The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) manages all of the United States’ National Forests and National Grasslands. They also manage several National Recreation Areas. What are their rules for boondocking on USFS lands?
USFS: Rules for Boondocking on USFS Lands
In general terms, RV boondocking is permitted on all USFS lands. The only general regulations that exist across these lands are…
- You must drive or tow your RV along established roads
- You cannot park your vehicle(s) along road ways such that they impede the traffic and safety of others
- You cannot make enough noise (including generators, music, PA systems, et al) that it bothers the peace of others
- You cannot discharge a firearm, or any other implement capable of taking human life, causing injury, or damaging property within 150 yards of a residence, building, campsite, developed recreation site, occupied area, across or on a National Forest System road or a body of water adjacent thereto, or in any manner or place whereby any person or property is exposed to injury or damage as a result in such discharge, or within any cave.
These regulations are published in the Code of Federal Regulations at: Title 36. Parks, Forests, and Public Property, Chapter II. FOREST SERVICE, DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE, Part 261. PROHIBITIONS, Subpart A. General Prohibitions, Section 261.10. Occupancy and use. (Access those rules here).
All other regulations with respect to boondocking on USFS lands are specific to each national forest, grassland, or recreation area. You must contact a ranger station and inquire as to what regulations exist for “dispersed camping”, and where dispersed camping is allowed.
Dispersed Camping Is Not Allowed Everywhere
The USFS allows each National Forest, Grassland, and Recreation Area to decide if dispersed camping is allowed, where it is allowed, and what other specific limitations may apply…
- If rules and regulations on dispersed camping have not been posted, then dispersed camping is allowed
- Most forests, grasslands, and recreation areas have defined areas where dispersed camping is not allowed.
- You can reference these areas online at the USFS website, and then drilling down to the specific forest, grassland, or recreation area.
Dispersed Camping Is Not Always Free
Each National Forest, Grassland, and Recreation Area is allowed to charge a camping fee in any area within their boundaries.
- Most dispersed camping, however, still remains free
- Fees for dispersed camping can be referenced online at the USFS website, and then drilling down to the specific forest, grassland, or recreation area.
How Long Can You Boondock on USFS Lands?
It varies from each forest, grassland, and recreation area, because each one is free to make its own rules…
- Most have a 14-day limit
- Some go as high as 21 days
- There are several with 15 and 16-day limits
- There are still many areas with no specified limits
- Most require that you not return to the same area for at least 31 days.
- Some do not specify how long you must stay away before returning
- Read our full article, “How Long Can You Boondock in a National Forest?“
Dispersed Camping Can Be Closed for Winter Months
It’s common for most forests, grasslands, and recreation areas to prohibit dispersed camping during parts of the year when snow is expected to make driving a hazard. Even if there is no snow on the ground, there may still be a permanent rule that would prohibit dispersed camping.
- May through September is generally the months when dispersed camping is available for these areas.
- Many forests, grasslands, and recreation areas in warmer climates will not have any seasonal restrictions.
Beware of Inholder Lands
An “inholder” is a person who owns private property adjacent to USFS land, or surrounded by USFS land. Inholders came about because people owned land in an area before the federal government established it as a national forest or grassland. When the government establishes a national forest or grassland, it excludes the private property, yet often times these inholders become completely surrounded by USFS land.
It may appear you are traveling along a national forest road, and find a clearing to set up camp in, when in fact you may have entered private property. Inholders are supposed to maintain fencing and gates to keep outsiders out.
Recently, due to the increase of RVers and boondockers, many inholders have put up fencing across areas of land they do not own in an attempt to minimize the number of outsiders. They will often approach campers and attempt to shoo them away, claiming they have trespassed on to their property, whether or not they actually have.
- Always be aware of the area you are traveling through and camping in
- Study maps to make sure you are not trespassing into private property
- Forest rangers always know pretty well where inholder lands are, and which private property owners tend to cause the most trouble
- All online maps fail to carve out inholders from USFS boundaries, making it difficult for boondockers to figure out where the private property boundaries are