Pennsylvania Free Dispersed Camping: The Complete Guide

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Pennsylvania is a true haven for nature-lovers of all sorts. With millions of acres of rolling mountains, dense forests, pristine lakes, and peaceful meadows throughout the state, there are beautiful places to explore near every major town and city.

If you’re looking for free dispersed camping in Pennsylvania, you’ve got tons of great options. Between Allegheny National Forest and the 20 State Forests, you’re sure to find a great dispersed campsite for your next adventure.

Whether you’re new to dispersed camping or a seasoned pro, this guide will provide everything you need to plan your perfect trip. We’ll help you navigate the rules, regulations, and must-know information about free camping in Pennslyvania.

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

Let’s jump in!

Pennsylvania Dispersed Camping Guide

Find Your Next Dispersed Campsite

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River with fall colors, dispersed camping in Pennsylvania

The Basics

Before you head out on your trip, it is important to have some basic information about dispersed camping in Pennsylvania. The following sections provide just that, including key details on where camping is permitted, how to find individual campsites, and how to ensure you are keeping these wild places beautiful for everyone.

This is the essential information before you head out there!

Where is Dispersed Camping Allowed in Pennsylvania?

Those looking for dispersed camping in Pennsylvania will find tons of great options. The Keystone State has over two million acres of State Forest, plus its very own National Forest. There are free camping opportunities throughout these public lands, given you follow some important rules and guidelines.

We’ve outlined some key information for finding free dispersed camping on State Forest lands and within Allegheny National Forest.

Pennsylvania State Forests

Pennsylvania has twenty State Forests spread out across the state, making it easy to find one near you. Within this wilderness, you’ll find incredible scenery, magnificent waterways, thousands of miles of trails, and endless opportunities for recreation. Plus, many of Pennsylvania’s State Parks are located within the boundaries of its large State Forest network.

However, not all State Forests allow free dispersed camping, and some only allow it in designated sites. It is important to check with the forest district you’ll be visiting for specific guidelines before setting off on your dispersed camping trip.

Click here to view an interactive map of Pennsylvania’s State Forest Districts.

Rules and Regulations

To begin with, let’s get clear on what we mean when we say “dispersed camping.” If you’re new to this concept, be sure to check out this helpful guide to dispersed camping, but broadly speaking we mean free camping outside of a developed campground. The Pennsylvania State Forests website typically refers to this as “motorized camping” if you’ll be bringing your vehicle, and “primitive camping” if you’ll be hiking or paddling to reach your campsite.

There are many opportunities for dispersed camping throughout Pennsylvania’s State Forests, and their Primitive Camping webpage can be a helpful resource when planning your trip.

Click here to view an interactive map of Pennsylvania State Forest motorized campsites

Here are some important things to know about dispersed camping in Pennsylvania’s State Forests:

  • In all of the State Forests, you are required to get a free permit if you plan on dispersed camping with your vehicle. If you plan on hiking, biking, or paddling in, you’ll need a permit if you’re staying more than one night.
  • All campsites must be at least 200 feet from water sources.
  • If not camping in a designated dispersed campsite, you must camp within 300 feet of roads. You are not permitted to drive your vehicle off-road.
  • You must get written permission from the forest district to camp within 300 feet of buildings, natural areas, or picnic areas.
  • If not camping in a designated dispersed site, you must camp more than one mile from the State Forest entrances and developed campgrounds.
  • Check for fire restrictions and learn about fire safety before making a campfire. Campfires are typically not permitted from March 1-May 25th.
  • Treat all water before drinking or cooking.
  • Pets are welcome, but must be kept on a leash in most cases.
  • Minimize environmental impacts and abide by Leave No Trace principles.

Be sure to visit the PA State Forest website for a full list of rules and regulations.

Allegheny National Forest

Pennsylvania’s only National Forest, the Allegheny National Forest occupies half a million acres in the northwest corner of the state. It is home to a dazzling array of beautiful sights and landscapes, including woodlands, mountains, and the Allegheny reservoir. There are many great places for dispersed camping within the National Forest, but it’s a good idea to do your homework before heading into the wilderness.

Rules and Regulations

Here are some important things to know about camping in Allegheny National Forest:

  • You are not permitted to leave items unattended in order to “hold” a campsite.
  • Do not park your vehicle more than 50 feet from a designated road, and do not set up camp directly on the road.
  • Check for current fire restrictions and learn about fire safety before making a campfire.
  • Do not cut live trees for firewood. Dead and downed wood may be used for campfires, but may not be taken from the National Forest.
  • Only bring in firewood from Warren, Elk, McKean and Forest counties.
  • Check the regulations for the area you’ll be visiting. There are specific requirements for some areas, and camping is not permitted in others.
  • Treat all water before drinking or cooking.
  • Pets are welcome, but must be kept on a leash in most cases.
  • Minimize environmental impacts and abide by Leave No Trace principles.

Be sure to visit the Allegheny National Forest dispersed camping webpage for a full list of rules and regulations, plus area-specific requirements.

Milky Way on a clear night with blue tent in Allegheny National Forest
Starry skies in Allegheny National Forest.

How to Find Dispersed Campsites in Pennsylvania

Now that you have a good overview of where dispersed camping is permitted in Pennsylvania, let’s drill down a bit further into how to go about finding a a campsite.

The first step is always to reach out directly to either the PA State Forest district office or the Allegheny National Forest district office to inquire about current conditions and get the latest information on camping availability.

The Pennsylvania State Forests are managed by twenty district offices. Click here to find a map and contact information for all of the State Forest offices.

Additionally, Allegheny National Forest is divided into two ranger districts: Bradford Ranger District in the north (including Allegheny Reservoir) and Marienville Ranger District in the south.

Allegheny National Forest Ranger Districts Map
Map of Allegheny National Forest Ranger Districts, courtesy of USFS.

More information and contact information for each Allegheny National Forest Ranger District can be found below:

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

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.

Know Before You Go

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.

Download Our FREE Dispersed Camping Cheat Sheet

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

Fall colors on a hillside with water in the background, Allegheny National Forest

The Best Dispersed Camping Areas in Pennsylvania

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

Check out the map below to see where each site is located.

Allegheny National Forest

Clarion River & Millstone Creek Dispersed Sites

Restrooms: Vault toilets at Irwin Run, Robin Island, and Millstone Creek

Water lovers will appreciate this gorgeous dispersed camping area in Allegheny National Forest. There are 17 sites along the Clarion River and 9 sites on Millstone Creek. These sites make a perfect basecamp for kayaking, canoeing, hiking, and fishing. Each numbered site has a hard-packed parking area and a fire ring, and there are vault toilets throughout the area.

No permits or fees are required to camp in this area. The Clarion River and Millstone Creek sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis, and these popular sites fill up quickly on summer weekends. Many sites can accommodate RVs and trailers.

Clarion River Dispersed Camping Map
Map of the Clarion River Dispersed Camping Area, courtesy of USFS (click to enlarge).

Forest Road 259

Restrooms: No

This is a great dispersed camping area near the Kinzua Dam. There are dozens of free sites along FR 259, as well as some of the surrounding roads (120, 160, and 321). Many of the sites are quite spacious and can easily accommodate RVs and trailers. The area is peaceful and quiet, while still providing easy proximity to nearby attractions. Mountain bikers will love the trails near Jakes Rocks, and others might enjoy a picnic or swimming at Kinzua Beach.

There are no facilities nearby, so make sure to come prepared and Leave No Trace. The road is typically accessible for vehicles, but can become muddy and problematic after heavy rain.

Tent surrounded by tall trees

Pennsylvania State Forests

Delaware State Forest

Restrooms: Vault toilets located at some trailheads and picnic areas.

Delaware State Forest covers 83,000 acres of woodlands and wetlands in the northeast corner of Pennsylvania. The area offers plentiful opportunities for hiking, fishing, hunting, boating, and more. There are 29 established sites where free, dispersed camping is allowed. The sites are organized into three areas within Delaware State Forest: Edgemere, Owego, a and Snowhill. Sites vary in size, and some can accommodate larger RVs. All sites have a picnic table and fire ring.

A free permit is required for camping in Delaware State Forest. Contact the district office (570-895-4000, M-F) ahead of time to obtain a permit. If you don’t have a 4WD vehicle, be sure to ask the ranger to recommend sites that are more accessible, as some roads in the forest are rougher than others.

Bald Eagle State Forest

Restrooms: Vault toilets located at some trailheads and picnic areas.

Bald Eagle State Forest is a great place to find secluded, hassle-free dispersed camping. Like most State Forest dispersed camping in Pennsylvania, you’ll need to obtain a free permit ahead of time. However, because you’ll reserve a site in the process of getting a permit, you don’t need to worry about beating the crowds or not being able to find a good spot. The 45 designated sites all have picnic tables, fire rings, and parking. Some sites can accommodate RVs, while others can only be reached by a short walk in from the road.

Permits and reservations can be obtained up to 90 days in advance by calling the district office (570-922-3344, M-F). Before you call, take a look at the map and be ready with the numbers of your preferred site(s).

Rothrock State Forest

Restrooms: Vault toilets located at some trailheads and picnic areas.

Located just minutes from State College and with 300 miles of trails, it’s easy to see why Rothrock State Park is a popular destination for all types of recreation. Those looking for dispersed camping with a vehicle will need to obtain a free permit and reserve one of the 8 designated sites where camping is permitted. Many of the sites are adjacent to streams and have beautiful views of the surrounding mountains and meadows.

Call the Rothrock State Forest District Office to reserve a site and get a permit (814-643-2340, M-F). All of the sites have parking areas, picnic tables, and fire rings.

Michaux State Forest

Restrooms: Vault toilets located at some trailheads and picnic areas.

Michaux State Forest is an excellent option for dispersed camping in Southern Pennsylvania. This large and scenic Forest contains three State Parks within its borders, as well as beautiful scenery and fascinating historical sites. Motorized dispersed camping is only allowed with a permit and in one of the Forest’s 24 designated sites. It’s important to note that 18 of these sites are walk-in tent sites. Most of these sites only require a short walk in order to reach them, but you will not be able to camp next to your vehicle and will need to carry in your gear. RVs, campers, and trailers can set up in one of the 5 parking lot sites.

Call 717-352-2211 or email to reserve a site and obtain a free permit. The office only accepts permit requests Monday through Thursday at noon, so make sure you don’t wait until the last minute!

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Have a great trip!

That’s it! We hope you’ve learned everything you need to know to plan your Pennsylvania 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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