Introduction: Camp for FREE in National Forests

Picture of Camp for FREE in National Forests

I love going camping, but I hate making plans. This usually means I'll spontaneously suggest "Let's go camping this weekend!" only to discover that most campsites and cabins were already booked months in advance. Drag.

Lucky for me (and anyone with a similar problem) there are 154 federally protected "National Forests" in the U.S., comprising 300,000 square miles of nature, that are free for us to use! That's 190 million acres of reservation-free potential campsites set aside by Uncle Sam. Lookin' at you, Teddy Roosevelt.

In this Instructable, I'll walk you through the ins and outs of picking a national forest, finding a spot to camp, and what you can expect once you're there.

Step 1: Find Yourself a Forest

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The first step to camping for free in a national forest is selecting one you'd like to visit. Open up Google Maps and check out the vast swaths of green...they represent state parks, national parks, and national forests. I had no idea so much land was preserved in the form of national forests! California alone has 19 of them:

Most of these forests have at least one major highway cutting through them. For our trip, Tina and I decided to visit Stanislaus National Forest, nestled in between Lake Tahoe to the north and Yosemite to the South.

Step 2: Buy Yourself a Map

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You'll want a detailed map for this kind of camping, and it's nearly impossible to find high fidelity national forest maps on the internet. You can technically order them online, but we were in a hurry and decided to just hit the road and buy a map when we got there.

We ending up buying a map at a local grocery store but they can just as easily be found in outdoor stores, gift shops, ranger stations, etc.

Step 3: Get to Know Your Map

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These maps contain a ton of information and can be intimidating at first. It took me a good 10 minutes before I really knew what I was looking at.

Pay close attention to the legend at the bottom of your map, because not everything here qualifies as national forest land. There's private land (orange boxed areas), state park land (outlined in thick red line), wildlife preserves, and other areas where dispersed camping is not allowed. Everything else, however, is national forest land, and is open for exploration.

Step 4: Pick a Destination

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Trace your way down the major roads until you find an area that qualifies as natural forest land. Want to camp somewhere super remote? Pick an area on the map far away from any towns or parks.

Since we wanted to end up somewhere near Big Trees, CA, I focused on that section of the map. This photo represents the area of Stanislaus that we eventually headed for. Some things to consider when picking a destination:

  • The roads through national forest land are not very well maintained, and are often gravel or dirt (dotted double-black line)
  • If you don't have a high-clearance vehicle, stick to paved roads (solid double-black line)
  • If you want to camp near the water, find a lake or river on the map and then trace backwards for roads that will get you within walking distance
  • Fires may be allowed, depending on the time of year and the forest you're visiting. It's likely that you'll have to stop by a ranger station and pay ~$10 for a backcountry fire permit

Step 5: Into the Woods

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Once you know where you're going, it's time to get a move on. We checked our map often as we entered the national forest and started to lose cell reception. It's a good idea to carry a compass in case your GPS or internal sense of direction fails you.

As soon as you're off the main roads and into national forest land, expect things to get very remote very quickly. If you're used to crowded campsites and lines of cars, this will come as a lovely surprise. Take a moment to soak in the solitude and quiet you'll find just minutes into the forest.

Step 6: Stop Anywhere You'd Like

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Since you aren't headed for a particular campsite, keep your eyes peeled for anywhere that looks interesting. See a sweet meadow or waterfall you want to check out? Park your car and get after it!

Remember, national forest land is free for exploring. You can camp just off the road or hike miles into the backcountry. Just remember to pay attention to your map and make sure you aren't encroaching on anyone's land.

Step 7: Enjoy Your Own Personal Forest

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Once you've found a spot that looks good, set up camp and explore your surroundings. There won't be any park rangers coming by to check your permit or car stereos playing into the night. There also won't be any trash cans, potable water, first aid, or fire rings, so take extra precautions to pack out all of your waste and come equipped with everything you'll need for your stay.

If you can, camp somewhere where the tree canopy opens up, and you'll be treated to a dazzling view of the starry night sky.



ejsilver26 (author)2016-05-15

You can do this in Canada as well, on Crown Land. I'm in Ontario, and there are lots of places that can be camped in for free. A Canadian Citizen can camp for 21 days for free, before having to move your camp (something like 100 meters). If you are visiting Canada, there is a permit you can buy to have the same privilege. If you want to do so, you need to look on-line to find out what is and is not permitted on each parcel of crown land. Some allow camping, some do not. Some allow hunting, some do not.

I use this for my searches:

From there you can find all the documents on all the different places to camp.

As for fires, you can make a "cooking fire or fire to heat yourself", according to someone at the ministry I talked to. So, a small fire to cook your food is fine, just use proper fire management to put it out (Only you can prevent forest fires). But, I would also check the local area for fire bans (local fire department would know).

IngenuityAtWork (author)2015-10-06

To answer some questions...
What you can do, where, and if you need a permit or license really depends on where you're at. There are the regulations governing the National Forests (and Rivers), BLM, state entities, etc., and just as areas of land on a map overlap, so do the laws you have to obey. It's my understanding that in a National Forest, you generally need a backpacking or backcountry camping permit. However in National Wilderness areas (like Flat Tops Wilderness in CO, where I just returned from last week), you don't need any permit.
Generally it isn't required to leave a plan or itenarary with any authority, but it's just common sense. I've never heard a harrowing story of tough survival or slow death by exposure that played out because someone decided not to send search and rescue to the location of their loved one.
Another nugget of not-so-common sense is to not rely on technology whatsoever, because it will eventually fail you when you need it. Batteries always die, screens crack, things fall off cliffs and into water. So GPS is nice, but as the author said, get a good map, have a compass, and know how to land-navigate. It's really easy to do.
Also have a way to attract attention to yourself if you need rescue. I carry a little pen-size flare launcher that came with 3 aerial flares for about $25. If you are proficient and it's legal, take a firearm. Most of the places I go have bears, cats, and often moose, so it's a defensive tool, a way to procure food if I need it, and an excellent signaling device-- most people and especially rescuers and rangers know that 3 shots means 'help!' A small mirror is well worth it's weight and pack space too, because you can easily signal aircraft with it.
Personally I prefer to hammoc rather than tent because it's faster, lighter, and causes less of a disturbance to my campsite. Have a good water purifier and a way to store a days worth of extra so that you don't get far from a water source and break your ankle. Perhaps most importantly, keep all of those small things with you when you leave your camp to go explore. They all fit easily into a small backpack (I take a camelbak pack), are pretty light, and with the addition of a little food, some paracord, and a tarp or emergency blanket, I have the peace of mind of knowing that if I get stuck or injured somewhere, I'll have what I need to get out or wait for someone to send rescue without much risk of having a really bad time or worse.
Btw, show the rangers some respect and appreciation, don't waste their time, and they will be the best resource you could ask for in planning your trip.
Also leave the wilderness wild. Don't try to drag your vehicle in, run a generator, etc.; in fact such things (anything mechanical even bicycles) are illegal in designated wilderness. And may you burn in hell if you leave trash behind or crap under a tree and just leave it there :-) Learn good stewardship and practice it before all else.

Excellent addendum to this post.. One can't stress the concept of "Pack it in-pack it out" enough, and leaving an itinerary with a Ranger is a great favor to do one's self and your companions. I want to add the importance of proper maps. Those little maps one can get from local grocers or the Ranger station as mentioned in the OP might be good enough to give you an idea of what is where and where you can find a restroom but don't you go backpacking down a trail without a detailed trail map and an understanding of trail markers.

A friend and I leaned that lesson at the Ocala National Forrest years ago when we opted on saving the $ and didn't buy a trail map...We got lost in the woods for 3 days because we mistakenly followed the markers on trees to be felled instead of the trail markers.

We finally found our way out and into an orange grove which again stresses the importance of making sure you don't wonder unto private property. Some people, especially in California, don't appreciate trespassers and can shoot you without warning.

Does this mean that in CA it is actually legal to shoot trespassers without warning?! Unbelievable! Are they required to post their property every x-number of feet so that a hiker does not not unintentionally wander in? I've only been to CA once, and spent a week family-cabin-camping with an old high school friend (40 years after graduation!). Now I'm scared to ever go back!

Yeah you make a good point, with all of the different paper maps that are available for some places. I always get a Trails Illustrated, Nat Geo, or USGS quads; they're all topographic and based on the USGS data, which is as good as it gets for accurate info. However even though all 3 of those map brands are "topographic" among other types of data contained, when buying pay attention to the scale as you generally want to get the smallest scale (meaning closest zoomed in view) of the area where you're going. So sometimes it can be good to have 2 maps of the same place. Also there are occasionally maps available that show game units and migration routes for hunting, mines, mineral and precious metal distribution, etc,; so know what you're interested in knowing before you go map shopping and make sure you're buying from a reputable brand/source that used the most current data. The currency of data is actually really important when using with a compass, as what is known as "the degree of inclination" changes constantly, with the changes being significant enough to effect navigational measurements in 5 years or less in North America. The degree of inclination is a measurent in degrees +/- in terms of magnetic north, indicating the extent to which magnetic north (what your compass shows) differs from true north (which is north on your map). 5 degrees difference from current actuality, because your map is 5 years outdated (be weary of dusty maps!) can come out to a significant difference on a 20-mile trek, and if you travel multiple legs at different bearings before you figure out what's going on, and especially if there aren't many features in the landscape, you can find yourself lost despite having a map that accurately described the terrain, a functional compass, and the drive to use them-- which would really suck. Look it up in Wikipedia for a good and detailed description if that didn't quite make sense.

fred3655 (author)2015-10-04

Do they let you park an RV or bring a pop-up trailer? Is there a limit to how many nights you can stay? Is there a restriction on tent size or can I set up a small collapsible building with plastic panels? Are generators allowed? Any firearm restrictions? I always thought this would be cool but didn't know where to start.

Tom Gellatly (author)fred36552015-10-04

We passed a few RV's on our way into the forest, so that's allowed. I read somewhere that you can stay in the same place up to 14 nights. There's no limit on tent size but I doubt the collapsible building or generator would be kosher. I believe you can shoot guns on BLM (Bureau of Land Management, similar to National Forests) land as long as you're some specific # of yards away from a road.

Nyxius (author)Tom Gellatly2016-04-21

I can vouch for the guns part. I did this while I lived in Montana. I believe you need to be at least 2 miles from a road (could be 3... I always did 3). Also cannot fire until after a half hour after sunrise and before sunset. Some places have restrictions on where you can be after dark due to cliffs etc.

zieak (author)fred36552015-10-11

I believe that National Forests limit your stay in one spot to 14 days.

bruce.desertrat (author)fred36552015-10-06

Most national forests, parks and many monuments have designated campgrounds suitable for trailers and rv's. Wilderness areas may or may not; and in general wilderness areas are supposed to be vehicle-free. The BLM has all the info you need.

It may not be free, but it's reasonable. If you do it a lot both the National forest system and National Parks system offer annual passes.

Popular places will need reservations. Very popular places will need reservations quite a while in advance.

National Parks, in particular offer wonderful maps and guides online for free. National forests do as well.

Most campgrounds have noise restrictions on generators, and putting up buildings is kind of headed into a gray area, I think.

Can you link to the National Forest maps please? I was unable to find anything good online, and it would let me remove an entire step!!

The National Forest maps link is here Other maps may be available at the individual NF sites, they utilize the USDA GIS database; to have something offline you need to print out the web page, but you can customize it with all the needed layers, too. This is one for Tonto National Forest in my neck of the woods. Unfortunately better maps are a for-pay product of the USDA, but I'm happy to pay some for camping and recreation there; the more that gets paid for that, the greater priority they'll put on non-destructive uses versus, say, logging.

They do have free PDFs you can get here I KNEW I remembered getting good maps in the past from the FS.

Just one protip: Most inkjet inks are NOT waterproof! One wet map and your day is a blurry can guess how I know THAT little factoid :-)

foothillbilly (author)2016-04-21

The only important thing I'm aware of that's not mentioned here (in the instructable or the comments) is Motor Vehicle Use Maps (MVUM). Those might be the map mentioned above, but I can't tell. There's a project under way (can't remember the name) to make a MVUM for each National Forest designating where dispersed camping is and is not permitted among other things. I have seen a MVUM (for Wayne National Forest in Ohio). It shows more permitted places than the forest will ever have campers, but this is another reason to check in at the ranger station. Not all National Forests have been mapped yet, but you need to know whether you're allowed to camp in a given place. Ordinarily, this is added to plenty of other valuable information the rangers can give you to avoid any problems and improve your experience.

nightshift911 (author)2016-04-21

Be extra sure that the National Forest you are going to actually allows dispersed camping. I live within the bounds of the San Bernardino National Forest in Southern California, and the signs as we enter the forest area from the city down below indicate that dispersed camping is not allowed. I've never stopped at the ranger/forest service station that is a couple miles further in to ask why, but I suspect it has something to do with fire danger and the fact that our natural springs are a significant source of water, both for those of us lucky to actually live here, those down in the city below, as well as for at least one bottled water company.

There are designated camp sites available. I've never visited any of them, but they are generally a decent hike (less than half a day for most people) from parking areas. They can get crowded but, like in dispersed camping, there are no services and the rangers and usfs do occasionally visit.

brianchadorourke (author)2016-04-21

Really nice. I live right next to Shenandoah National Park and the AT. It is great to be out of a city in the remote woods. Thanks a bunch for a beautifully written passage.

jslollar (author)2016-04-21

All of this information, wildfire: pack-in pack-out: etc. is online. You're already here so click away and read. The point Tom is graciously making here is "DO IT". Use the Park Rangers and the great resource that they can provide. These are great people with a vast amount of information they are willing to share. Ask them about their favorite camping spots, you won't be disappointed. Once you do this you will be hooked for life. I'm one of those "did it" and "going to do it". I did it with my parents and family growing up, thanks dad. I did it with my spouse and children. I'm going to do it with my grandchildren when they are old enough. Thank you Tom for a great inspirational idea and the helpful tips.

Tom Gellatly (author)jslollar2016-04-21

this person gets it!! thanks for the encouragement, and I'm happy to hear you've been sharing this knowledge with your family and plan to continue doing so :)

tpeterson1959 (author)2016-04-21

Great inspirable (inspiring instructable?)! I've camped this way for more years than I care to admit, because I couldn't be that old.

If you're unsure what to take, just search "camping gear list" and you could likely find a list for the forest you're heading to.

bad-zima (author)2015-12-07

Fire permits in CA can be obtained for free online.

Forest Service supervisors have a fair degree of discretion, and regulations can vary significantly forest to forest. While they can be annoyingly paternalistic (like quizzing you about camping regulations in alpine meadows that are being completely destroyed by cattle) sometimes it the fastest way to figure out if roads are open or an odd bans are in effect.

cybyfox (author)2015-10-10

is called "dispersed camping" and requires much more care than this
instructable indicates. Yes, it's usually free, but these areas will
only remain free if treated with respect. Make sure you read about
"leave-no-trace/pack-in-pack-out" ethics before doing this.

See the USDA website for official info:

Tom Gellatly (author)cybyfox2015-10-17

My goal with this Intstructable was to focus on getting you there, I don't think I implied anything about being disrespectful once you've arrived.

CharlesB123 (author)Tom Gellatly2015-11-17

Its a great inscrutable and you definitely didn't imply that visitors should be disrespectful when visiting. Adding a little section at the end just reminding viewers to be respectful to the land and to follow "leave no trace" methods perhaps accompanied by a link for more info would greatly improve this 'ible and really take it to the next level

TimO13 (author)2015-10-11

This is generally correct but let's not forget a few things...

1. An adventure pass is still going to be required for your vehicle in most areas

2. Campsites need to be a certain distance from roads (I think 100 feet)

3. Campsites also need to be a certain distance from water sources (also about 100 ft if I recall correctly.

4. Planning to have a campfire? first, be that where you are going allows fires in non-maintained camping areas (many forest areas limit it especially during fire season). Secondly, be sure to obtain a free fire permit from a local ranger.

5. contrary to this articles statement, rangers do patrol wilderness areas (just not as frequently). I have been "free camping" more than once and wound up having a chat with a USFS ranger.

That being said, enjoy the vast wilderness!

Tom Gellatly (author)TimO132015-10-17

Thanks for the corrections! Happy camping.

K-Note72 (author)2015-10-13

Nice instructable, me and my friends are the same way and like to be secluded in quiet rather than pay to be cramped nearby other "campers". This past june we went up into the central oregon cascades for a camping/kayak trip on crane prairie reservoir (lower pop. density and elevation make for a GREAT view of the night sky, go early in the season before campfires get restricted). I myself already know how to do these things, but it's a good guide for those who've never actually "camped" before.

falconrk (author)2015-10-11

Great Instructable, I would add warnings about becoming familiar with the types of wildlife and vegetation and what/how to avoid.

PerfectionLost (author)2015-10-08

I'm always concerned about parking when driving out to these remote places. Do you have any recommendations on parking when looking for federal back country camping?

Since the traffic on these forest roads is pretty low, I have to think you'd be fine pulling over most anywhere where you aren't obstructing the road. See Karen's comment above for watching out for logging trucks.

karen kling (author)2015-10-08

I live next to the Stanislaus National Forest and spend a lot of time exploring it. I have just a couple of comments. Campfire permits are free from the ranger station, but due to the drought, fires are not allowed at this time.. The forest service has a great atlas of USGS topo maps of the Stanislaus Forest (shrunk down to a manageable size). I highly recommend it. It has more information (like topography and more forest roads) than the Stanislaus map you can buy at the ranger station (still a good one to have).

I have taken my tent trailer down many dirt roads in National Forests and never had a problem - just use common sense. There are lots of secluded little areas off forest roads that are perfect for camping. I always prefer to camp in the forest rather than in a campground because I like the peace, quiet and seclusion. As far as parking, just make sure you pull off the roads and don't block any gates. I would also warn that a lot of these roads are access roads to logging operations in the summer. You might want to keep that in mind. They are noisy, make a lot of dust and can be dangerous to meet on a windy road.

Nothing bothers me more than people who don't clean up their campsites or respect the forest. I've picked up plenty of garbage others have left and once found a campsite that had a smoldering fire burning pine needles outside the fire ring.

karen kling (author)karen kling2015-10-08

I meant to say the logging trucks are noisy, make dust and can be dangerous to meet.

Tom Gellatly (author)karen kling2015-10-09

Thanks Karen!!

Monsterguy (author)2015-10-07

Sadly here in the UK we're not allowed to camp in our national parks, it's quite ridiculous.

aaron81006 (author)2015-10-05

Nice right up and nice pics.

Please remember to tread lightly. With atv's being the fad these days, it's important to limit those to the trails as much as possible. Riding one of those aggressively can tear up some beautiful land in no time.

FYI, In colorado (maybe other states too but not sure) a portion of all fishing and hunting licenses goes to the state search and rescue fund. If you have purchased your license and get lost, they won't charge you when they come to look for you. For around 20 to 35 bucks, that's pretty good insurance.

Camp on my friends!

Bigredhawg (author)aaron810062015-10-06

very nice to know

thank you

69tr6r (author)aaron810062015-10-06

Who said anything about ATV's? Or is this a PSA?

Tom Gellatly (author)69tr6r2015-10-06

That is great insurance, maybe I should pick one up.

And yes, make sure to follow posted signs and rules for off road vehicles. There were special roads for ATVs in the forest we visited.

grayl (author)2015-10-06

I didn't see any mention of bears.

Bigredhawg (author)grayl2015-10-06

thank you...

Tom Gellatly (author)grayl2015-10-06

There's obviously lots more you need to know to be fully prepared for a backcountry camping trip... I wanted to focus my post mainly on getting there.

cyberpigue (author)2015-10-06

Thanks for the great write up and sticking to the subject of *locating* places to camp. I wouldn't have read it all if you had made it the "all inclusive guide to camping."

Carleyy (author)2015-10-05

Awesome project! Thanks for sharing!

Tom Gellatly (author)Carleyy2015-10-06

Thanks, Carleyyyyy! I had a little help ;)

KDaver (author)2015-10-05

great job.. only one thing you forgot..
make sure once you plan your route and possible stops. someone should be notified of your route and stops.. and approximate return.. this if something happens someone will know where and when to start looking for you.

Tom Gellatly (author)KDaver2015-10-06

Good point. You don't want a 127 Hours situation on your hands...

IngenuityAtWork (author)2015-10-06

Flat Tops Wilderness/Trappers Lake

Woah, this looks fantastic! Thanks for the photos!

lbrewer42 (author)2015-10-06

I am in Pennsylvania. The law says that unless land is posted every 50 feet with "No Trespassing" signs, then it is legal to be there. Especially in the NW corner, there are a lot of forests anyone can be in at anytime. Part of our being a free nation was that this mindset used to be the norm. It is courteous to ask permission (if you can find who owns the land), but the times I have tried I have gotten responses from owners of, "its a free country isn't it? Why are you asking me?" Another response I got was, "you don't see any posted signs do you?"

But never leave a sign you were there (well, maybe ashes form the fire - they are good for the environment anyway). Anyone who would alter the woods to their own delight and leave signs of it are ruining the natural experience for those who want to enjoy the same things afterwards.

carl.myhill (author)2015-10-06

Great enthusiastic post. I've camped out in that part of the world for 4 months whilst doing the PCT. I would add a few things to investigate: read up on bears and carry a bear cannister (especially near Yosemite) it's sad for the bears when they get accustomed to getting food from humans. Be very careful with lighting fires. There are some pretty cool stoves you can carry designed to burn wood. It's a super dry area out there so you need to be careful. Finally, worth looking up where there are hot springs - quite a lot to find and so nice to sit in a river in hot water!

tinaciousz (author)carl.myhill2015-10-06

+ 1 for finding hot springs! A girl's gotta freshen up while trekking through the wilderness.

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