National Forest Camping: How To Do It Right
By Kelly Beasley
Last Updated: August 2, 2022
National forest camping is one of the most incredible things to do with your RV in the United States. It is (generally) free camping on our public lands.
There's much to choose from, with 154 national forests available and 20 national grasslands in our country.
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. But dispersed camping in national forests is usually free.
There are so many dispersed camping spots that they aren't countable.
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?
Let's show you how you can!
Can You Camp Anywhere In National Forests?
The short answer here is absolutely not. As mentioned above, some restrictions help minimize damage to the camping locations.
Developed campgrounds exist in some locations. National forest camping rules delegate that you have no choice but to park at a designated site at these locations.
Dispersed national forest camping has different rules than the rules for camping in a national forest developed campground.
When dispersed camping, the rules for your camping trip only allow you to stay where there are signs of previous human inhabitation.
Look for fire rings, bare soil, a clearing with no grass, and maybe firewood stacked nearby.
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 rogue campers breaking the national forest dispersed camping rules.
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, some national forests offer campgrounds and remote camping ('dispersed camping'). (What does dispersed camping mean?) Here are the best ways to find these sites and areas.
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.
Secondly, you can go to the closest ranger station. They will tell you where dispersed camping is permitted in their ranger district.
Google Satellite View
Google Satellite can be helpful. By checking out the satellite view of a national forest, you might find clearings down dirt roads.
Similarly, you may also see campers pictured in some of those spots. If you choose to go to those places, look for signs stating that camping is allowed and for how long.
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 It Legal To Camp In A National Forest?
Yes, it's legal to do national forest RV camping as long as the area is open and you follow the rules.
Check the resources above to ensure where you want to go is currently open for USFS camping.
Is National Forest Camping Safe?
Nobody drives for miles outside of towns to try to find a campsite with an RV in it containing clothing, food, games, and no cash.
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 when you're camping in the boonies.
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?
How long can you camp in a national forest?
Each area has its own rules about national forest free camping.
If you found your area on Campendium, the stay limit is often stated for that area. That's what I rely on most of the time.
National forest camping usually has 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 National Forest 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 in your travel trailer or motorhome.
This means you need RV solar or a quiet RV generator to re-charge your batteries. You need enough water to last, waste tanks that won't overfill, you must manage your garbage, and you must have enough food to last through your visit.
(Out west, 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.
What's The Fee To Camp In A National Forest?
I have never paid for dispersed camping in national forests. Nor has Camp Addict Co-Founder Marshall. It's almost always free.
However, US national forest campgrounds (developed camping sites) usually charge. It's generally cheaper than private campgrounds.
Some are even free!
USFS campgrounds aren't much different from other campgrounds. There are rules, sites, neighbors, and sometimes utilities.
They may have group campsites or other rules for camping in a national forest.
What's In It For Me?
Dry camping in a national forest has plenty of perks. You get solitude, unlike in a campground, and the distance to your nearest neighbors will be much greater.
Your views might include parking by water, a meadow, mountains, and a river, and you may see some wildlife/animals.
You don't have to make reservations. The night is dark. The peace and quiet rivals a campground with facilities. There are fewer restrictions, and the diversity will be greater.
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. (Especially human waste!)
Remember, you're not going to have any amenities available such as a picnic table, showers, vault toilets, or a water source.
There may not even be graveled roads. Forest Service roads are often just dirt.
Why SHOULDN'T I Try USFS Camping?
Here are some excellent reasons:
- You aren't very adventurous.
- External toilet access is required.
- You don't want your rig to get dirty.
- The water tank in your RV isn't large enough to go for even a few days.
- Your electricity/battery bank won't last long enough.
- You want to stay close to civilization.
- Bugs and insects creep you out. Oh wait, they will be there no matter how you camp.
- You want to venture into town every day, and it's not close to the forest you want to explore.
- You don't respect the natural resources of the land.
Staying In A National Forest Developed Campground
Are US Forest Service campgrounds amazing? Hmmm, they CAN be. But here are some things to look out for:
Often, these campgrounds have nothing but maybe a camp host. Some of them don't have anyone at the helm, and you simply pay at a pay station.
Amenities are generally limited. Often, you'll be dry camping even though you're paying. There may be flush toilets, waste cans, and there may be grills available, and possibly potable water. There may be NO utilities available.
Rules might include keeping your pets on a leash.
SOME places may have full hookups. But with a national forest service campground, utilities are usually minimal to none.
These campgrounds are often small. You don't 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 must take.
Can You Camp For Free In National Forests?
Yes, most often, there is no fee to camp in a national forest, as long as you're not in a designated campground.
Camping In National Forests: 7 Pro Secrets!
Finally, we have some pro tips for you!
- Arrival: Never arrive after dark
- Find It: If dispersed camping, pin your spot on Google Maps if it's not an easy place to get to in the dark
- Winter: Be careful near winter- often, Forest Service roads don't get plowed in the event of snowfall
- Insider Tips: Go to the local ranger station to get tips for great experiences/where to go
- Timing: Avoid popular spots in the middle of the summer. Go during shoulder season.
- Trash: Don't store your garbage outside or even inside of a soft-sided item such as a tent
- Leave No Trace: better yet, pick up existing trash to get more enjoyment out of your surroundings
- Fire: Remember to look up fire restrictions in the area and abide by them.
RV camping in national forests is a fulfilling experience.
You can choose a campground stay, or you can camp remotely. USFS campsites might charge, but if you're dispersed camping, it's almost always free.
You don't need a permit, and you will be surrounded by beauty, almost guaranteed.
Get your feet wet by staying in national forest-designated campsites, and when you feel comfortable enough, get out there and do some dispersed camping away from civilization.
It will be 100% worth it.
Author: Kelly Beasley
Hello! 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, we both converted to part-time RV life. Heck, I lived in my travel trailer for over 5.5 years, STRICTLY boondocking. I learned a lot about the RV life and lifestyle during those years. Now we share what we know with you here at Camp Addict.
After that many years of wonderful full-time travel, it was time for something new. These days, I'm often found working from my new Az home, and sometimes plotting and scheming whether or not to start collecting farm animals (or plotting my next RV trip!).