Essential Dispersed Camping Info in the National Forests

Dispersed camping is outside of developed campgrounds and it's free.

camping in national forest
Monica Prelle

Camping is a great way to get outdoors and experience nature, but sometimes campgrounds can feel more like a parking lot than a wilderness experience. Dispersed camping in the National Forest is the best way to go camping and get off the grid. And it's free camping on public lands.

We all need to escape our routines occasionally and have the urge to get away from it all. Time spent in the outdoors is a healthy remedy for body and soul. We are fortunate in the United States to have millions of acres of public lands available for our enjoyment and recreation. One of the primary caretakers of these vast outdoor resources is the US Forest Service which supports a policy called dispersed camping. 

Dispersed Camping

"All National Forest lands are open to camping unless otherwise posted. The advantages to this type of camping are many: peace, solitude, and adventure. There are, however, a few 'drawbacks'. You'll need to have a fire permit, bring your own water or purify water from lakes, streams, or springs. Be sure to make your camp at least 100 feet from all water sources. Since there are no toilet facilities, please dig a hole at least six inches deep for disposal of your human waste." - United States Forest Service

The U.S. Forest Service manages 154 national forests and 20 grasslands in 44 states plus Puerto Rico. If you really want to find a campsite that's away from it all, then consider some dispersed camping in one of our nation's forests. Maybe you'll find that camping getaway you've been dreaming of with canyon vistas and unbelievable sunsets, the sweet smells of juniper and ponderosa pine, an endless variety of birds and other forest creatures, and wide open space. dispersed camping on U.S. Forest Service land might be the best way to see it all without the crowds.


Find a national forest with dispersed camping. 

U.S. Forest Service Dispersed Camping Regulations and Recommendations

Forest service federal regulations are meant to control actions that cause damage to natural resources and facilities, as well as actions that cause unreasonable disturbances or unsafe conditions for visitors.

This is not a comprehensive list of regulations. A full list of regulations is available at Forest Service offices and online.

  • Remember, dispersed camping implies the rule: leave no trace. Respect the forests and help keep them clean for all to enjoy. 
  • Fireworks and firearms can be used only in accordance with the USFS rules.
  • Leaving a fire without completely extinguishing it, or failing to maintain control of a fire is prohibited. 
  • Dead and down material may be used for fires. Living trees, shrubs and plants may not be cut or damaged. Remove all flammable material from around the campfire to prevent its escape.
  • Fires may be prohibited during burn ban conditions. Obey any special restrictions that have been issued or posted
  • Proper food storage is required.Food storage restrictions may be in effect in some areas. Check bulletin boards for more information on local regulations. 
  • National Forest System roads and trails are closed to motorized vehicle use when blocked by a gate, sign, earthen mound or physical barrier erected to restrict motorized vehicular travel. 
  • Remove all garbage from the site by packing it out or placing it in the trash cans that have been provided.
  • There are no fees for dispersed camping. However, some areas may charge for parking. 

    U.S. Forest Service Dispersed Camping the Following ​Are Prohibited:

    • Camping or maintaining a campsite for more than 14 consecutive days in a dispersed or non-fee area without having terminated Forest occupancy for a minimum of 10 days within a 31-day time frame.
    • Failing to remove all camping equipment or personal property when vacating the site.
    • Occupying any portion of the site for other than recreation purposes.
    • Camping in violation of posted signs.
    • Camping within 100 feet of the base of any cliff, or ​the back of any rock shelter.
    • Cutting, removing, or otherwise damaging any timber, tree, or other forest product, including special forest products and forest botanical products.

      Updated and Edited by Camping Expert Monica Prelle