Imagine waking up to the fresh scent of pine, the sound of birdsong, and the warm sun peeking between the branches of towering trees. This experience is not only possible, it may even be free, thanks to United States Forest Service (USFS) camping. If you’re a camper or RVer planning your first visit to U.S. forest land, we’re here to guide you. From finding a campsite and prepping for your trip to preserving the forest for future visitors, we’ll get you camping in the woods in no time.
The USFS is a Department of Agriculture federal agency that manages more than 193 million acres of land. As the U.S. expanded westward, the government created interior oversight agencies to manage the land taken from Native peoples. The USFS was one of the agencies, created in 1905, to oversee lumber and water resources.
With the motto “Caring for the Land and Serving the People,” the agency’s role expanded to being responsible for sustaining forests and grasslands. The USFS preserves forest resources for future generations, and uses such as livestock grazing, wildlife protection, clean water, lumber, and recreational activities like camping. The agency also protects forests and grasslands from wildfires, invasive species, the effects of climate change, and other damage. When we enjoy public forest land, it’s important to follow the mission of care and service and be caretakers of the public forests.
Where to Find USFS Campgrounds
The majority of USFS acreage lies west of the Mississippi, but national forests can be found in almost every U.S. state. There are a total of 154 designated national forests, and most provide camping opportunities.
Many national parks are surrounded by national forests. If you can’t find a campsite at the popular national park campgrounds, there may be an available site at a national forest location nearby.
There are two types of national forest camping:
There are thousands of developed USFS campgrounds. Amenities range from dry camping to water, electric, sewer hookups, bathhouse utilities, and even cabins. Some USFS campgrounds are first come, first served, while others can be reserved online via Recreation.gov. Most USFS campgrounds require a small nightly fee, typically around $10 to $35. These campgrounds are ideal for RVers who want to experience national forests, though not every USFS campground is accessible to larger RVs.
Many national forests contain areas open to dispersed camping. This is dry camping with no hookups, bathhouses, or amenities. These campsites are almost always free, don’t take reservations, and are located in more remote areas. Some dispersed campsites are safely accessible by RV. Others, especially those at higher elevations, are only safe for rugged vehicles or walk-in hikers.
How to Find Camping Spots on USFS Land
Knowing who manages the public land, whether your local national forest allows dispersed camping, or how to reserve a campsite, can be confusing. There are many tools, resources, and strategies to find the perfect national forest campsite.
United States Forest Service
The USFS website has camping location tools and other information. Check out its “Visit Destinations” page to find available recreation locations, and filter by “Dispersed Camping” or “Campground Camping.” The interactive map is easy to use, and it’s available as an Apple or Android app. Select “Camping and Cabins” to find campsites in the forest you’re planning to visit.
U.S. National Forest Campground Guide
While this is not an official USFS website, U.S. National Forest Campground Guide hosts detailed listings of USFS camping locations. It’s run by Fred and Suzi Dow, two experienced USFS land campers.
Campendium, a camping review website, is a great resource to find both USFS campgrounds and dispersed camping areas. Reviewers provide helpful information on RV accessibility, local amenities, and cell phone coverage strength. Look for the campgrounds with “National Forest” listed under the name, or check out these popular national forest camping locations.
Other Apps and Maps
Freecampsites and iOverlander aren’t as detailed about recording USFS-managed land. However, they offer crowd-sourced recommendations for dispersed camping areas that you can’t find on some other platforms.
For a more DIY approach to finding dispersed camping, locate the nearest national forest on your map app of choice. Look for roads named “Forest Road,” followed by a number (for example, “Forest Road 29”). Switch to satellite mode and zoom in to find small brown clearings next to the marked road. Then, verify with the USFS that it’s a valid camping area.
If you want to verify or find a U.S. Forest camping area, or need expert tips, you can ask rangers online at the USFS website. On the specific forest’s homepage, locate the “Contact Information” section, which lists the addresses and phone numbers for the ranger district offices.
Tips for Camping on USFS Land
Camping in a national forest can be an amazing experience, but it’s much more rustic than an RV park. Camping on USFS land, especially dispersed camping, requires preparation and campers need to take extra steps to be co-stewards of public forests.
Check the accessibility for your RV: Many USFS camping areas, especially those at higher elevation, are not accessible by larger RVs. Research reviews from other RVers before choosing a campground. If you’re dispersed camping, scout the area in advance in a smaller vehicle. These extra steps will help prevent damage to your RV and the land.
Only park in existing sites: If you’re dispersed camping, do not disturb the land. Only park in sites where others have camped before, typically dirt clearings.
Beware of tree branches: You’ll be in a forest, and unlike roads and campgrounds, the trees on public lands are not pruned for vehicles. Keep your RV’s clearance in mind, and look up while navigating and parking.
Prevent wildfires: Human-caused fires, such as unattended campfires and unauthorized open flames are preventable. Fire safety and restrictions are always changing, especially in the dry summer seasons. Check current regulations online on the specific website for the national forest you’re visiting. Look for the section in the sidebar called “Fire Danger TODAY.” It will tell you the current danger level, if campfires are allowed, and other restrictions.
Put out your campfire: Once you’ve verified if campfires are allowed, make sure to only start a campfire in a metal or stone ring away from dry brush or branches. When you’ve enjoyed your fire and marshmallows, completely douse the flames in water. You don’t want to see a single spark or ember, only a muddy puddle. The same safety goes for camp stoves, grills, cigarettes, and other flames.
Watch out for mud season: Mud is common in many national forests, especially in the spring after the season’s snow melts. Before you drive or park, check that the ground is solid. Otherwise, you risk your car or RV getting stuck in the mud, resulting in an expensive tow.
Leave it better than you found it: As co-stewards of national forests, campers must do our part to leave our camping areas better than we found them for future use. Leave no trace and pick up any trash you see in the area. Learn the origins of the land you’re visiting and support the local tribes and community. If you share a national forest campsite with a friend, remind them to also practice fire safety and Leave no Trace principles.
USFS Camping Destinations
Now that you’ve learned more about USFS camping, here are a few U.S. forest land camping locations to add to your bucket list.
Loy Butte Road | Coconino National Forest, Sedona, Arizona
This is one of the most popular national forest areas for dispersed camping. Campers enjoy epic views of Sedona’s famous red rocks. Downtown Sedona and the area’s popular trails are just a short drive away.
Juniper Springs Campground | Ocala National Forest, Silver Springs, Florida
Bask in the lush tropical forest at this developed campground. Then, enjoy a dip in one of Florida’s most scenic aqua blue springs.
Nomad View Dispersed Camping | Buffalo Gap National Grassland, Wall South Dakota
This was Campendium’s top-rated national forest camping area in 2020 due to the vast views and proximity to Badlands National Park.
Coconino Rim Road | Coconino National Forest, Grand Canyon, Arizona
This dispersed camping area is central to the South Rim visitor areas and not far from the Grand Canyon rim. Keep your eye out for elk.
Tom’s Best Spring Dispersed Camping | Dixie National Forest, Panguitch, Utah
This peaceful, wooded camping area is popular for its proximity to Bryce Canyon National Park. After a day of hiking, return here for relaxation and stargazing.
Essentials for USFS Camping
Expensive gear isn’t a requirement for national forest camping, but these tools will make your experience safer and more enjoyable.
- Battery Bank or Power Station: Solar power may be a bit scarce in the shade of the forest. Bring a fully-charged portable power source for cell phones and other devices.
- 5-Gallon Potable Water Jug: Carry extra fresh water for drinking, cooking, and putting out your campfire.
- Tire Traction Mats: If there’s a chance of mud, traction mats can help you get out of a jam.
- Binoculars: Enhance your wildlife sightings. You’re likely to spot birds, elk, and maybe even a bear while camping in the forest.
- Camping Chairs and Table: Many national forest campsites aren’t equipped with a picnic table. Bring your own compact table and chairs for cooking and relaxation.
Common Questions About Camping on USFS Land
Most national forests have developed campgrounds, dispersed camping, and other recreation options. Check the national forest’s website for your destination’s specific information.
The U.S. Forest Service does not require camping permits, but some campgrounds require nightly fees. Other types of permits may be required for campfires and other recreational activities.
U.S. Forest Service camping restrictions vary by national forest. Visit the website to learn restrictions for the forest you want to visit.
Some developed U.S. Forest Service campgrounds require reservations, which can be made online at Recreation.gov. Some are first come, first served, and others offer dispersed camping with no reservations.