In this in-depth guide, I will talk about when to camp in national forests, how to find the best national forest dispersed camping areas, the camping rules, and some of the most important safety precautions. Also, I will list my fifteen favorite national forests in order of visitor frequency.
Representing the lungs of North America and immensely rich in resources such as wood, clean water, and vegetation, the opportunity for free dispersed camping in National Forests exemplifies the ecological and monetary potential of these scenic woodland areas in the US. These scenic woodland areas also shelter thousands of unique and beautiful animal species.
There are 154 national forests in the United States, one of them being in Puerto Rico (El Yunque is also the only tropical rainforest). Let’s dive in first and look at how to find information and rules about national forests.
How to Find National Forest Dispersed Camping Areas?
You can find a dispersed campground within a national forest in a couple of ways.
First, you can check out the fantastic interactive visitor map developed by the officials at USFS. This map features a significant number of national forest camping areas, and each of these places features a precise location on a map, a brief description, and a short list of activities you can engage in (hiking, camping, fishing, OHV-ing, picnicking, and so on), as well as road conditions.
Alternatively, you can consult other sources online, such as Campendium, although this site focuses more on RV camping.
One of the best overall options would be to visit the official website of the national forest you plan to visit. Under the section typically called ‘dispersed camping’, you will find a complete list of campgrounds you can visit (I have included the links to these sections for every forest in the list below).
Using and Navigating Forest Service Roads
All US forests feature a network of so-called forest service roads used by forest officials to maintain and oversee different forest parts. These roads represent primary passageways for hikers, cyclists, motorcyclists, campers, backpackers, and the representatives of the local wildlife.
Forest service roads are unique because the roadside pullouts often serve as dispersed campgrounds and hiking trailheads.
As of 2005, the authorities passed legislation requiring all national forest offices to issue a detailed MVUM (motor vehicle use map) or multiple MVUMs for their forest service roads. Consulting these maps is essential for understanding what parts of a forest are accessible to RVs and smaller vehicles and what sections are a no-go. You can learn more about MVUMs at this link.
Forest service roads can sometimes be closed for maintenance or due to heavy snowfall, forest fires, flooding, or other reasons. So, checking for news and updates on the official website of the national forest you’re about to visit is a must.
How Long Can You Dispersed Camp in National Forests?
For the most part, the rules for how long you can stay at a single campground within a US national forest are relatively uniform.
The general rule of thumb is to stay for 14 days at a single location within one month. Whether you spend a couple of days at the campground and then a couple of days off, or you spend the whole two weeks at a single spot in one go – it’s entirely up to you.
A quick note: Unforeseen circumstances such as forest fires can temporarily trump the rule above.
National Forests Camping Reservations
While most of the national forests have plenty of dispersed camping areas that are entirely free, some patches of woodland do require a reservation – especially if the campground has a high visitor frequency.
One of the best ways to book a campsite at a US national forest campground would be through Recreation.gov.
National Forest Camping Fees
You can use most of the local facilities and amenities free of charge.
That said, some parts of the forest have spots and amenities that require a certain fee. These fees are often modest, but you still have to pay them to avoid getting in trouble with the local authorities. The funds collected this way are reinvested into the forest in several ways:
Standard amenity fees serve the purpose of maintaining visitor centers, cleaning campgrounds, and developing trailhead upkeep.
Expanded amenity fees cover the maintenance of RV hookups, dump stations, cabin rentals, campgrounds, boat launches, swimming areas, special tours, and local transportation systems.
Special recreation permits cover the maintenance expenses of shooting ranges, special events, and trail systems.
You can purchase specialized permits at the official USGS store.
Free Dispersed Camping in National Forests
Throughout National Forests in the US, you can go dispersed camping – whether it’s negotiating the rugged forest service paths with your RV, pitching your tent in an elevated woodland mesa, or simply backpacking across a vast wilderness area and then finding a suitable clearing for an encampment.
You can find dispersed campgrounds along scenic creeks, on the shores of lakes, on the banks of rivers, in the deep woods, on the perimeters of civilization (such is the case in forests adjacent to Phoenix, Arizona, for example), and next to forest service roads. The last type of roadside pullout campgrounds is the most common.
The campgrounds you will come across in national forests tend to feature various amenities. Some have access to potable water and some vault toilets, but most feature none. Picnic tables, fire rings, and grill grates are typical on many campgrounds.
Depending on the spot, you can also find terrain-specific amenities such as boat ramps or horse-hitching posts.
Where Can You Camp in the National Forest?
For the most part, dispersed camping is permitted on most of the territory of a national forest unless specifically pointed out otherwise.
As long as you’re not pitching your tent in the middle of a trail or beside a developed campground, a large trailhead, picnic site, or private property, you can camp wherever you desire.
Are There National Forest Campgrounds?
Over 5,000 campgrounds are peppering the 154 national forests within the US. There are two types of campgrounds in US National Forests – developed campgrounds and dispersed campgrounds.
The significant difference between the two would be the level of development, which typically means a fee is involved in staying at a developed campground. These campgrounds feature multiple amenities such as running water, toilets, electricity, RV hookups and dump stations, playgrounds, picnic tables, and more.
As far as dispersed campgrounds are concerned, they usually feature no amenities or only a limited number. Some dispersed campgrounds come with vault or pit toilets, and a crude fire ring is usually present.
You can find developed and dispersed campgrounds throughout US national forests with the help of the interactive visitor map.
Group Camping in National Forest Areas
As a general rule of thumb, group campgrounds tend to be rarer than dispersed campgrounds in national forests. That said, they do exist.
Typically, you have to pay an entrance fee (which only amounts to a little if the group members split the cost), as group sites are considerably larger than ordinary campgrounds and typically feature state-of-the-art amenities. Flush toilets, showers, trash cans, RV hookups, grills, and campfire rings are some facilities you can expect to find at a group campground.
The rules surrounding group camping in national forests are not different from regular camping. However, local USFS officials warn against littering, noise pollution, cutting down trees or altering the environment.
An important note: If you’re with a group of over 75 individuals, you typically need to get a special camping permit at the appropriate district office.
What Are the Rules for Dispersed Camping in National Forests?
The rules around dispersed camping in national forests are fairly simple and lax. Here are some of the most critical points:
- Self-sufficiency is a must, as forest dispersed campgrounds usually offer no amenities.
- You can camp at a single campground for no more than 14 days within a 30-day period (the exact number of days varies slightly from forest to forest).
- Set up your tent or park your RV at least 100 feet from a primary water source, such as a stream or a river.
- Adopt a pack-in, pack-out camping approach.
- Stick to the Leave No Trace policy.
- Check in advance for fire restrictions or other relevant updates with the local Forest Service office.
- Be aware of bears, moose, snakes, and other potentially dangerous animals in the area.
Safety in National Forests
Together, national forests span a vast territory of over 200 million acres. Some of the many species that call this immense expanse of land their home include bears, raccoons, mountain lions, deer, beavers, moose, wolverines, and Mount Graham red squirrels.
Some animals on this list are more dangerous than others. Before visiting a specific national forest, you must acquaint yourself with the local wildlife.
Other than avoiding getting eaten by a bear or charged by a moose and then eaten by a bear, wildfires are also a significant concern in national forests.
Checking the latest official USFS news and fire statements is essential before visiting a forest – especially during summer.
Other safety considerations when it comes to dispersed camping in national forests include:
- Dangerous caves
- Getting lost
- Extreme weather conditions (heat waves, cold spells, storms, floods, etc.)
- Taking a tumble down an old mine shaft (happens more often than you’d think)
- Tick bites
To stay safe, visit this official USFS website to learn more about how to protect yourself when visiting a US national forest.
Best 15 National Forests for Dispersed Camping
If you like the woods, the unique pristine campgrounds deep inside a forest with gorgeous mountains as the backdrop, and crystal-clear lakes, creeks, rivers, and even oceans as nearby bodies of water – setting up camp or parking your RV in one of US’s a great many national forests should be on your bucket list.
In the paragraphs below, I will list the fifteen best national forests for dispersed camping in order of popularity
I will also provide links to the official website of each forest, as well as the relevant MVUMs (Motor Vehicle Use Maps), which are essential for RV-ers, and the link to the interactive visitor map.
Dispersed Camping in Olympic National Forest
With its location in the upper left corner of the United States, Olympic National Forest covers a significant patch of Washington state and offers some of the most amazing panoramic views, hiking trails, and camping opportunities you can find anywhere in North America.
The fun activities you can pursue while visiting this national forest run long. Just in the department of nature-viewing, Olympic National Forest offers a range of fantastic sights, including mighty rivers flowing between alpine patches of forest, magnificent mountain peaks, and seas of wildflowers in bloom (though, that’s just seasonal).
The forest service authorities take pride in their work and collaboration with the numerous indigenous native tribes and communities. If you’re a history and geography aficionado, visiting this national forest will teach you more about the state of Washington than any local museum.
Most places in Olympic National Forest are developed campgrounds, but there are also dispersed campgrounds that you can visit. Dispersed camping is possible around the Dosewallips River Basin, where you can enjoy a low-elevation wet temperate woodland type of camping. Also, the scenic and widely-beloved Hamma Hamma area is open for dispersed camping, hiking, and backpacking.
Dispersed Camping in Sequoia National Forest
With a motto of ‘Explore the Land of Giants’, the Sequoia National Forest authorities leave little to the imagination as their giant sequoias continue to attract awe-struck tourists worldwide.
Sequoia National Forest is California’s most prized patch of woodland, containing some of the rarest examples of giant trees worldwide. It represents the southernmost section of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
This forest has 34 giant sequoia groves; the other tree species include red fir, Jeffrey pine, Ponderosa pine, Coast Douglas-fir, and white fir. Interestingly, the vast majority of the trees in this patch of California reach incredible heights and age, so something in the soil makes this possible.
Other awe-inspiring features of this national forest are the so-called Needles – a series of granite spires towering above the Kern River, and large glacier-carved landscapes.
Dispersed camping is allowed in many patches of this gorgeous forest. The most notable dispersed camping areas include three ranger districts: Hume Lake Ranger District, Kern River Ranger District, and Western Divide Ranger District.
An important notice: For obvious reasons, all national forests have special rules surrounding wildfires. Sequoia National Forest officials require you to have a special permit for starting campfires, as the trees in this national forest are too unique and precious to be damaged by reckless fire-starting.
Mendocino National Forest Dispersed Camping
Comprising nearly one million acres of rugged woodland outdoors in northwestern California, the Mendocino National Forest is a definition of rough, untamed wilderness located at the tip of an otherwise super urban US state.
This place is so remote and jagged that it’s the only national forest in the US without a paved road leading into it. As such, it offers some of North America’s most gorgeous, unique landscape pieces.
Exploring it is not for those faint of heart. The conditions of various dirt roads that can lead you to this place vary considerably – mainly depending on the weather. Wildfires and storm-caused damage also play a significant role in how easy or difficult it is to navigate the forest service roads in this region.
Dispersed camping is often the preferred form in this part of California. Given the remoteness and ruggedness of this region, the atmosphere that awaits those bold enough for primitive camping in Cali is that of quietness and solitude amidst scenic groves, creeks, and fresh woodland air. Dispersed campgrounds in Mendocino are split into three different major areas:
Los Padres National Forest Dispersed Camping
Spanning large swathes of southern and central California, Los Padres National Forest has got it all – from rugged hilly patches of woodland to verdant valleys and to the Pacific coast, where parts of this forest meet the ocean.
Los Padres forest spreads along almost two million acres of land, boasting vast networks of scenic hiking trails, charming and secretive forest service roads with excellent pullout-style campsites, and fantastic OHV areas at almost every section of this vast woodland area.
As far as dispersed camping is concerned, Los Padres National Forest is a place that features many great sites throughout its territory. These campgrounds diffuse into four different dispersed camping areas:
- Monterey Ranger District
- Mt. Pinos Ranger District
- Santa Barbara Ranger District
- Santa Lucia Ranger District
Off-road vehicles and RVs, in general, are welcome but consider that some forest roads can be pretty bumpy. For this reason, if you plan on exploring an area within this forest that you don’t have a map of, you should scout ahead to see what the road is like and drive carefully.
Tahoe National Forest Dispersed Camping
Another significant Californian National Forest you can explore is Tahoe, a place that represents a unique homage to the majestic Sierra Nevada mountains. With its location just north of the gorgeous Lake Tahoe, visiting this unique national forest can be a great way to meet the Sierra Nevada Mountain range up close and personal and make a slight detour and check out the central lake on the southern perimeter of this forest.
Dispersed camping is not allowed most of the Tahoe National Forest, mainly because of the massive tourist potential of this part of the US. So, you will get little in undeveloped campgrounds. Still, you will find hiking trails, bicycle trails, and the novelty of E-bike trails – dirt roads specifically developed for the appreciators of electric bikes.
However, there is no legislation against dispersed camping, and some areas, such as Baltimore Lake, are primitive camping-friendly (as long as you get your California campfire permit and respect the local wildfire warnings and updates, you will be fine).
Pike National Forest Dispersed Camping
Named after a significant military leader and explorer of early US history Zebulon Montgomery Pike, this national forest occupies a particular spot in central Colorado. It has plenty of unique features worth exploring.
This scenic patch of Colorado also has the famous Pikes Peak as the highlight of its territory, making this place a hikers’ and climbers’ favorite. If you’re a geology enthusiast, you’ll love that Pikes Peak is made almost entirely of a particular sort of pink and orange granite named Pikes Peak granite for its uniqueness.
Pike National Forest is in a bundle with San Isabel National Forest and two central adjacent national grasslands in Cimarron and Comanche. These four areas together offer a wide variety of dispersed camping opportunities.
This vast combined area spans almost three million acres and expands well past Colorado’s borders, so you can rest assured that dispersed camping opportunities are plentiful. Here are some of the most notable areas with well-known and often-visited dispersed campgrounds:
- Cimarron National Grassland
- Comanche National Grassland
- Pikes Peak Ranger District
- Salida Ranger District
- San Carlos Ranger District
- South Park
- South Platte Ranger District
The whole Pike National Forest and its surrounding broader area feature many awesome activities you can pursue. Renting a remote cabin and buying firewood requires a special permit. To get yours, visit this link.
Hoosier National Forest Dispersed Camping
Horseback riding, mountain biking, hiking up and down some of the most gorgeous trails in North America, and dispersed camping throughout a scenic woodland part of Indiana – all that and more in Hoosier National Forest.
If you’re an RV enthusiast, you’ll love to hear that this National Forest gives you plenty of excellent camping options. The local authorities go out of their way to make camping a pleasure for every visitor. Whether you have an RV or a similar vehicle, most roads are negotiable, even for larger rigs. Other than that, many of the developed campgrounds have electricity, water hookups, and dump stations, which is often different for woodland campgrounds.
Free dispersed camping is available throughout Hoosier National Forest, so you will be able to find a spot perfect for your needs. However, getting firewood does come with a set of rules specific to this forest.
For RV campers, one of the best ways to get to know this gorgeous national forest would be to pull up your digital MVUM and tackle the forest service roads head-on. Along the way, you will see many great roadside-style pullout campsites where you can park up, set up your tent, your collapsible furniture, and open the mini fridge – all depending on how large the spot is that you managed to snatch. As long as you’re at least 125 feet from the road and not within the perimeters of another developed campground – you can camp wherever you desire.
White River National Forest Dispersed Camping
White River National Forest near Glenwood Springs is a proper dispersed camping gem in Colorado, covering over two million acres of the breathtakingly beautiful land of snow-capped peaks jutting above the Colorado Rockies, crystal-clear mountain lakes, and mysterious evergreen forests.
This place includes ten mountain summits over 14,000 feet, 11 different ski resorts, and eight wilderness areas spanning over a third of the area of the forest. The list of must-visit natural wonders in this large expanse of Colorado woodland goes on and on. Starting from Sweetwater Lake, Colorado’s largest lake, to unique areas such as the newly-established Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument, you’ll always have things to see and explore in this part of the Centennial State.
Dispersed White River National Forest camping often mixes with activities such as horseback riding and OHVs, so many campgrounds double as basecamps for starting an off-roading or horse-riding exploration effort.
Given the size, weather conditions, and elevation of this national forest, the local authorities make many different maps that you can use – depending on what time of the year it is and what the weather is like.
Siuslaw National Forest Dispersed Camping
Spanning over half a million acres of western Oregon, Siuslaw National Forest represents one of the most unique and curious ecosystem compositions in the entire US map of forests. It contains sandy coastal regions with gorgeous beaches facing the Pacific Ocean, rocky patches with dispersing hillocks, and majestic forests.
Siuslaw offers one of the most complete and enjoyable camping experiences for dispersed campers. Outside the forest, besides camping, you can enjoy a wide variety of additional activities, including fishing, hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking, and exploring tide pools, in case you’re a marine biology enthusiast.
The best dispersed campgrounds in Siuslaw National Forest are split into two different areas:
Each of these expenses within the forest features a handful of unique campgrounds with different terrain. Whether it’s scenic dunes, excellent hiking trails, or forest service road pullouts, rest assured that Siuslaw will not disappoint.
Wayne National Forest Dispersed Camping
Representing Ohio’s sole national forest and spreading over a quarter of a million acres along the gorgeous Appalachian trail foothills, Wayne National Forest is a scenic patch of woodland with ranger district offices in Nelsonville and Irontown in southern Ohio.
The terrain in Wayne National Forest is varied and encompasses several different ecosystems – from woodland-covered hills and deep hollow former coal beds with ice-cold streams circumnavigating the area to hiking trails leading through thick forest patches with remnants of storied mining and agricultural past at every step.
Dispersed camping is a significant pastime for the locals and many visitors that explore this forest. As far as the rules go, you must ensure you aren’t blocking hiking trails or local roads, and you can camp wherever you like.
The list of primitive campgrounds in Wayne National Forest is long and expanding. Rest assured that you will have plenty of places to visit and explore in Ohio’s only significant forest. Here are the major dispersed camping areas in Wayne National Forest:
- Athens Area – Athens Ranger District
- Marietta Area – Athens Ranger District
- Irontown Area – Irontown Ranger District
A quick note: Given the number of different campgrounds and the popularity of dispersed camping in this part of Ohio, the authorities strongly advise sticking to the Leave No Trace camping principles so the campgrounds are kept clean and free of clutter.
Coconino National Forest Dispersed Camping
Featuring majestic red rock cliffs and new formations dating back to prehistory, Coconino is a national forest you must see to believe. From the famous red rocks of Sedona to the vast alpine tundra with Humphrey’s peak as its crown, this place is a patch of woodland you want to take advantage of.
Near the town of Flagstaff in the north of Arizona, Coconino is a place that features a rich array of different landscapes, including deserts, flatlands, scenic mesas where you can capture Discovery Channel-worthy nature photos, endless tundra, and, to top it all off – even volcanic peaks of yore.
Many of Coconino’s dispersed campsites (quite a few of them) are open year-round. This whole-year openness is excellent news for those wanting to explore this scenic forest area during winter and summer. Here are the most essential dispersed camping areas in Coconino:
Some forest roads can get closed off temporarily due to extreme snowfall, low temperatures, or flooding. If you plan to visit Coconino during rough weather, visiting USFS’s current forest service status page beforehand is always a good idea.
Tonto National Forest Dispersed Camping
Just shy of three million acres of some of the most fascinating woodland in the US, Tonto National Forest is one of the six national forests in Arizona and certainly one of the most beautiful. Much of the appeal of this vast piece of territory comes from its sheer size, which gives enough space for its incredible variety of terrain and vegetation.
In addition to varied and diverse plants, Tonto is also home to a wide range of wild animals, including raccoons, black bears, skunks, greater roadrunners (yes, the bird from the Roadrunner vs Wile E. Coyote cartoon), as well as long-eared owls, deer, Rocky Mountain elk; the list goes on.
Interestingly, Tonto represents the most visited national forest in the US. Other than its size and beauty, a big reason for this would be that to its south, this vast patch of woodland borders the broader Phoenix dispersed camping area. Many residents and visitors of this enormous city spend their weekends hiking up and down one of the Tonto’s many trails or scoping the terrain and looking for the best campgrounds.
There are plenty of dispersed campgrounds throughout Tonto National Forest. Here are some of the most prominent primitive camping areas:
- Mesa Ranger District
- Tonto Basin Ranger District
- Cave Creek Ranger District
- Pleasant Valley Ranger District
- Payson Ranger District
An important note: Wildfires are a significant concern in Tonto, so keeping updated on fire-related closures, alerts, and restrictions is necessary.
Stanislaus National Forest Dispersed Camping
Named after the gorgeous Stanislaus River, itself named after Estanislao, an indigenous Lakisamni leader who fought the Mexicans on this body of water, Stanislaus National Forest is a woodland place where rivers, streams, and lake dominate the scenery with the trees being more of a nice additional touch.
Stanislaus is one of the oldest national forests in the US, with its founding date back in 1897. Representing a good gem in the crown of northern California, this national forest is a favorite among Californians and visitors from across the globe.
Another reason why this forest is such a major tourist destination is the vicinity of the San Francisco Bay Area. Activities such as rafting, kayaking, boating, and other water-based sports are commonplace alongside camping.
Dispersed camping, in particular, offers a one-of-a-kind experience, as the campgrounds are, for the most part, scatter along high-frequency highway routes. Here are the most essential dispersed camping areas around Stanislaus:
Pisgah National Forest Dispersed Camping
Imagine slopes full of verdant greenery and trees as far as the eye can see, mesmerizing cascading waterfalls, and tall hillocks with gorgeous peaks. You can witness all of this and more in the curiously-named Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina.
The list of activities you can enjoy in this part of the world goes on and on. Whether horseback riding, fishing, hiking, scenic driving, picnicking, or water-based activities such as boating, tubing, or just plain old swimming, you’ll always have more venues to visit.
Pisgah’s half-a-million-plus acres of scenic woodland are home to many fantastic campsites. Many forest service roads are navigable enough for large RVs, so exploring this part of North Carolina onboard your favorite home on wheels can be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Regarding dispersed camping, Pisgah offers a rather impressive array of campgrounds spread across all forest patches. Here are the areas where you can find the best-dispersed campgrounds:
For the record, Pisgah National Forest is part of a bundle with three other forests, including Croatan, Uwharrie, and Nantahala. These four are all under the jurisdiction of the same administrative and information office in Asheville, NC.
Sierra National Forest Dispersed Camping
Lastly, Sierra National Forest is a gorgeous patch of central California, wedged between Yosemite National Park to the northwest and Kings Canyon National Park to the south. Mountain scenery and gorgeous high-altitude clear lakes dominate this forest, and nature viewing and camping are some of the favorite activities for locals and visitors alike.
Many of the dispersed campgrounds in this forest feature the beautiful snow-covered camps of the Sierra Nevada mountains as the background. Even arriving here to sit back in your foldable camping chair and snap photos of your surroundings would be time well spent.
There are only a handful of places in this forest where dispersed camping is not allowed. For the most part, as long as you’re not blocking any roads, you can pitch your tent or park your RV wherever you desire. Here are essential campgrounds in Sierra National Forest:
- Fence Meadow Camping Area
- Kings River Special Management Area
- Mono Creek Overflow Camping
- Oak Flat Camping Area
- Onion Springs Overflow Camping Area
- Ross Crossing Camping Area
- Summit Camping Area
As is the case with other California forests, Sierra is also highly susceptible to seasonal wildfires. Getting a special license for starting campfires is therefore obligatory.
Where to Next?
Pitching a tent along a forest service road, or on a small mesa overlooking the tips of the Ponderosa pines with a majestic mountain range in the distance, or even emerging out of a woodland area to park up next to a Pacific Ocean beach – you can do all that and more if you venture to visit one or more of the US national forests.
Whether you’re into a good old tent and foldable chairs + a couple of beers around a campfire type of camping, or RVs, hammocking, or various combos such as camping and hiking or horseback riding, there is no place you want to be other than a US national forest.
But don’t forget, the vast expanse of the US public lands doesn’t end with National Forests. Sprawling across the western part of the country, the Bureau of Land Management lands invite you for an equally enchanting, if not more rugged, outdoor adventure.
So, for a truly unforgettable wilderness escape, why not consider BLM dispersed camping? Amid the unspoiled landscapes of these public lands, you’ll find a camping experience that takes ‘getting back to nature’ to a whole new level.
I love hiking, backpacking, and camping. From the Camino de Santiago to the West Highland Way in Scotland or simply a great day hike on the weekend. Hiking refreshes me, my mind, and keeps my body reasonably fit. So far I have walked three Camino routes and many other long distance hikes in the UK, Canada, and around the rest of Europe. One of the best was my hike up Ben Nevis.