Driving with Donna: Guide to Camping in a National Forest
Posted: September 29, 2023
Categories: Travel & Lifestyle
Driving with Donna: Guide to Camping in a National Forest
by Donna Weathers
Today is our last day of dry camping in the White Mountains National Forest in New Hampshire. That statement probably invokes images of a rustic setting near a stony stream, our camper surrounded by trees and not a soul in sight. But, in fact, we are in Dolly Copp Campground, complete with paved access roads, showers, flushing toilets and a camp host. Our site sits at the edge of a tent meadow, which, on and off over the past week, has been filled with tents and campers of all sizes.
We’ve stayed in other national forests across the country, mostly in the western U.S. Last summer, our stay in San Juan National Forest, Colorado is probably closer to that image of rustic camping. But we were still in a campground, just one with fewer amenities and a really rough and rutted dirt access road.
We are two months into our summer travels in the Northeastern U.S. and haven’t had as many opportunities to take advantage of the less expensive campsites and dispersed camping areas that camping in a national forest allows. There are national forests all over the country. But the ones out west are generally more accessible to larger RVs and there are just more of them over larger swaths of land. Not that you can just get away with camping anywhere in a national forest, of course!
What is a National Forest?
In the broad sense a national forest could mean any of the 600 million acres of public land that are managed by the U.S. government through the following agencies:
- Bureau of Land Management (BLM): 248 million acres or 10.5% of all land in the country
- U.S. Forest Service (USFS): 193 million acres or 8.5% of the country
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS): 89 million acres or 3.9% of the country
- National Park Service (NPS): 84 million acres or 3.7% of the country
The above figures are from REI’s Guide to Understanding Public Lands, a helpful tool if you’re wanting to understand the ins and outs of public lands in the U.S.
Most often, RVers who enjoy boondocking seek out remote areas on public lands, aiming to find a campsite far from typical campground amenities, water sources or conveniences, where they can stay and get free camping. We’ve encountered some RVers who only camp this way! Typically, access and availability are sketchy since logging and forest service roads are generally not well-maintained and you can’t reserve sites ahead of time. Boondockers are fully self-contained and carry everything they need for their camping trip in and back out with them.
We have boondocked in those more rustic places, but usually just for a night or two en route to another place and usually in spots that aren’t far off the main highway. For longer stays, we prefer dry camping, which to us just means boondocking at a reserved campsite with at least a few services and close proximity to commercial centers and activities we enjoy. The more we dry camp, the more we learn about the limits of our power systems and fluid holding capacity. We managed to stretch our current stay to 12 days — a record for us! But this isn’t the only way to enjoy camping on public lands.
U.S. Forest Service Campgrounds
Some national forests and BLM lands have “improved” campsites, meaning there may be a designated campground that has sites with a provided fire ring and maybe even a picnic table, but often still first come, first served and usually a nominal fee. Others have paved access roads for motorized vehicles, online reservations, bathhouses, camp hosts and sites with partial utilities like our present location at Dolly Copp Campground.
Where to Find Dispersed Camping Spots
Last summer, using Campendium, I found a great area for dispersed camping in Deschutes National Forest that allowed us easy access to Bend, Oregon, and the surrounding area. What I didn’t realize, despite the user reviews and comments, was that there were a LOT of trees to maneuver around. We made it in okay, then spent the next nine days pondering how the heck we would get out. Ultimately, we made it out unscathed, but the proximity and placement of other campers over the week did concern us, as they blocked easier routes!
The most reliable way to find dispersed camping in national forests is to visit the U.S. Forest Service or BLM websites and filter through their maps and resources for the areas you are traveling. The U.S. Forest Service’s motor vehicle use maps are especially helpful. The quicker way is to use an app like Campendium or iOverlander, though any crowd-sourced campsite finder should be used with due diligence.
Whichever resource you use first, they complement each other well. User reviews will often be more specific about access routes, size and number of appropriate sites and other details that aren’t included on the federal agencies’ pages. A good rule of thumb is to always scout an area before you get your large rig into something you can’t get out of!
If you are like me and generally prefer to have your camp spot reserved, you can use Recreation.gov to find improved campgrounds on public lands. With America the Beautiful discounts, nightly fees can be as low as $6 or as much as $29, depending on the amenities.
How to be a Good Guest & Neighbor While Dry Camping
The rules and guidelines for camping on public lands are as varied as the agencies who manage them, and it is useless to try to list or remember the specific rules for each agency. Generally, the types of restrictions you may encounter and should be aware of are:
- Duration of stay
- Limits on consecutive stays in the same forest
- Permitted recreational activities (drones, hunting, ATV use, etc.)
- Whether generators are permitted
- Whether dumping gray water is allowed (not generally!)
- Fire restrictions
And then there are the common courtesies:
Are There Risks Involved with National Forest Camping?
While no campground is 100% secure, staying in remote or dispersed camping areas can bring unique challenges. We are in the habit of always using our hitch lock and securing generators and solar panels with heavy-duty bicycle chains and locks. When we are boondocking, we rarely leave the site but if we do, we leave nothing outside that isn’t chained to the rig and we keep the blinds closed all the time. These are just habits we’ve adopted over time while camping in national forests and remote areas, and probably only serve as a deterrent, but it helps us feel like we’ve done what we could to protect our assets.
Regarding personal safety while boondocking and dry camping, there are times when we just don’t feel good about a site. You can’t put that feeling into words, but you just sometimes have to trust your gut and move on. We’ve done this once, in a place we’d boondocked before with no problems, but this time it just had a weird vibe. And honestly, we’ve had this experience at a developed campground as well.
Why Not Just Stay at Developed Campgrounds?
We stay in all types of campgrounds in our full-time RV traveling life. Designated campgrounds or campsites on public lands give us the opportunity to stay in one place for up to two weeks, the usual time limit, at a very low cost. Stringing a few of these stays together over the course of a summer can stretch the budget and allows us time to regroup and relax from more intense touristy experiences. For those who enjoy mountain biking or ATV trails, public lands can be adjacent to those recreation areas making it easy to get their toys to the playground. For us, we really enjoy the quiet and slower pace that comes with national forest camping. We often refer to these stays as “going camping.” It’s nice to escape sometimes, especially in the shoulder season or even just midweek when places aren’t as crowded.
Relaxed Camping Before Our Next Adventure
Staying here at the base of Mount Washington, watching as the clouds and fog give evidence to the aptly named White Mountains, we’ve enjoyed the proximity to fun motorcycle routes, scenic waterfalls and interesting hiking trails. The rain cleared enough that last night we were even able to enjoy a beautiful starry night away from highway sounds and light pollution. But tomorrow, we move on to Portland, Maine, where we will enjoy the other end of the campground spectrum, an amenity-filled family campground near Maine’s largest port city filled with amazing food experiences!
Lippert Scouts Donna Weathers and Vic Mulieri are retired veterans who have been traveling the U.S. full-time for the past two years. They alternate their time between months-long volunteer gigs at state and national parks and road tripping in between those opportunities. Unencumbered by deadlines, pets or kids, they often have no idea what day it is and have forgotten how to set alarms. Their home on wheels is a 5th wheel toy hauler and they love exploring the outdoors, historic places and great restaurants wherever they visit. To follow Donna and Vic’s RV adventures, be sure to subscribe to Donna’s blog at wheretonowus.travel.blog.