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Dry Camping

National Forest Style!

Dry camping means different things to many people.  The common definition I hear from people is camping in a location where electric/water/sewer connections are not available at each site.  This definition is very broad and includes everything from camping at a commercial campground with centralized facilities to driving out into the woods and pulling off into the trees.

For us the latter is correct.  We love driving into a National Forest and finding a nice place in the trees to pop up.  

According to the Forest Service dispersed camping is the term used for camping anywhere in the National Forest OUTSIDE of a designated campground. Dispersed camping means no toilets, no treated water, and no firegrates are provided. There are extra responsibilities and skills that are necessary for dispersed camping. It's your responsibility to know these before you try this new experience. See the regulations and tips below for more information.

Where can I disperse camp? The best way to find out what areas are open to dispersed camping is to call the nearest Forest Service office to the area you wish to visit. Typically, dispersed camping is NOT allowed in the vicinity of developed recreation areas such as campgrounds, picnic areas or trailheads. Many people drive out on Forest Service roads into the woods and find a clearing or a spot near a stream or with a view of the mountains.

We started this type of camping in our tent and continue it today. Understand though, this type of campingStumpyWater2.jpg (496541 bytes) is not for everyone.  At night you have total silence and darkness.  The stars you see are amazing!  Depending on your location and distance from a major city TV reception may be nonexistent but you will probably have access to a few radio stations.  Recreation is what you bring along.  We carry board games, cards, and stuff for a few outdoor activities like horseshoes.  If you plan on hiking, stick to well marked trails unless you are well prepared with a topographic map, compass, hiking boots and anything else necessary to support yourself in the woods.  But, should you decide to try this type of camping you are going to have a "ring side" seat to nature.  Very few campgrounds offer a huge site next to a stream under a full canopy of trees.  Add to that the fact that it is free or very inexpensive and you have a wonderful combination!

Be aware, this type of dry camping, known in the Forest Service as "dispersed camping" is not usually advertised or published prominently on a National Forest web page.  You may need to call the ranger office in the area you are interested in and ask.  We found some of our best sites by camping in a Forest Service campground one time and using it as a "base" to find dispersed sites.

The downside to this type of camping is that you must plan everything in advance.  There is no running down the street to the store for something you forgot.  Everything you need has to be packed in and all trash has to be packed out.  Remember, when camping Leave No Trace.  Remember, you won't find a picnic table waiting at your site.  Plan everything from where you will sit to where you will wash.


For more information, visit the USDA National Forest Service web site!

USDA Forest Service web site banner


All photos are thumbnails, click to see an enlarged version

ClosedVehSign.jpg (501121 bytes)  All National Forest lands are open to camping unless otherwise posted.  To the left you see a common sign that the Forest Service  will post an area with to close it to vehicles..  When an area becomes overused, the local rangers will close vehicle access to the area. 
DryCampsite1.jpg (463199 bytes) This is a common "pull off" camping site.  You will usually find an area large enough to back in your pop up as well as a rock fire ring.  Additionally many times you will find trash left from those who were here before you.  Be prepared to do a little clean up work.
ChockMarker.jpg (526885 bytes)

Some sites can be completely under the tree canopy.  I find backing into these sites especially hard as all the trees begin to blend together in my rearview mirror.  I have gotten into the habit of "marking"  the trees I need to steer around with bright colored objects that will easily be seen in my mirror.  Here you see me using a chock but I am also known to lean lynx levelers against the trees as markers.

BunkObstruct.jpg (505426 bytes) Final positioning on the site can take a few minutes as you need to take things into consideration that you may not normally think about. Some items to consider include: slope of the area (low spots that rain water will pool in), level of the area, direction you want your door to face as well as are there any obstruction to the bunks pulling out.  While you are checking out the best location for your pop up, remember to look up.  Standing dead trees and dead limbs can be dangerous if the winds pick up.
Campfire1.jpg (37365 bytes) Here is a very common stone fire ring.  You may need to clean it out prior to use.  If you plan to cook over this fire, remember to bring a cooking grate.  NEVER leave a fire unattended in the forest!  Make sure it is dead out before going to bed and or leaving the campsite.
DryCampingTools.jpg (34689 bytes) Some tools we never go dry camping without:

Shovel - Cleaning and maintaining the camp fire ring as well as digging gray water holes.

Rake - Lets you keep leaves away from the fire ring.

Splitting maul/wedge - You can collect dead and down wood for your campfire.  A small hand saw can also be nice to have.  In most areas it is considered poor form to bring a chainsaw or log splitter.

WoodPile.jpg (65486 bytes) It is common for the rangers to leave wood piled around campsites for campers use.  When you find a pile like this you will be glad you brought the splitting maul.  Do not fill your truck as you leave unless you have a permit to gather wood.
VaultToilet.jpg (360879 bytes) Here are the "facilities" available at the North River Campground.  It consists of his and hers pit toilets.  As the name implies, the buildings are situated over large pits where the waste is stores.  The do not have running water or flush toilets.  I was amazed the first time I used one at how little odor was present.  These are not for the disposal of anything other than human waste.
NoRiverPump2.jpg (474538 bytes) Here you see the hand pump at the North River Campground.  We bring 2 - 7 gallon fresh water bottles with us and fill the pop up water tank from them.  We usually go through about 2 bottles (14 gallons) per day considering we are using it for cooking, cleaning, showers and drinking.
Soap.jpg (22423 bytes) For years, campers have camped in the woods.  One of the things they have always done s cleaned dishes or themselves.  Remember when you are dry camping a dump station for your gray water will not usually be available.  We use biodegradable soap in the forest for both dish and personal washing.  See waste disposal below for more information.

The "shampoo" and soap from home are only used in campgrounds which have bath houses and sewer facilities.

ToddCampsite1.jpg (507817 bytes) If you are not quite ready for the full dry camping experience, the Forest Service has many wonderful developed campgrounds which still classify as dry camping.  Here is one of the sites at the Teabury Campground located in the Todd Lake Recreation Area of the Dry River Ranger District.
ToddFireRing.jpg (415278 bytes) In a developed campground you will usually find a fire ring, picnic table and lantern post.  
ToddHandiFireRing.jpg (542477 bytes) ToddHandiTable.jpg (483855 bytes)The Teabury Campground includes a handicapped site.  Both a raised fire ring and a picnic table equipped for a wheelchair are on the site.
ToddBathhouse1.jpg (452648 bytes) Teabury also provides bath houses with hot showers and flush toilets.
ToddPaySign.jpg (365904 bytes) Fee areas will be clearly marked.  Most are on the honor system.  You will fill out a fee envelope, put your money inside then drop the envelope into a lock box.
WoodSlide.jpg (35238 bytes) We like a campfire every night so we bring lots of firewood with us.


Some Things To Keep In Mind  

Travel on Forest Service roads is not the same as the interstate.  Many are single lane and contain numerous pot holes.  Keep it slow.

When camping during hunting season, remember to wear blaze orange colored clothing if hiking out of sight of roads and campgrounds.  Collars and "dog vests" are also available for your camping pets. Hunting is legal in most National Forests.

While you will see Forest Rangers patrolling in the forest, you will still be on your own most of the time.  Make sure you have a first aid kit and an emergency plan.


Fire is a real danger in some areas of the country.  Be prepared and have all required implements on hand.  Some areas require that a shovel and rake be available at all times. Also, if a campfire permit is required, order one or stop by the ranger station on the way   Other things you may want to have available are 2 buckets, one with sand or clean dirt and one for water.

L.P. Gas Usage  

Obviously, how much LP gas you use will depend on many factors; LP gas appliances you use, air temperature, length of stay.....   We have a hot water heater, furnace, 3 way refrigerator and 2 LP gas stoves.  During fall and early spring camping with temperatures into the 20's at night we will go through a 20# tank in about 2 days.  Obviously the big user of LP gas is the furnace followed by the hot water heater.  The more you limit the use of these devices the more you will extend you stay.  We have 3 20# tanks and during cold weather always start with 2 full tanks.

Electric Usage

  Without an electrical hookup, you need to be careful with amount of electrical devices you use.  You would probably be smart to restrict your use to lights, furnace blower and water pump.  I went so far as to replace one of the power hungry incandescent light fixtures with a 12v DC fluorescent fixture.  Additionally, low power consuming LED lights and fixtures are available like MoonBeam Lights.  You may also want to think about adding an additional battery.  Additionally, having a battery meter is also a good thing to have with you.  We get  4 - 5 days out of the 2 batteries we have, but battery charge cable will extend the camping time available to you.

Waste Disposal

Remember to pack out everything you bring in, there is no trash service in the forest.  What you may think is biodegradable (paper cups/plates) may actually take months or years to degrade, take them with you.  When using biodegradable cleaning products remember to follow Forest Service guidelines:

A. Do not set up camp closer than 100 feet to a water source, like a stream or pond.

B. Do not wash anything directly in a water source.  Someone downstream may be drinking the water.

C. Bury all waste in "cat holes", at least 8 inches deep.

I use a 50 foot hose connected to our pop up sink drain, angling it away from the water source (take this into consideration when aligning your pop up on the site.  The end of the hose goes in an 8 - 12 inch deep hole.  At the end of the trip the hole is filled back in.

We use a Thetford Porta Potti instead of digging "cat holes" for the human waste.  As there are no dump stations in the forest you will need to dispose of the potti contents.  We usually dump it at one of the vault toilets at day use facilities or bring it home and dump it there.  With the chemicals used in a porta potti - do not dump this into a "cat hole", dispose of it properly.

For more information on biodegradable products, visit: WorldWise, a company dealing in biodegradable products.



The land ownership patterns around National Forest lands are patchy, with Forest lands intermingled with private land.  If you see "No Trespassing" signs, please respect the lands of private owners. When hunting or hiking on National Forests, know . If you aren't sure where the boundaries are between government and private land, purchase a map of the area from a local Forest Service Office.

Forest Service Fee Demonstration Project Information

National Park Service Demonstration Project Information

In order to fund ongoing operations at specific National Forests, the Forest Service has instituted a national pilot project to charge fees for certain recreation uses of federal land. Use fees have been implemented at several National Forests requiring an annual or day-use tag for specific use.  Uses included in some areas are horse and bicycle use, trail head parking, ATV/OHV use and or camping. Most of the income collected from these fees remain with the National Forest where collected to maintain, improve and enhance visitor services.


Remember, when camping Leave No Trace


Principles of Leave No Trace

Plan Ahead and Prepare

Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

Dispose of Waste Properly

Leave What You Find

Minimize Campfire Impacts

Respect Wildlife

Be Considerate of Other Visitors


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   Revised: May 08, 2007


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