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Spectacular Dispersed Camping in National Forests

| Updated Jun 20, 2023

If you are looking for a spectacular way to camp without the crowds and expense of commercial and overcrowded campgrounds, try dispersed camping in National Forests.

If your camper has good boondocking capability, you'll find this the ultimate form of true boondocking, aka “dispersed camping.”

There are no hookups, no designated campsites, no firepit, picnic table, or anything else looking like a normal campsite.

But dispersed camping just may be the best camping you have ever experienced!

What is Dispersed Camping in National Forests?

Dispersed Camping
Dispersed Camping

Dispersed camping in National Forests is about as off the grid as you can get.

And it is totally free.

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 place 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.

Most of this stuff is out west – although there's some 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 but most of the information is kept “behind the counter” – in ranger stations.

How to find dispersed camping spots in National Forests

There are maps available… sort of.

An excellent online source for the maps that designate dispersed camping in national forests is called Motor Vehicle Use Maps (MVUMs).

These are primarily used to tell the noisy two-stroke ATV crowd where they can and can't drive.  But if you know how to read them, they also have valuable information dispersed campers. 

Go here: and pick the forest you are interested in.

The individual forest sites vary but look for MVUMs as PDF downloads. 

The National Forests now uses a very helpful app called Avanza Maps for Android and Apple operating systems.

The Free App is available for download through Avenza System Inc.: . This application along with the USA Forset Service's PDF maps, will allow you to view your location at all times as you navigate through the forest, even offline when there is no INternet connection.

Look for the dots on either side of the road – that means it's OK to camp there.

The maps 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.

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 a typical map you can pick up at a ranger station. Look for the dots – that's the dispersed camping area.

For the most current dispersed camping info, stop at the Ranger Station!

Probably the absolute best way to find the best-dispersed camping spots in National Forests is by visiting the ranger station.

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.  They will also tell you road conditions, whether the road you're looking at is suitable for your vehicle, 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.

Armed with your map, set out and claim your spot.

Take your time finding the best of the dispersed camping spots

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

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 (or Starlink).

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.

More tips about dispersed camping in National Forests

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. If you are in a self-contained RV, you don't have an excuse for 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 and your RV

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.

Dispersed camping gives you that most precious of commodities in this urbanized, modern world – solitude in a beautiful natural setting. 

It's not for those who want to be in a group.

Often, you can go days without seeing another human.

If you are not comfortable being alone, this isn't for you. 

But if peace and quiet and nature is why you camp, this is what you will experience.

Want to Learn More About Dispersed Camping (AKA Boondocking)?

Want to learn how to boondock?

We created a PRINT version of our most popular guide to help you with the most common boondocking problems. We get a ton of questions from our subscribers about how to get started boondocking that range from where to go and wild animals to water conservation to what equipment to use and more. 

Spectacular Dispersed Camping in National Forests 1

Throw off the shackles of traditional RV Parks and campgrounds, stop paying high fees every night that you spend in your RV, and experience the boundless amounts of nature while boondocking!

You’re done with the noisy RV parks, the 3.5 feet of room you have squished in between two other RVs, and other people’s kids running through your campsite?

You’ve ditched the hookups, the concrete blocks and have replaced them with self-leveling and Navy showers?

This is the book for you.

Looking for some awesome places to camp out west?

Whether dispersed camping, boondocking, state or national parks or commercial campgrounds, we can help you find the best places to stay and suggest the things you need to see and the places you need to explore in the Southwest.

Please check out our special Southwest Bundle 3-Pack, instantly downloadable eBooks of our 7 Day Adventure Guides to Arizona, Utah, and Colorado. These guides are bundled together at a great price, or you can buy them separately at just $7 each. 

Spectacular Dispersed Camping in National Forests 2

Mike Wendland

Published on 2022-07-13

Mike Wendland is a multiple Emmy-award-winning Journalist, Podcaster, YouTuber, and Blogger, who has traveled with his wife, Jennifer, all over North America in an RV, sharing adventures and reviewing RV, Camping, Outdoor, Travel and Tech Gear for the past 12 years. They are leading industry experts in RV living and have written 18 travel books.

66 Responses to “Spectacular Dispersed Camping in National Forests”

October 03, 2016at7:26 pm, BGVT said:

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…


March 01, 2016at11:43 pm, ezytrail said:

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.


July 28, 2014at11:23 am, Jim Kirkwood said:

Gage Parrish, thought you might like this.


July 27, 2014at9:45 pm, Mark Kremer said:

I say take the satellite dish for late at night!! 😉


July 27, 2014at7:11 pm, Anne Durocher-Weston said:

I would love to go camping in this motor home!!!!


July 27, 2014at4:53 pm, Marlene Evans-Garcia said:

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….


July 27, 2014at3:42 pm, John Comstock said:

Looks like WY!!!


July 27, 2014at2:41 pm, Will Wood said:

Wow. Feel the hate in here today. Very judgmental for such freewheeling, and open-minded people.


July 27, 2014at1:52 pm, David Johnson said:

I understand lots of people like their modern entertainment but do you find room for one satellite dish, let alone two satellite dishes?


July 27, 2014at1:50 pm, Norman Licht said:

Road trek one of the best lillte campers out there


July 27, 2014at12:23 pm, Paul Utton said:

Don’t really need the satellite dish though! Beautiful setting!


July 27, 2014at12:20 pm, Tamara Speelmon said:

Out here in the southwest pretty much all campers disperse camp except the snowbirds.


July 27, 2014at10:40 am, Melisa Stepherson said:

We have had a hard time finding spots to fit our trailer.


July 27, 2014at10:17 am, Dale Summers said:

Some people are very additive to Television.!! Get a life!!


July 27, 2014at10:14 am, Nancy Nesmith Nelson said:

Seeing TWO satellite dishes ruins the entire picture! Stay home if you are that dependent!


July 27, 2014at9:57 am, Debbie Graham said:

Glenda Rusty Rouse is this why that new ride is sitting under the barn ?


July 27, 2014at9:56 am, Johanna Bensen said:

How beautiful !!!


July 27, 2014at9:35 am, Willard Wagner said:

When the going gets tough, the tough go camping. Keep it up.


July 27, 2014at9:23 am, Linda Myers said:

What is dispersed camping?


July 27, 2014at9:19 am, June Taylor Guerrero said:

Oh yes, retirement at it’s best. Only 18 months to go. I see the light of a tunnel.


July 27, 2014at8:50 am, Joe Rosen said:

Don’t go telling everyone about this!


July 27, 2014at8:48 am, Karl Snyder said:

If you are going exploring the wilderness….leave the satellite dish at home!


July 27, 2014at9:47 pm, Mark Kremer said:

If you are going exploring in the wilderness you don’t need a motorhome in the 1st. place.


July 27, 2014at8:10 am, Rob Ritchie said:

This is why we need a small RV. Or the truck with the bed camper we saw. Christine Landreneau-Ritchie


July 27, 2014at6:39 am, Winston Mullin said:

Love to be there


July 27, 2014at3:31 am, Mark Norene said:

Looks like fun


May 31, 2014at1:39 am, Debbi Blakeslee said:

I would love to live this type of life when I retire


May 30, 2014at10:52 pm, Christine Powell said:

Hey, that looks like Roger and me….except without the satellite dishes…


May 30, 2014at7:32 pm, Linda Phelps Welch said:

Vivian Buhler are you thinking about buying one?


May 30, 2014at6:24 pm, Linda Wilkerson said:

leave the TV at home, omg, enjoy the world and sounds,sites


June 03, 2014at3:31 pm, Paul Bulgier said:

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”.


May 30, 2014at11:49 am, Ann Lee said:

well, let’s head on out…..


May 30, 2014at11:45 am, Jean Sullivan said:

Just don’t need the satellites tho.


June 03, 2014at3:32 pm, Paul Bulgier said:

You live full time, all year, with no TV or internet? Good for you.


May 30, 2014at7:56 am, Ben Simpson said:



May 30, 2014at7:03 am, Cathryn Curtis said:

Good article and great information. Thanks.


May 30, 2014at6:04 am, nd fan said:

Skunk, (Rving aside) you are quite a writer!


May 30, 2014at4:25 am, John Comstock said:

Wonder, the two dishes…


May 22, 2014at3:05 pm, Robert Liggett said:

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.”


May 21, 2014at8:58 pm, Edward Howard said:

@Paul, this is why we have wilderness areas. And anyway these compact RV’s make terrific basecamps for hiking into the back country!


May 21, 2014at8:54 pm, Paul Konowalchuk Pogorzelski said:

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


May 21, 2014at11:44 am, Sandy Overton-Stone said:

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.


May 21, 2014at11:29 am, Davenport Barbara said:

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!!!


May 21, 2014at11:25 am, Davenport Barbara said:

to each their own, because it is not how you do it, doesn’t mean it isn’t right…..for them


May 21, 2014at11:25 am, Sandy Overton-Stone said:

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.


May 21, 2014at10:41 am, Bev Laing said:

The satellites ruin the great photo… 🙁


May 21, 2014at9:46 am, Melanie Carlisle said:

They’re not camping, they are “full-timing!” One of the sat. dishes is for an internet signal.


May 21, 2014at9:36 am, Jacquie Neale said:

Shame people can’t camp in the wilderness without their satelite dishes, kind off spoils the photo!


May 21, 2014at10:43 am, Paul Bulgier said:

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.


May 21, 2014at2:43 pm, Brad Phelps said:

If you don’t like RVs, why are you reading a post from an RV group?


June 29, 2013at2:26 pm, Lisa said:

Thanks, Sherry! I’m glad to know there’s some close to home.


June 30, 2013at2:07 pm, Sherry Hooker said:



June 29, 2013at1:56 pm, Sherry Hooker said:

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.


June 29, 2013at3:05 pm, Campskunk said:

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.


June 29, 2013at12:29 pm, Laura HughesPostema said:

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.


June 29, 2013at11:21 am, Stu said:

Another great article, you need to write for FMCA or Good Sam.


June 29, 2013at12:32 pm, Campskunk said:

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.


June 29, 2013at11:20 am, Susan Adame said:

Thanks, Campskunk, this is another great informative article! We hope to be following in your foot steps….


June 29, 2013at8:45 am, Lisa said:

Nice article! I will be giving this a try in the future!


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