Ohio Dispersed Camping: The Complete Guide

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The Buckeye State is known for many things, but dispersed and primitive camping doesn’t often jump to the top of most people’s list. However, we think that Ohio is an underrated destination for getting out there and spending a night under the stars! From Wayne National Forest in the southern part of the state, to the many primitive campsites in State Parks, we think dispersed camping in Ohio is one of the best ways to experience all the state has to offer.

Given that Ohio doesn’t have a reputation as a great camping destination, we’ve put together this dispersed camping guide to help you navigate the rules, regulations, and must know facts about primitive camping in Ohio.

We’ve even included a few of our top campsites in the final section to give you some inspiration for your next trip.

Let’s jump in!

Ohio Dispersed Camping Guide

The Basics

Before you head out on your trip, it is important to have some basic information on dispersed camping in Ohio. The following sections do just that and include key facts on where camping is permitted, how to find individual campsites, and how to ensure you are leaving no trace on your trip.

This is the essential information before you head out there!

Where is dispersed camping allowed in Ohio?

Ohio generally has two public landowners that permit dispersed or primitive camping. Those are the United State Forest Service (USFS) and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Although both allow for free, dispersed camping, the rules and regulations in place for the National Forests or Ohio State Forests and State Parks are much different.

We’ve outlined the basics you’ll need to know for each entity below.

Wayne National Forest Dispersed Camping in Ohio (USFS)

The lone national forest in Ohio, Wayne National Forest occupies over 240,000 acres of land in southern Ohio. Wayne NF is not a contiguous forest, but rather consists of a patchwork of land all managed as a single national forest. Check out the map below to get a sense of its location and layout:

Map of Wayne National Forest in Ohio
Wayne NF consists of a patchwork of land in southern Ohio. Map credit USFS.

Generally speaking, Wayne National Forest is going to be your best bet for traditional dispersed camping in Ohio.

What do we mean by traditional?

Well, for starters be sure to check out this helpful guide to dispersed camping, but broadly speaking we mean free camping outside of a developed campground.

There are many opportunities for dispersed camping in Wayne National Forest, and their dispersed camping webpage has a helpful list and outline of the rules and regulations. Check it out below

If you’re familiar with dispersed camping in national forests, you’ll notice a few key differences in Wayne NF versus the typical regulations. These include:

  • Wayne NF permits dispersed camping at trailheads.
    • This is atypical, as most USFS rules prohibit camping at trailheads.
  • So long as you aren’t blocking a roadway or trail, dispersed camping is allowed.

Outside of these, the rules for dispersed camping in Wayne NF are generally consistent with what you’ll find at other national forests throughout the country:

  • Limit your stay to 14 days out of any 28-day period.
  • Groups of 25 or more require a permit
  • 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.
  • 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!
Wayne National Forest sign
Wayne National Forest is your best bet for dispersed camping in Ohio. Photo credit USFS.

Ohio Department of Natural Resources Primitive Camping

In additional to dispersed camping in Ohio’s single national forest there is also the option to stay at a primitive campground in one of Ohio’s State Forests or State Parks. This is slightly different than traditional dispersed camping as you’ll likely stay in a campground setting, although there will be only very basic services available.

Primitive camping in Ohio is a good option for those looking for an introduction to dispersed camping as you won’t need be completely self-sufficient. These primitive campgrounds are typically free of charge, have vault toilets, maybe a picnic table and fire ring, but are otherwise basic.

That means no potable water source, trash pickup, or other amenities you’ll find at a developed campground.

Additionally, primitive dispersed camping in Ohio’s State Forests and Parks gives you the opportunity to camp in different areas of the state rather than being limited to Wayne NF in southern Ohio. The Department of Natural Resources has a very helpful map feature that can be filtered to find primitive campsites in the state. Check it out below:

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.

How to find dispersed camping in Ohio

Now that you have a broad sense of where dispersed camping is permitted in Ohio its time to drill down a bit further into how to go about finding a a campsite. This advice will be most applicable for those looking for dispersed camping in Wayne National Forest, but also will be helpful for anyone looking for free camping in Ohio.

The first step is always to reach out directly to either the USFS District Office or the Department of Natural Resources to inquire on current conditions and get the latest information on camping availability. Wayne National Forest has three Ranger Districts, as well as an excellent welcome center:

  • Wayne National Forest Welcome Center – Nelsonville, OH
  • Athens Ranger District – Nelsonville, OH
  • Athens Ranger District, Marietta Unit Office – Marietta, OH
  • Ironton Ranger Station – Pedro, OH

These offices will be able to give you the most up to date information and have the best recommendations for campsites.

In addition, there are also several excellent online resources that can help in your dispersed campsite search, which we’ve outlined below.

Check out our Dispersed Camping App guide here to get more information on how to use these resources to find free campsites.

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 Ohio

Alright, time to start planning your trip!

Now that you have a general overview of what dispersed camping in Ohio is all about, we’ve gathered a list of the top dispersed campsites in the Buckeye State below.

Don’t forget to check out the dispersed camping map below to see where each site is located.

Hanging Rock OHV Area Dispersed Camping

Restrooms: Vault toilet
Water: 
No
Crowds:
 Moderate
Map

The Hanging Rock OHV area is a great destination for dispersed camping in southern Ohio. Located deep within Wayne National Forest, this is a popular place for ATV riding, mountain biking, and hiking. Dispersed camping is permitted at the trailhead and there are also a few good sized pull outs along the road leading in. Although it can be quite crowded during the day, folks tend to filter out at night making this a fairly quite camping area.

Note that there is no water source here so you’ll need to come prepared for a dry campsite. There are a few vault toilets in the area, although they can be quite a distance from a few of the best campsites.

Hanging Rock OHV area is only open to camping from April 15th – December 15th, so plan accordingly. During busy summer weekends you’ll want to arrive on the early side as the good campsites tend to fill up quickly during this time.

Stone Church Trailhead Dispersed Camping

Restrooms: No
Water: 
No
Crowds:
 Moderate
Map

Northwest of Athens, Ohio you’ll find the Stone Church Trailhead dispersed camping area. This isn’t much more than a large gravel parking lot adjacent to a good network of horse and OHV trails. However, the location is perfect for exploring the trail system as well as some of the surrounding national forest.

This isn’t a great option if you’re in a larger RV or trailer, although there is a room for a few rigs. The road here is fairly passable, so you won’t need a high clearance vehicle.

This is a basic dry camping area, so don’t plan on a water source or restroom facility. That means you’ll need to be prepared to be self-sufficient, practice Leave No Trace principles, and leave the camping area in better condition than you found it.

Just like much of Wayne National Forest, the area is open to camping/hiking from April 15th – December 15th only.

Stone Church trailhead dispersed camping

Kinderhook Horse Trail

Restrooms: Yes
Water: 
Yes
Crowds:
 Moderate
Map

The Kinderhook Horse Trail is a recent addition to Wayne National Forest and features 12 miles of horse, mountain bike, and hiking trails. In addition, primitive camping is permitted free of charge at the trailhead making this a great option for those looking for a dispersed campsite near an excellent trail system.

Camping is only permitted when the trails are open, seasonally from April 15th – December 15th.

Unlike many other dispersed campsites in Ohio, there is both potable water as well as public restrooms available. These basic amenities make a huge difference and is one of the reasons we like to recommend Kinderhook.

RVs are trailers can typically fit in the parking area, but please be cognizant of how much space you are utilizing. There is also a walk-in area near the parking lot than can accommodate tent set ups.

Jesse Owens State Park – Hook Lake Campground

Restrooms: Yes
Water: 
No
Crowds:
 Moderate
Map

Although not technically dispersed camping, Jesse Owens State Park features four primitive campgrounds that are all free of charge. Our favorite of the bunch is the Hook Lake Campground which has several basic sites available on a first-come, first-served basis. The campsites here are well spaced out and each features a picnic table and fire ring and has access to restrooms.

You’re allowed to stay up to 14 consecutive nights, and there are plenty of trails to explore in the surrounding area.

In addition to Hook Lake, there are also three additional free primitive campgrounds in Jesse Owens State Park: Maple Grove, Sand Hollow, and Sawmill.

Although these campgrounds are located in a State Park, there is no potable water service available and only basic trash services. The campsites at Hook Lake are set in fairly dense forest, so you’ll enjoy quite a bit of privacy here.

Campfire at a dispersed campsite in Ohio

Hidden Hollow Campground – Fernwood State Forest

Restrooms: Yes
Water: 
No
Crowds:
 Moderate
Map

Hidden Hollow is a free, primitive campground located in Fernwood State Forest in eastern Ohio. There are 22 campsites here that all have basic fire rings as well as picnic tables. There are restroom facilities at the campground, although based on other camper reviews they aren’t always the cleanest.

Fernwood State Forest includes over five miles of hiking trails, several fishing ponds, as well as a scenic overlook of the surrounding area. There is also a shooting range just a short drive from the campground, which may or may not be a positive feature depending on your point of view.

Outside of the shooting range you’ll find that Hidden Hollow is a quiet and pleasant place to spend the night where you’ll have access to some basic services while still enjoying a simple camping experience. The area does see a fair amount of use, so please plan on packing out all of your waste and leaving your campsite in great condition for future campers.

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

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 you’ve learned everything you need to know to plan your Ohio 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 time out camping

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

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