The kinds of uses that are permitted in national forests are long and varied. Almost all forms of recreation are allowed. It just depends to what extent and which parts of the forest you’re interested in. It’s easier to produce a list of what is not permitted.
What Uses Are Permitted in National Forests?
Pretty much all forms of recreation are permitted in national forests. Camping, hiking, picnicking, bicycling, photography, all go without saying.
State Laws Apply in National Forests
Whatever is legal or illegal according to state law is also legal or illegal in any national forest inside that state. Federal regulation 36 CFR § 211.3 requires forest rangers to enforce applicable state laws. Keep that in mind when reviewing the following…
Shooting & Hunting
Target shooting is permitted in all national forests as a general rule. You are prohibited, however, from shooting within 150 feet of developed areas, such as campgrounds, visitor centers, picnic areas, etc. You cannot shoot across a road. State laws may also have additional restrictions on target shooting.
Hunting inside a national forest is generally under the jurisdiction of the state agency that issues hunting licenses, however forest rangers are allowed to enforce state laws and rules. You are, however, always allowed to shoot an animal if that animal is attacking you.
Fireworks, explosives, incendiary bullets, are banned in all national forests and grasslands.
Fishing in a national forest is generally under the jurisdiction of the state agency that issues fishing licenses, however forest rangers are allowed to enforce state laws and rules.
Campfires are always permitted in national forests as a general rule. However, each forest may place restrictions depending on the weather. Many forests in the Western states will issue restrictions, or even ban all fires, depending on how dry the conditions are. You will have to contact a visitor center or ranger station in the forest you are interested in to find out.
Gas-fired stoves, barbecue grills, and even flame-based lanterns all fall under the same guidance as campfires. However, depending on a forest’s current level of fire restriction, these items may still be allowed even when a ground-based campfire is not.
Drinking Liquor and Smoking Marijuana
The US Forest Service does not address the consumption or possession of alcoholic beverages or marijuana products within national forests and grasslands. However, each specific forest and grassland is free to adopt special orders to do so. In most cases, they only prohibit these substances in developed areas like campgrounds, visitor centers, etc. As long as you’re boondocking, nobody seems to care.
Note that while the federal government has made the possession and use of marijuana products illegal, it is legal in many states. Generally, forest rangers are not going to enforce federal laws on marijuana as long as you’re in a state that allows marijuana use. That being said, it is still highly recommended you put away your weed if you see a ranger coming.
The National Park Service (not the US Forest Service) does address the subject of alcohol (§ 2.35 Alcoholic beverages and controlled substances) and other controlled substances, but still allows for the possession and consumption of alcoholic beverages. They simply reserve the right to prohibit them in certain parks and certain areas of a park.
Collecting Rocks, Flowers, Berries, and Artifacts
Technically, you cannot pick or remove anything from a national forest or grassland. This is based on Federal regulation § 261.9 (a) & (b) Property, which says that you cannot remove any natural object or property from a national forest, nor can you damage any natural object or property in a national forest. This means no flowers, no seeds, no rocks, no nothing.
- However, no forest ranger is going to stop you from picking a pine cone, a flower, a berry, a bone, or a pretty rock, as long as you’re not there to make an impact on the ecosystem.
- You can dig for stuff as long as you’re not conducting an excavation involving several guys and/or heavy equipment.
- If you happen to find a gold nugget you can keep it, but you cannot remove so much precious metal or gems so as to establish a mining operation.
- Use of metal detectors is not illegal, but generally frowned upon because of all the digging associated with it. You’re generally OK as long as you restrict it to previously used campsites, and not dig up pristine earth.
- You are not allowed to remove any archaeological artifacts like arrowheads, pottery, ancient tools, dinosaur bones.
Dogs and Cats
Dogs are cats are permitted inside national forests…
- Federal regulation (§ 261.8 (d) Fish and wildlife) says that a dog must be leashed or confined at all times. This means in any part of a national forest or grassland.
- However, this largely is only enforced in developed areas (campgrounds, picnic areas, trailheads).
- Outside of developed areas (boondocking, Wilderness Areas) you’re expected to keep your dog under control, not necessarily leashed or confined. Meaning, it can run free as long as it stays close to you and returns to you when you call.
- The US Forest Service does not address cats, but we assume the same applies as with dogs.
Pooping and Peeing on the Ground
Pooping and peeing on the ground is permitted in a national forest as long as you don’t do it within 200 feet from a body of water, nor inside a developed area (campground, visitor center, parking lot, etc.)
- With respect to pooping, you are required to dig a hole at least six inches deep, then squat right over it. You can toss in toilet paper as long as its biodegradable. (Flushable wipes are not biodegradable). You must cover up the hole as soon as you’re done.
- You can only poop once per hole. You cannot dig a big hole and leave it open for multiple uses.
- You are not allowed to dump a container of waste into a hole in the ground. This includes a container of poop, pee, or composted human waste.
- Each state has its own laws with respect to dumping of human waste, which each forest will enforce.
Flying Drones & Operating Remote Controlled Devices
Flying drones is generally permitted in all national forests, but not in areas classified as “Wilderness”. Drones cannot be flown near landing strips, developed areas, and cannot be flown near nesting bald eagles. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) also issues “no-fly zones” which drones must also respect.
Operating remote-controlled cars is allowed in national forests, but not in developed areas like campgrounds, visitor centers, trailheads, picnic areas, etc. However, operating remote-controlled watercraft on lakes and streams is not, unless it’s done in an area where such activity is specifically intended.
Operating Off-Highway Vehicles (OHV)
The US Forest Service sees all vehicles as either street-legal or non-street legal. They don’t technically recognize OHVs. If your OHV meets all state requirements for a street-legal vehicle, then the national forest will treat it as a street-legal vehicle.
That being said, all forest roads are open to street legal vehicles based on that state’s definition of street-legal. Non-street legal vehicles are permitted only on roads that have been designated for such vehicles. Each forest publishes a “Motor Vehicle Use Map” which illustrates which roads are street-legal only, and which are open to all vehicles. Read more about this at, “How to Use Motor Vehicle Use Maps (MVUM) to Find Free Camping”
Also note that…
- All national forests require you to drive only on numbered roads. You cannot drive off of a road unless there is a previously-used clearing or trail off of that road. Each forest has limits on how far from the side of a road you can travel (which is defined on their Motor Vehicle Use Map).
- Many national forests have created OHV areas where you can drive willy-nilly anywhere you want.
Making Loud Noises
The US Forest Service does not ban loud noises such as partying, or running a generator. They only prohibit you from using loud noise to create a public annoyance. They don’t define “annoyance” in terms of decibels or other form of measurement, hence it’s all up for interpretation…
- Federal regulation § 261.10 (i) Occupancy and use says that you cannot operate equipment (including a generator) that makes noises loud enough to disturb someone. However, operating a PA (Public Address) system is always prohibited.
- Federal regulation § 261.4 (d) Disorderly conduct prohibits the creation of a public annoyance through unreasonably loud noises.
Someone would have to call a forest ranger and complain that you are being too loud.
Lewd Acts and Nudity
The US Forest Service does not specifically prohibit lewd acts, open sexual activity, exhibitionism, or public nudity. However, its officers are required to enforce state laws. Every state has laws prohibiting these acts to some lesser or greater degree. For more discussion on this topic see, “Is Nude Camping Legal on Federal Lands?“
Tree Cutting and Gathering Firewood
Tree cutting is permitted in every national forest as long as you have a tree cutting permit. Each forest has unique rules with respect to cutting trees, dead or alive, even if you’re just cutting off a branch.
Gathering firewood for your own campsite is allowed without permit, as long you are gathering “dead and down” wood. You cannot cut down a tree or limb. There are generally no restrictions on gathering dead and down wood, however many forests will recommend you restrict gathering to no more than a one mile radius from your campsite.
However, you cannot transport dead and down wood outside of a national forest without a permit. If your goal is to gather firewood for your home, or to sell to others, you must obtain a firewood permit.
Using National Forest as a Residence
It is illegal to use a national forest or grassland as a residence. Federal regulation § 261.10 (b) Occupancy and use specifically states that you cannot use a residence on national forest system lands.
However, each national forest and grassland has issued rules on how long you are allowed to camp inside a national forest, and how far away you must move after that maximum time has been reached before returning. Thus, as long as you respect those rules, you can keep moving to a different part of the forest, or to another national forest, and continue to live within the US Forest Service system. For more discussion on this see, “Is it Illegal to Live in a National Forest?“
However, it is possible to purchase land inside or adjacent to a national forest. For more discussion on this see, “Can I Buy Land in a National Forest?“
Wilderness Areas Have More Restrictions
Most forests have carved out sections under the Wilderness Act of 1964. These sections will have the word “Wilderness” in the name. Any mechanical device, motorized or not, is not permitted in Wilderness Areas. This includes vehicles, including bicycles, and even handcarts. You are limited to traveling only by foot or horseback.
- You cannot erect any structures in a wilderness except for a tent.
- Campfires are allowed, as long as its done by creating a circle of rocks.
- You cannot bring any kind of cooking equipment (barbecue, gas stove, Instant Pot) except for that which is placed directly over a campfire. Examples of what is allowed include metal grate, frying pan, dutch oven, coffee pot.
- Anything powered by gas or electricity is generally not allowed, except for small items you can carry in your pocket or backpack.
- The US Forest Service has adopted some rules regarding Wilderness Areas.