National Forest Camping: How To Do It Right

Kelly Headshot

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.

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. 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.

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 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.

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 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 

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?

If you have read any of our articles on boondocking/dry camping/dispersed camping, you 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, games, and no cash.

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 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?

It depends.

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 campground rules

Look for signs like this to guide you on national forest rules.

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.

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 website.

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.

Grand Tetons Camping

Will this view do?

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:

  1. You aren't very adventurous.
  2. External toilet access is required.
  3. You don't want your rig to get dirty.
  4. The water tank in your RV isn't large enough to go for even a few days.
  5. Your electricity/battery bank won't last long enough.
  6. You want to stay close to civilization.
  7. Bugs and insects creep you out. Oh wait, they will be there no matter how you camp.
  8. You want to venture into town every day, and it's not close to the forest you want to explore.
  9. 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.

Upper Coffeepot National Forest campground sign

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 forest Salida Colorado

Camping In National Forests: 7 Pro Secrets!

Finally, 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, Forest Service 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
  8. Fire: Remember to look up fire restrictions in the area and abide by them.

Conclusion

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.

Two dogs lying in front of travel trailer at Twin Lakes, Colorado

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.

  • Here on Camp Addict we have a lot more information about camping on public lands, so please look around!
Kelly Headshot

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!).

  • I agree with your advice to first test out a dispersed national forest campground. Especially if you find a remote area with nice facilities. My favorite is Lockett Meadow in Flagstaff, AZ (have you been?). The scenery and weather in the middle of a hot summer, cannot be beat!

    • Hi Mike,

      No, we haven’t tried that place as it’s a campground. We stuck to strictly boondocking, no campgrounds. But it sounds nice! And yeah, Flag is great in summer when it’s super hot everywhere else in Flagstaff!

  • Also, for old people with the Senior America the Beautiful pass, the fee sites are always “On Sale! 50% Off Regular Price!”

  • Wow. This has me excited! I can really see the attraction of his kind of camping with the peace and quiet plus the general beauty. It did bring one question to kind Kelly. If not caravanning (sp?), do you have any kind of safety notification ideas that would let family and friends do some light monitoring of your status? Without constant connectivity, what would be your best practices for safety in the event you went β€œmissing” somehow? We are not fearful at all, but you know, safety is an important thing! Thanks for any input, and once again thanks for all you do to help us noobs get started and enjoy this life.

    • Hey Dennis,

      Good question! Generally, I am not in any fear for myself when I am camping alone, which these days, is VERY rare. (I’m 99% of the time parked with friends and/or my business partner, Marshall)

      But when I am, my only method for safety is that I am in constant contact with my biz partner, he always knows where I am, at least the vicinity. I also share my location with MANY friends. So if I went missing, my phone would be my tracker. Until/unless someone turned it off or I was out of service. That said, I NEVER go for a hike alone in an area with no cell service. THAT sounds like asking for trouble.

      I’d love to have a GPS tracker, but I don’t need one, as I never hike or even park where I don’t have service.

      If you want to hike or camp alone where there’s no service, I HIGHLY recommend getting a GPS tracker and keep it on your body AT ALL TIMES. Yes, it’s expensive, yes, there’s often/normally a monthly fee, but what’s your life worth?

      So yeah, get a GPS tracker, let one or more people know where you are going and when you will get back. We cover these safety tips and more in the camping safety article here: https://campaddict.com/rv-living/rv-safety/camping-safety-tips/

      Have fun in your endeavors and be safe!

      • All good advice β€” thanks. Just to be clear, we are not fearful people, but β€” accidents do happen, and in the β€œwild”, getting help quickly is a challenge. Better to always have someone in the know on your β€˜sitch!

        • Oh, you’re SMART for being aware of what can happen! Very smart. I don’t hear the crazy fear in your words the way some people out there promote being scared all of the time (eye roll).

          There’s a big difference between being blindly scared and having street smarts and listening to intuition.

          It’s amazing how fragile we humans are out in mother nature!!!

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