Free Camping in the Florida Keys

Last updated on December 2nd, 2020.

Free Camping in the Florida Keys

I’ve spent a lot of time camping in South Florida over the years, including the Florida Keys and Key West. Some trips were spent in campgrounds; other times were spent boondocking and free camping.

Most of my experience was years ago. It was easier then because there were fewer of us doing it. I wanted to share my thoughts and experience. Hopefully it’ll help fellow travelers.

My experiences camping in the Florida Keys– and really, all of Florida– were fun, and memorable. I’m so happy I took those trips. But, to be honest, each trip in South Florida was unnecessarily stressful because I had the wrong mindset. Specifically, I was unrealistic about my budget expectations.

Full-timers know it’s crucial to maintain an efficient, low-cost lifestyle. Travel’s biggest expense is lodging, which is why many of us prefer boondocking and free camping.

I also prefer boondocking over tightly-packed RV parks and campgrounds. So, when in South Florida and the Keys, I continued that mentality. Over the years I’ve searched tirelessly for boondocking spots and free camping, and found some.

But, I don’t recommend that approach, or the spots I found. Looking back, I think I made a mistake to obsess so much over cost. My determination to find the lowest-cost option detracted from the enjoyment.

If I could travel back in time, I’d definitely still go to the Keys. It’s one of the best spots to “winter in Florida”, as folks have done for centuries. I’d still try to do it in the most affordable way, and control my expenses. But, I’d do it differently. I’d use other low-cost, budget travel methods, which are better suited for Florida, and especially this region.

Most importantly, I’d go in with the mindset that, at the end of the day, this is just an expensive area. It’s a sort of vacation from my usual low-cost lifestyle. I’d accept the fact that I’d spend more than I usually do. Mentally, I’d try to remind myself that, when averaged out over a year, it’s not really making that much of a difference in the big picture. And, the experience is worth it.

Boondocking

For context, I’m an experienced boondocker. I’ve boondocked in many regions and countries, including National Parks, National Forests, State Forests, BLM land, water management districts, major cities around the world, and more.

In my opinion, South Florida and the Keys are one of the worst places for free camping, boondocking, tent camping, vanlife, or any sort of cheap camping experience. I think this for many reasons.

  • Locals don’t support free camping
  • No public land
  • Few low-cost options
  • Reservations required
  • High population density
  • Scarce land area
  • High cost of living
  • Expensive real estate
  • Oppressive heat
  • Mosquitos, No Seeums and Biting Insects
  • Local crime and drug use

The sad truth is that there are very few good options for free camping in the Florida Keys. Or, anywhere along the Overseas Highway. The few spots that might exist aren’t open to the public.

Although I love spontaneous travel, “just going” and winging it, the Florida Keys aren’t the place for that sort of trip.You shouldn’t come to the Florida Keys expecting to find free camping opportunities.

I’ve done a lot of searching over the years and have found some obscure “stealth” spots. Today, when folks ask me, I don’t recommend them.

In general, for most people, I absolutely don’t recommend trying to boondock in or around the Keys. Based on my experience, there’s no way to reliably use stealth, experience, or skill to avoid a negative outcome; i.e.

  • Being disturbed, arrested or harassed
  • Being forced to move
  • Getting a ticket or fine
  • Having your vehicle towed, vandalized or stolen

I’m sad to say this, but especially in an RV, you cannot boondock anywhere in, or near, the Florida Keys. People ask about this all the time. Sadly, the answer is always the same. Many of the discussions go off the rails, like this one. It’s is an indication of how much of a problem this is, and how unwelcome it is among locals in the Keys.

There are places where someone might be able to pitch a tent, or park a car to sleep without being disturbed. But, you can’t do it without breaking at least one law. Some folks may get away with it, especially if it’s just for one night. But, if it works, it would only be due to luck.

Many will do it anyway. Some are almost surely doing it right now. Some may come away with a good experience, and some will suffer bad consequences. But, in my experience, there are not any “low risk” options. Every experience will succeed, or fail, purely by dumb chance.

Free Tent Camping in the Florida Keys

Many people dream of pitching a tent on a sandy beach and camping for free.

This dream is especially common among young Europeans I’ve met. Sadly, it’s really not possible. There are hardly any sandy beaches on Key West, or in the Florida Keys. There are absolutely no beaches where you could pitch a tent and sleep over night.

There are “No Camping” and “No Overnight Parking” signs everywhere you look. If there’s a spot that looks promising, assume it gets used a few times a week. Neighbors and the police know about it, and they’re tired of it.

Tent camping isn’t allowed unless you’re in a campground, or on someone’s private property, with their permission.

I don’t agree with this at all, but honestly, even with a homeowner’s permission on private property, I’m not sure of the legality of sleeping in a tent. If a neighbor were to complain to code enforcement, you and the homeowner would probably get a citation. That’s why there aren’t any spots on site like AirBnB or HipCamp.com.

The only possible way to arrange this would be to find a willing host and discreetly camp on their private property, with their full persmission. But again, even that would probably be breaking a zoning law.

Sugarloaf Key

One spot on Sugarloaf Key gets a lot of attention online. It’s the northern bit of the old, abandoned Old State Road 4A, past the Sugarloaf Key KOA campground.

It’s possible this may have been a good free campsite long ago; I’m not sure. In my opinion, it’s definitely not a good option now, and shouldn’t be used. Unless it’s been removed by vandals, there’s a very clear sign which says “Road Closed: No Vehicles”.

I’m not sure it tent camping would be allowed, but I don’t think it would be. Even if tent camping is allowed, I don’t think there are any safe or legal parking areas nearby. Here’s the listing on freecampsites.net.

A common Free Campsite

Here’s a video showing this area around Sugarloaf Key. There’s quite a bit of footage around the old abandoned road. At 5:06 in the video you can see the burned bridge.

This 360 panoramic shot on Google Streetview shows the site on a map, and the site at the end of the road. A charred area shows that someone had a campfire here. Click and drag to move the view around.

I Don’t Recommend This Campsite

In my opinion, even if it wasn’t prohibited, this area wouldn’t be a good camp site.

The mangroves are a natural breeding ground for mosquitoes and other biting insects, and there’s no chance for a good sea breeze, or ocean view.

The only place which might be a nice place to camp would be at the end of the road, at the burned Tarpon Creek Bridge.  This is the spot shown above in the 360 degree panoramic shot.

But, that spot would also be swarmed with mosquitoes because of the surrounding mangroves and water.

If one were to ignore the “No Vehicles” sign and drive down the road anyway, it’s not worth driving it. You may get stuck, or seriously damage your vehicle.

The road’s in bad condition, and it’s not actively repaired or maintained. It’s very narrow, and overgrown trees encroach from both sides. Sharp branches and trees will scratch vehicle paint, and deep potholes may cause more serious damage.

Here’s a video I found online which shows the road. These people are clearly past the “No Vehicles” sign, which stands at the beginning of the path.

With rain this road may suddenly become wet, muddy and impassable. If you were to get stuck, recovery would be very difficult and expensive. The road is narrow, and is bordered on both sides by dense vegetation. If another vehicle becomes stuck, you may also get stuck, because you wouldn’t be able to get around them.

Heavy rains have created large potholes and deep washouts, which are more than a foot deep.

While overlanding over the years, I’ve driven into many holes filled with muddy water, which turned out to be much deeper than I expected. This road could be catastrophic in the wrong vehicle. Even in dry conditions, it may be impassable due to the deep ruts left by others.

Not Safe

I wouldn’t feel safe sleeping here.

A big problem with camping in illegal areas is that, by definition, the only people you’ll meet are other law-breakers.

You might meet young, fun, risk-taking adventurers. Or, strung-out, unpredictable weirdos in the middle of nowhere. Unfortunately, the region is a magnet for vagrants, and sometimes criminals, from around the country. Drug use is rampant, and the Monroe County Sheriff says busy arresting scary looking people.

I don’t think it’s pleasant to sleep in sketchy locations because you can never really relax, or let your guard down. I’m not a fear monger, and I’m not saying that this location is necessarily terrifying. But, I’ve had negative experiences in places like this, and I wouldn’t necessarily choose to sleep here.

Police

This might be controversial, but I think it’s true: another risk you might find comes from law enforcement.

Whether justified or not, when law enforcement come across trespassers, and people who are willfully breaking laws, they’re often “on edge”. Interactions can be strained and dangerous for everybody.

If you’re out in the middle of nowhere and encounter a situation like this in the middle of the night, you may not have a pleasant experience. For everyone’s sake, it’s just better to avoid these interactions alltogether.

Police and other government agencies, including Federal agencies, surely patrol this area, looking for people who are breaking laws. There are some reports of dangerous encounters with law enforcement. This is unconfirmed, but some comments claim that while camping, a Coast Guard patrol pointed guns at them and told them to leave immediately, or they’d be arrested.

Groceries

Among the RV community, “worst-case-scenario” advice gets spread around a lot. Many folks say you should stock up with groceries, because everything is insanely expensive, or hard to find in the Keys. I don’t think that’s necessary.

There are modern stores, restaurants and supermarkets throughout the Keys, including the large chain stores of Publix and Winn Dixie. Unless you have specialized needs or just can’t live without some hard-to-find item, in my experience you don’t need to go crazy by loading up on groceries.

Walmart

There isn’t a Walmart in Key West, or the Florida Keys. But, there are three K-Mart locations in Key West, Key Largo and Marathon.

The lack of a Walmart location is unfortunate. I always try to buy groceries from Walmart because of the online pickup option, and I try to buy gas from Murphy gas stations because of the Walmart+ discount.

Gas Stations

Gas prices are moderately above average in the Florida Keys, but are generally consistent with the rest of Florida.

As always, gas tends to be more expensive when there are fewer gas stations around. I try to fill my tank when I’m in areas with many options.

I also try to buy gas from modern, well-maintained gas stations. I’ve never had a bad experience with this, but I try to avoid getting water, or other contaminants in my gas tank from a poorly maintained station.

Be Careful While Exploring

If you explore around the Keys by foot, bicycle, scooter, or however, be extremely careful. Remain aware of your surroundings at all times. Florida drivers are crazy. Florida Keys drivers are crazier, and tourists are the craziest.

Roads in the Florida Keys, especially Key West, are narrow, and are often poorly maintained.

Sidewalks often have uneven surfaces and obstructions, including telephone poles, tree roots and other random hazards.

Sidewalks are always crowded with tourists, who are generally clueless about their surroundings. People are often drunk, lost, or both. Always be careful of traffic, and always be aware of your surroundings to keep children, pets and family members safe.

Parking

When parking, be extremely cautious about where you park. In tourist areas with reduced parking supply, tow truck drivers survive off of towing tourist cars.

Saving Money

Especially for campers and Rvers, I suggest that you make peace with the idea that your time in South Florida will be expensive, and more of a vacation than usual. Just know this before you come, and your trip will be better for it.

Because I’ve fallen victim to this mentality in the past, I highly suggest that you relax about saving money while you’re here. If you can, try to mentally choose to maximize your enjoyment in this region, instead of trying to minimize every expense.

Don’t let the increased prices and costs ruin your experience. Money comes and goes, but you’re here for the experiences, and the memories.

That said, I highly recommend responsible, affordable travel. Don’t blow your budget! If you’re open minded, there are many ways you can minimize the costs of your trip while also maximizing your enjoyment and experience.

RV Parks in the Florida Keys

There are some amazing RV parks in the Florida Keys. Many are waterfront, and have amazing amenities.

But, they’re expensive. If you’re traveling by RV, be prepared for extremely high campground prices. This might be heresy to many RVers, and it might not be the best choice for everyone. But, some might consider leaving your RV near Miami and traveling down in your TOAD (tow car), or even renting a car, and exploring without the RV.

New car-rental options like Turo — which is sort of like an AirBnB service for rental cars– can be a fantastic option, and might even come with a priceless fringe benefit if your rental comes with a local Residential Parking Permit.

Especially if you practice good travel hacking skills, it may be cheaper overall. In my experience, it’s likely to be more enjoyable.

Even if you’re prepared to spend big-bucks to camp in Key West, you might not be able to find a spot at any price. Many RV parks book up years in advance during the most popular months, although it’s sometimes possible to find last-minute cancellations.

Most RV parks in the Keys are dog friendly, but always be sure to check the specific policies.

The Middle Keys are Cheaper

The Overseas Highway is an incredibly popular destination. Like all tourist destinations, most folks are in a hurry, and spend their time at either the north end near Miami, or at the South end, near Key west.

If you want to avoid crowds and find bargains, consider spending time exploring the middle Keys. It may come at the cost of a longer drive to explore Key West, but you may find better bargains and lower prices in the middle Keys, away from the crowds.

If you park your RV in the middle keys and drive down to Key West in a TOAD or rental car, you may avoid the stress of parking.