Nature

Dispersed Camping in National Forests

payetteI have previously written about national forest campgrounds, an affordable and enjoyable way to camp without the crowds and expense of commercial and national park campgrounds. If your rig has good boondocking capability, there’s an even less crowded – and even cheaper – alternative: dispersed camping in national forests.

typical Crown lands camping ;-)
typical Crown lands camping 😉

While our boastful neighbors to the north extoll the virtues of their Crown lands, there’s plenty of space right here in the US of A where free camping is also available, at considerably less chance of frostbite, bug bite, polar bear bite, fuel price bite, etc.

You heard it- free. No tax, no handling charges, no reservation fees. As a matter of fact, you don’t even have to sign up for it. If you’re parked, you’re registered. There’s usually a 14 day limit, and you can’t camp within a certain radius (usually five or seven miles, sometimes ten) from the last placed you camped, or come back within a certain period, usually five or seven days, but that’s just to discourage people more intent on homesteading than camping. All you need to know is what areas of the national forests allow dispersed camping.

It’s still national forest, even above the treeline. 10,164 feet up on the Beartooth Plateau, Custer NF, Montana.

Most of this stuff is out west – there’s limited dispersed camping in Maine and Michigan’s UP, but it’s generally unavailable in the east. Like the national forest campgrounds, there’s no one place online where you can go look up information on particular areas of the National Forests where dispersed camping is allowed.  There is some information online for dispersed camping in certain national forests like Payette NF in Idaho (top photo, beautiful place), but these are the exceptions. Most of the information is kept “behind the counter” – in ranger stations.

Here's the map I picked up at the ranger station two days ago. Look for the dots - that's the dispersed camping area.
Here’s the map I picked up at the ranger station. Look for the dots – that’s the dispersed camping area.

Each national forest has several ranger stations, and their addresses and phone numbers are on the web pages for that particular forest. Drop by or call them and ask about dispersed camping. They will give you a map with all the forest roads marked on it, and indications of where dispersed camping is allowed. These areas are usually marked by dots on each side of a road in the maps I have been given.  They will also tell you road conditions, whether the road you’re looking at is suitable for your vehicle (actually, the road doesn’t care much whether you think it’s suitable or not – it’s more a matter of whether your vehicle is suitable for the road), hotbeds of activity by those infernal off-road vehicles to avoid, recent bear and mountain lion activity in the area, any burn restrictions in effect, fire permit procedures, and other interesting stuff like that.

dispersed camping in Shasta-Trinity NF, California
dispersed camping in Shasta-Trinity NF, California

Armed with your map, set out and claim your spot. Don’t just plunk down in the first nice area you find, or you’ll probably soon have company since you’re sitting in the most accessible spot.  Drive around a bit. Think about where the sun’s track will be if you have solar panels, and whether you can hit the satellites from your spot if you have TV or internet dishes. Also, make sure your spot is in compliance with the rules printed on the map or told to you in the ranger station. There are sometimes restrictions on how close you can be to open water, or how close or far from a road you can be.  If you’re in a flash flood area, you don’t want to be anywhere near a watercourse, even if it’s bone dry right now.  If you see signs of bear activity (overturned rocks, scratches on trees, etc.) you might want to shop around a bit more.   The problem with bear wrestling while dispersed camping is that there’s nobody to tag out with.

dispersed camping in San Juan NF, Colorado
dispersed camping in San Juan NF, Colorado

Your map will also contain the locations of developed campgrounds. Ask or look up which of these have water so that you can drop by and replenish your supply when you get low. There are rules for water and waste disposal for tent campers – since you’re a self-contained RV, you don’t have an excuse for sleazing out and failing to pack out everything you pack in.  Leave the forest as nice or nicer than you found it. This is not a campground with a dumpster and bathhouse and all that stuff.

dispersed camping in Custer NF, Montana
dispersed camping in Custer NF, Montana

Give dispersed camping a try if you have the boondocking capability to do it comfortably – I put a lot of extra effort (and money) into outfitting mine so that I would have all the comforts of home without requiring any more infrastructure than a level place to park, and it has paid off handsomely. Dispersed camping gives you that most precious of commodities in this urbanized, modern world – solitude in a beautiful natural setting.  I am writing this while camping in the Custer National Forest southwest of Red Lodge, and I haven’t seen a soul since we drove in here.  It’s just me and the mountains and the streams. One hundred and thirty-six years ago, Chief Joseph and his people gave the US Army the slip, coming down this very valley I’m camping in. Like me, the chief had had a bellyful of so-called civilization, and didn’t want any company. The chief was a wise man – it’s an excellent place for that.

edit 7/8/13: I have discovered an excellent online source for the maps that designate dispersed camping in national forests – they’re called Motor Vehicle Use Maps (MVUMs) and are primarily used to tell the noisy two-stroke crowd where they can and can’t drive, but also have valuable information for us more spiritually advanced types.  Go here: http://www.fs.fed.us/maps/forest-maps.shtml and pick the forest you are interested in. The individual forest sites vary, but look for MVUMs as PDF downloads. Look for the dots on either side of the road – that means it’s OK to camp there. The map may also contain information about minimum and maximum distances from the road you can camp, plus how close to water you can camp. A little poking around will save you a trip to the ranger station.

66 thoughts on “Dispersed Camping in National Forests”

    1. Stu, if I did that, they’d all be out there with their big rigs disturbing my solitude. This is the inside scoop, just for my Roadtrek buddies.

  1. Laura HughesPostema

    Nice!
    I will fight no more forever- Chief Joseph.
    But I will look for camping opportunities like this. Thank you for continuing to share your knowledge and love of our great country.

  2. Sherry Hooker

    I always look forward to reading your articles, Campskunk. You’re living my dream. We moved to Georgia thirteen years ago and up until my husband’s health got bad, enjoyed camping in Georgia’s many parks. We have dispersed camping here, too. I’m including a link where you can find out information on the Chattahoochee National Forest lands. It is a beautiful area, lush, green, and peaceful. There are quite a few stocked trout streams within the forest’s boundaries, some are catch and release, but there are a few where you can catch your own lunch.
    http://www.fs.usda.gov/detailfull/conf/home/?cid=stelprdb5246600

    1. i’m delighted to be wrong in my blanket statement about the east- there’s some in the Ocala National Forest in FL too, i have since found out. i was right in that you have to talk to the rangers and snoop around to find it – they don’t advertize this stuff much.

    1. As a wilderness backpacker, I could question the need for a rolling 9,000 lb steel bedroom. My tent weighs 20 ounces. Point: to each his or her own.

  3. If I were out there, I would love to have a satellite dish. I love the scenery. Thank you for sharing this beautiful spot. All the more reason to have satellite, being in the wilderness can be dangerous. In this day of modern technology, if there is a medical emergency, they have a chance for life saving help!! Not all of us are physically able to hike, tent camp, or backpack, even if the desire were there. For some of us, these rolling tin cans allow us to see and experience a bit of life that is only possible with the aid if this type of travel.

  4. Absolutely Sandy Overton-Stone, we are 56 and how we experience outdoor life now is quite different than how we did it 30 years ago, we still go, and we still love being out there, we just have to adjust a few things as we age….but we don’t sit around the house!!!

  5. I am on the same page in life Davenport Barbara, we are in our mid 60’s and my health and physical ability is much more limited than in my younger years. I welcome every avenue that presents itself that allows me to continue to travel, see the country, and enjoy this kind of wilderness and beauty. Not everyone in this world has the physical ability to do what most take for granted. I have worked with adults and children who have physical disabilities that prevent them from a hike by foot into rugged terrain, but their drive and desire to live life is just as strong and alive as these who judge and criticize.

  6. As I scrolled down to this new post, I didn’t bother reading the header post first. I saw the picture…Chevy RT with solar panels, not one but two satellite dishes on tripods (his $ hers). Now who in the wide world of sports could this be? Yep, it’s Campskunk

  7. 20 ounce tent or 20,000 pound RV, it doesn’t matter as long as you are not sitting at home and watching a TV show saying, “we should go camping.”

    1. That’s what you want, so that’s what you should do. Others get to make their own choices. He lives full time in the rig, there is no “home”.

  8. Retirement means work. Things went way wrong this past week. had a major water line leak in the kitchen . had a LPG leak. Two kinda major repairs. Step broke..and our neighbors on Eastern Shore of Va had a major tornado. Killed 2 campers. Injured many. Just glad there were no more” happenings”…all seems good now. Back up and running….

  9. As it says, fresh surroundings and good enough to spent days that are in these national forests. It is also good to bring any pets with you.

  10. Also check out Maine Public Reserved Lands – mostly for tents, but some small RV sites. More dispersed camping in Vermont; close to home so I often escape to it. Campskunk doesn’t spend enough time in the East…

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