Can You Camp at a Closed Campground

camping on a closed campground may be restricted

The lifestyle of a camper is one heck of an adventure. Freespiritness and freedom camping can give us is a very unique and beautiful thing. That’s why many outdoor enthusiasts love camping throughout the whole year. Unfortunately, some campgrounds may close their entrance during particular months. Therefore, the question that often bothers people is whether it’s okay to camp on a closed campground?

Whether you can or can’t at a closed campground varies from the campground to campground. Even though it’s a public area, Forest Services can restrict camping off-season. So, it’s best to do some research regarding campground regulations before starting your adventure.

Today’s topic is going to provide you with some useful info about dispersed camping in National Forests.

Table of Contents

Difference Between Camping On a Campground and Dispersed Camping

Official campgrounds can offer you some regular comforts like tables, toilets, and water resources. For some camps, you will need to make a reservation, while others work by the first-come, first-served policy. Most of these campgrounds charge some kind of fee for your stay.

Of course, camping in an arranged camping zone is less private and you may bump into large groups of people around you. This can be great if you’re looking to find some new friends. 

On the other hand, if you want to spend a more secluded, peaceful time in nature, dispersed camping may be a good choice for you. It’s basically an off-the-grid option that is away from official camping spots but within National Forest.

No provided toilets, tables, and water. Just you, your packed stuff, and a few people if you like company. That also means no trash cans, so you will need to take care of your garbage and follow the Leave No Trace rules.

Can You Camp At a Closed Campground?

Camping on a closed campground can be restricted by the Forest Service in certain areas. This often means every district has its own policies and rules. So, if you’re planning your next camping activity off-season, be sure to check campground regulations with an official district ranger.

Camping in a forbidden area may result in cash penalties, even in some short jail time. So, always double-check all the rules before the road.

Difference Between National Forests and National Parks

People sometimes think that national forests and national parks are very similar. This is kinda logical as both of them are public areas and protected landscapes. But, despite this similarity, they have some differences.

The main one is that different government entities run them. But, the thing that’s important for our topic is that National parks are more strict when it comes to pet-friendliness and dispersed camping. On the other hand, National Forests are pet-friendly and allow dispersed camping in most of their areas.

Can You Place a Tent Anywhere In a National Forest?

Unless it is openly specified, camping is allowed in all national forests. But, that still doesn’t mean you can place your tent wherever your camper’s heart desires. Most national forests already have specified campgrounds for you, and some of them will also have areas selected for dispersed camping.

This form of regulation is expected, as the National Forest Service tries to lessen human impact on natural environments. Again, if you’re planning to camp in any national forest, be sure to check rules with the nearest Forest Service Ranger Service that is assigned for the campground you want to place a tent on.

Things to Have In Mind When Dispersed Camping

Besides no toilets, water, and other comforts? You can expect totally different camping. You’ll need to be completely independent and well-prepared. On the other hand, you will have more privacy and a more in-touch-with-a-nature feel.

But, as you will be placing your tent off the official campgrounds, be prepared for some cluttered surfaces that you will need to clean up before setting a camp. If you’re camping in the bear zone, it’s mandatory to bring some odor-proof food storage, and always store the food away from your camping spot.

You want it for your camp to stay unbearable…for bears.

Camping In a National Forest Duration

National forest rules may differ from campsite to campsite. Most national forests allow you to stay in their campgrounds for up to days per year. These limits often apply for individual campgrounds, and legally you could be able to camp a full season if you change your camping ground every 14 days.

But, the rules for dispersed camping are a bit different. You can stay for a maximum of 14 days in a single Ranger District for separated campgrounds. So, if you’re planning on staying for longer in the wild, be sure to check out district maps for the campgrounds you aim to visit.

National Forest Camping Price

As mentioned before campgrounds almost always charge you a nightly fee. Fees can go from $2 to $50 per night. Don’t be surprised if the fee is based on the number of people in your group. Some campgrounds may even limit the number of people on a single camping site.

So if you want to save some money, consider dispersed camping. It very rarely requires a fee. But, they also don’t provide you with comfort. You can expect some national forests to require a campfire permit for dispersed camping.

Luckily, you can easily find these grants online for free. Those kinds of permits are often a must-have for any campfires and small backpacking stoves.

campground fee may be based on number of people

How to Find Dispersed Camping Spots In National Forest

Finding a developed campground area is quite easy, but when it comes to dispersed camping, you’ll need to try a few things.

  • Find the desired camping area. You can select the wanted spot within a National Forest and use Google Earth to check the route. You can check out for some trailheads and look around. Sometimes a sight of a small clearing within the forest may be a good indicator you found an existing camp spot.

Note: When you find your camping spot, be sure to check with the local ranger station for any fire restrictions. During off-season time forest access paths may be closed.

  • Have an application that lets you get maps and campgrounds even without cell service.
  • Get a hard copy map of the national forest you are planning to camp in. It might be tricky to find them online, but ranger stations should be able to provide you with one. 
  • You won’t have a big “Camp Here!” sign. Sometimes even after all the research, you may have trouble finding a camping spot. But, that can be the beauty of dispersed camping. The unknown and adventurous. Even though adventure is great, make sure to leave yourself plenty of daylight to find your camping spot, as when the night falls it gets much more complicated. But, if you somehow find yourself caught by night, be sure to know how to set up a tent at night. It might be very helpful.

Camp Responsibly

Dispersed camping really comes with an opportunity to explore natural environments more thoroughly, but with it comes responsibility. As a people, we need to make sure nature stays untouched as much as possible and treat it with great respect.

Even though you can find a link for some responsible camping in the paragraph above, here is a shortlist as a reminder.

  • Be sure to check with the local ranger station in your desired camping area for any regulations. Sometimes, in dry areas, fire bans can be active.
  • Check if you have permission to place a camp in a certain area within the National Forest.
  • It’s best to use a camping stove or fire pan. Avoid making a fire from the resources around you.
  • Always have an ax, a bucket, and a shovel.
  • For making fires, only use deadfalls, never cut live trees.
  • If you bump into an already created campsite that it’s free, use it, don’t make a new one.
  • Check out for overnight rules or road conditions before your journey. 
  • Pack and take all of your garbage and waste with you.
  • Make sure to check if the campsite is pet-friendly. Respect the wilderness, and keep your best friend on a leash if requested.
  • You shouldn’t camp within 200 feet of any water sources, such as lakes and streams.
  • Bury any human and pet waste into a six inches deep hole and 200 feet away from any water source.
  • Follow the Leave No Trace policy.
  • Read USDA’s guidelines regarding dispersed camping in national forests.

The Bottom Line

Various camping options give us a chance to experience this amazing outdoor activity in so many different ways. The best thing? Camping is completely a matter of taste. Some people love more comfort and opt for campgrounds, while others love more secluded vacations within the forest.

Both of these will provide you with a new experience. So, whatever you decide to try out, make sure to get informed about the guidelines and rules of the desired camping spot. Follow those rules, and enjoy beautiful nature no matter the location of your tent.

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