Michigan Free Dispersed Camping: The Complete Guide

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Michigan is one of the Midwest’s best camping destinations. Vast State and National Forests, thick woodlands, and shores along three of the great lakes makes dispersed camping in Michigan a can’t miss experience. Although the state may not be top of mind when you think of public lands, many campers are surprised by the opportunities to pitch your tent or park your trailer in some stunning wilderness.

However, you’ll want good background information as well as intel on the best campsites before you set out on your own Michigan dispersed camping trip. We’ve created this guide to do just that and in the sections below you’ll find out where to camp, what to expect, how to navigate the various rules, and much more so you can plan your perfect Michigan dispersed camping trip.

Let’s get started.

Michigan Dispersed Camping Guide

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The Basics

The following sections have all the critical info you need to understand the rules and regulations around dispersed camping in Michigan. This includes where you can legally camp, what the various rules are, and what to bring. This is the essential information before you head out!

Where is dispersed camping allowed in Michigan?

Generally speaking dispersed camping is permitted on public land managed by the United States Forest Service in Michigan. It is broadly allowed on these lands, expect where it is explicitly prohibited. That means that in Michigan, dispersed camping can generally be found in any of the three national forests (more details on those below) by looking along Forest Service roads or inquiring directly with the Ranger District Office where you plan to camp.

In addition to USFS land, Michigan also has a network of State Forests that permit dispersed camping. The regulations for camping here are slightly different from the USFS, and we provide additional context and details on State Forest dispersed camping in Michigan below.

US Forest Service Dispersed Camping in Michigan (USFS)

The US Forest Services manages three National Forests within Michigan. Two of these, Hiawatha & Ottawa, are located on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, while Huron-Manistee is located on the Lower Peninsula. Although Huron-Manistee are listed as a single national forest, they are not contiguous, with Huron National Forest located in eastern Michigan and Manistee located in western.

These National Forests are always our first recommendation to find dispersed campsites. Generally speaking, all National Forests permit some form of dispersed camping and have similar rules and regulations. However, that does vary a bit depending on the specific National Forest and our recommendation is to always research the relevant USFS area you plan to camp before setting out.

Michigan’s National Forests are listed below along with a link to the dispersed camping guidelines for each area:

Hiawatha National Forest dispersed camping in Michigan

Michigan State Forests Dispersed Camping

In addition to the the three National Forests in Michigan there are also six State Forests managed by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources that allow various forms of dispersed camping. These State Forests are located throughout Michigan, and are a true hidden gem for campers.

Michigan’s State Forest include the following:

  • Copper Country State Forest
  • Escanaba River State Forest
  • Lake Superior State Forest
  • Mackinaw State Forest
  • Pere Marquette State Forest
  • Au Sable State Forest

The following rules apply when dispersed camping in one of Michigan’s State Forests:

  • The campsite cannot be located in a State Park, recreation area, rustic state forest campground, or game area
  • The campsite must be located more than 1 mile from a rustic state forest campground
  • The campsite must not be located in an area posted as ‘No Camping’ – This one is obvious!
  • State Land Rules must be followed
  • A camp registration card must be posted at your campsite (more on this below)

Michigan Camp Registration Card for Dispersed Camping

As noted above, when dispersed camping in one of Michigan’s State Forests, you must complete and post a camp registration card at your campsite for the duration of your stay.

This is a simple form to fill out, but you must do so in advance and print out to post at your campsite. You can access the Camp Registration Card here.

Michigan State Forest
Michigan State Forests have tons of opportunities for dispersed camping.

How to find dispersed camping in Michigan

In general, with a little knowledge of where to look, experience navigating forest service roads, reading USFS maps, and camping in remote locations, you should be able to find plenty of dispersed campsites in Michigan. Although the state isn’t as well known for its free camping as some of the Western States, you’ll find far fewer campers in Michigan’s National and State Forests.

We recommend using a combination of online apps/websites and USFS maps to find dispersed campsites. Our favorite resources for Michigan dispersed camping are below:

Check out our Dispersed Camping App guide here.

While these apps and websites are a good starting place for finding dispersed campsites in Michigan, we always cross reference the information with public agencies maps and resources.

Another great resource for finding dispersed campsites in Michigan’s State Forests is their excellent interactive State Forest Map. This map allows you to see state forest boundaries as well as rustic state forest campgrounds and look for areas that permit dispersed camping. Remember, you must be at least 1 mile for a rustic state forest campground in order to dispersed camp.

Check out the Michigan State Forest interactive map here.

One final resource for finding dispersed camping in Michigan is to utilize the USFS Motor Vehicle Use Maps for the three National Forests. Although these don’t specifically show where dispersed camping is permitted, they do give you a good sense of the various forest service roads in the area and can be cross referenced with Google Maps and camping apps to find dispersed campsites.

Links to the relevant MVUMs for Michigan’s National Forests are below:

Dispersed Camping Rules & Regulations

One of our favorite things about dispersed camping is the lack of permits, reservations, and other requirements you’ll often find at developed campgrounds. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t important rules you should always following when dispersed camping.

It is best to check current regulations with the relevant USFS or Michigan State Forest, but you should plan on adhering to the following as outlined by the USFS:

  • Do not camp in areas near trailheads, picnic areas, or developed campgrounds.
  • Keep your campsite small.
  • Use existing sites and fire rings when available.
  • Pick a site where vegetation is absent.
  • Do not camp within 200 feet of a water source.
  • Dispersed camping is generally limited to 14 days within any continuous 30 day period.
  • Only have a campfire if it is permitted, and always be sure it is completely extinguished.
  • Practice Leave No Trace principles – more on that below!

Download Our FREE Dispersed Camping Cheat Sheet

Our free printable cheat sheet outlines how to find the perfect dispersed campsite for your next trip.

Leave No Trace Principles & Dispersed Camping

One of the most important considerations when dispersed camping is to follow Leave No Trace principles. This will minimize your impact and ensure your campsite can be enjoyed by future visitors. Here are the seven principles of Leave No Trace camping:

  • Plan Ahead & Prepare: Have an idea of where you’d like to camp and always be sure you are camping in an area that permits dispersed camping.
  • Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces: Never camp on fragile ground or create a new campsite.
  • Dispose of waste properly: Pack out all of your trash and bury human waste away from water sources. Ideally, carry out human waste or use a portable toilet.
  • Leave what you find: Never take anything from your campsite. Other than trash of course!
  • Minimize campfire impacts: Never create new fire rings and only have fires if permitted.
  • Respect Wildlife: Properly store food at all times and be aware of the area’s wildlife.
  • Be considerate of Other Visitors: Pack out your trash, don’t be loud, and leave your campsite in better condition than you found it.

You can read more about the seven principles of Leave No Trace camping here.

Dispersed Camping Checklist

Our dispersed camping checklist has everything you need.

Want to know the essentials for your next camping trip?

Our dispersed camping checklist has all the camping essentials plus specific items for dispersed camping.

The Best Dispersed Camping in Michigan

Ok, now comes the fun part!

If you’ve read the sections above you should have a good overview of the rules and regulations surrounding dispersed camping in Michigan. Now, let’s dive in and take a look at our Top 10 Michigan free, dispersed camping areas located across the state.

Additionally, the Michigan dispersed camping map below gives an overview of each area with a detailed description following.

Nordhouse Dunes – Green Road Dispersed Camping

Restrooms: No

Green Road is located within the Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Area, which is part of Huron-Manistee National Forest. This dispersed camping area gets great reviews for its proximity to Lake Michigan, privacy of the sites, and relatively easy access for most vehicles. There is a small fee for the Nordhouse Dunes area when dispersed camping, but we think this is well worth it for access to this beautiful area.

Although there are no restrooms or water sources here, several of the trailheads in the area do have simple vault toilets available. The dunes themselves are just a short distance form the campsites and make the perfect day trip to explore the lakeshore and unique environment.

The dispersed sites along Green Road vary from simple pull outs on the side of the road, to larger areas that feel a bit more secluded. While the road should be passable by most vehicles, keep in mind that it can be difficult to turn around in a larger rig here.

Green Rd dispersed camping in Michigan
Dispersed camping on Green Road near the Nordhouse Dunes. Photo credit USFS.

Hovey Lake Dispersed Campground

Restrooms: Vault toilets

The Hovey Lake Dispersed Campground is located in Hiawatha National Forest on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Although not traditional dispersed camping, the sites here are free and well spaced out. You’re also quite secluded when camping here, so you’ll definitely have the feeling of being ‘out there’ when camping at Hovey Lake.

Although the lake itself is quite beautiful, it is not recommended for swimming as it is quite shallow and murky. A few of the sites can accommodate smaller RVs and trailers, although we wouldn’t recommend this site for those with very large rigs.

Although Hovey Lake is a designated camping area, there are minimal services here. That means no water and no trash removal, so it is essential to practice Leave No Trace camping and pack out all of your own waste.

Marzinski Horse Trail Camp

Restrooms: Vault toilet

This free camping area has all the hallmarks of great dispersed camping in Michigan. The sites are well spread out, easy to access, and there is tons to do in the surrounding area. Located in Huron-Manistee National Forest, the camping area is close to both Lake Michigan as well as right on the Marzinski Horse Trail. Even if you’re not planning on bringing horses, this is still a great place to dispersed camp given the location.

There are approximately 21 sites located here, but they rarely fill up even on summer weekends. The town of Manistee is just a short drive away and has a lovely river walk as well as good beach on Lake Michigan.

There is a vault toilet at Marzinski Horse Trail Camp, but no water source. You’ll want to plan on bringing all the water you’ll need and be sure to practice Leave No Trace camping here.

Marzinski Horse Trail camping in Michigan
Marzinski Horse Trail Camp has all the benefits of dispersed camping. Photo credit USPS.

French Farm Lake

Restrooms: No

French Farm Lake dispersed camping is located on the far northern tip of the lower peninsula just outside the town of Mackinaw City. There are six designated dispersed campsites here, all of which are first-come, first served. The campsites here are large, so can accommodate a variety of camping set-ups and also benefit from a bit of privacy between each site.

The camping area is just off the main road leading the French Farm Lake, but before you reach the lake itself. You’re also close to the beach here as well as Headlands International Dark Sky Park. As you may have guessed, the star gazing from here is amazing!

There are no services at French Farm Lake, so be prepared to come with everything you need and pack out all of your waste. This is a popular place to dispersed camp in Michigan, so you’ll want to try to arrive early if you’re looking to secure a site on a busy summer weekend.

Haymeadow Creek

Restrooms: Vault toilet

The Haymeadow Creek campsite is located deep within Hiawatha National Forest on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. While this is a formal campground, there are many dispersed camping opportunities in the immediate vicinity of Haymeadow Creek. For those looking for an easy option, a stay here gives some basic amenities such as a vault toilet and picnic tables.

As with many dispersed camping areas in Michigan, especially on the UP, you’ll want to come prepared with good bug spray and get a campfire going as soon as you arrive to help clear the mosquitoes out!

Haymeadow Creek does not have trash service, so please be sure to bring a bag, pack out your trash, and leave your campsite in better shape than you found it.

Lake Perrault Dispersed Campground

Restrooms: No

Lake Perrault is located on the Keweenaw Peninsula in the northern most section of the UP. This small lake is located just off the highway and has room for 6 or 7 groups adjacent to the lake. Larger rigs may have a tough time turning around here, so if you’re in a large RV you may want to look elsewhere. This is a convenient location to dispersed camp in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula as you’re just a short drive from the town of Houghton and adjacent to the Baraga State Forest Area.

There are no services at Lake Perrault, so you’ll need to properly dispose of all waste and come prepared to be self-sufficient.

This is a popular spot to camp for free in the area, so you will want to arrive early if you’re looking to secure a site during the peak summer months. Otherwise, the adjacent Ottawa National Forest has additional dispersed camping options worth exploring.

McKinley Trail Camp

Restrooms: Vault toilet
No, but may be able to pull from Mammoth Creek

A good option for those looking for free and dispersed camping in Huron National Forest is the McKinley Trail Camp. Similar to the Marzinski Trail Camp described above, this camping area is meant to provide free camping for those exploring the forest via horse, but all are welcome. While not technically dispersed camping, McKinley Trail Camp is free and the sites are well spaced giving campers a feeling of solitude.

There is tons to explore in the area including the Au Sable River, Shore to Shore Horse Trail, as well as not being from from Lake Huron itself.

There are no designated campsites here, but you will find some established fire rings. There is a vault toilet available, but no drinking water so you’ll want to plan accordingly.

McKinley Trail camp Michigan dispersed camping
McKinley Trail Camp. Photo credit USFS.

Whelan Lake

Restrooms: No

Whelan Lake offers primitive, dispersed camping in Manistee National Forest in west-central Michigan. Open year-round, this is a great destination to explore a less visited section of Michigan. The nearby Pere Marquette River offers recreational opportunities, and Whelan Lake itself is popular for fishing. The campsites are dispersed around the lake shore, and while the USFS website says there is a toilet, many campers report that this is not the case.

To the west of Whelan Lake you’ll find the town of Ludington as well as some nice beaches on Lake Michigan.

Getting to Whelan Lake can be a little tricky as Google Maps doesn’t seem to correctly route campers here. Your best bet is to consult official USFS maps along with Google Maps to make sure you are taking the right route to the campsite.

Lime Lake/Pearl Lake Natural Recreation Area

Restrooms: No

Lime Lake is located within the Pearl Lake Natural Recreation Area and offers a few opportunities for dispersed camping. The road around the lake itself has several good campsites, although recently it has been hit or miss if the road is open. Don’t fret if you arrive and it is closed, as there are more dispersed campsite available if you continue north along Rayle Road as it winds its way around Pearl Lake.

The Pearl Lake area is a great example of dispersed camping in Michigan that is not on federally owned property. Pearl Lake is part of a State Forest and is managed by the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy which you can learn more about here.

Please make sure to property dispose of your waste at Lime and Pearl Lake and practice Leave No Trace camping. This is a beautiful area that is maintained by a non-profit, so it is all of our responsibility to ensure it remains open and protected for generations to come.

Robbins Pond Dispersed Campsite

Restrooms: Vault toilet

Our final Michigan dispersed camping spot is also one of the most secluded. Robbins Pond is a designated dispersed campground with just three campsites located in Ottawa National Forest just north of the Wisconsin border with the Upper Peninsula. This is a beautiful place to camp right on Robbins Pond with nothing but National Forest for miles surrounding the campsite.

The only services at Robbins Pond is a simple pit toilet, so you’ll need to come prepared with your own water. The bugs can get pretty bad here, so some good bug spray is recommended as well.

Robbins Pond makes a good stop on a larger Upper Peninsula dispersed camping road trip, which you can string together with several of the other camping areas included in this guide.

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Have a great trip!

That’s it! We hope we’ve provided all of the information you need to plan a great Michigan dispersed camping trip .

Be sure to let us know in the comments below if you have any questions and be sure to tell us about your trip!

Looking for more dispersed camping content? Don’t forget to check out our other state specific dispersed camping guides:

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