National forests are true gateways to adventure, and camping is one of the most popular activities. With 193 million acres of national forests and grasslands available, you are sure to be able to find somewhere to camp in a national forest near you.
I created this ultimate guide to camping in national forests to answer common questions and provide everything you need to know about national forest camping..
Finding Your National Forests
One of the easiest ways to find national forests is to visit the U.S. Forest Service website. They have a handy Find a Forest or Grassland locator on the front page of their site. Their interactive map is also a great way to locate national forest camping near you or in the state you will be traveling to.
If you are using the locator, choose the state, then the forest you want from the drop down list. Click the Recreation tab (usually on the left side of the page) once you are on the forest page you selected. Camping can be selected under the Recreation tab, and you can choose from several options like campground camping, dispersed camping etc to find a site. You can select camping areas by ranger district and each link has all the info about that campground or location, often with photos.
Maybe like me, you drive by a U.S. Forest Service office on a regular basis. Often a national forest is closer than you realize. These forest service offices and ranger stations are open to the public and are a wealth of information with helpful advice, literature and maps for your next adventure.
Another great resource for finding national forests is Oh Ranger.
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Tip: Visiting a national park? Try locating a national forest nearby to camp. You can avoid some of the crowds at the national park, plus it may be cheaper or FREE!
National Forest Maps
The interactive visitor map is also easy to use. I like the fact that I can see where the camping is on an actual map. On the other locator, I don’t always know the name of the forest I need if it is in a state I have never been to before. The map gives a better idea of what part of the state I want to stay.
Take Wyoming for example. On the locator if I select Wyoming, ten national forests are available on the drop down list. If I want to camp in a national forest in the north western part of the state, I have no idea which forest I should choose. This is when the interactive map is especially helpful.
You just click on the interactive map and a Explore box appears. Select Camping and Cabins and little tent symbols will appear on the map. Zoom in on the area you want to search and the tent symbols will populate. Click on a tent in the area you want to camp and follow the links for more info.
You can also search for recreation activities on the interactive visitor maps. Forest maps are available online to view, download and print. You can select maps for recreation and trails and road maps.
Don’t count on an internet connection for viewing these maps on your smart phone once you enter the forest. Be sure to download them before you go.
You can pick up maps at forest service offices either free or for a small fee. Not familiar with the forest you are visiting? I highly recommend a Motor Vehicle Use map that shows the forest service roads open to the public.
Navigating Forest Service Roads
Many forest service campgrounds are on paved roads that are easy to access. Some are not! Dirt and gravel roads that aren’t always maintained can add a whole new dimension to your camping adventure.
Usually the more primitive a campground is the further it is from main roads. And if you are dispersed camping or “boondocking” don’t be surprised if you have to drive on a dirt road.
Not all routes can be navigated pulling a camper, so if you are towing a camper or driving a RV check the forest service website for any information about the route.
The forest service website will also post road conditions and closures. Downed trees, icy conditions, road wash outs etc will often be noted as an alert on the page.
Keep in mind that sometimes only a small crew or group of volunteers maintain these roads and so conditions are not always the best.
It isn’t unusual to drive muddy or rutted roads and cross small streams if you are venturing to a more remote campsite or trailhead. I prefer a vehicle (SUV or truck) with a higher clearance than a small car if I think the roads may be sketchy, but that isn’t an absolute most.
As much as I love driving through the forest, I get a tad scared on curvy, mountain roads with steep drop offs. Especially ones that are narrow and, in my opinion, do not have enough room if you meet an oncoming car!
You can find driving directions to the campgrounds on the forest service website and recreation.gov. You can also try a google search for the campground name and sometimes find a website that has driving directions.
A GPS works for some locations, but physical addresses are not usually available. Latitude and longitude coordinates can sometimes be found for individual recreation/camping areas on their website.
Forest service roads are usually numbered not named – for example FSR 68.
Please don’t let any apprehension about driving on forest service roads stop you from camping in the national forest. Most campgrounds are easy to access. I just want you to be prepared for any that may not be!
How Long Can You Camp in National Forests?
Whether you are in a developed campground or dispersed camping, you are allowed to camp for 14 consecutive days.
You can not set up a new campsite within a mile radius from your vacated campsite for a period of 7 days. In other words, you can’t just move from one campsite to another in a developed campground without waiting a week.
Dispersed campers will have to put a least a mile between forest campsites if they want to set up camp again before the 7 day period is over.
The forest service issues special permits to private companies called concessionaires, and they can offer stays up to 21 days at certain sites. These may be guide services that offer wilderness experiences and camping.
National Forests Camping Reservations
Developed campgrounds in the national forest sometimes offer campsite reservations. Not only are they offered, but often are necessary to secure a spot. I know some of the popular campgrounds can fill every weekend and require a reservation weeks or months in advance.
Check out the forest service website to see if reservations are available or if sites are first come first serve. Recreation.gov also has this info and is another great way to find national forest campsites, and you can make reservations through them. If you prefer a phone call, the number for reservation information is 877-444-6777.
National Forests Camping Fees
One of the best things about camping in national forests is that you can camp FREE if you are dispersed camping or at a campground that is more remote or has fewer amenities.
Campsites at more developed campgrounds are usually $10.00 – $30.00 a night.
If you reserved your campsite, payment can be made online. Otherwise, an information kiosk with payment envelopes and drop box is often available to pay your campsite fee.
Free Dispersed Camping in National Forests
I have mentioned dispersed camping but haven’t yet explained what it really is for those that don’t know. Dispersed camping usually refers to camping that is outside of a developed campground. This may be an area off a road or a trail where you set up camp.
Dispersed camping is sometimes referred to as boondocking. To boondock you find a free dispersed campsite and pitch your tent or park the RV camper. I think boondocking is a term made popular by travelers, RVers, and people looking for free, off grid camping.
Dispersed camping is also popular with backpackers on multi day hikes. This form of camping provides the most solitude (unless you are hiking a popular trail) and primitive camping experience.
You need to be prepared to boondock or disperse camp. Water will not be provided so it is important to carry enough for drinking, cooking, and hygiene.
No electricity will be available so keep that in mind when you consider cooking options and anything you count on electricity for if you are in a camper.
Basic survival skills will be necessary and be sure to practice Leave No Trace principles. Try to find an established campsite rather than creating a new one.
Tip: You may be sharing the forest with hunters, depending on the location and season. It never hurts to wear bright colors like hunter orange if you are camping or hiking in an area frequented by hunters.
Where Can You Camp in the National Forest?
Camping is allowed anywhere within the forest boundaries unless that particular forest has restricted certain places.
Occasionally you aren’t allowed to set up camp in certain areas. This is done to reduce the impact of visitors to high traffic or environmentally fragile areas. One way of protecting natural landscapes is to limit how close you can camp to them.
The website or office/ranger station of the forest you plan on visiting will have information available about restricted camping areas. Sometimes signs will be posted.
National Forest Campgrounds
Campgrounds in national forests are what many consider good old- fashioned camping. The least developed campgrounds offer the basic amenities like a campsite, maybe a picnic table and if you are lucky, vault toilets -no electricity or water. These campsites may be free and more remote, and usually can not be reserved.
The more developed campgrounds will have picnic tables, grills, water and electric at the campsites, and bathhouses. A dump station to empty the black water tank of your camper may be available. Often a campground host is onsite too.
If you want playgrounds, swimming pools, and programs, national forest camping may not be for you. If a nice, rustic campsite in a beautiful setting sounds good, then national forest campgrounds may become a favorite.
Related Camping Post: Where to Go Camping: The Best Campgrounds for Beginners
Group Camping in National Forests
Group camping in national forests is an option available for Scout troops, church groups, outdoor clubs, or any larger gathering of family and friends.
Some national forest campgrounds offer group campsites. These are designated campsites for groups of 6-75 people, but capacity varies depending on the campground. Extra picnic tables may be provided along with a larger fire ring area. Of course the site itself is bigger than a regular campsite so you have room for multiple tents.
These sites cost more per night than a regular site, but it is cheaper than getting several adjoining sites for your group. Getting several adjoining sites is an option if the group campsite is not available or if the campground you want to visit does not have a group campsite.
You will need to get a permit if you plan on disperse camping in the national forest and your group has 75 or more people.
No matter how big or small your group is, please be aware of the impact of more people in the forest at the same time.
- Stay in designated or established campsites when available. There is no sense in trampling and destroying more vegetation.
- Don’t create new trails, even short cuts through campgrounds. Stay on trails and roads.
- Be conscious of fragile water banks. Excessive foot traffic can cause erosion problems and destroy creek and river banks.
- Dispose of trash in receptacles if you are in a campground, otherwise pack out your trash.
- Use existing fire rings and put your fire out cold.
- If bathrooms are not available, dispose of human waste properly. Dig a 6 to 8 inch deep cat hole and be sure you are 200 feet from the trail or water source. Toilet paper and poop are a real problem in heavily used areas of popular natural forests. Not only is it gross, it contaminates water sources.
- Have fun, but please don’t be the loud group that nobody wants to be camped near.
These points are important for individuals too!
What Are the Rules for Camping in the National Forests?
We’ve covered most of the rules for camping in national forests like length of camping stay, dispersed camping boundaries and need for permits for large groups, but there are a few others things to consider.
- Always check with the forest you are visiting to see if a fire ban is in place. Some forests do not allow fires in the backcountry/wilderness. Only backpacking stoves are allowed in those areas.
- There is a maximum of 5 people per campsite, unless it is immediate family.
- Two vehicles are allowed at each campsite.
Always check with the national forest you are visiting for any specific rules and alerts.
National Forest Safety
I honestly feel safer in the forest than a large city, but there are a few safety issues you need to keep in mind.
- Wildlife live in national forests. Proper food storage is extremely important. Never leave food out or in a tent – always secure it in your vehicle (bears will get in cars for food too!), in bear proof lockers if available at your campsite, a bear canister, or hang it in a bear bag. Some forests require backpackers to use a bear canister.
- Consider carrying bear spray, especially if hiking in grizzly country.
- Always throw away all your trash. Many campgrounds have trash cans. If they don’t, pack it out. ( I know I already told you this, but it bears repeating.)
- Wildfire is a threat to our national forests. Know if a fire ban is in place and follow it. If fires are allowed, use an existing fire ring if possible. Never leave a fire unattended. Put your fire out. ( Yep, I ‘m telling you this again too.)
- First aid may not be readily available if you are camping in a remote area and get sick or injured. Always bring a first aid kit. You can put one together yourself, or purchase one specifically for outdoor adventures.
A safe, camping trip is a fun, camping trip.
National Forest Camping
Affordable (or free!) campsites and beautiful scenery are the perfect camping combination. One of my favorite things about camping in national forests is the access to awesome trails, rivers, and lakes. The adventure opportunities are endless in national forests, and camping is the perfect way to end a fun day in the forest!
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