The United States has 154 national forests and 20 national grasslands covering roughly 193 million acres with much of that public land open to free dispersed camping and boondocking.
Dispersed camping in national forests is usually allowed for up to 14 days at a time (with some exceptions). You’re typically allowed to set up camp in any previously-used campsite off any forest service road (although there are now occasional exceptions to this as well).
The United States Forest Service (USFS) also maintains hundreds of small primitive campgrounds, many of which are free (or very cheap).
Below, I break down the basics of dispersed camping in national forests to help you plan your next trip.
Please always follow the Leave No Trace principles when dispersed camping, especially packing out all of your trash, including human waste.
What Is a National Forest?
The United States Forest Service manages all the national forests and national grasslands in the country.
An agency within the Department of Agriculture, the USFS is responsible for managing these public lands to sustain forests and grasslands for present and future generations.
National forests are often confused with national parks (separately managed by the National Park Service), but are completely different with their own rules (e.g. dispersed camping isn’t allowed in national parks).
Furthermore, national forests are free to enter, although fees are required at most campgrounds as well as many trailheads and day-use areas. National parks, on the other hand, almost always require an entrance fee plus additional fees at campgrounds.
In addition to protecting habitat for wildlife, fish, and plants, the USFS also manages resource extraction like grazing, timber, and mining while protecting the health, diversity, and productivity of the land.
Now, for the fun part – a major aspect of the USFS is providing recreational opportunities to the public, including camping, fishing, hiking, hunting, rafting, skiing, snowmobiling, and many more.
For our purposes, we’re going to focus on the countless dispersed camping opportunities offered by the Forest Service from here on out.
Learn more about how the USFS manages public lands.
Where to Camp in National Forests
Most national forests offer a mix of dispersed camping and developed campgrounds.
USFS Dispersed Camping
I believe dispersed camping is allowed in all 154 national forests (as well as in the 20 national grasslands).
Although some allow you to set up camp pretty much anywhere outside of a designated campground, others have stricter rules and restrict dispersed camping to specific areas.
Typically, those with stricter dispersed camping rules are either those that are very popular (such as the national forests surrounding Yellowstone National Park) or have very environmentally-sensitive areas.
But, in general, you’re allowed to set up camp pretty much anywhere, unless otherwise posted.
That said, it’s important to stick to previously-used dispersed campsites whenever possible. This is especially true of those camping near their vehicles (most dispersed campers). Don’t drive off road, create new roads, or damage the environment.
The only exceptions I’m aware of involve dispersed camping near actual campgrounds. Most national forests don’t allow dispersed camping within a mile of developed campgrounds.
You’ll find dispersed campsites along most forest roads, including major forest roads, although the best ones are usually off side roads and secondary roads.
I strongly recommend calling the nearest ranger station for the most current info on road closures, off-limits areas, and local dispersed camping rules.
USFS Designated Dispersed Camping
Designated dispersed camping is a relatively new phenomenon.
Because of the huge influx of dispersed campers over the past couple of years, many very popular national forests now restrict you to designated dispersed campsites.
These marked and numbered campsites sometimes have fire rings (and bear boxes in bear country) but otherwise come without amenities and retain the feel of traditional dispersed campsites.
The campsites are typically much more spread apart than the sites at your average developed campground, so you’ll have the same privacy you expect from actual dispersed camping.
USFS Developed Campgrounds
The United States Forest Service manages thousands upon thousands of campgrounds.
These range from extremely primitive to those with RV hookups and include a mix of first-come, first-served campsites and those that can be reserved ahead of time.
Most developed campgrounds in national forests require a nightly fee, usually somewhere between $7 and $30 per night.
The more primitive and/or remote are usually around $10 to $15 per night while those that are either more popular or have more amenities cost up to $30 per night (or more).
But what many people don’t know is there are actually hundreds of free national forest campgrounds around the country. These are almost always primitive with few amenities aside from picnic tables, fire rings, and sometimes vault toilets.
Unfortunately, searching for free USFS campgrounds online is a tricky endeavor. I’m not aware of an easy way to search specifically for these.
Dispersed camping in national forests (whether truly dispersed or designated dispersed) is, as a reminder, always free.
How to Find Dispersed Campsites in National Forests
Step number one is tracking down a national forest near you.
Perhaps the easiest way to do this is with the Forest Service’s interactive online maps.
Their Interactive Visitor Map provides an excellent national overview of forest service land to help you find a national forest near your destination.
You can then select the national forest in question for more detailed maps of that particular national forest as well as relevant camping information.
Both apps allow you to turn on a USFS land layer to see the exact boundaries of this type of public land, including any private inholdings.
Pair this with satellite view and start looking for open clearings along Forest Service roads. As long as these are within the national forest’s boundaries, they’re probably fair game for dispersed camping.
Better yet, when poking around with satellite view, you’ll often see groups of RVs or trailers in these open clearings. This is almost a sure sign boondocking and dispersed camping are allowed at these spots.
You can use these MVUMs offline with Avenza to see up-to-date forest roads (since they’re not always 100% up-to-date on satellite maps) – even with no cellular service.
Finally, I always recommend calling the nearest ranger station or visitor center for the latest information on road conditions and their dispersed camping recommendations.
It’s especially smart to call a ranger ahead of time if you’re planning to dispersed camp in an RV or trailer as they’ll be able to tell you which areas are best suited for boondocking in larger rigs.
You can also usually get paper MVUMs from ranger stations if you prefer a hard copy.
Related Post: The Best Apps to Find Dispersed Campsites
National Forest Dispersed Camping Rules and Regulations
The rules for dispersed camping vary slightly from national forest to national forest, but generally remain the same across the board.
USFS Dispersed Camping Stay Limits
Most national forests enforce a 14-day stay limit for dispersed camping.
After this 14-day period, you’re not allowed to camp in the same national forest for another 14 to 30 days (depending on the area).
Unlike the Bureau of Land Management, which usually allows you to move 25 miles away to a new campsite, the Forest Service doesn’t allow you to camp anywhere in the same national forest again until the end of that 14 to 30-day period.
However, you’re totally allowed to set up camp in another national forest for another 14 days.
Although a 14-day consecutive stay limit is most common, more and more national forests in popular areas are transitioning to a 5-day stay limit (I’ve even seen a 3-day stay limit in some very popular areas).
On the other hand, I’ve seen some less popular national forests with 16-day or even 21-day stay limits – and even a few without written rules regarding how long you can dispersed camp.
In addition, some national forests enforce different dispersed camping stay limits for each ranger district.
This is why it’s so important to check with the nearest ranger station on their specific dispersed camping stay limits before your trip.
Other USFS Dispersed Camping Rules
Please always follow the Leave No Trace principles when dispersed camping in national forests and on other public lands.
Start by sticking to previously-used campsites whenever possible. You’re almost always required to only drive on marked forest roads and use dispersed campsites located just off of them.
Just as important is leaving your campsite even cleaner than it was when you arrived. As dispersed camping becomes more popular, left-behind trash is an increasingly serious problem.
Dispersed camping in national forests means no amenities, like toilets or trash cans. Plan ahead to pack out all of your trash and properly dispose of human waste.
Many national forests still allow you to bury human waste in a cat hole. However, I strongly encourage you to pack it out instead.
Improperly buried human waste (and left-behind trash and toilet paper) is not only disgusting to deal with, but it’s one of the leading causes of dispersed camping closures.
A portable camping toilet is a super cheap, easy, and odor-free way to pack out your human waste while dispersed camping.
It’s also extremely important to respect any campfire bans. As you know, wildfires are a very serious problem throughout the Western United States.
Please never ever have a campfire when they’re banned (you’ll receive a hefty fine if caught) and always practice proper campfire safety when they’re allowed.
Contact the nearest ranger station for specific dispersed camping rules and other info.
Let Me Know If You Have Questions
Still have questions about dispersed camping in national forests?
Just leave a comment below with your question. I’ll do my best to answer myself or direct you to the relevant USFS ranger office for more information if needed.
Related Post: Dispersed Camping on BLM Land