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
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: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:National_Fo...
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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