Dispersed Camping in National Forests: The Complete Guide

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The United States National Forest system is one of the true gems of our public lands. Managed by the United States Forest Service, there are 154 areas that are federally protected as national forests in the United States. Located in 40 different states, these national forests are an incredible place to spend the night in your tent or RV. Dispersed camping is a hallmark of the national forest system, and one of our favorite ways to spend a night out under the stars.

In this guide we’ll walk you through everything you need to know about dispersed camping in national forests and provide some great resources on how to go about planning you own dispersed camping trip in a national forest near you.

Read on to get all the details on the best way to see our public lands.

National Forest Dispersed Camping Guide

Find Your Next Dispersed Campsite

Learn how to find the best campsite locations BEFORE you head out. No more showing up to crowded sites with all the good spots taken!

Easily identify camping areas
Find free camping on public land
Use offline apps to locate sites
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What is Dispersed Camping?

Dispersed camping is broadly defined as setting up camp outside of developed or established campgrounds, most often on public lands. As you’ll read here, dispersed camping is most likely to occur in US National Forests where it is generally permitted. Another hallmark feature of dispersed camping is that it is FREE! Yes, that means no campground fees, permit fees, or entrance fees to be paid!

Dispersed campsites are generally located on or adjacent to Forest Service Roads and can be accessed by car. You’ll typically want a higher clearance vehicle or 4WD to reach the best sites, but that is certainly not required.

Read on to learn more everything you need to know about dispersed camping in our incredible National Forest system, including how to find sites, what to bring, and the rules and regulations you’ll want to be aware of.

Dispersed Campsite

US National Forest Dispersed Camping

National Forests in the United States are managed by the US Forest Service, which is an agency within the United States Department of Agriculture. National Forests provide a wide variety of recreational activities including hiking, cycling, hunting, fishing, and many more.

However, our favorite and one of the best activities permitted in our National Forests is free, dispersed camping.

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 specific USFS area you plan to camp before setting out. Most National Forests are divided into Ranger Districts which oversee portions of the larger forest.

These Ranger District offices often have the best information on where dispersed camping is permitted, any pertinent information you should know, and will often even tell you where to find the best campsites!

Map of National Forests in the United States.
Map of US National Forests. Map credit USFS.

National Forests vs Bureau of Land Management Lands

In addition to National Forests, the other publicly managed land that typically permits dispersed camping is the Bureau of Land Management or BLM for short. Although not the focus of this guide, we thought it would be helpful to provide a brief overview of dispersed camping on BLM land.

In short, the BLM is part of the US Department of the Interior and manages huge swaths of federally controlled property, primarily in the Western United States. Much of this is leased off for mineral extraction (read oil and gas leases) as well as for grazing and other purposes. Dispersed camping is permitted on BLM land, which you can learn more about here.

Ok, now that we’ve got some clarity on BLM vs National Forests, let’s get back to how to find great dispersed camping in US National Forests!

How to Find Dispersed Campsites in National Forests

There are several ways to find free, dispersed camping in National Forests and we often find that a combination of all the resources explained below will yield the best results. The first step to finding a great campsite is to ensure that the National Forest you are interested in permits dispersed camping and that there are no closures or other restrictions in effect.

To do this, your best bet is to always reach out to the local Ranger District which can provide you with the most up-to-date information.

Next, we like to utilize a combination of camping apps/websites, USFS maps, and Google Maps to find the best dispersed campsites. You can learn more about each of these resources below and also check out our handy summary here:

Steps to find dispersed campsites in National Forests

  1. Contact the local Ranger District to find out current dispersed camping regulations.
  2. Check your options for already established dispersed camping areas using camping apps/websites.
  3. Review National Forest Motor Vehicle Use Maps (MVUMs) to understand where dispersed camping is permitted.
  4. Cross reference MVUMs with Google Maps satellite view to get a sense of where good dispersed campsites may be located.
  5. Drive to your campsite! Always come prepared to be flexible and adapt to the conditions you find when you arrive!

Camping Apps and Online Resources

There are three main websites/apps that we like to use when searching for dispersed camping in National Forests, outlined below. These sites will provide you with information on a specific campsite rather than on a broader area. This is a good way to find a specific location, or just get some intel on what the area might be like.

  • 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.

Check out our Dispersed Camping App guide here.

We typically find it best to cross reference all three resources to get the most up to date picture of a particular campsite.

National Forest Motor Vehicle Use Maps (MVUM)

The next resource we recommend utilizing when looking for dispersed campsites are Motor Vehicle Use Maps published by the Forest Service.

These maps display the entire network of forest service roads in a given area. Many also display where dispersed camping is permitted, typically indicated by two dots on either side of a given road. Check out the example below to get a sense of the information these maps provide:

Motor Vehicle Use Map showing dispersed camping in Colorado
The MVUM example above shows the dispersed camping symbol, highlighted in yellow.

Most National Forests across the country have published MVUMs and they are free to download online. Your best bet is typically to Google the National Forest MVUM you plan to dispersed camp in.

Once we have the relevant MVUM we typically like to cross reference the area on the map with Google Maps satellite view. This let’s you zoom in on an area to see if there are any obvious campsites already created and narrow down your search a bit.

Download Our FREE Dispersed Camping Cheat Sheet

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

Dispersed Camping Rules & Regulations

One of our favorite things about dispersed camping in our National Forests is the general lack of permits, reservations, and other requirements you’ll often find at developed campgrounds. Of course, there are exceptions to this in specific areas (for example, Cleveland National Forest in California requires permits for dispersed camping) but you can generally count on it being fairly straightforward to dispersed camp if you’re following the basics outlined in this guide.

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 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

As we’ve mentioned, dispersed campsites do not benefit from any of the services that are common at most developed campgrounds. This means no bathrooms, no trash pickup, and no campground host to ensure you campfire is completely out. Many camping areas in National Forests are very remote, so it is not possible for the USFS to clean up after you!

Given those facts, we think the most important consideration 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.

The BEST National Forest Dispersed Camping

Now that you know how to find dispersed campsites in National Forests and what the rules are, we though it would be helpful to share our top five destinations for dispersed camping in National Forests below. These destinations span a variety of states, but all features excellent campsites located in beautiful National Forests.

Kaibab National Forest near the Grand Canyon

A visit to the Grand Canyon is an iconic American experience. Lucky for you, the park is surrounded by the stunning Kaibab National Forest, which features several excellent dispersed campsites.

On the South Rim, check out Coconino Rim Road for easy access to hiking trails and scenic overlooks. Those searching for a peaceful and remote dispersed camping experience should check out the Saddle Mountain Overlook site which has some of the most incredible views anywhere!

For more information, check out our guide to dispersed camping near the Grand Canyon.

Dispersed Camping near Grand Canyon National Park

Olympic National Forest Dispersed Camping

The Olympic Peninsula is an outdoor enthusiasts dream with access to mountains, sea, and the only temperate rainforest in the United States. You’ll find Olympic National Park here as well, but for those interested in dispersed camping Olympic National Forest makes an incredible destination.

Forest Road 29 is an easily accessed dispersed camping area, while the sites located along the Hamma Hamma River provide solitude in a stunning river valley.

Sequoia National Forest Dispersed Camping

Sequoia National Forest in California has a bit of everything. Beautiful rivers, ancient trees, and high mountains. It also has lots of good dispersed camping that is relatively easy to access. Our favorite are the free, dispersed sites located along the Kern River. Bring your tent, a tube, and enjoy this Wild and Scenic River!

For more information, check out our guide to dispersed camping in California.

San Juan National Forest in Southwestern Colorado

Colorado’s San Juan mountains are rugged, remote, and have some of the most stunning views you’ll find anywhere in the world. The National Forest of the same name also has tons of dispersed camping opportunities, and a southwest Colorado road trip connecting the mountain towns of Telluride, Silverton, and Durango is the perfect opportunity to do some camping in the area.

For more information, check out our complete guide to Colorado dispersed camping

San Juan National Forest dispersed camping
San Juan National Forest is an incredible dispersed camping destination.

Siuslaw National Forest in Oregon

Siuslaw National Forest in western Oregon presents tons of dispersed camping opportunities near the Oregon Coast. Easily reached from Portland, many of the campsites here can be accessed with a passenger vehicle.

For more information, check out our guide to dispersed camping in Oregon.

What to Bring Dispersed Camping in National Forests

Packing for your National Forest dispersed camping trip means making sure you’re prepared to be self-sufficient since you won’t have the comforts of a developed campground to rely on. Top of mind when packing should be water storage, waste disposal, and a few items to increase your comfort and campsite cred.

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.

While we’re sure you’ll already have the essentials like a great tentsleeping bags, and camp chairs,  below are a few essentials specifically for dispersed camping:

1. Water Storage Container

Most dispersed campsites you’ll find don’t have a reliable water source. You may occasionally camp next to a river or stream that might allow you to filter the water, but we certainly wouldn’t rely on it. Given that, you’ll want to come prepared with enough water to last your entire trip. This includes enough to fully extinguish a campfire as well!

For this, we highly recommend a large, durable water container. Generally speaking, the bigger the better, but you’ll want at least 5 gallons to start. You can check out our top pick for a great water storage container below:

Our Top Pick

Scepter Water Container for camping

Scepter Water Container

The Scepter Water Container holds 5 gallons of water and is incredibly durable. The cap makes it easy to pour into water bottles and it holds enough to last for most weekend camping trips.

2. Portable toilet

Properly disposing of human waste is a critical element of Leave No Trace camping and essential for minimizing your impact while dispersed camping. You won’t find any bathrooms out there, so having a plan before you arrive will make sure you’re camping responsibly and comfortably! At a minimum you’ll want a good trowel to dig a cat hole, but if you can avoid burying your waste that is even better.

A simple portable camp toilet will go a long ways to keep your campsite clean and avoid polluting any nearby waterways. Simple is better here, and we recommend the following option:

Our Top Pick

Reliance Luggable Loo

The Luggable Loo is a simple, yet effective portable toilet. The seat snaps on securely and the entire package is very durable. Perfect for dispersed camping.

3. Camp Blanket

Ok, time for a little comfort. There is no denying that dispersed camping doesn’t have all the comforts of staying in a developed campground. One way to up the experience is to pack a cozy and durable blanket for around camp. This can keep you warm, make a nice picnic blanket, and is perfect for those nights when you can’t have a fire.

Our top pick for camp blankets is the stylish and functional Rumpl Puffy Blanket. It comes in a variety of sizes, but all share the same durability and are incredibly warm.

Our Top Pick

Rumpl Puffy Blanket

The Rumpl Puffy Blanket is the coziest camp blanket around. Not only will it keep you warm around your campsite, but it is made of durable materials and packs down nice and small.

4. Cooler

A good cooler is the workhorse of your dispersed camping set-up. It keeps your drinks cold, helps keep animals from getting into your food, and even makes a decent work surface for preparing meals. Most coolers will keep ice for a day or so before you’re left with a watery mess to deal with. If you want to avoid that, we can’t recommend a Yeti cooler enough.

Yes, they are expensive. But you will thank yourself over and over for making the upfront investment when you still have an ice cold cooler four days into your camping trip.

Our Top Pick

Yeti 45 Cooler

Yeti Tundra 45 Cooler

The Yeti Tundra 45 is simply the best cooler on the market. Incredibly durable and keeps ice frozen for days. If you’re looking for a great camping cooler, look no further.

5. Map of the area

It is very important to have a good understanding of where you are when dispersed camping. You need to know whether the land your on is public or private, where that forest service road leads, and what trails are in the area. For this, we highly recommend a GPS app on your smartphone that allows you to download maps for offline use.

While there are plenty of these apps available, Gaia GPS is by far the best of the bunch. The premium membership gets you tons of base maps (our favorite is the National Geographic Trails Illustrated) and lets you download them so you’ll always know where you are even without cell service:

Our Top Pick

Gaia GPS Premium

Gaia GPS is our go to app for offline navigation while camping, hiking, biking, and more. The map layers are detailed and offer tons of options that are sure to suit your needs. The ability to download maps for offline use makes it an essential tool for outdoor adventures.

Have a great trip!

That’s it! We hope we’ve provided all of the information you need to plan a great dispersed camping in one of our iconic National Forests.

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

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