Did you know you can camp for free in National Forests? If you are looking for a primitive site to pitch your tent for the night and won’t need regular amenities, try looking out for the nearest National Forest. Most will offer non-electric campsites for cheap, but the real gem is off the beaten path; at least 300ft usually. If you’re familiar with backcountry camping, this is for you. Each forest has different rules so it is important to contact the local Forest Service Office if you are uncertain, but here are some general guidelines. Known as Dispersed Camping, adventurous campers are allowed to venture into National Forest lands without a permit. When making camp you must be distance yourself from developed campsites (some say by 1 mile), at least 300ft from a trailhead, 100ft from any water source and 150ft from a roadway. Ideally, you will want to be out of eyesight from paths, campgrounds and roads. You do not want to disturb another person’s view of the “wild”. All other regular backcountry rules apply such as Leave No Trace, burying human waste, and other respectful mannerisms. Finding a good spot can be as easy as driving down a maintenance road or hiking down a trail a bit.
I enjoy visiting National Parks. I often drive long distances with a car full of gear to visit an area, get our backcountry permit, go on a multi-day hike and drive back. I love to adventure on the cheap, and one of the things that can really add up (besides gas and gear!) is lodging. Sometimes we will take turns sleeping while we drive, but that’s no fun for the driver. Another option is sleeping in your car over night at a rest stop (which is illegal in some places) or other parking lot, but that is uncomfortable and hardly ideal. Non-electric paid campsites are ideal, and often my default “basecamp”, but often they can be hard to find, filled up, noisy, or the just cost of using a small patch of grass to rest a tent can be frustrating. I rejoiced when I first learned about BLM, and National Forests have been a similar revelation for me. In addition, there’s something deeply American in being able to just show up to the wilderness and make camp. That freedom. No checking in, no RV’s with noisy generators, no toilet smells wafting in the wind. Even if a National Forest may not be your final destination, they could make for a perfect spot to stay the night. Here is a handy list of all the National Forests.