Whether you’re a seasoned camper or just starting out, there are some things you’ll want to know about camping on federal lands. Federal lands include national forests, wildlife management areas, and national recreation areas. While there are certain guidelines to follow, most lands are open to respectful use. Depending on the area, you may need to make a reservation or pay a fee. For more information, contact your local U.S. Forest Service office or the Bureau of Land Management.
When planning your trip, you’ll also need to think about how long you can stay. Most federal lands allow you to camp for up to 14 days at a time. During this time, you’ll need to leave your campsite better than you found it. Leaving no trace is a priority, so you’ll want to be sure to avoid cutting trees, disturbing fragile plants, and digging trenches.
BLM campgrounds are primitive and usually have no attendants or restrooms. You’ll need to bring your own water and food. Be careful not to stray more than five miles away from a road or trailhead, though. A fire ring or picnic table is often available.
Camping on federal lands is typically free. However, you may be required to pay a small fee for camping on sensitive habitats. If you’re not sure, check with a ranger for advice. They can tell you which areas are a good place to go and which to avoid. This is especially important if you’re camping in a national forest, where you’ll need to avoid camping near developed areas.
In national parks, you’ll need to buy a permit months in advance. Some parks limit the number of campers in a given area. There are also strict rules about how close you can get to animals. Generally, you can’t take photos or videos of animals, and you’ll need to keep a distance of at least 100 feet from roads and trailheads.
The best way to find a campsite is to look for small, cleared areas off of roads. If you see a spot that doesn’t look too bad, write down the coordinates. Once you find one, head to the newly discovered campsite when you come back into the area. It’s also a good idea to keep a copy of the directions in your campground guide. Usually, you’ll want to leave at least two weeks before you have to leave to meet your return date.
Regardless of the specific rules, you should always respect the area and be respectful of the other people and animals that are there. Avoid taking a close-up photo of a cougar or a bear, and try to avoid digging trenches and feeding animals. Also, avoid washing or cooking near water.
In some cases, you’ll need to register with the Forest Service. You can do this online or at your nearest ranger district office. The Forest Service will give you a map of campgrounds in the area, as well as other useful information.