Dispersed Camping in the San Juan National Forest near Silverton, CO - Free

Dispersed Camping in the San Juan National Forest near Silverton, CO – Free

Want to get away from the commercial campground scene, and tired of the mad crush in the national parks? There are 155 national forests in the US with a combined land area the size of Texas, where it’s not uncommon to have a section or even a whole campground to yourself. The challenge is how to camp without some of the traditional campground amenities, and how to find a campsite where you’ll enjoy the solitude and beauty of this great resource.  The reward is campsites in the $10-$25 range – half that with a federal Senior Pass.  Or even free, in some areas of the forest outside the campgrounds.

First, amenities – although there are exceptions, most forest service campsites are of the picnic table and fire ring variety – no hookups. You’ll need to generate your own electricity, haul your own fresh water in and waste water out, and take everything you need – there’s no campground store in case you run out of milk. You are frequently out of cellphone range and over-the-air TV reception. Plan accordingly.

When I decided to fulltime upon retiring in 2010, I wanted my rig set up where I could camp anywhere while having everything I needed and maintaining communication with the outside world, and modified my Roadtrek accordingly. For wilderness camping, you’ll need more than the basic setup. Newer RV models are rapidly incorporating features which enhance hookup-free camping, so it may be easier to buy a unit with the features you want than to install them yourself or have them installed.

Next, scout out campgrounds in the national forests where you want to camp. Unfortunately, that’s not easy to do because there’s no central clearinghouse for information on all forests. Start by locating a forest you are interested in here: http://www.fs.fed.us/locatormap/# and click on through to the home page of the forest you want more information on. Although the layouts vary somewhat from forest to forest, look under “Recreation” in the left column for “Camping and Cabins”. Frequently there’s a map which will give you the locations of campgrounds, and sometimes descriptions and directions to get to each. One aggravation is that forests are frequently divided into districts,with campgrounds grouped according to what district they’re in. Since the districts mean little to you, it’s hard to get the overall picture, especially without a map.

Kirk Creek in Los Padres National Forest (Big Sur)  – $11 a night with Senior Pass

You will be amazed at the variety of campsites – some of my favorites are on the Pacific coast where the forests come right down to the beach, where you can camp looking out over the ocean. Others are on lakes so secluded that there are no artificial lights visible at all.  A good strategy is to visit the ranger station in a particular district and talk to the staff – ranger station locations are on the websites.

Describe what your preference are, and they’ll direct you to a suitable choice.  They’re also the best resource for information on dispersed camping – areas of the forests where you can camp truly out on your own, and usually free.  Many forests have such areas.

Google Earth also has national forest campsites listed, although not by name. Under “More” in Layers, go to Parks/Recreation Areas -> USDA Forest Service -> Campsites and check that box. Happy campsite hunting!!