Wisconsin is a vastly underrated camping destination, and this upper Midwest state features thousands of acres of beautiful forest. From the shores of Lake Michigan to the vast forests covering the northern part of the state, there is nearly endless opportunities for exploration here. All of this makes planning a free, dispersed camping trip in Wisconsin a great opportunity to take in the incredible natural landscapes of the state and spend a night out under the stars.
However, many campers aren’t familiar with all of the dispersed camping opportunities in Wisconsin. We’ve created this guide to help you understand your options, know where you can dispersed camp, and understand all the relevant rules of regulations.
Keep reading to learn everything you need to know to plan a great Wisconsin dispersed camping trip!
Wisconsin Dispersed Camping Guide
- The Basics
- The Best Dispersed Camping Areas in Wisconsin
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The following sections contain all the basic information you should know about dispersed camping in Wisconsin. This includes where you can camp, what the rules are, and how to find the best sites.
This is the essential info before you head out!
Where is dispersed camping allowed in Wisconsin?
Wisconsin, like many Midwest states, has a variety of public lands. Many of these are open to dispersed camping, provided you follow a few simple rules and are prepared to be self-sufficient.
Generally speaking dispersed camping is permitted on public land managed by the United States Forest Service, including federal Wilderness Areas, as well as both County and State Forests. On USFS land, dispersed camping is generally permitted throughout as long as it is not specifically prohibited.
That means that if you’re cruising on a forest service road in Wisconsin and find a good pull out along the road, odds are you can camp there unless there is a sign prohibiting it.
We go into more detail on each of these dispersed camping options in the sections below.
US Forest Service Dispersed Camping in Wisconsin (USFS)
There are two National Forests in Wisconsin, and both allow dispersed camping. Chequamegon and Nicolet National Forests are both administered as one forest, so you’ll find the rules and regulations for dispersed camping to be similar for each. Chequamegon National Forest is located in the north-central part of the state, while Nicolet National Forest is located in the north-east part of the state near the border with Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where there is also great dispersed camping.
These two National Forests are typically our first recommendation of where to look for dispersed camping. There is a long list of rules regarding dispersed camping in Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forests, but don’t let that disude you.:
To get the most up to date information on current conditions as well as recommendations for potential camping locations we suggest reaching out to one of the local Ranger District offices in the area you’d like to camp:
- David R Obey Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center – Ashland
- Eagle-River-Florence Ranger District – Eagle River
- Florence Wild Rivers Interpretive Center – Florence
- Great Divide Ranger District – Glidden or Hayward
- Lakewood-Laona Ranger District – Lakewood or Laona
- Medford-Park Falls Ranger District – Medford or Park Falls
- Washburn Ranger District – Washburn
Dispersed Camping in USFS Wilderness Areas
Located within Wisconsin’s two National Forests you’ll find five distinct Wilderness Areas. These are truly remote parts of the forest, and are best explored by those with experience navigating in a backcountry setting. Additionally, no motorized or mechanized vehicles/equipment is permitted in Wilderness Areas, making these more of a backpacking destination.
However, for those willing to hike in a bit, you’ll find some of the best, undisturbed, and quiet dispersed campsites that Wisconsin has to offer! No trace camping is permitted in these areas, but be sure to follow the Leave No Trace principles outlined below as well as those on the USFS website.
Wisconsin’s five Wilderness Areas are outlined below along with links to detailed maps published by the USFS. These are helpful to orient yourself when searching for possible campsites:
- Blackjack Springs Wilderness
- Headwaters Wilderness
- Porcupine Wilderness
- Rainbow Lake Wilderness
- Whisker Lake Wilderness
You can also check out the helpful USFS map below to get a sense of these Wilderness Area’s location:
Wisconsin State & County Forests Dispersed Camping
In addition to Wisconsin’s National Forests and Wilderness Areas there is also the possibility to score a dispersed camping in one of the State Forests or County Forests that often permit camping. These tend to have a much more convoluted set of rules regarding dispersed camping, with each State or County Forest typically setting their own rules regarding camping. Often referred to as primitive camping instead of dispersed, you can think of the two names as generally interchangeable.
You should expect to have to pay a permit fee to camp in either a State or County Forest in Wisconsin, although a few of the County Forests do permit dispersed camping for free. Your best bet is to reach out to the Department of Natural Resources or the County Forest you are interested in to get the most up to date regulations.
Nevertheless, below is a list of State and County Forests in Wisconsin that typically permit dispersed camping:
Wisconsin State Forests:
- Black River State Forest Camping
- Brule River State Forest Camping
- Coulee Experimental State Forest (does not specifically permit camping)
- Flambeau River State Forest Camping
- Governor Knowles State Forest Camping
- Havenwoods State Forest – This is an urban forest located in Milwaukee, so camping is not permitted.
- Kettle Moraine State Forest Camping
- Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest Camping
- Peshtigo River State Forest Camping
- Point Beach State Forest Camping
In addition to Wisconsin’s State Forests there are also a few dozen County Forests located throughout the state that permit primitive and dispersed camping. We won’t list each one of them here, as there are so many, but we have included a few of our favorites along with links to the relevant camping information.
Keep in mind that these forests have a patchwork of regulations when it comes to dispersed camping, so you’ll need to research each one independently to understand the rules and regulations. Many require a permit, and several also require a fee, so ensure you’ve obtained/paid that in advance if you need to.
Here are a few of the top Country Forests in Wisconsin for dispersed camping:
- Ashland County Forest Dispersed Camping
- Chippewa County Forest Dispersed Camping
- Eau Claire County Forest Dispersed Camping
- Iron County Forest Dispersed Camping
- Marinette County Forest Dispersed Camping
- Rusk County Forest Dispersed Camping
- Washburn County Forest Dispersed Camping
The best way to find primitive or dispersed campsites in these County Forests is to contract them directly. They’ll be able to tell you the current rules, permits needed, and also be able to suggest potential campsite locations.
How to find dispersed camping in Wisconsin
Finding a free, dispersed campsite in Wisconsin starts with familiarizing yourself with the public lands described above. Once you’ve done so, finding a campsite gets much easier!
Typically, the next best step is to reach out directly to the Natoinal Forest, State Forest, or County Forest where you’re interested in camping. They’ll give you the best intel, with the most up-to-date information. However, there are also several excellent online resources that can help in your campsite search, which we’ve outlined 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. Try the PRO version for free and download offline maps.
- Campendium – A website and app that allows you to see user reviews for campsites and campgrounds across the country.
One final resource for finding dispersed camping in Wisconsin, specifically in the National Forests, is to utilize the USFS Motor Vehicle Use Maps. Although these don’t specifically show where dispersed camping is permitted like they do in many Western States, they do give you a good sense of the various forest service roads in the area and can be cross referenced with Google Maps and camping apps to find dispersed campsites.
Links to the relevant MVUMs for Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest are below. Note that the forests are broken up into more specific regions for the MVUM maps, so be sure to check a few of these for ideas:
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Dispersed Camping Rules & Regulations
One of our favorite things about dispersed camping is how simple and streamlined the regulations typically are. Although Wisconsin is slightly more complicated given that State and County Forests often have different rules for permits and fees, it is still a relatively easy process to navigate.
It is best to check current regulations with the relevant USFS or Wisconsin State/County Forest, 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 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.
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Our dispersed camping checklist has all the camping essentials plus specific items for dispersed camping.
The Best Dispersed Camping in Wisconsin
Ok, now comes the fun part!
If you’ve read the sections above you should have a good overview what dispersed camping in Wisconsin is all about. We’ve put together a list of a few of our favorite spots for dispersed/primitive camping in the state and hope it inspires you to get out there!
You check out all these spots on the map below as well:
Potato River Falls is a wonderful, rustic camping area located in Iron County Forest. The falls themselves are nearby and a beautiful sight to take in, while the “campground” features five very basic campsites. There are also several hiking trails in the immediate vicintiy that are perfect to explore this tucked away corner of the state.
If you’re looking for more remote dispersed camping in Wisconsin, Iron County Forest is a great option. In addition to Potato River Falls there are a few other camping areas that provide some basic amenities. Additionally, all of the County Forest is open to camping, provided you don’t stay over two weeks.
Best of all, dispersed camping in the Iron County Forest is free and there are no permits required!
The Porcupine Lake Wilderness Area is a remote section of Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest located not far from the town of Bayfield. As this is a wilderness area, you are not permitted to drive a car or any other type of motorized/mechanized equipment in this area. That means that for the hardy campers out here who are willing to hike in a bit you’ll find some true gems of dispersed campsites.
The North Country National Scenic trail passes through here, so there are ample opportunities to string together a great backpacking trip.
Restrooms: Vault toilet
Fanny Lake in the Lakewood – Laona District of Nicolet National Forest features five walk-in dispersed campsites just off the Jones Spring Trail. These sites are relatively easy to access as you’re less than a mile from the parking area, but still have a deep wilderness feel to them. Come prepared with the bug spray in the summer months, as the lake is known for having some vicious mosquitos!
For more detailed directions on how to reach Fanny Lake, this trail report on AllTrails is a helpful resource.
There is a basic vault toilet for all five campsites to share, but outside of this you’ll need to come prepared to be self-sufficient. Please practice Leave No Trace principles when camping at Fanny Lake to help preserve this wonderful natural place.
Restrooms: Vault toilet
For a primitive camping experience in remote Northern Wisconsin check out Perch Lake. This Forest Service maintained camping area featuers five walk-in campsites situated on the shores of Perch Lake. Don’t fret if backpacking isn’t your thing, as the campsites are only a short distance from the parking area.
Although it used to be free to camp at Perch Lake, the USFS has recently implemented a permit and fee system here. Still, at only $5 per campsite, its hard to beat the value compared to other options in the area. You can also rest assured that you camping fees go to support continued maintenance of the camping area and preservation of our National Forests.
Download Our FREE Dispersed Camping Cheat Sheet
Our free printable cheat sheet outlines how to find the perfect dispersed campsite for your next trip.
Have a great trip!
That’s it! We hope we’ve provided all of the information you need to plan a great Wisconsin 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: