November 23, 2018

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When you hear about “paying to camp” as opposed to “camping for free” what does that entail? I was curious to know so I did a little research and this is what I found.

How much does camping cost in a National Forest? National Forest campgrounds fees rang somewhere between $5 and $30 for a spot. Or zero cost if you are willing to camp in dispersed areas.

Camping Cost and Time Limits

Why does the costs of a campground vary so much?

When looking at a list of campgrounds within a National Forest, you will often see the costs for each site will vary, sometimes by a lot. Not only that, the cost of one National Forest can be very different from another National Forest. What are some of the factors that goes into the prices of a campground?

  • Location, Location, Location. Having prime real estate for a business is no different from prime real estate for a campground. Who wouldn’t be willing to pay a little more for the opportunity to camp next to the most beautiful lake in the forest? On the other hand, if the campground is very remote and not very many people frequent it, you would expect the cost is to be very low, if not free.
  • If a location is very popular and as a result requires more resources to maintain (i.e. more Park Rangers to work the area) then is it only natural to have a higher cost to compensate for the efforts. Lake or river access is usually more popular and will have more staff than do other areas of the forest.
  • Campgrounds that are easy to get to are most often a little more expensive than those that are remote. Because it appears less people are willing to drive hours into a National Forest, the demand for closer campgrounds becomes much higher. This demand will have an impact on the pricing of the campground.
  • Having access to full RV hookup (Water, sewer, electric), or services like boat ramp access can demand a higher site fee than those sites with no amenities.

Everyone has his or her own idea of what “Camping” is. You might like roughing it, with no help like electricity, water or waste removal. Or you might be the type that thinks sitting in your RV with the AC going is as rough as you want to get. The Forest Service tries its best to accommodate everyone by offering a wide variety of campsite options.


I paid for a National Forest campsite, what should it include?

RV in a campground

With literally hundreds of campgrounds across dozens of National Forests in the United States, it would be impossible to list every amenity. However, there is a common theme and you will find that most of the National Forest campgrounds will include:

  • At least 10 designated sites accessible by a family sedan. It is not uncommon for sites in a National Forest to have a little distance between them, giving you a little more privacy.
  • At least 1 Vault Toilet. At Vault Toilet is a form of an Outhouse. Waste is held in a tank, or vault, and is periodically emptied and cleaned. Vault Toilets are very common in areas with no plumbing or running water.
  • Access to a water spigot. Campgrounds usually have a source for potable (drinkable) water. If the water is non-potable (not safe to drink), then it must be filtered or you should bring your own drinkable water.
  • Camp Host. Often in paid campsites, you will find a camp host. These are usually volunteers who take care of the campsite and in return are allowed to camp for free and for long periods of time. Camp hosts can be a great resource for solving problems and finding out more about the area.

A small handful of campgrounds will have fewer amenities (i.e. no water or vault toilet). Many will include more such as Toilets with running water, even campgrounds with full RV hookups.

The National Forest has a directory of campgrounds you can use to research the area you are interested in and find a campsite that meets your needs.


How Much Does Camping Cost In National Forests

Are there limits as to how long you can stay in a National Forest campsite?

Yes, and for the most part that limit is 14 days. There are several reasons for this policy that include:

  • Protect natural resources – By limiting the time a person is allowed to camp, it allows the environment to recover a little before the next camper moves in.
  • Address sanitation issues – Often the camp host must clean and make ready the site for the next camper. By limiting the time of the camper, the area will not require as much cleaning (theoretically).
  • Prevent camps from monopolizing popular sites. We all have our favorite sites and hope we can get them when we go camping; however, so does everyone else. Limiting time allows for a more equal share of those popular sites.
  • To control squatting on National Forest lands. We the people, own our public lands. However, this ownership is more like a time-share rather than a full time residence. So enjoy your 14-day stay and move on to allow others to enjoy it too.

Once you have reached your limit, you are required to exit the National Forest (for camping) for at least 10 days before returning for another 14-day stretch.

Occasionally you may see a sign that states something other than 14 days. For example, Medicine Bow National Forest has some locations allowing a 21-day limit.

Failing to depart your campsite not only deprives other campers the use of the area, but also can lead to confrontations with the Park Rangers and eventual fines or worst.


Is it required to make a reservation for a National Forest campground?

Some of the National Forest campgrounds either require or accept reservations. The U.S. National Forest Campground Guide will display a phone number should the campground you are interested in allow for reservations.

Usually if a campground takes reservations, it is for up to 60% of the sites. The rest are there as a first-come-first-serve basis.

When planning your camping trip try to plan far in advance (like several months). Highly popular campgrounds can sometimes be booked a year in advance. Others are not as popular and may only be booked out a week or two. The key is plan early.

Playground at a RV Campground in the National Forest

What are some restrictions for a National Forest campground?

National Forests are public lands that all are invited to use and enjoy. Having said that, there are rules in place that are only common sense. Visit the website for the National Forest you are visiting to get the most up-to-date list of rules and restrictions.

Here are some common rules you will see at nearly all campgrounds:

  • Pets – Must be leashed and controlled at all times
  • Noise – Must not exceed a level that can unreasonably disturb any person
  • Fires – Use designated fire pits and follow the current fire ban restrictions
  • Sanitation – Do not leave your trash behind (Pack it in – Pack it out). If you’re going to pee in the woods, don’t do it close to any water source

This is nothing more than the Golden Rule. Treat others as you would want to be treated. It is no fun going to a campsite and the first thing you have to do is clean up after the guy who just left.


How can you camp for zero cost in the National Forest?

As we mentioned above, it is possible to camp in the National Forest for zero cost. Here are a list of situations that allow for free camping:

  • Non-designated camp location, or disperse camping. If you are willing to give up access to some of the amenities (i.e.: the vaulted toilet or water), you can camp for zero cost. All the rules still apply with some additional rules such as how far off the main road you can go and if you are allowed to build a new Fire Ring.
  • Off-Season campgrounds. If you are willing to camp during the off-season (and the gates are not closed), you are often allowed to use the site for zero cost. Remember that some amenities, such as water, may not be available during the off-season
  • A truly Free Campground. Some of the National Forest campgrounds are just free anyway. Again, check the U.S. National Forest Campground Guide or other online sources like for free (no fee) campgrounds in your area.


Related Questions

What are camping costs in other Public Lands such as the BLM? The Bureau of Land Management or BLM operates very similar to National Forest. With developed campgrounds ranging from $2 to $30 per site to zero cost camping in dispersed areas.

What does it take to be a campground host? Fill out an application at your local National Forest office, be willing to live at a campground for at least two weeks, and be willing to clean and maintain the campground as well as answer questions from other campers.

RV in a campground

Donald Clever USMC

Donald Clever
Camp Wild Ride ®

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