Can You Camp Anywhere in a National Forest?

By Amy Curtis

Nature's best: camping in a national forest

Can You Camp Anywhere in a National Forest?

The beautiful setting of a national forest is a good place to connect with nature or, for that matter, each other. National forests offer opportunities for reflection and solitude, recreation and communion, or just peace and quiet in a place removed from technology and stress. How deep into nature is it possible to go when visiting a national forest? Can campers just pitch tents anywhere, or is camping regulated?

Can you camp anywhere in a  national forest?

National forests are in almost every state and every type of landscape. When planning a camping trip, it’s best to contact the nearest U.S. Forest Service office for information, because rules differ among forests. The general setup is this: Campgrounds are developed specifically for camping, but dispersed camping might be available in some areas as well. Campgrounds vary in their level of comfort and convenience, ranging from primitive to fully decked out with electricity and bathrooms. In fact, some national forest campgrounds even have cabins or yurts available for more of a “glamping” experience.

There’s usually a fee to camp at a developed campground, and reservations are generally a good idea, though not always required. Fees typically range from $2 to $50 per day, but are subject to change without notice. If camping in a crowd is unappealing and getting away from other people and deeper into the forest is the goal, dispersed camping may be a better option.

What is dispersed camping?

Dispersed camping is camping in undeveloped areas of a national forest. Dispersed campers are required to be self-contained and pack out what they pack in. Typically, no permits or fees are required except for large groups, but sometimes, dispersed camping is limited to a certain area of the forest. In some dispersed camping areas, designated or back-country campsites exist -- just no facilities or amenities.

Here’s how to get camping permission

Contact the local U.S.Forest Service office and make a reservation. This can be accomplished in a few different ways:

  • Visit the national forest website, at fs.usda.gov. Choose the desired destination and activity. Information will then be displayed on the screen about permits, fees and contacting the local office or concessionaire.
  • Visit Recreation.gov. Reservations can be made on this site, and it’s not limited to the national forests but includes other federally held lands as well. Email and live chat are available.
  • Call for reservations, by dialing 1-877-444-6777 to reach the call center for Recreation.gov. The hold time to speak to a representative can be lengthy, so the website may be a better option. 

Because dispersed camping typically requires no reservations, visitors to Recreation.gov are offered the option of visiting the destination’s official website. There, users can find data about camping conditions, permits and fees required, water, restrooms, usage and restrictions on camping.