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Can You Camp in National Forests?

Can You Camp in National Forests?

National forest camping can be a one-of-a-kind experience. These forests are excellent places to boondock or spend a relaxing week at a developed campground. Plus, you’ll find national forests all over the U.S.

Want to get started? Let’s see how.

Can You Camp Anywhere in a National Forest? 

No, you can’t set up camp just anywhere in a national forest. While many areas allow dispersed camping, not all do. To find dispersed camping areas in a national forest, check the local forest service website or contact the ranger station. However, you can also check out the developed campgrounds in the park.

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What Is Dispersed Camping? 

Dispersed camping, or boondocking, is camping outside of a developed campground. Dispersed camping includes no amenities such as restrooms or trash dumpsters. You also won’t get any hookups for electricity or water. People generally use forest roads for dispersed camping in national forests. Dispersed camping is a great option for anyone who wants privacy and free camping.

How to Find Free National Forest Camping

First, check the park’s website. An excellent way to find dispersed camping is by Googling the park name plus “dispersed camping,” i.e., “Fishlake National Forest Dispersed Camping.”

Some agencies provide maps or lists for dispersed national forest camping. If you have trouble finding it on the website, you can always call the local ranger station. 

Once you know which areas allow dispersed camping, use Google Satellite View to find potential pull-offs and camping areas. Or try websites and apps like FreeCampsites.net, Campendium, Allstays, or The Dyrt

National Forest Tent Camping
Whether tent camping or RVing, national forest camping gets you closer to nature.

Find our complete list of boondocking websites and apps here: Best Boondocking Apps and Websites for Amazing Free Camping

How to Find Developed National Forest Camping 

If campgrounds are more your style, you can find developed national forest camping sites on the park’s website. Most national forest camping is first-come, first-served, meaning you can’t make a reservation. So, if you want to snag a good site, try to get there early. You can also find developed campgrounds on most of the same websites and apps you use to find dispersed camping. 

What You Need to Know About Dispersed National Forest Camping

If you’ve never been boondocking before, there are a few things you should know. Dispersed camping is a lot different than camping in a campground, but it can be more fun and free, too.

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No Amenities

There are no amenities. There’s no trash service, no bathrooms, and no showers. There aren’t picnic tables, and there are no fire rings, either.

Many dispersed camping spots will have homemade fire rings from previous campers. If there are no fire bans, you can use pre-made fire rings. However, you should never make a new one. If you don’t have a site with a fire ring, you shouldn’t have a campfire. 

No Power, Water, or Sewer

There’s no electricity, no fresh water hookups or spigots, and no RV sewer dumps at dispersed campsites. National forest dispersed camping is truly wild camping. 

National Forest Camping
Most boondockers use solar power or generators for off-grid electricity.

Have a plan to keep your RV batteries charged, bring your own drinking and cleaning water, and be sure your black tank is empty before you arrive. Never dump gray or black water on national forest lands. 

Read our tried-and-true boondocking advice here: 40 RV Boondocking Tips To Make Your Off-Grid Camping Better

Pack It In, Pack It Out

Pack it in, pack it out is one of the rules of Leave No Trace camping. If you bring it in with you, you need to take it out with you. This means all trash, food waste, and water waste. If you arrive at a campsite and find litter from previous campers, be a good steward to the land and clean it up. 

Stay Limits and Forest Rules

Always obey stay limits and forest rules. Unless otherwise noted on the website or in the dispersed camping area, you can usually camp in one spot for up to 14 days. Check the website for stay limits, and be sure that you’re up to date on rules about campfires and gathering wood. 

dispersed camping leave no trace sign
Always leave your campsite as good as you found it or better!

Enjoy National Forest Camping Responsibly

National forests are great places to experience boondocking at its finest. Be sure that you’re enjoying national forest camping responsibly. Only camp in designated camping areas and always leave the campsite better than you found it.

Have you ever camped in a national forest? What was your experience like? Let us know in the comments below.

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About Mortons on the Move

Tom & Caitlin Morton of Mortons on the Move gave up the stationary life for one where they are constantly on the move. They are full-time travelers, television hosts, and digital media producers.
They left their jobs, sold their house and possessions, and hit the road in September 2015 in their full-time “home on wheels”. Since then they have traveled the US, Canada, and even internationally by RV.
Now, they are Discovery Channel & PBS TV Co-stars of The RVers, producers of “Go North” on Amazon Prime, co-founders and instructors of RV Masterclass, and contributing authors for Hwy.co and an Arizona travel guide.

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