Yes! Technically, it’s completely legal to wild camp in US national forests and grasslands (unless otherwise marked). Compared to the rest of the world, North America is super accommodating to those looking to camp authentically.
Additionally, you can wild camp on the “backcountry” of national parks and national monuments. However, this will often require a permit, and conditions and regulations will apply.
There are a whopping 154 National Forests and 20 National Grasslands all across the country for you to choose from. This equates to a total of over 191 million acres of land that’s up for grabs for wild campers.
It’s important to remember that wild camping in National Forests and National Grasslands means that you are without the luxuries of a regular campsite. You shouldn’t expect access to any facilities or amenities such as water or toilets, so you’ll need to come fully prepared to be self-sufficient for the duration of your stay.
The United States Forest Service has issued the following guidelines regarding wild camping in America:
- You’ll usually only be permitted to stay in one spot for 14 consecutive days in any given 30-day period.
- Typically, you’ll be expected to park at least 100 to 150 feet away from the nearest road, trail, or official campground. In some instances, this can be extended to half a mile if the area is particularly popular.
- You’ll be expected to park at least 200 feet away from any body of water.
- Keep your chosen space clean and contained, and leave the site exactly how you found it when you arrived.
- Be sure to obey all fire rules and safety regulations, they’re there to keep you safe.
- Beware of wild animals and respect them at all times, the forest is their home.
Can you just pitch a tent anywhere?
Not exactly. Each area of the country will have its own regulations, and it is considered against the law to pitch a tent somewhere private with regulations in place to prevent wild camping.
However, there are plenty of jaw-dropping places across the country that allow you to just set up camp without any costs— you just need to know what to look for.
As mentioned above, most National State Parks allow wild camping in developed campgrounds or in the backcountry. However, some parks are notoriously more difficult to camp in than others.
For example, certain spots at Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota and Mary Island State Park in New York, are only accessible by boat.
Dispersed and “backcountry” camping rules will differ from park to park, but most will require campers to register online so someone is aware that they are there and all vehicles are accounted for.
Is it illegal to camp anywhere?
The answer to this question depends on where in America you are. For example, if you plan on exploring Rock Mountain National Park, you are required to camp at only designated campsites and have a permit for your trip.
On the other hand, if you are hiking through the Flat Tops National Wilderness, you don’t need to obtain a permit and are allowed to camp where you wish just as long as you follow the rules. Some of these rules may include no camping near streams, lakes, bodies of water, or restoration areas.
While you’re unlikely to be approached by other hikers or civilians, on some occasions, it’s not uncommon to be approached by law enforcement.
If you’re following all of the rules and guidelines, you have nothing to worry about. However, if you’re not following the guidelines exactly, law enforcement does have the power to remove you from the site.
To avoid any run-ins or difficulties involving law enforcement, it’s a good idea to just be smart about it. Make sure that you leave nothing behind and respect the surroundings and habitats at all times.
What happens if you camp illegally?
If you camp illegally in the US, be prepared to accept the consequences. One of the most popular forms of illegal wild camping in America is also known as “stealth camping.”
This is simply where you camp on private or public property where there are zero facilities or overt permissions to camp. Although this is popular among many, it’s probably not worth the risk as there are plenty of legal wild camping hotspots across the country.
Some people also break the law by intentionally wild camping where it is expressly prohibited to do so. This often includes areas close to bodies of water or trails in areas that have been closed for habit restoration or safety reasons. If you’re caught camping illegally in the United States, you could be arrested or fined.