If you’re reading this, you’re probably looking for free camping in the Florida Keys. Or, because someone shared this article with you.
Well, I’ve got good news and bad news for you, my new friend.
The bad news is that free camping in the Florida Keys essentially does not exist. It would be awesome, and we all wish it did, believe me.
The good news is that you can still visit the Florida Keys, and Key West, in an affordable way.
I’ve spent a lot of time camping in South Florida over the years, including the Florida Keys and Key West.
I wanted to share my experience, thoughts and commentary on the situation today. Hopefully it’ll help our fellow travelers.
My memories of camping in the Florida Keys– and really, all of Florida– are some of my favorite.
Some trips were spent in campgrounds. Others were spent stealth camping, boondocking and free camping, as come people call it. Hands down, my favorite trips were spent in fancy hotels (for free) while travel hacking.
Most of my boondocking and stealth camping experience was years ago.
Van life, boondocking and stealth camping were not very well known. Instagram didn’t exist. Life was easier for those of us who were doing it. The Keys were also slightly less crowded at that time.
Today, van life in the Florida Keys is much harder today than it was in the past.
Instagram and social media have glorified the lifestyle. Many, many more people are competing for a limited number of parking places. The supply of parking was already low, and it’s being reduced.
Have the Right Mindset
All of my trips to south Florida have been fun, and filled with great memories. But, they were also unnecessarily stressful. Looking back, I know I could have enjoyed myself more on those trips.
Why? Because I had the wrong mindset, and I was doing it wrong. Specifically, I was cheap, and unrealistic about my budget expectations.
Full-time travelers know that to stay on the road, it’s vital to maintain an efficient, low-cost lifestyle.
Frugality is a virtue. It’s an important value that most of us share. 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 kept my same mentality.
Over the years I searched endlessly for boondocking spots and free camping in the Florida Keys. I’ve found some, and I’ve done it. But, I don’t recommend it today.
What I’d Do Differently
For south Florida, I don’t suggest that approach, or the spots I found. I guess this is part of getting older, but I definitely wouldn’t do it the same way today, as I did back then.
So, what was my mistake? Well, there were lots of them.
But, mostly, I was penny wise and pound foolish. I was determined to always find the lowest-cost option. I did, but it took away from the enjoyment. If I could go back in time, I wouldn’t obsess so much over the cost of every little thing.
If I could travel back in time, I’d definitely still go to the Keys. It’s one of the best spots to hide out from the winter.
I’d do some things the same way. I’d still try to do it in a responsible, affordable way. I’d still control my expenses.
But, I’d use other low-cost, budget travel methods that are better suited for Florida, especially south Florida and the Florida Keys.
Most importantly, I’d go in with the mindset that, at the end of the day, this is just an expensive place. I look at it as a 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, everything is still fine in the big picture.
And, most importantly, I’d remember that the memories and experiences are worth it. You can always find more nickels and dimes, but you can’t get more time.
For context, I’m an experienced boondocker.
I’ve boondocked in many regions and countries. I’ve stealth camped and boondocked in national forests, state forests, BLM land and Florida’s WMDs (Water management districts).
I’ve stealth camped in major cities while overlanding around the world, and more.
I love spontaneous travel, “just going” and winging it.
I dislike reservations, expensive places and tight schedules. But, the Florida Keys aren’t the place for winging it. You shouldn’t come to the Florida Keys expecting to find easy or free camping opportunities.
In my opinion, South Florida and the Keys are one of the worst places I’ve found for “just going” and winging it.
Free camping, boondocking, tent camping, vanlife, or any sort of cheap camping experience, is non-existent here. Or, at least extremely difficult, risky and rare.
It’s like this for a variety of reasons.
- Locals don’t support free camping
- It’s illegal, and police actively look for illegal campers
- There aren’t any public land options like out west
- There are few, if any low-cost camping options
- Reservations required and are booked a year in advance
- This area has a very high population density
- Land is in short supply. Real estate is very expensive here
- This whole region of Florida has a very high cost of living
- Most of the year is oppressively hot, humid and uncomfortable
- Mosquitos, noseeums and biting insects are huge problems
- There are high amounts of 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 exist are literally in people’s yards. They aren’t open to the public.
I’ve done a lot of searching over the years and have found some obscure “stealth” spots.
In general, for most people, I absolutely don’t recommend trying to stealth camp or 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.
Possible negative outcomes include:
- Being disturbed, arrested or harassed
- Being forced to move
- Getting a ticket or fine
- Having your vehicle towed, vandalized or stolen
- Having to give up and stay in an expensive hotel on short notice
I’m sad to say this, but especially in a big, conspicuous RV, you cannot boondock anywhere in, or near, the Florida Keys.
Throughout the Florida Keys, and especially in Key West, there are not any places where you can pitch a tent, or park a normal car to sleep, without being disturbed by the police. Formal campgrounds are the only places where you can legally camp.
There’s a reason why people literally line up and wait years to pay $100,000+ for a tiny lot of land in an RV resort. Or, pay insanely expensive nightly rates for private RV parks in the Keys.
Why? Because there aren’t any good alternatives!
This location is in high demand, and there’s a very short supply of land. If there were free options, they’d be used, believe me!
When this question gets asked in forums and online communities, it often turns ugly.
It’s a sign of how much of a problem this is, and how unwelcome it is among locals in the Keys.
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. You can’t do it without breaking at least one law. And, in my opinion, it isn’t a very enjoyable experience.
Many will do it anyway, though. Some are almost surely doing it right now. Some may come away with a good experience. Some will suffer bad consequences.
In my experience, there are not any “low risk” options today. Every attempt will succeed, or fail, purely by dumb chance. I don’t like to live that way. I might have taken those risks years ago, but I wouldn’t today.
Free Tent Camping
Many people dream of pitching a tent on a sandy beach and camping for free.
For some reason this dream is especially common among young Europeans. Sadly, it’s just not possible.
First off, there are not actually that many sandy beaches on Key West, or in the Florida Keys. Of those, there are absolutely no beaches where you could pitch a tent and sleep overnight without getting disturbed, hassled, or forced to move.
There are “No Camping” and “No Overnight Parking” signs everywhere you look.
If there’s a spot that looks promising, it’s safe to assume that it gets tried a few times a week. Neighbors and the police know about it, and they’re tired of it.
This is a comment from a well-known boondocking site database:
Monroe county police monitor this place on the regular now for people sleeping in vehicles since it is illegal to overnight in the keys. We got a knock about 7am, guy was nice but we got asked to leave. If you risk it maybe just leave before sunrise.
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 even with a homeowner’s permission on private property, tent camping would still probably be illegal.
If a neighbor were to complain to code enforcement, you and the homeowner would probably get a fine. That’s why there aren’t any camping spots on sites 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 permission. But again, even that would probably break zoning laws.
One spot on Sugarloaf Key gets a lot of discussion. It’s the northern bit of the old, abandoned Old State Road 4A, past the Sugarloaf Key KOA campground and Pirate’s Cove.
It’s possible this may have been a good free campsite long ago, I don’t know. In my opinion, it’s definitely not a good option today. I wouldn’t use it.
Unless it’s been removed by vandals, there’s a very clear sign which says “Road Closed: No Vehicles”.
Image and Information Credit: Max Rockatansky via Flickr
I’m not sure if tent camping would be allowed if you walked or biked past the sign. But, I don’t think it would be.
Even if tent camping is allowed, I don’t think there are any safe or legal overnight parking areas nearby.
I wouldn’t feel comfortable parking an unattended car in this area. Here’s the listing on freecampsites.net.
A Commonly Mentioned 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 Street View shows the site on a map, and the site at the end of the road. A burned area shows that someone had a campfire here.
You can click and drag to move the view around.
I don’t recommend trying to use this as a campsite.
In my opinion, even if it wasn’t prohibited, this area wouldn’t be a good camp site. It goes against everything I look for when camping on the beach.
The mangroves are a natural breeding ground for mosquitoes and other biting insects. Thick vegetation blocks the sea breeze, and there isn’t a good beach, or a nice water 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. But, that spot would also be swarmed with noseeums because of the surrounding mangroves and water.
If one were to ignore the “No Vehicles” sign and drive down the road anyway, you might regret it. You may get stuck, or seriously damage your vehicle.
This video shows the road. These people are clearly past the “No Vehicles” sign, which stands at the beginning of the path.
This road isn’t maintained, and gets worse every time it rains. There are large potholes and deep washouts. Some are more than a foot deep.
I can tell you from many years of offroading and overlanding: mud holes always deeper than they seem!
Image and Information Credit: Max Rockatansky via Flickr
This road may suddenly become wet, muddy and impassable. If you were to get stuck, recovery would be very difficult and expensive.
Even in dry conditions, it may be impassable due to the deep ruts left by others. This road could be catastrophic in the wrong vehicle.
The road is very narrow. Overgrown trees block the road from both sides. Sharp branches will scratch vehicle paint, if that matters to you.
Another serious threat is that if another vehicle becomes stuck, you may also get stuck. Why? You wouldn’t be able to get around them on the narrow road. I’ve been in that situation before, it isn’t pleasant.
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, you might find strung-out, unpredictable weirdos in the middle of nowhere.
Sadly, the Florida Keys are a magnet for riff raff. Drug use is rampant, and the Monroe County Sheriff says busy arresting scary looking people.
I’m not a fear monger, and I’m not saying that this location is necessarily dangerous. But, I’ve had negative experiences in places like this, and I wouldn’t choose to sleep here.
I don’t suggest camping in sketchy locations because you can never really relax.
This might be controversial, but I think it’s true: another risk you might find comes from law enforcement.
Police and other government agencies, including Federal agencies, patrol this area. They look for law breakers.
There are some reports of dangerous encounters with law enforcement.
This is unconfirmed, but some people claim that while camping, a coast guard patrol pointed guns at them. They were allegedly told to leave immediately, or they’d be arrested.
Law enforcement are often “on edge”, especially in the middle of the night. Interactions can be dangerous for everybody. For everyone’s sake, it’s just better to avoid these interactions all together. I offer no further comment on this.
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.
The Keys are much different than they used to be. Today there are modern stores, restaurants and supermarkets throughout the Keys. There are Publix and Winn Dixie locations.
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.
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, although some people are glad there are no Walmarts in the Keys.
I try to buy groceries from Walmart because of the online pickup and delivery options. I try to buy gas from Murphy gas stations because I trust that the tanks are clean, and because of the Walmart+ discount.
Gas prices are moderately above average in the Florida Keys. But, they they aren’t absurd like they are in Alaska, or remote places in Canada. They’re generally a bit higher than the rest of Florida.
As always, gas tends to be more expensive when there are fewer gas stations around. I try to pay attention and fill my tank when I’m in areas with many options.
I do suggest keeping your tank more full than usual so you don’t need to desperately search for fuel. The bridges in the Keys feel much longer when you’re nervously staring at your fuel gauge!
I also try to buy gas from modern, well-maintained gas stations. Knock on wood, I’ve never had a bad experience with this. But, I still try to avoid getting water, or other contaminants in my tank from poorly maintained gas stations. Especially in a marine, subtropical climate, I try to be more careful.
Be extremely careful if you explore around the Keys by foot, bicycle or scooter.
Remain aware of your surroundings at all times. Florida drivers are notoriously bad, and disoriented tourists do amazingly stupid things.
Roads, highways and sidewalks are often poorly maintained. They have uneven surfaces and are often blocked by telephone poles, tree roots and other random hazards.
Sidewalks are always crowded with tourists. They’re generally clueless about their surroundings. They may be drunk, lost, or all of the above.
Be careful of traffic, and always be aware of your surroundings. Keep your children, pets and family members safe.
When parking, be extremely cautious about where you park.
Parking is in very short supply, and parking laws can be tricky. Tow truck drivers make their living by towing tourist cars. Parking in Key West can be expensive if you choose the wrong spot!
Especially for my fellow campers and RVers, I suggest that you make peace with the fact that South Florida will be expensive. Think of it as more of a vacation than usual. Just know this before you come, and your trip will be better for it.
Relax about saving money while you’re here. Choose to maximize your time and enjoyment, instead of trying to penny-pinch.
Money comes and goes, but you don’t get more time. You’re here for the experiences, and the memories.
That said, I highly recommend responsible, affordable travel. Use good, low-cost travel strategies.
Don’t blow your budget. If you’re open minded, there are many ways you can reduce 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. It 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.
RVing in Florida can be a challenge. Campsites are reserved up to a year, or more, in advance during the most popular months. Although, it’s sometimes possible to find last-minute cancellations if you know the tricks and can work around strange availability dates.
Most RV parks in the Keys are dog friendly, but always be sure to check the specific policies.
Remember the Middle Keys
The Overseas Highway is an incredibly popular destination. Like all tourist destinations, most folks are in a hurry. They 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.