Here’s How To Camp In National Forests

PublishedApril 17, 2020

Camping In National Forests

One of the most incredible things to do with your RV in the United States is to go free camping in our national forests.

There's much to choose from with 154 national forests available and 20 grasslands in our country.

Gunnison National Forest sign

They add up to about 190 million acres of forest land available to access for recreation.

Visitors can use any of the 4,300 campgrounds in these areas for a small fee. Dispersed camping in national forests usually is free.

There are so many dispersed camping spots that they aren't countable. (Technically, one could cram a bunch of RVs into one area so you can't 'count' dispersed camping sites.)

The US Forest Service manages these areas as there are regulations and policies to follow.

Do you want to go camping on national forest land? Yes, yes, you do.

Let's show you how you can!

Can You Camp Anywhere In National Forests?

The short answer here is no way. As mentioned above, some restrictions help minimize damage to the camping locations.

Developed campgrounds exist in national forests. You will have no choice but to park in a designated site at these locations.

Dispersed national forest camping has different rules than does camping in a national forest developed campground.

Dispersed camping rules only allow you to stay where there are signs of previous human inhabitation.

Look for things such as fire rings, bare soil, a clearing that has no grass, and maybe has firewood stacked nearby.

Utah Lake camping

Meets all the requirements. Previous signs of use, open area on bare soil and an old campfire

Use your common sense, too. If you see a grassy area that looks like it was fine until someone recently damaged it by staying where they shouldn't have, it's NOT a proper site.

Some popular places are cracking down on campers. People have parked in areas that never were originally a spot.

In some places, park officials brought in boulders or other blocking aids to keep future campers from causing more impact. They serve to keep people from parking in those spots.

Please do your part and DON'T create unnecessary impact by damaging virgin wilderness.

How To Find Dispersed Campsites

As previously mentioned, national forests offer campgrounds and remote camping, which they call 'dispersed camping'. Here are the best ways to find these sites and areas.

Campendium logo

Campendium

To find dispersed camping areas (and campgrounds), we suggest starting with Campendium. Search under 'National Forests,' then filter for 'free,' and you will find everything available in each state.

Ranger Stations

Secondly, you can go to the closest ranger station. They will tell you where dispersed camping is permitted.

Google Satellite View

Google Satellite can also be of assistance. By checking out the satellite view of a national forest, you might find clearings down dirt roads in national forest areas. Similarly, you may also see campers pictured in some of those spots. Still, if you choose to go to those places, look for signs stating that camping is allowed and for how long.

MVUM 

MVUM stands for Motor Vehicle Use Maps. This is a much more advanced way of finding remote sites. Watch our video below to learn how (it's not very user-friendly).

Is Dispersed Camping Safe?

If you have read any of our articles on boondocking/dry camping/dispersed camping, you already know that it's safer to camp where there are fewer people than in places with a larger population.

Nobody drives for miles outside of towns to try to find a campsite with an RV in it containing clothing, food, and games and no cash in it.

National Forest camping Crested Butte

Let's be real. Does this look like a place full of low lying fruit? Nope.

You may as well worry about getting attacked by a rabid raccoon. The odds of a person robbing or attacking you are slim to none.

Sure, it's likely to feel scary the first time you drive down a dirt road looking for a spot. But with a few precautions and a little pre-planning, you will be safe and sound in your exploration and adventure.

How Long Can I Camp In A National Forest?

The short answer is: it depends.

Each area has its own rules about national forest free camping.

If you found your area on Campendium, often the stay limit is stated for that area. That's what I rely on most of the time.

National Forest campground rules

Look for signs like this to guide you on National Forest rules.

National Forest camping is usually about a 14-day limit.

However, very crowded and popular places have set a shorter stay duration, such as Shadow Mountain in the Tetons.

They now have a 5-day limit posted from May 1st through Labor Day, and you cannot return for at least 30 days.

Campendium often links to the corresponding national forest website so you can do your due diligence.

If you stay in a developed campground, it will state the stay limit.

Do your homework and make sure you are US forest service camping properly.

What Do I Need To Survive Dispersed Camping?

This is a broad question. 'Survive' is maybe the wrong word. Remember, there are no hookups or facilities 'out there'. You need to be able to sustain your amenities for the duration of your stay.

This means you need RV solar or a generator to re-charge your batteries, enough water to last, waste tanks that can support you for your stay, you must manage your garbage, and have enough food to last through your visit.

(Food can almost always be purchased nearby, usually within a 40 minute drive.)

The best way to know whether you can make it is to try RV camping in a campground without hooking up.

Count the number of days you last, and there you go. You can make modifications as needed after that.

Campfire

Be aware- sometimes you aren't allowed to have fires when in a campground or when dispersed camping. Watch for signs or go to the appropriate NF website.

Camping In National Forests: 7 Pro Secrets!

We have some pro tips for you!

  1. Arrival: Never arrive after dark
  2. Find It: If dispersed camping, pin your spot on Google Maps if it's not an easy place to get to in the dark
  3. Winter: Be careful near winter- often, NF roads don't get plowed in the event of snowfall
  4. Insider Tips: Go to the local ranger station to get tips for great experiences/where to go
  5. Timing: Avoid popular spots in the middle of the summer. Go during shoulder season.
  6. Trash: Don't store your garbage outside or even inside of a soft-sided item such as a tent
  7. Leave No Trace: better yet, pick up existing trash to get more enjoyment out of your surroundings

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

I have never paid for dispersed camping in national forests. Nor has Camp Addict Co-Founder Marshall.

NF developed campgrounds often do have a charge to stay. It's usually cheaper than private campgrounds, ranging anywhere from $5/night, to $25/night depending on the area's popularity.

Some are even free!

NF campgrounds aren't much different from other campgrounds. There are rules, sites, neighbors, and sometimes utilities.

Dispersed Camping- What's In It For Me?

Dry camping in a National Forest has plenty of perks. You get solitude, unlike you would in a campground. The distance to your nearest neighbors will be much greater.

Your views might include parking by a lake, a meadow, a waterfall, streams, mountains, a river, and you may see some wildlife/animals such as bears, deer, or raccoons.

Tent camping with mountain view

You don't have to make reservations. You will be camping under a dark sky. The peace and quiet rival a campground with facilities. There are less restrictions. The diversity will be greater.

Overall, the joy of being outdoors and in nature rivals the experience of staying around a bunch of humans.

Just be responsible- stay on the roads, camp responsibly, leave no trace, stay on the trails, put out your fires and all embers, and don't leave your waste at your site.

Why SHOULDN'T I Camp In A Remote Location?

Here are some excellent reasons:

  1. You aren't very adventurous
  2. External toilet access is required
  3. The water tank in your RV isn't large enough to go for even a few days
  4. Your electricity/battery bank won't last long enough
  5. You want to stay close to civilization
  6. Bugs and insects creep you out. Oh wait, they will be there no matter how you camp.
  7. You want to venture into town every day, and it's not close to the NF you want to explore

Staying In A National Forest Developed Campground

Are they amazing? Hmmm, they CAN be. But here are some snafus:

Often, these campgrounds have nothing but maybe a camp host. Some of them don't have anyone at the helm. You simply pay at a pay station. All good so far.

There may be a ranger or an employee that comes through daily to pick up payments and to be sure everyone has paid as they should.

Upper Coffeepot National Forest campground sign

Amenities are generally limited. Often, you'll be dry camping even though you're paying. There may be toilets, waste cans, there may be grills available, and possibly potable water. There may be NO utilities available.

SOME places may have full hook-ups. But with national forests and often state parks, utilities are usually minimal. Check before you arrive so you know what to expect and to bring.

These campgrounds are often fairly small. You aren't going to find 100 sites at a national forest campground typically. There may be 10. Or 30. 

Some are on a first-come-first-serve basis, so you may arrive and not have anywhere to park.

(Check length limits as well before visiting.)

It's a risk you just have to take.

(This is just one of the many reasons why I never stay in campgrounds.)

Conclusion

Camping in national forest Salida Colorado

Making a National Forest your destination for car camping, tent camping, or parking your rig while you go exploring is a great experience.

There are different activities. You can choose a campground stay or to camp remotely, and it's either free, or they'll ask a nominal fee to stay.

You don't need a permit, and you will be surrounded by beauty, almost guaranteed.

Get your feet wet by staying in a national forest campsite, and when you feel comfortable enough, get out there and do some dispersed camping away from civilization.

It will be 100% worth it.

Kelly Headshot

He-llllo. I'm the co-founder of Camp Addict, which my biz partner and I launched in 2017. I frigging love the RVing lifestyle but in December of 2020, I converted to part-time RV life. Heck, I lived in my travel trailer for over 5.5 years, STRICTLY boondocking for pretty much all of it. Boondocking is a GREAT way to live, but it's not easy. Anyway, I'm passionate about animals, can't stand campgrounds, I hardly ever cook, and I love a good dance party. Currently, I can be found plotting and scheming whether or not to start collecting farm animals (or plotting my next RV trip!) at my beautiful new 'ranch' named 'Hotel Kellyfornia', in Southern Arizona. 

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