National Forests

Can You Camp Anywhere in National Forests?

There’s just something so freeing about the idea of camping in some tucked away corner of the National Forest. Just you and nature.

Can you camp anywhere in the National Forests? Apart from the camping opportunities provided by developed sites, most National Forests allow for free camping throughout much of their lands. You can expect to find specific rules regarding campsite location, the disposal of human waste, and other variables.

In this post I’ll show you everything you need to know about how you can figure out what camping opportunities you have available at your nearby National Forest.

How to Determine Where You Can Camp in a National Forest

Generally speaking, National Forests offer some of the freest and most independent opportunities for camping. With so much land at your disposal, you have such a tremendous opportunity to get away from it all and enjoy nature for a little bit.

Find the Dispersed Camping Part of Your National Forest’s Website

The first thing you want to do is go to the US Forest Service website and select your National Forest from the drop-down menu. This will take you to a website devoted to your local National Forest, but all navigational menus on the left side of the screen will look the same. Here is about what you can expect:

screenshot of the home page of the cibola national forest and national grasslands website

You want to find the ‘Recreation’ part of the navigational menu. Clicking that part will take you to a new screen where you’ll select the ‘Camping & Cabins’ option in the sub-menu.

An important note to consider before we continue: the activities that were really talking about here are referred to as ‘dispersed camping’ by the U.S. Forest Service. As such, once you load the camping and cabins page, you should be looking for a link called ‘Dispersed Camping.’

Once you click through to this page, you want first to check if the screen’s top section has expandable text. Not all National Forests organized this page this way, but many of them provide rules and expectations associated with dispersed camping for that site.

Here’s about what that expandable text may look like:

screenshot of the dispersed camping section of a national forest with the expand text button highlighted with an arrow
It’s easy to miss this button when you’re scrolling through, but be sure to check if there is a lot more information available there.

If you can’t find rules regarding dispersed camping for your National Forest, your best bet is to directly contact your Forest Service office and ask them for more information.

Vast Majority of National Forests Allow Dispersed Camping

While each National Forest is unique, the reality is that the vast majority of National Forests allow for dispersed camping on much of their lands. Simply put, this is one of the greatest perks of our National Forests, and it is something that needs to be protected.

Most National Forests don’t necessarily specify locations where you’re allowed to practice dispersed camping, but there are some places with restrictions. You’ll have to comb through the dispersed camping webpage to familiarize yourself with any restrictions based on where you can camp.

The bottom line is that dispersed camping is an amazing way to see less-traveled parts of the National Forest for free. So make sure that you don’t assume that you can camp anywhere in a National Forest, as it’s our responsibility to follow their rules so we can keep these privileges.

Common Rules You Can Expect With Dispersed Camping

As dispersed camping on National Forest land is a pretty sweet perk, you can expect to see a fair share of rules associated with what you can and cannot do while camping. While these rules are unique to each National Forest, there are some generalities that we can notice.

Generally speaking, most dispersed camping in National Forests is limited to 14 days within a 30 day period. You can also expect to have some rules that dictate where you can camp in relation to developed sites. As you probably can understand, it would be good for nobody to allow us freeloaders to be practicing our dispersed camping within 50 feet of a nearby paid campsite.

That’s not good for business. You can also expect to see some rules about setting up campsites that are a minimum of a certain distance away from other features such as maintained trails and Forest Service roads.

Things to Keep in Mind While Dispersed Camping in Your National Forest

As this is such an awesome perk of the National Forest system, there are few things to keep in mind when practicing dispersed camping. Maybe I’m just dusting off my old compliance professional hat, but most of this is just about simply following the rules.

Know the Rules and Regulations Surrounding Human Waste

First things first, please do everything you can to follow all of your site-specific rules about the disposal of human waste. Not every location will have the same rules as different environments have different capabilities. Still, you should know if there are specific guidelines for digging catholes and what depths they should be dug to.

This is one of the biggest things to keep in mind the entire time you’re out in the National Forest and dispersed camping. Obviously, this is for health reasons and protects these great environments, so be a good human and bury your waste according to their rules.

Help Keep Our Less-Frequented Water Sources From Being a Soapy Mess

Not every National Forest has specific rules for this situation. Still, I think it’s a good idea generally to make an effort to avoid polluting water sources in these backcountry locations. A big part of that is making sure that you resist the urge to give yourself a soapy bubble bath in these natural locations.

You are much better off collecting water from a water source and then scrubbing yourself down with biodegradable soap a specified distance away from that water source. This is to protect the plants and animals associated with the water source, as surfactants like soap can have a big effect on water-dwelling species.

Follow the Rules Regarding Campfires

I get it; there’s just something cool about having a campfire at the end of a long day while dispersed camping in the National Forest.

That said, this is one of the most important responsibilities to get right when you’re out in the woods. Know the forest fire status of your local National Forest before you start dispersed camping, and if you have the capability, be sure to check your phone to monitor whether that status changes.

If you are allowed to do a campfire and wish to keep it going after it gets dark, it might be a good idea to gather up water to quench the fire before it gets actually dark. This is because you’re likely camping at least several hundred feet away from the nearest water source, and you might not be interested in navigating through the woods in the dark. But then again, know yourself.

Concluding Thoughts

As you can see, the incredible opportunity to explore our National Forests and practice dispersed camping is something worth protecting. Hopefully you enjoyed this post and took something of value away from it.

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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.