Can You Camp Anywhere in a National Forest?

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I grew up camping every summer. It began with RV and car camping, but slowly progressed to long-distance hiking and backpack camping. With the Sierras as my backyard, it naturally raised the question: can you camp anywhere in a national forest? 

Tahoe National Forest was the prime cultivator of my passion for the outdoors, but there are more than 150 protected areas with the National Forest designation throughout the U.S.

So let’s talk about some things you should know about national forest camping, like dispersed camping, how to find dispersed campsites and where you can legally camp in a national forest. 

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Can You Camp Anywhere In a National Forest?

National Forest Camping - a dispersed campsite with an RV and a man
PC DLC via Unsplash

Camping is allowed in all national forests unless otherwise specified. Unfortunately, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you can camp anywhere in a national forest. Generally speaking, most national forests will offer developed campgrounds for your camping pleasure. 

Many will also specify designated areas for dispersed camping with less-defined ‘campsites’. In short, this means you are discouraged from merely setting up camp anywhere in a national forest. 

By designating developed campgrounds and dispersed camping in national forests, the National Forest Service aims to minimize human impact on these often-sensitive environments. Plus, it also means that you don’t find toilet paper from irresponsible campers littered along the edges of the trail when you go out for a quick day hike. 

The best course of action for determining where you can legally camp in a national forest is to contact the nearest U.S. Forest Service Ranger Station that services that district. The Forest Service’s Interactive Visitor Map is also a great resource. 

How Long Can You Camp In A National Forest?

A jeep and a trailer dispersed camping in a national forest
PC Andrew Hunt via Unsplash

The national forest camping rules that apply to your situation may vary depending on location. That said, most national forests limit the length of your stay to 14 days per calendar year. 

These limits apply to individual campgrounds, ranger districts, or wilderness corridors. For example, Tahoe National Forest includes a total of 76 designated campgrounds and additional primitive camping areas. 

Legally speaking, you could camp for a full season in the Tahoe National Forest if you moved from campground-to-campground every 14 days.

Dispersed camping is a little different, however. You are limited to a maximum of 14 days in a single Ranger District for primitive campsites. This is why it pays to study district maps if you’re planning a long-term wilderness stay in a national forest. 

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How Much Does It Cost To Camp In A National Forest?

campground sign for national forest camping
PC Joyful via Unsplash

To answer this question accurately, you need to understand the difference between dispersed camping in national forests and camping in national forest campgrounds. Campgrounds almost certainly come with a nightly fee. 

These fees can range from $2 to $50 per night, depending on the campground. Sometimes, that fee is also based on the number of campers in your party. Certain campgrounds will also limit the number of campers you can have on a single site. 

Dispersed camping, on the other hand, seldom requires a fee. These campsites offer fewer amenities than developed campgrounds. This means they require campers that are prepared and self-sufficient for the duration of their stay. 

Some national forests may also require a campfire permit for national forest camping. Fortunately, these permits are typically free and easy to get online. Some states require you to watch a short video and complete a brief test. Others simply require you to present your driver’s license or another valid form of ID. 

Assuming there are no burn bans in effect, campfire permits are still required for campfires and small backpacking stoves.

Where Can You Find National Forest Camping?

I once ran into a young group of backpackers in the Sierras. They seemed quite lost and remarked that “the terrain looked much flatter on Google Maps.” We steered them in the right direction, but it brings up the valuable point that Google Maps might not be the best resource for planning your camping trip. 

Here are a few other ways to find campgrounds or dispersed camping in national forests:

How To Find Dispersed Camping In National Forests Using Motor Vehicle Use Maps

Using motor vehicle use maps to find dispersed camping in national forests
Truckee North Tahoe National Forest Motor Vehicle Use Map (MVUM) PC Avenza

Motor vehicle use maps are a great way to find dispersed camping in national forests. These maps display Forest Service routes that are open to motorized travel. They also specify the classes of vehicles permitted on certain routes (i.e. motorcycles, highway-legal vehicles, vehicles less than 50 inches wide, etc.). 

Some of these maps also include developed campgrounds maintained by the Forest Service. Just keep in mind that these maps are typically black-and-white and they rarely include topographical features. 

If you’re interested in finding dispersed camping in national forests using Motor Vehicle Maps, you can download free PDF versions through Avenza or obtain paper maps by visiting a local ranger station. 

How To Find Free Camping In National Forests Using The Dyrt App

The Dyrt App Review The Dyrt Logo_Horizontal
PC The Dyrt

The Dyrt App is also a great resource to help you find free dispersed camping in national forests. Plus, it also has developed campgrounds too! It’s a highly-useful search engine tool application for your smartphone. 

It allows you to filter your searches for free campsites and a host of additional search criteria. Some examples include ease of access, campsite features (pets allowed, fires allowed, etc.), site length, water and sewer amenities, and much more. 

To be quite honest, though, you will only get so far with the free version of the app. The Dyrt Pro requires a minimal annual membership fee, but it gives you access to downloadable maps, map overlays, and a host of additional features. Click here for a free 90-day-trial of The Dyrt Pro!

These map overlays are critical for finding dispersed national forest camping because they allow you to clearly see national forest boundaries. They also allow you to differentiate from wilderness areas managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the National Park Service (NPS).

Don’t forget how important it is to have downloadable maps that you can use offline too. This is critical for dispersed camping in national forests where you might not always have the best service. 

As an added bonus, this app offers prize contests and campsite discounts for those that are most active in reviewing the sites they’ve stayed in this far. For more on this amazing resource, check out our full Dyrt App review!  

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Finding Free Campsites In National Forests Using iOverlander

iOverlander app banner
PC iOverlander

The iOverlander app is another search tool for finding free campsites in national forests. It’s available on certain Garmin devices as well as via a smartphone application. Selecting for ‘informal campsites’ or ‘wild camping’ locations will help you find campsites that don’t charge access or overnight fees. 

This app is also quite useful for finding resources that those living a nomadic lifestyle might need. This includes mechanic shops, pet services, laundromats, customs and immigration stops, and more. 

One feature I like about this app is the ability to filter for national forest campsites that have been visited within a certain timeframe. For me, I would use it to check when a dispersed campsite was last visited. That would help me double-check that the site is still accessible for my vehicle type.

How Do You Camp Responsibly In National Forests?

Woman enjoying a dispersed campsite in a national forest
PC Chris Holder via Unsplash

There are a number of national forest camping rules that you should follow. Camping responsibly is a duty that all of us share. Camping gives us the opportunity to stretch our eyes and slow down our minds.

The least we can do is camp as responsibly as possible when camping on national forest land.  The best advice I can give is three-fold: 

  • Camp (and do your restroom business) at least 200 feet away from water sources. This will help to minimize our impact on the water system in that area. 
  • Pack it in, pack it out. Don’t leave any waste (organic or man-made) behind!
  • Treat others how you would like to be treated. Most of us learned the Golden Rule at a young age. In this case, it applies to all living things (humans, plants, and wildlife) you might encounter when camping in a national forest. 

What Can You Expect From Dispersed Campsites In National Forests?

truck campers and tents dispersed camping in a national forest
PC Ethan Dow via Unsplash

Unlike developed campgrounds, dispersed campsites in a national forest won’t have clearly defined sites. They also typically won’t have lockers to keep your food and/or valuables contained and protected from wildlife (and other campers). 

In addition, you can expect to pack out everything that you pack into a dispersed campsite in a national forest. There most likely won’t be trash cans for disposal of cans, bottles, plastics, and other trash. 

I would also expect to have to pack out all of your human waste as well. Most dispersed camping locations in national forests don’t come with perfectly well-maintained bathrooms or showers. 

Additionally, pack in as much water and food supplies as you will need for the duration of your stay. Don’t expect to roll up to a dispersed camping location to find a water spigot waiting for you. 

If you do, it’s an added bonus. For me, I would still make sure the water coming out of that spigot is actually clean and potable.

Because of their remote nature, broken water lines leading to dispersed camping locations are often at the bottom of the Forest Service’s priority list when it comes to repairs and maintenance. 

Want to learn about what you should bring when dispersed camping? Check this out: 10 Boondocking Essentials for Van Life

Leave No Trace Principles When Camping In A National Forest

The Seven Principles of Leave No Trace Ethics apply to all forms of outdoor recreation. Here’s a quick review of the principles and their importance for those following national park camping rules. 

Principle 1: Plan Ahead and Prepare

Two people at a camping table when camping in a national forest
PC Center For Outdoor Ethics

The good news is that you are already well on your way to practicing this principle by reading this article! Trip planning is critical to any outdoor recreation outing. It ensures your safety, the safety of your group, and the safety of anyone else enjoying the same national forest. 

When planning your national forest camping trips, things to prepare for include weather, terrain, group size, camping restrictions, camping experience, and gear needs.

For example, one of the best solar camping lanterns would be a great addition to your gear needs if you don’t currently have a way to see at night! 

Principle 2: Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

Man staking a tent when camping in a national forest
PC Center For Outdoor Ethics

Traveling and camping on durable surfaces is super important to protect the ecosystems that are our national forests. This is where those motor vehicle use maps can really come in handy. They will help you ensure there is a clear and accessible route to the campsite you are imagining. 

We live in an age when the network of trails, roads, and campgrounds in our national forests is quite extensive. It’s important that we commit to utilizing and preserving those networks. If we refrain from camping on sensitive surfaces, these areas will remain accessible for the next generation. 

Principle 3: Dispose of Waste Properly

Trash cans in a national forest
PC Center For Outdoor Ethics

Waste disposal is extra important when you’re dispersed camping in a national forest. There most likely won’t be a lavatory at the edge of your campsite, so you might need to bring one of these portable camping toilet solutions along if your rig doesn’t have a bathroom built in. 

Also, please do some reading about how long your “organic” items really take to break down. Sure, orange peels are “natural,” but they can take up to six months to decompose. Plus, they aren’t necessarily a staple of any wildlife’s diet if you’re camping in a national forest where oranges don’t grow naturally! 

Principle 4: Leave What You Find

Scarred tree near a national forest campground
PC Center For Outdoor Ethics

We are all tempted to take a memento home from our travels. Whether it’s the smallest piece of quartz or the largest pine cone you’ve ever seen, nature’s resources should remain in their natural habitats as much as possible. 

You are most likely already going to be re-locating dirt, seeds, and other natural items that fall into your camper or onto your clothing when you’re camping. So minimize your impact by consciously taking only the pictures your camera or smartphone can capture. 

Our New Favorite Camping App!
Want to try The Dyrt for FREE?

Grab a 90-Day Free Trial of The Dyrt Pro just in time for summer. Here are some perks:

  • Trip planner for detailed routing, stops and campgrounds
  • Map layers for finding free dispersed campsites
  • Offline campground databases
  • Campground discounts!

It's like the Yelp for campground reviews, and we love using it to find both free and paid camping!

Get Your FREE 90-Day Trial

Principle 5: Minimize Campfire Impacts

Man sitting by a campfire while national forest camping
PC Center For Outdoor Ethics

As a native Californian, the impacts of irresponsible campfires are experienced on an almost yearly basis. We all love cozying up to a campfire while we’re spending a night in the woods, but it’s so critical that we do so responsibly. 

Keeping our fires contained to established pits and knowing how to completely put them out at the end of the night goes a long way. In the end, a mismanaged fire can wind up costing people and wildlife their homes, lives, and livelihoods. 

Principle 6: Respect Wildlife

A bison on national forest service land
PC Center For Outdoor Ethics

I once came across a couple of hikers on the trail that were throwing rocks at something I couldn’t see up ahead of them. As I came closer, I realized it was a snake spreading itself across the trail. After some careful consideration, we decided to back off and give the snake some space. 

Eventually, it moved on. While most of us imagine the amazing wildlife we will see on our camping trips, it seems that we seldom take the time to consider how our presence will impact the natural inhabitants of the national forests we visit to camp.

Studying up on the animals you may encounter (and what to do if that happens) can help to protect your group and minimize your impact on wildlife. 

Principle 7: Be Considerate of Other Visitors

Principle 7 PC Center For Outdoor Ethics
PC Center For Outdoor Ethics

Solitude is one of the best motivators for dispersed camping in national forests. To be perfectly honest, I crave backpacking and secluded dispersed campsites in hopes that I will have them all to myself. Alas, this just isn’t always the case, but the reality is that other visitors are probably there for the same reasons as I am. 

We can all enjoy time away from our homes and jobs without stepping on each other’s toes. Sometimes, it simply requires genuine communication and a healthy respect for personal boundaries. All campers have different preferences, and we would do well to respect those preferences on our national park camping adventures! 

Conclusion on camping in a national forest

So, can you camp anywhere in a national forest? I guess when all is said and done, the one-word answer is…almost! Whether you are looking for a developed campground, a primitive car camping site, or a place to hike in and enjoy the peace and solitude of backpacking, the national forests pretty much have it all. 

I hope you learned a bit about national forest camping in this guide! If you could take one thing away, I’d hope it would be the importance of camping responsibly wherever you go.

I want these wonderful wilderness areas to be accessible to campers for years to come, which means we all have to do our small part to keep it that way!

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