Montana is a true snapshot of the American West. Soaring mountains, crystal clear river, and wide open spaces make Montana a campers dream destination. Big sky country is no understatement here, and for those interested in dispersed camping, Montana has nearly unlimited options. From the state’s many National Forests, to expansive BLM land, finding a free, dispersed campsite in Montana is the perfect way to explore this incredible environment.
However, it’s not always easy to navigate the rules, regulations, and various public lands to know exactly where dispersed camping is permitted. We created this guide to help solve this problem by providing a comprehensive resource on all things dispersed camping in Montana.
Keep reading to learn everything you need to know to plan your trip, including a few of our favorite dispersed campsites in the state!
Montana Dispersed Camping Guide
- The Basics
- The Best Dispersed Camping Areas in Montana
Before you head out to pitch your tent or park your trailer, you should have a good understanding of the rules surrounding dispersed camping in Montana. You’ll also want a sense of where to look, how to find the perfect site, and how to minimize your impacts while out camping.
The following sections provide all the basic information you need to plan your trip, so keep reading to learn the basics of dispersed camping in Montana!
Where is dispersed camping allowed in Montana?
Dispersed campers in Montana will do best looking for campsites located on land controlled by two federal agencies: the United States Forest Service (USFS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Out of those two, the vast majority of camping opportunities occur within the state’s national forests.
The USFS generally permits dispersed camping anywhere in a national forest where it is not explicitly prohibited, or in too close of proximity to other recreational amenities such as developed campgrounds, trailheads, and parking areas. The same goes for the BLM, although it is often less clear if camping is permitted on BLM land when compared to national forests.
US Forest Service Dispersed Camping in Montana (USFS)
Montana technically has eight National Forests within its boundaries, although the Idaho Panhandle NF barely streches into Montana’s northwestern most corner. In addition, a few of these national forests are administered as a single entity, even thought they are technically two different forests. Helena-Lewis and Clark NF is a good example of this.
And while there are general guidelines of dispersed camping provided the US Forest Service, each individual forest can set its own rules and regulations for camping. Thus, you always want to check directly with the National Forest where you plan to camp before setting up.
The list below features all of the US National Forests in Montana that permit dispersed camping, along with links to the relevant rules and regulations for each:
- Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest Dispersed Camping
- Custer Gallatin National Forest Dispersed Camping
- Flathead National Forest Dispersed Camping
- Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest Dispersed Camping
- Kootenai National Forest Dispersed Camping
- Bitterroot National Forest Dispersed Camping
- Lolo National Forest Dispersed Camping
- Idaho Panhandle National Forest Dispersed Camping (just a tiny sliver is in Montana)
To better visualize where each of these National Forests are located in Montana, take a look at the USFS map below:
Montana has less BLM land than some of the other western states in the region such as Wyoming and Colorado, but it does have enough that it is worth mentioning in any discussion about dispersed camping. The majority of the BLM land in Montana sits in the eastern half of the state, which tends to see less dispersed camping than the more mountainous western side.
However, it is always worthy inquiring with the relevant Montana BLM district office about potential dispersed camping opportunities in the area. Contact information for each office is available at the links below:
- Montana State Office (Billings)
- North Central Office (Lewistown)
- Eastern Montana/Dakotas Office (Miles City)
- Western Montana District Office (Butte)
You can find a good overview of BLM dispersed camping rules here.
How to find dispersed camping in Montana
Finding dispersed camping in Montana is a straightforward affair if you know where to look. Of course this guide is the perfect starting place, and we’ve outlined some of the best resources to help you find individual campsites below.
When searching for a good campsite ourselves, we prefer to use a combination of several online apps/websites along with publically available USFS/BLM maps.
Our favorite online resources are below:
- Freecampsites.net – Our go to resource for finding free camping in the US. Simply enter your desired location and filter through the results.
- The Dyrt – An app that let’s you filter for free and dispersed campsites.
- Campendium – A website and app that allows you to see user reviews for campsites and campgrounds across the country.
Although you may find your next campsite by simply utilizing the sources above, we also highly recommend referencing the excellent information available through public agencies maps and resources. The best way to do this is typically by reaching out directly to the relevant USFS Ranger District in Montana to get the most current camping information and recommendations.
Finally, one of the best resources, specifically for national forest dispersed camping, is to utilize Motor Vehicle Use Maps or MVUMs for short. These maps are published by the Forest Service and display the entire network of forest service roads in a given area.
Many of these MVUMs also display where dispersed camping is permitted, typically indicated by two dots on either side of a given road as shown in the example below from Bitterroot NF:
The complete list of MVUMs for all Montana’s National Forests can be found at the links below:
- Beaverhead-Deerlodge National MVUM
- Custer Gallatin National Forest MVUM
- Flathead National Forest MVUM
- Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest MVUM
- Kootenai National Forest MVUM
- Bitterroot National Forest MVUM
- Lolo National Forest MVUM
We often have a motor vehicle use map open in one tab and Google Maps satellite view in the other to help find dispersed campsites. You can cross reference the two and often see areas that have established campsites in Google Maps.
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, there are some basic guidelines you’ll need to adhere to.
It is best to check current regulations with the relevant USFS or BLM office, 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!
Leave No Trace Principles & Dispersed Camping
One of the most important considerations when dispersed camping in Montana 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.
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 Montana
Now that you have a sense of what dispersed camping in Montana is all about, we thought it would be helpful to share a few of our top campsites in the state. The list below (in no particular order) includes what we think are the eight best dispersed camping areas in Montana to check out.
In addition, the Montana dispersed camping map below shows all of the campsite locations, with detailed descriptions following.
Restrooms: Vault toilet
Located in Custer-Gallatin National Forest, the Shields River Dispersed Site has four campsites located along the banks of the Shields River. The site is about an hour north of Livingston, and is tucked away in a seldom visited segment of the West Crazy Mountains. There is a basic vault toilet here to service the campsites, but you won’t find any other amenities.
The campsites are larger and well spread out along the river in a large loop. This makes it easy for RVs and larger trailers to navigate, and this is a great site for those camping with a larger rig.
In addition to great fishing in the river, there are also several excellent hikes in the region. Our favorite is the Sunlight Lake trail, which takes you to a stunning alpine lake at the base of Sunlight Peak.
Rock Creek Dispersed Camping
Water: No, but may be filtered from Rock Creek.
Rock Creek dispersed camping is located just north of the Wyoming border (they have great dispersed camping too!) and situated along the stunning Beartooth Pass on the way to Red Lodge, MT. There is a long and winding forest service road that parallels Rock Creek and has access to tons of dispersed camping.
The majority of the sites here have river access, which makes it easy to filter water during your stay. Do keep in mind that there are no other facilities though, so you’ll need to pack out your waste when camping here.
If you follow Rock Creek Road all the way to its end you’ll reach the Glacier Lake trailhead, which features a wonderful hike up to Glacier Lake in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Area. You also have easy access into Yellowstone National Park from here. Highly recommended!
There are also several developed campgrounds in this area, so if you are looking for more amenities than what dispersed camping offers you’ll have a few good options to choose from.
Restrooms: Vault toilet
The Elk Lake dispersed camping area is located along, you guessed it, Elk Lake. Part of Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest and just off the main road that leads to Red Rock Lake National Wildlife Refuge, this is a beautiful and secluded place to spend the night. As a bonus, the Elk Lake Resort is located adjacent to the dispersed camping area, so you may even be able to get a hot meal!
It is a long drive off the main highway to get to Elk Lake, and those towing a trailer or in an RV will need to plan on some extra time. Although it is manageable in a larger rig, you’ll need to take it slow as it can get quite rutted out.
The only facilities here are a simple vault toilet, so please come prepared to be self-sufficient. You’ll also want to be sure you are properly storing any food you have, as this is definitely bear country!
Homestake Pass Dispersed Camping
Homestake Pass outside of Butte, MT crosses the Continental Divide and has some great dispersed camping right off of I-90. If you head north on Homestake Pass from I-90 past the picnic area it soon opens up to beautiful National Forest and several great dispersed campsites. The further back you head the more secluded the campsites get, but be prepared as the road does get quite a bit rougher.
For those in an RV, your best bet will be to stick to the sites closer to the highway.
This is dry camping, so you won’t find any water sources and there are no restrooms available. This means you need to be prepared, and ensure you are practicing Leave No Trace principles when camping along Homestake Pass.
This is a great dispersed camping area for those passing through on a longer Montana road trip given how close it is to the interstate, but also makes a great option to spend a few nights and enjoy the surrounding wilderness.
Restrooms: Vault toilet
Along Haymaker Road in Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest you’ll find the Haymaker Dispersed Camping Area. This designated dispersed site has a simple vault toilet and room for several camping set-ups along a quiet creek. Haymaker Canyon is a popular ATV route in the area, so this campsite is a popular staging ground for explorations further into the National Forest.
Although you are adjacent to a small creek here, we still recommend bringing your own water as it can be unreliable.
It is straightforward to find the camping area, although the access road can be washboard in some place so you’ll want to take it slow. This is also bear country, so please make sure all food is properly stored to avoid any unwanted visitors in your campsite!
Muchwater Dispersed Camping
The Muchwater dispersed camping area is located along the banks of the Clark Fork River just over an hour from Missoula, MT. This designated dispersed camping area has 15 individual campsites that all include a fire ring and have access to vault toilets. Given the excellent river access, this is a popular spot for those floating the river, but offers a great camping experience for anyone looking for a beautiful place to spend the night.
Keep in mind that the train runs very close to the campground and you can also get a bit of highway noise here. However, in our opinion, those tradeoffs are well worth it.
There is no trash service or water source at Muchwater, so please pack it in/pack it out and make sure you have a plan to treat water from the Clark Fork or have brought enough for your trip.
Restrooms: Vault toilet
A good option for dispersed camping near Glacier National Park in northern Montana is the Billy Garret Memorial Bridge, located along the South Fork of the Flathead River. Set in Flathead National Forest, this is a popular put-in spot for those floating the river, and the USFS permits dispersed camping adjacent to the bridge.
There is only room for a few small camping setups here, so if you’re in a larger rig or pulling a trailer you’ll have better luck elsewhere. However, for those who are interested in tent camping, this is a unique place to spend the night with plenty of trails nearby.
There is a simple vault toilet here, but that is the only amenity.
If river sports aren’t your thing, check out the Upper Twin Creek trail (which also allows dispersed camping!) for some good hiking. Just down the road from the dispersed camping area you’ll also find the developed Spotted Bear Campground.
Flat Lake Recreation Area
Restrooms: Vault toilet
Although all of the dispersed campsites included in this guide thus far have been in western/central Montana, rest assured that there are still great campsites to be found in the eastern half of the state! Top of the list is the Flat Lake Recreation Area, which is technically managed by the Army Corps of Engineers. This is a great free camping option right on Flat Lake with easy access for RVs, trailers, and tents.
Although technically located along Flat Lake, the real body of water here is Fort Peck Lake, a large reservoir with tons of recreational opportunities. The camping area is on the far eastern edge of the lake, and a few sites even have fire rings and picnic tables.
There is no potable water available, but you aren’t far from the small town of Fort Peck, MT which should have some of the basics you’ll need for your camping trip.
Looking to find more dispersed campsites? Check out The Dyrt PRO to get campsite reviews, offline maps, and the best map layers for finding public dispersed camping!
Our Top Camping App – The Dyrt PRO
Looking to find more free, dispersed camping?
The Dyrt PRO is our favorite resource for planning your trip. Use the custom map layers to find public land, download offline maps, and navigate to your perfect dispersed campsite. Highly recommended!
Have a great trip!
That’s it! We hope we’ve provided all of the information you need to plan a great dispersed camping trip in Montana.
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: