Spectacular Dispersed Camping in National Forests


If you are looking for a spectacular way to camp without the crowds and expense of commercial and overcrowded campgrounds, try dispersed camping in National Forests.

If your camper has good boondocking capability, you’ll find this the ultimate form of true boondocking, aka “dispersed camping.”

There are no hookups, no designated campsites, no firepit, picnic table, or anything else looking like a normal campsite.

But dispersed camping just may be the best camping you have ever experienced!

What is Dispersed Camping in National Forests?

Dispersed Camping
Dispersed Camping

Dispersed camping in National Forests is about as off the grid as you can get.

And it is totally free.

You heard it – free.

No tax, no handling charges, no reservation fees.

As a matter of fact, you don’t even have to sign up for it.

If you’re parked, you’re registered.

There’s usually a 14-day limit, and you can’t camp within a certain radius (usually five or seven miles, sometimes ten) from the last place you camped, or come back within a certain period, usually five or seven days.

But that’s just to discourage people more intent on homesteading than camping.

All you need to know is what areas of the national forests allow dispersed camping.

Most of this stuff is out west – although there’s some limited dispersed camping in Maine and Michigan’s UP.

But it’s generally unavailable in the east.

Like the national forest campgrounds, there’s no one place online where you can go look up information on particular areas of the National Forests where dispersed camping is allowed. 

There is some information online for dispersed camping in certain national forests but most of the information is kept “behind the counter” – in ranger stations.

How to find dispersed camping spots in National Forests

There are maps available… sort of.

An excellent online source for the maps that designate dispersed camping in national forests is called Motor Vehicle Use Maps (MVUMs).

These are primarily used to tell the noisy two-stroke ATV crowd where they can and can’t drive.  But if you know how to read them, they also have valuable information dispersed campers. 

Go here: http://www.fs.fed.us/maps/forest-maps.shtml and pick the forest you are interested in.

The individual forest sites vary but look for MVUMs as PDF downloads. 

The National Forests now uses a very helpful app called Avanza Maps for Android and Apple operating systems.

The Free App is available for download through Avenza System Inc.: www.avenza.com/pdf-maps . This application along with the USA Forset Service’s PDF maps, will allow you to view your location at all times as you navigate through the forest, even offline when there is no INternet connection.

Look for the dots on either side of the road – that means it’s OK to camp there.

The maps may also contain information about minimum and maximum distances from the road you can camp, plus how close to water you can camp. A little poking around will save you a trip to the ranger station.

Here's the map I picked up at the ranger station two days ago. Look for the dots - that's the dispersed camping area.
Here’s a typical map you can pick up at a ranger station. Look for the dots – that’s the dispersed camping area.

For the most current dispersed camping info, stop at the Ranger Station!

Probably the absolute best way to find the best-dispersed camping spots in National Forests is by visiting the ranger station.

Each national forest has several ranger stations, and their addresses and phone numbers are on the web pages for that particular forest.

Drop by or call them and ask about dispersed camping.

They will give you a map with all the forest roads marked on it, and indications of where dispersed camping is allowed.

These areas are usually marked by dots on each side of a road.  They will also tell you road conditions, whether the road you’re looking at is suitable for your vehicle, hotbeds of activity by those infernal off-road vehicles to avoid, recent bear and mountain lion activity in the area, any burn restrictions in effect, fire permit procedures, and other interesting stuff like that.

Armed with your map, set out and claim your spot.

Take your time finding the best of the dispersed camping spots

dispersed camping in Shasta-Trinity NF, California
dispersed camping in Shasta-Trinity NF, California

Don’t just plunk down in the first nice area you find, or you’ll probably soon have company since you’re sitting in the most accessible spot. 

Drive around a bit. Think about where the sun’s track will be if you have solar panels, and whether you can hit the satellites from your spot if you have TV or internet dishes (or Starlink).

Also, make sure your spot is in compliance with the rules printed on the map or told to you in the ranger station.

There are sometimes restrictions on how close you can be to open water, or how close or far from a road you can be. 

If you’re in a flash flood area, you don’t want to be anywhere near a watercourse, even if it’s bone dry right now. 

If you see signs of bear activity (overturned rocks, scratches on trees, etc.) you might want to shop around a bit more. The problem with bear wrestling while dispersed camping is that there’s nobody to tag out with.

More tips about dispersed camping in National Forests

dispersed camping in San Juan NF, Colorado
dispersed camping in San Juan NF, Colorado

Your map will also contain the locations of developed campgrounds.

Ask or look up which of these have water so that you can drop by and replenish your supply when you get low.

There are rules for water and waste disposal for tent campers. If you are in a self-contained RV, you don’t have an excuse for failing to pack out everything you pack in. 

Leave the forest as nice or nicer than you found it.

This is not a campground with a dumpster and bathhouse and all that stuff.

Dispersed camping and your RV

dispersed camping in Custer NF, Montana
dispersed camping in Custer NF, Montana

Give dispersed camping a try if you have the boondocking capability to do it comfortably.

Dispersed camping gives you that most precious of commodities in this urbanized, modern world – solitude in a beautiful natural setting. 

It’s not for those who want to be in a group.

Often, you can go days without seeing another human.

If you are not comfortable being alone, this isn’t for you. 

But if peace and quiet and nature is why you camp, this is what you will experience.

Want to Learn More About Dispersed Camping (AKA Boondocking)?

Want to learn how to boondock?

We created a PRINT version of our most popular guide to help you with the most common boondocking problems. We get a ton of questions from our subscribers about how to get started boondocking that range from where to go and wild animals to water conservation to what equipment to use and more. 

Spectacular Dispersed Camping in National Forests 1

Throw off the shackles of traditional RV Parks and campgrounds, stop paying high fees every night that you spend in your RV, and experience the boundless amounts of nature while boondocking.

You’re done with the noisy RV parks, the 3.5 feet of room you have squished in between two other RVs, and other people’s kids running through your campsite?

You’ve ditched the hookups, the concrete blocks and have replaced them with self-leveling and Navy showers?

This is the book for you.

Looking for some awesome places to camp out west?

Whether dispersed camping, boondocking, state or national parks or commercial campgrounds, we can help you find the best places to stay and suggest the things you need to see and the places you need to explore in the Southwest.

Please check out our special Southwest Bundle 3-Pack, instantly downloadable eBooks of our 7 Day Adventure Guides to Arizona, Utah, and Colorado. These guides are bundled together at a great price, or you can buy them separately at just $7 each. 

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