South Dakota Dispersed Camping: The Complete Guide

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From Black Hills to the Badlands, South Dakota is the perfect destination for outdoors lovers of all kinds. It’s a large and sparsely populated state, meaning that you can find plenty of opportunities to get away from the crowds and into truly wild places. And what better way to enjoy all that South Dakota has to offer than free dispersed camping in the backcountry?

South Dakota has well over a million acres of public land for dispersed camping, in national forests, national grasslands, and BLM land. Amazing campsites are located all over the state and just waiting to be explored!

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 South Dakota.

Keep reading to learn everything you need to know to plan your trip, including a few of our favorite dispersed campsites in the state!

South Dakota 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
Learn through video tutorials

The Basics

Before you head out to pitch your tent or park your trailer, you need to have a good understanding of the rules regarding dispersed camping in South Dakota. 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 South Dakota!

Where is Dispersed Camping Allowed in South Dakota?

There are a few different types of public land in South Dakota where dispersed camping is allowed. The most plentiful dispersed camping opportunities can be found in Black Hills National Forest. Generally speaking, camping is allowed throughout the National Forest, although there are some important exceptions that we’ll cover later in this post. You can also find great dispersed campsites in Custer Gallatin National Forest, which is located in the far northwest corner of the state. All of the South Dakota portions of Custer Gallatin National Forest are managed by the Sioux Ranger District.

In addition to two National Forests, there are a handful of National Grasslands in South Dakota that offer great dispersed camping areas. Buffalo Gap National Grassland is the most popular option, given its proximity to Badlands National Park. However, there are great dispersed campsites in South Dakota’s other National Grasslands.

The map below shows all of South Dakota’s National Forests and Grasslands.

Map of South Dakota National Forests and Grasslands
National Forests and Grasslands in South Dakota. Map courtesy of USFS.

You can also find dispersed camping in recreational areas managed by either the Army Corps of Engineers or the state of South Dakota. However, it’s important to note that dispersed camping is not allowed everywhere in these areas, so it’s a good idea to call the field office, check your maps, and pay attention to the signage around you.

Finally, there is a small amount of BLM land in the western portion of South Dakota where dispersed camping may be possible. It can be quite tricky to ensure that you’re actually on BLM land, given how spotty it is throughout the area. Therefore, we recommend sticking to the other public land options in South Dakota.

How to Find Dispersed Campsites in South Dakota

Finding dispersed camping in South Dakota is pretty straightforward once 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 publicly 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 lets you filter to show 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.

Download Our FREE Dispersed Camping Cheat Sheet

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

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 South Dakota to get the most current camping information and recommendations.

Contact information for all of the ranger districts is provided below:

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 display where dispersed camping is permitted, typically indicated by two dots on either side of a road, as shown in the example below from the Bearlodge Ranger District in Black Hills NF:

Motor Vehichle Use Map of the Bearlodge Ranger District in Black Hills National Forest.
Dots on either side of a road indicate that dispersed camping is allowed. Map courtesy of USFS.

MVUMs for all of South Dakota’s National Forests and Grasslands can be found at the following links:

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.

Want to learn more about finding the best dispersed campsites? Check out our easy video tutorials!

South Dakota Dispersed Camping Rules and 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, and these look different depending on where you go.

It is best to check current regulations with the relevant USFS or state 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.
  • Fires are never allowed for dispersed campers in Black Hills NF or Fort Pierre NG
  • Practice Leave No Trace principles – more on that below!
Road with pine trees on either side and a mountain in the distance.
Black Hills National Forest is a great dispersed camping destination.

Leave No Trace Principles & Dispersed Camping

One of the most important considerations when dispersed camping in South Dakota 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 South Dakota Dispersed Campsites

Now that you have all of the essential information about dispersed camping in South Dakota, it’s time 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 South Dakota to check out.

If you’re looking for more dispersed camping in Black Hills National Forest, check out our guide here.

In addition, the South Dakota dispersed camping map below shows all of the campsite locations, with detailed descriptions following.

Bear Mountain Lookout Road

Restrooms: No
Water: No
Crowds:
Low
Map

This dispersed camping area is located in Black Hills National Forest, with the closest towns being Custer and Hill City. There are plenty of great places to pitch your tent or park your RV on the road up to the Bear Mountain Fire Tower. The area has incredible views of the Black Hills, and you can see the Crazy Horse Monument from some spots, too.

The road gets a bit rougher the further in you go, but is typically manageable for all vehicles. Due to its proximity to a cell tower, there is excellent service. Keep in mind that campfires are not permitted in the area.

Castle Peak Road

Restrooms: No
Water: No
Crowds:
 Moderate
Map

There are several beautiful campsites set along Bittersweet Creek, but you’ll have to navigate a rough and narrow road to reach them. This peaceful dispersed camping area is in the heart of Black Hills National Forest and can be accessed from Hill City. To get there, take Deerfield Road to Mystic Road and continue straight until you reach Castle Peak Road (forest road 181). From there, the road should only be attempted by 4WD vehicles. The camping area can accommodate tents and smaller RVs.

Cosmos/Calumet Road Area

Restrooms: No
Water: No
Crowds:
 Moderate
Map

This is the third and final Black Hills National Forest dispersed campsite on our list. There are not many sites here, so it’s a good option for those seeking quiet and privacy. The sites are surrounded by forest, with great mountain views.

To reach this dispersed camping area, turn off Highway 16 on Calumet Road. This is the forest service road opposite from Cosmos Road. From there, continue up the road a bit until you see a large, relatively flat camping area. If you keep going a little ways further, you’ll see another open camping area. The first spot is large enough for two big rigs or several tents and the second spot can comfortably fit a couple of smaller campers. It’s important to note that the road can get quite muddy after rain, and campfires are not permitted.

Badlands Boondocking

Restrooms: No
Water: No
Crowds:
 Busy
Map

Although dispersed camping is not allowed within Badlands National Park, you can camp just a mile from the Pinnacles Entrance in neighboring Buffalo Gap National Grasslands. This scenic dispersed camping spot is located on “the wall,” a sheer cliff overlooking Badlands National Park. The nearest town, Wall, is an easy 15 minute drive from the camping area.

As the name suggests, this is a popular spot for RVs and trailers and should be accessible for most rigs. This camping area enjoys spectacular views from its perch on the wall, although the wind can be intense here. Biting flies can also be an issue at certain times of year, but you’ll decide it’s worth it once you see the stars at night. If you’re looking for amenities like picnic tables and toilets, Sage Creek Campground is just 30 minutes away and offers free primitive camping. Both of these sites are very popular, but there’s usually enough space for everyone in the boondocking area.

Slim Buttes

Restrooms: Yes
Water: No
Crowds:
 Moderate
Map

Slim Buttes is a Recreational Area in Custer Gallatin National Forest in the northwest corner of South Dakota. There are tons of beautiful free campsites to choose from here, either in the primitive Reva Gap Campground or along any of the roads in the area. Slim Buttes is characterized by pine forests and incredible rock formations similar to what you’d find in the Badlands. Castles National Landmark is a majestic formation and a major highlight of the area. There are plenty of good hiking opportunities nearby as well.

Reva Gap Campground consists of over a dozen grassy sites, with four close to the road and more further up. There are plenty of vault toilets available, and the views are fantastic. Many of the sites can easily accommodate RVs. If you’re looking for a true dispersed site, this map is a good place to start. The closest town, Buffalo, is just 25 minutes away.

Fort Pierre National Grassland

Restrooms: Yes
Water: No
Crowds:
 Low
Map

Fort Pierre National Grassland is located in right in the center of the state, close to the Missouri River. It is a perfect destination for those seeking peace and tranquility, and there’s a wealth of dispersed camping options throughout the area. Fishing is one of the main draws here, as the grassland’s numerous ponds are teeming with several species of fish. Hunting is also possible, but be sure to check the South Dakota Hunting Rules and Regulations.

Dispersed camping is allowed within 30 feet of any designated road in Fort Pierre National Grassland. Check the MVUM to get a better understanding of what’s available. Richland Dam is located on the far western side of the National Grassland, and is a popular place for dispersed camping and Boondocking. There is a vault toilet in this area, and fishing is allowed in the pond. Keep in mind that there is no shade in this area, so we recommend bringing a portable shade structure to keep you cool. Also, it is important to note that campfires and outdoor smoking are never permitted in Fort Pierre NG.

Oacoma Flatts

Restrooms: No
Water: No
Crowds:
 Moderate
Map

This excellent dispersed camping area is located right on the banks of the Missouri River near the town of Chamberlain. The half dozen sites close to the river have picnic tables, and there is more camping available in the grass away from the river. The Oacoma City Park is just a short walk from the camping area, and has additional picnic areas, a playground, trash cans, and bathrooms. There are lots of great boating and fishing activities available in the nearby area.

Most sites are large enough to accommodate RVs or trailers. It’s important to note that the road can get extremely muddy, so it’s recommended that you avoid this area after heavy rains or if there is a threat of rain. Camping is permitted for up for seven nights.

Byre Lake

Restrooms: Yes
Water: No
Crowds:
 Moderate
Map

Byre Lake Recreation Area is located just north of the town of Kennebec in south central South Dakota. There are a several free campsites with views overlooking the lake, where you can fish or swim. In addition to the free sites, there are a handful of paid sites that have electric hookups. Most sites can accommodate RVs.

There is a vault toilet, playground, and basketball court in the area. Keep in mind that you’ll need to bring all of your own water. Kennebec is less than 10 minutes away and has a grocery store, gas station, bank, and post office.

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 South Dakota.

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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