The Complete Guide to Primitive & Dispersed Camping in Ohio

In my detailed guide to primitive and dispersed Camping in Ohio, I will list my ten favorite free campgrounds in the Buckeye State. Also, I will talk about where you can camp in Ohio and how to find even more awesome campgrounds. 

Representing the US state that gave the country the most presidents, that’s immensely rich in rivers and different bodies of water, and featuring a small but fierce state bird that looks, sounds, and acts aggressively, Ohio is a curious place you have to see to believe.

Other than cute red cardinals smashing into your car’s windows and trying to bite off your side-view mirrors during the mating season, you’ll find that Ohio (especially southern Ohio) is a relatively tranquil place with scenic, mystical forests, clear streams, and beautiful nature.

Overview of Dispersed Camping in Ohio

A stork on a branch in a lake in Ohio

There are different types of dispersed campgrounds in Ohio for everyone – whether you’re a cozy camper who likes fishing, reclining in your foldable chair, and having an ice-cold beer in the afternoon or a weathered hiking enthusiast with a bucket list containing names of some of the most demanding and scenic trails along the famous Appalachian Trail foothills.

The Ohio River, from which this state gets its name, is the major waterway in this part of the US. There are about 40,000 miles of various canals in this US state, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that many primitive campgrounds are next to lakes, creeks, and major rivers, such as the gorgeous Maumee River.

In terms of its immense natural beauty and camping potential, Ohio’s southern perimeter is where gorgeous forests, meadows, and rivers are. The Wayne National Forest, in particular, is a significant camping hub you want to take advantage of.

In the section below, I list the best dispersed camping in the south of Ohio and other parts of the scenic and hiking-friendly Buckeye state. 

Best Dispersed Campgrounds in Ohio

A fair chunk of Ohio’s rather impressive camping potential relies on Wayne National Forest, where you can also find a rich and vast network of hiking trails. In Ohio, hiking and camping are closely intertwined activities. Many of the best campgrounds were originally and still are hiking trailheads where hunters, trappers, and merchants of yore would gather to plan their exploration trips.

Tenting is the most rewarding type of camping here – especially if you pair it up with hiking or fishing. The gorgeous pine forests, the endless hiking trails, the scenic and tranquil waters, including lakes, crystal-clear creeks, and the mighty Maumee River, all give this broader area a particular atmosphere that you cannot find anywhere else in the US.

If you like exploring new and exciting camping locations onboard recreational vehicles, the super-rich Ohio nature and an endless system of forest service roads won’t disappoint, either.

While not all campgrounds are accessible to large rigs and vehicles towing a trailer, for the most part, you can access almost every ‘campable‘ part of Ohio onboard your trusty four-wheeler.

Hanging Rock OHV Area Dispersed Campground 

Walkway near Hanging Rock OHV Area
  • Map
  • Water availability: vault toilets
  • Toilets: no
  • Visitor frequency: medium

A fantastic place for ATV rides, mountain biking, and hiking, the Hanging Rock OHV area is a great campground where you can set up your tent and try your hand at a whole deal of additional excellent activities.

Typically, camping trailheads are closed to campers in most national forests. Still, Ohioan representatives of the Wayne National Forest have made virtually all trailheads accessible for dispersed camping (As long as you’re not directly obstructing the passage of vehicles along the way ). The campgrounds around this OHV area are spread along the side of the main trail, so they work as roadside pullouts that you can access and either park your RV or pitch your tent.

If you plan to visit this campground, arrive in the morning so that you can pick the best spots. While primitive camping here is free and relatively easily accessible, it gets rather busy during the day as ATV and mountain biking enthusiasts flock to the area – especially during the summer. The crowds clear as the night falls, too, so using this campground as a base camp for staying the night and exploring the forest during the day can be a great idea.

In terms of amenities, there is no source of drinking water, so carrying your water supply in bottles or canisters is a must. Carrying a port-a-potty, if you have one, can also be a good idea. Only a few vault toilets are present, but they are few and far between.

Kinderhook Horse Trail

Two horse riders on the Kinderhook Horse Trail
  • Map
  • Water availability: yes
  • Toilets: vault toilets
  • Visitor frequency: medium

If you like primitive camping and riding horses from your campsite and into a scenic forest – the Kinderhook Horse Trail campground is where you want to be. Representing a relatively new addition to the rather complex system of hiking and horse trails of southern Ohio, the campground sits right at the trailhead, making it a great vantage point for someone who wants to combine hiking and camping.

The campsites at Kinderhook Horse Trail are open only seasonally. The campground follows the operational months of the trails itself – from April 15th to December 15th.

This campground is open for both RVs and tenting, as there is plenty of space at the trailhead, where you can park up or set up your tent.

Kinderhook represents one of the rare campgrounds in the Wayne National Forest that features both a secure source of drinking water as well as some public restrooms. The crowds here are manageable, but arriving early in the morning is still the best action to secure the best spots.

Jesse Owens State Park – Hook Lake Campground

Jesse Owens State Park campground in Ohio
  • Map
  • Water availability: no
  • Toilets: vault toilets
  • Visitor frequency: medium

Representing an exciting take on dispersed camping with sites that look more like developed campsites than primitive ones, Jesse Owens State Park is a place featuring a couple of fantastic camping options. As a part of the state park itself, there are four campgrounds. Out of these, the Hook Lake Campground offers, by far, the best amenities and facilities. You can count on picnic tables at every site, fire rings, and easy access to toilets.

The sites at Hook Lake are well-spaced out, which means plenty of space where you can park your car, set up your tent, spread an awning, and connect it to the roof of your pickup truck – you name it.

If you like hiking, the broader area covers a great network of trails you can hike up and down to your heart’s content. (As long as your exploratory efforts don’t last longer than 14 days because that’s the limit regarding how long you can stay at one site within this campground.)

Another great thing that recommends Hook Lake as an excellent camping opportunity is its location. With its location in a relatively dense woodland, this campground gives you a fair bit of privacy you won’t necessarily find elsewhere, famous for its trails and hiking.

The remaining three campgrounds within the Jesse Owens State Park include Maple Grove, Sawmill, and Sand Hollow.

Hidden Hollow Campground – Fernwood State Forest 

Hidden Hollow Campground in the Fernwood State Forest
  • Map
  • Water availability: no
  • Toilets: vault toilets
  • Visitor frequency: medium

At Hidden Hollow, you will find 22 individual campsites, each equipped with a fire ring and a picnic table. There are also a couple of restrooms near this campground.

Hidden Hollow sits within the boundaries of the Fernwood Forest in east Ohio, and this charming woodland hideout has more to offer than what you can notice at first sight only. Like many other forest campgrounds in this part of the US, you can get a well-maintained system of trails that you can hike up and down to your heart’s desire.

If you set up a tent at Hidden Hollow, one thing that you will notice immediately is the gorgeous view you will have of the surrounding trails, as well as the forest. There are also several fishing ponds, so if you want to try out some angling in the pauses between your camping pursuits, you should bring your favorite tackle and give it a go.

What makes this place so impressive is its seclusion and the quiet atmosphere you get when camping there.

Last, if you’d like to add excitement and target practice to the otherwise relatively tranquil camping experience, there is a shooting range close to Hidden Hollow.

Stone Church Trailhead Dispersed Campground 

Forest over a sky in Ohio
  • Map 
  • Water availability: no 
  • Toilets: no
  • Visitor frequency: medium

Stone Church is an excellent campground in the vicinity of Athens, Ohio– especially for those into horseback riding or hiking. 

In terms of its appearance, Stone Church is a rather large clearing made out of gravel. You can use it as you would a parking lot to bring a tent and set it up somewhere along the edges of this campground. The road leading to this campground is reasonably easy to navigate, though coming here onboard a large RV may be a better option.

There are a couple of sites at this campground large enough for a rig like that, but ultimately, you would be better off if you came here with a passenger vehicle and some tents.

In terms of amenities, you won’t find any here. For this reason, be prepared to come here fully self-sufficient. It’s especially important to bring water.

Last but not least, Stone Church Trailhead is open from April 15th to December 15th, which gives you a big window of opportunity for local trail exploration – whether you do it on horseback or by foot. Also, this area is a well-known and beloved OHV location, so whether you’re a quad, dirt bike, or a 4×4 Japanese pickup truck enthusiast – Stone Church is where you will love to park up and set up your tent. 

Wildcat Hollow

Hikers in Wayne National Forest near Wildcat Hollow
  • Map
  • Water availability: no
  • Toilets: vault toilets
  • Visitor frequency: low

A significant hiking and trekking destination within the Wayne National Forest, Wildcat Hollow has excellent camping potential and two major hiking trails you can explore. The more extended one circles over 17.2 miles around the campground to make a loop full of gorgeous scenery you can see anywhere in Ohio. Along the way, you can see fantastic ridge tops where you can look over the tree line and pass by ice-cold streams and verdant meadows.

There is also a shorter trail that’s 5 miles and that you can complete in a single day. Fantastic views of mysterious pine forests, rock formations, and old forest service roads with a story to tell will also wait for you here.

If you like bird-spotting or appreciate beautiful flowers, bringing a pair of binoculars can be a great idea, as Wildcat Hollow is rich in beautiful flora and fauna. Wildflower viewing, in particular, is one of the major activities you can do here.

You must stick to the gravel surface at the trailhead if you’re arriving in an RV or some other four-wheeler. This trail is operational year-round; no water is available, but there are a couple of vault toilets around the campground.

Morgan Sisters Trailhead 

Oak Hill near Morgan Sisters Trailhead
  • Map
  • Water availability: no
  • Toilets: no
  • Visitor frequency: low

If you’d like to set up your tent along one of the trails that are part of an extensive, labyrinth-like system called Symmes Creek/Morgan Sister Trail System, this trailhead can be a fantastic option.

Whether you’d like to combine your camping expedition with some hiking trail exploration or set up your tent in nature next to well-trodden woodland paths, this trailhead campground will add a couple of new entries to your to-do list while you’re here.

If you like fishing, the local lake contains smallmouth bass, channel catfish, and sauger. The lake is open year-round, and you can fish from the shore, a canoe, or a similar vessel. Thanks to its excellent location between marked hiking trails, Morgan Sisters Trailhead gives you many excellent trail pullout campsites where you can pitch your tent.

Nature viewing is a big deal around these parts. You can capture fantastic wildlife photos while hiking or exploring the general area around the campground.

There are no toilets and no drinking water source along this trail, so total self-sufficiency is a must. Before arriving here, stop in Oak Hill, the closest town to the campground, to get your basic supplies.  

Burr Oak State Park Campground 

River in Burr Oak State Park
  • Map
  • Water availability: yes
  • Toilets: yes
  • Visitor frequency: high

Although Burr Oak is not a dispersed campground per se, there are parts of the park where primitive camping is possible. To access this park, however, you must make reservations in advance. You can book sites up to six months in advance.

The main campground features seventy sites that have no electric hookups but that do have flush toilets, showers, as well as a dump station. There’s also a horseshoe court and a playground for entertainment and recreation purposes. There are also a couple of campsites with electrical hookups.

Burr Oak can be an excellent option for groups and people who like horses and fancy taking a horseback-riding tour of the area. The equestrian campground has ten sites, for the record.

As far as primitive camping is concerned, there are 19 sites in total located along the docks. You can also find some restrooms there, but no other significant amenities. If you’re looking for a campground where you can go primitive camping and secure your spot well in advance, Burr Oak can be an excellent location.

For more awesome camping in the states, see our guide to the best dispersed campgrounds in Buena Vista and our guide to dispersed camping near Silverton, Colorado.

Timbre Ridge Lake

Timbre Ridge Lake campground in Ohio
  • Map
  • Water availability: yes
  • Toilets: vault toilets 
  • Visitor frequency: high

Located in Lawrence County, the Timbre Ridge Lake campground represents a scenic camping location where the campsites follow the shoreline of the eponymous lake. The lake itself covers an area of about 100 acres. In comparison, the surrounding Wayne National Forest gives you another 1,200 acres of woodland forest paths and small clearings amidst a cluster of pines. You can also explore rock formations and hideouts.

Timbre Ridge is open year-round, and access to it is entirely free of charge. The campgrounds around the lake are all primitive, and no developed campground is nearby. There is no source of drinking water around these parts, but there are vault toilets that you can use. With an appropriate water filter, you can filter some of the water from the lake. However, bringing your fresh water supply is always the best action.

You can fish at the lake and catch specimens like bluegill, largemouth bass, and channel catfish. Also, outdoor activities such as hunting, hiking, swimming, and boating (including motorized boating) are prevalent at Timbre Ridge. 

If you want to learn more about Timbre Ridge or some of the campgrounds in the area, you can check out the Ironton Ranger District office.

Independence Dam State Park Campground 

Independence Dam State Park campground entrance sign
  • Map 
  • Water availability: no 
  • Restroom: vault toilets 
  • Visitor frequency: high 

With gorgeous primitive campgrounds that disperse along the banks of the scenic Maumee River, Independence Dam State Park has one of the most beautiful campgrounds in Ohio.

Due to the curious location and uneven terrain surrounding the river, this campground only allows tents, so if you’re planning an RV trip, consider other options.

Even though the campsites here are primitive, due to the massive popularity of this camping area, making a reservation well in advance is a must (You can book a site online by following this link or calling (866) 644-6727). Amenity-wise, there is no electricity and no drinking water available at any of the campgrounds. That said, there is a picnic table and a fire ring at every site, and there are restrooms that you can use in the general area.

There are 25 primitive sites in total, all of which follow the river’s banks. Additional fun activities you can do include fishing, boating, and hiking. Also, you can visit the nearby Miami and Eerie canals, which are now in ruins and represent a piece of local lore and history.

Where is Dispersed Camping Allowed in Ohio?

Fall foliage along Caesar Creek Lake in Ohio

Dispersed camping in Ohio is allowed on land overseen by two central authorities – the USFS (United States Forest Service) and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Generally speaking, the hub for some of the best-dispersed camping opportunities in Ohio would be Wayne National Forest, which the USFS oversees.

The rules surrounding primitive camping on land that’s under the jurisdiction of these two managing bodies differ depending on where you are.

Here are some of the basic rules and regulations surrounding camping on territories overseen by these two organizations in more detail. 

Wayne National Forest

Wildflowers in Ohio

Covering over 240,000 acres of southern Ohio, Wayne National Forest represents a large woodland expanse with a rich network of hiking trails and an even richer network of campgrounds that pepper the patches between the courses, around the lakes, along the creeks and rivers, and in the clearings.

What makes Wayne National Forest different from the other camping-friendly forested regions the USFS oversees is that camping is allowed at trailheads and near trails. Typically, the forest service representatives frown upon the idea of campsites near trail routes for concerns of campers getting in the way of hikers and vice versa.

If you’re not blocking or otherwise obstructing a trail or a road, you can set up your tent or park your RV or car wherever you like.

Due to frequent visitors, especially hiking and off-road enthusiasts, USFS officials strongly recommend practicing ‘Leave no Trace’ camping principles. You can visit this page for more information about rules, potential fees, and restrictions.

Ohio Department of Natural Resources

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources oversees many areas with fantastic free camping options. Mostly, these are primitive campgrounds that are part of a larger campground, so there’s usually a fee involved.

Many primitive campgrounds have basic amenities such as vault toilets, picnic tables, and a fire ring or two. That said, there is typically no water available, and there are no trash pickups.

You can find additional primitive campgrounds by looking at this super-detailed interactive map made by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.


All in all, hikers, climbers, OHV enthusiasts, as well as campers, can all find more than enough fun and exploration within the borders of Wayne National Forest, but also in the other parts of Ohio that aren’t as rich in pine trees and hiking trails, but make up for it in scenic bodies of water and gorgeous verdant meadows. 

If you like woodland paths, secretive forest pullouts, off-roading, and camping next to hiking trails, there’s no better place to pitch your tent or park your RV than in some corner of the great US state of Ohio.

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