National Forests

Can You Backpack in National Forests?

Featuring almost two hundred million acres of land, the National Forests of the United States are a fantastic opportunity for backpackers.

Can you backpack in National Forests? The vast majority of the National Forests are available to backpackers looking for multi-day trips. They have a wide network of primitive camping sites and a generally open policy towards dispersed camping. Wilderness areas offer some of the best remote backpacking in the country.

I’ll show you everything you need to know about the great times you can have backpacking through the National Forest. Keep reading and you’ll learn where to get all the information you need for your next trip.

What You Need to Know About Backpacking in National Forests

No matter where you spent your time backpacking, the reality is that our National Forests are great opportunities for backpackers of all kinds. Featuring huge expanses of country and fewer people than you might expect in some of the more popular areas, National Forests really strike a great balance.

They’re open to many different kinds of hiking, and the freedom to practice dispersed camping throughout the vast majority of National Forests really opens everything up.

Learning the Rules on Backpacking in Your Local National Forest

You want to go to the National Forests website and select your specific National Forest from the drop-down menu on the right. Once you are on that specific forest’s web page, you’ll then want to click the button labeled ‘Recreation’ on the navigational menu on the left side of the screen. Next, you’ll want to find a link that says ‘Backpacking’ on the next page’s contents. Here’s about what you can expect:

screenshot of the hiking section of a us forest service site with arrows pointing to the Hiking and Backpacking links

This page is where you can expect to find much of the information you need to backpack in this National Forest. You should know that there may be a message at the top of the screen that may be expandable and contain more information. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:

backpacking section of a us forest service website with an arrow pointing to the expand text link option
These expandable links are really easy to miss, so be on the lookout for more relevant information hidden here.

The links that you see near the bottom of the page show all of the areas in that National Forest that mention backpacking in any way. It doesn’t necessarily mean that there is relevant information that you can find when clicking through, but know that some backpacking is associated with those locations in some way.

Check Wilderness Areas or Existing Loops for Best Backpacking

If you’re only looking for the best opportunities for backpacking in the National Forests, your best bet is likely to check for either wilderness areas, or existing loops meant for backpacking. It’s important to note that wilderness areas are particularly valuable because these are large expanses of land that do not allow any motor or mechanical tools of any sort.

They truly are some of the best chances to get away from the crowds. If you’re like me, you’ll enjoy the chance to go a few days without hearing any sort of engine firing up in the middle of the woods.

Regarding loops that are known for backpacking, you’ll likely find links to these on the backpacking page for your National Forest. Simply put, these areas are some of the best possible backpacking opportunities available in our country.

Find Dedicated Trails on the Interactive Visitor Map

Another great tool available for backpackers is the U.S. Forest Service’s interactive visitor map. This map allows you to pull up various layers that show you opportunities associated with different activities. We’re looking for the hiking menu, and this layer will show you all the trails open for recreation in the National Forest. You can pull up the hiking map by clicking on the following icon:

screenshot of the menu for the interactive visitor map of the us forest service with the hiking button highlighted

After clicking the hiking icon you’ll be taken to the main map. If you then open up the legend found on the left side of the screen and then zoom in to your region, you’ll see something like this:

screenshot of us forest service map with green-shaded trails open to hikers

You’ll note that some of the trails are highlighted in green; these trails are maintained specifically for hiking and are likely to be great opportunities to get away. As you can tell from the screenshot provided, not all the trails have status, but they still may have information that could be very useful when planning a trip.

The U.S. Forest Service maintains a large and widespread network of trails, so some may provide great opportunities even if they aren’t meticulously maintained. If you’re not so open to surprises, your best bet is to stick with the trails that have some sort of status associated with them.

What You Need to Know About Dispersed Camping in National Forests

One of the reasons that National Forests are such a great opportunity for backpacking is the US Forest Service’s generally open policy to dispersed camping. This means that the vast majority of National Forest land is open to free camping, assuming that you follow the rules specified by each location.

If you’d like to learn more about this, you can check out this post, which goes into greater detail. As you might think, this open policy towards dispersed camping allows you the opportunity to camp in some pretty remote areas that have a lot of beauty.

Great Reasons to Backpack in National Forests

Between the smaller crowds and the beautiful natural scenery, National Forests really offer great potential to backpackers of all sorts.

Chance to Get Away From the Crowded Trails

Maybe this is just me, but I think that is National Forests offer a real sweet spot when it comes to remote backpacking and getting away from the crowds. Everyone loves and appreciates our great National Parks, but we all know how even the less known national parks tend to draw quite a crowd.

Even state parks are sometimes swarmed with people and make it difficult to get away and appreciate nature with a little solitude. National Forests are a great way to spend a couple of days on the trail without necessarily seeing many people.

Still a Great Opportunity to See Beautiful Country

Even if they haven’t reached the high status of a National Park or National Monument, our National Forests still offer plenty of opportunities to see beautiful land throughout the country.

These areas are generally less manicured than state parks or National Parks, so this is generally a great opportunity to see natural habitats where nature may get a little more say.

As discussed before, wilderness areas are designated locations that do not allow motors or mechanical equipment of any kind. This alone makes them a tremendous opportunity for the backpacker that’s maybe tired of rubbing elbows on some of the more popular trails.

Plenty of Chance for Primitive Camping

One of the best things about the forest in my mind is that they have many locations that offer some primitive camping. These sites have cleared areas for you to set up your tents, and they generally offer pit toilets in case you are a little sick of digging catholes.

Many of these primitive camping locations are set up and beautiful sites that offer easy access to two interesting landscapes like remote lakes or rivers.

Final Thoughts

I hope you enjoyed this post and came away with a new idea or two for you next backpacking trip. Our National Forests really do have a lot to offer and I believe they are often overlooked.

If you’d like to read some more articles that dive into making the most out of our National Forests, please check any of the below articles out:

By Drew Meulemans

I've long admired forests and devote much energy to learning about them and exploring. I enjoy sharing what I learn and wish to inspire others to do the same.