the winter lottery every year in Florida with all the FREE camping offered there.
The beach near Cape Canaveral, FL a few hours drive from my moms house.
From winters spent at the edge of chilly crispness in the panhandle to the warm golden sandy beaches of south Florida and all that the state has in between, Florida is a vandwellers paradise for the winter months thanks to the weather and all the free camps that abound.
Almost all these free camps are listed online. Some of the camps require permits and some don’t. Permitting can be done online in advance of your arrival so you can set your winter itinerary right to the day without skipping a beat. The stays at the camps go from five days to up to 30 days at each one. The administrators of the camps are easy to contact and will respond fairly quickly and in a friendly way to any questions posed about any camp in their particular area. They work hard on these camps and want people to come and enjoy them.
The campground at Lake Panasoffkee
All feature a laid-back atmosphere in the warm sunshine. Some have a camp host and many do not have a host. Some are popular with a crowd and in others you will be the only one there. You will meet people from all over the world and from all economic ranges. You will meet tent campers, vandwellers and even the big luxury rigs depending on which camps you stay in and what part of winter you stay there.
Bat House and birds near one of the campgrounds.
It almost goes without saying that most of the camps have water available. However, some do not. It is primarily the most northern camps that do not have water. However, most of the camps in the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) and the camps in the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) do make water available and some even supply water at individual sites! Electricity is not available at any camp throughout the system.
Generally speaking, most camps in the system are out in the country. They are set in rural areas where the Florida fowl and fauna are there in plain sight for all to see and enjoy. It is very common to have to travel 10 to 15 miles to get to serious shopping, however, there is generally country stores and a Dollar General nearby. Expect to travel 15 to 25 miles to the nearest Walmart from most camps.
Hiking path near Hickory Hammock campground.
Florida has three winter weather regions and they all vary greatly:
- The northern part of Florida is generally pretty cold in the winter time. The leaves will be gone from most trees and you will not see a whole lot of palm trees. Temperatures in this area get cold during the day and at night.
- The central part of the state is a mix of fairly warm days, but chilly nights. However, when the cold fronts come it can easily drop into the 20’s at night.
- The south is perfect for the winter! Days of warm sunshine in the upper 70’s to low 80’s surrounded by beautiful coconut palms and starry nights in the mid 50’s make for perfect vandwelling conditions.
Coming into Florida on any of the three interstates will lead you to months of free fun. I-10 from the west offers loads of free panhandle dispersed camping in the Apalachicola National Forest right on the northern Gulf of Mexico and her warm beaches. When you tire of the great pine forests in that neck of the woods head over to one of the free camps listed in the recreation section of the Northwest Florida Water Management District. There are many to choose from and some do not even require advance permitting. Just show up and camp. Just click here for potential spots to enjoy a good time.
Sandhill cranes at Yates Marsh campground.
If your arrival is the I-75 portal from Georgia into the northern middle of the state you will be in the Suwannee River Water Management District. Unfortunately, this water management district does not offer any camping opportunities, but from pristine spring fed rivers surrounded by jungle like forests this place is all yours with many free hiking trail and bird watching opportunities to choose from along with great dispersed camping in the Osceola National Forest (go here for more info on National Forests in Florida http://www.fs.usda.gov/florida). Just click here for many great spots as a wonderful way to begin your Florida winter.
For those making an entrance along I-95 you will be coming into the St. John’s River Water Management District. There are many camping and recreation activities to choose from. However, if you are here in this are to free camp it may be better to head over to the Osceola or Ocala National Forests as there is no camping in vehicles allowed. All the camping in this district is tent camping after a hike in to the designated areas.
Gator near one of the DuPuis Management Center Family campgrounds.
Once you have established yourself into the state and move south from the three upper water management districts mentioned above your choices now become one of two, South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) which basically comprises the central southeast coast of Florida or the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) which easily covers the central southwest coast of Florida.
Both districts offer lots of great free camping, but they each have different permitting process. We have found that permitting is easiest in the SFWMD. All permitting is done online and in advance of your stay, but in the SFWMD you get a reservation and gate combination sent directly to your email immediately after applying for your site. In the SWF WMD it may take up to 10 days to hear back on your application.
If you are planning on visiting the Ocala, Orlando and Tampa areas you would want to check out camps in the SWFWMD listed here. Should your journey take you further south in the great areas of Okeechobee, West Palm Beach, Port St. Lucie, Ft. Meyers or Naples you would start here. There are so many to choose from and some are real gems.
In addition to all the free camping listed above concerning the water management district sites other Florida agencies and counties also offer free camping. Check the individual county web pages you plan to visit and if I can remember correctly the Florida EPA also has free camping.
If you do not mind spending money on camping I strongly suggest you check out the Florida State Forestry Department. They offer camping with electricity and water for as low as $10/night for senior and disabled citizens. (Find a list of $10 Primitive Campsites here: http://www.freshfromflorida.com/Divisions-Offices/Florida-Forest-Service/Recreation/At-A-Glance-Guide)
Florida is a great place to be in the winter. It’s warm and inviting. Many East Coast fulltimers spend their winters there and you may see them several times over the months from camp to camp. Many of them make a circuit out of all the camps based on the weather in particular months.
Do not forget about all the free dispersed camping in all the National Forests in Florida.
(Thanks Marshall for that helpful information!! I’m sure many people will be helped by it! These are all my photos:)
That’s a Manatee.