Dispersed Camping Guidelines
Dispersed camping is the term used for camping anywhere in the National Forest outside of a designated campground. Dispersed camping means there are no toilets, no picnic tables, no trash cans, no treated water, and no fire grates. There are extra responsibilities and skills necessary for dispersed camping. By applying Leave No Trace practices, you will ensure a safe, clean and positive experience for your family and the environment.
Choosing a Campsite
You can stay in your chosen site for up to 14 days in a 60-day period. Establishing residency is against federal regulation.
If you are going to an area where others have camped before, pick an established "hardened" site. Many existing "campsites" - areas where others have camped before you - are located near water on riverbanks and lakeshores. Whether you are using an existing site or camping in an area where camping use is not evident, it is important to follow these steps:
Camp, on bare, or compacted soil when possible, to avoid damaging or killing plants and grass. Keep activity on durable ground to prevent site expansion.
Park vehicles on roads and barren ground to avoid disturbing vegetation. Some roads are closed to protect wildlife or because they are not safe for travel. You can find out about road closures by using the Motor Vehicle Use Maps and by calling the local ranger
Where no campsites exist, camp at least 100 feet away from a water source, as plants and wildlife near water are especially fragile.
When camping at existing sites near water, be prepared to wash dishes and to bathe well away from your campsite to avoid polluting streams and lakes.
Select a campsite with good natural drainage to eliminate the need to trench or level tent sites.
Avoid creating new "roads" to access your campsite.
Refrain from cutting or damaging vegetation, including standing dead trees. Use removable ropes instead of nails to hang things from trees.
Many wildfires are caused by human activity, including escaped campfires from dispersed campers. Campfires are generally allowed when you are dispersed camping UNLESS there are fire restrictions in effect due to high fire danger conditions. It is YOUR responsibility to know if fire restrictions are in effect before you go camping.
Use camp stoves for cooking, to minimize the use of downed wood for fuel. Animals, insects and microorganisms need downed, rotting wood to survive.
Use existing fire rings whenever possible. This minimizes the scarring of new rocks, soil and plants and prevents campsite expansion.
Bring plenty of garbage bags to pack out all of your garbage, including food scraps. Burning garbage is unacceptable.
Select an area for your campfire away from meadows, and trees with low, overhanging branches, AT LEAST 100 feet from any water sources.
Use a fire pan, or learn how to build a Leave No Trace mound-fire.
If you do not bring your own firewood, collect only dead and downed wood that is on the ground, wrist size or smaller. Branches on live trees should be left intact. If a popular camping area does not have dead and downed wood, bring your own firewood and use a camp stove. Burn the wood completely to ash.
NEVER LEAVE A FIRE UNATTENDED.
You should have a bucket, shovel and axe available to control or extinguish escaped fire.
BEFORE YOU LEAVE YOUR CAMPFIRE, MAKE SURE IT IS DEAD OUT. Put your whole hand into the ashes - it should be cool to the touch.
Properly Dispose of Waste
Visitors who do not properly manage human waste, washing or garbage contaminate water and attract animals to campsites.
Human Waste - Dispersed camping often means no toilet facilities. Extra care must be taken to properly dispose of human waste.
To dispose of feces, dig a hole 6 to 8 inches deep, at least 100 feet from any water source, campsites or trails.
When you're done, fill the hole with the dirt you dug up and place your toilet paper in a sealed Ziploc baggie for disposal in a proper waste container.
Empty built-in or portable toilets at sanitary dump stations.
Waste Water and Washing
Do all washing and dispose of waste water at least 100 feet from any water source. Dig a small hole to act as a "sump" for dishwater.
Use small amounts of biodegradable soap.
Treating Your Water
Increased visitation to our National Forests has led to the contamination of water sources by invisible, microorganisms such as Giardia and Cryptosporium. These organisms can lead to serious illness when consumed by humans. No untreated water source can be considered safe for consumption.
Be prepared to treat undeveloped water sources or bring your own water. Heating to a rolling boil, using purification tablets or a filter, can all effectively treat water. Water from faucets in developed recreation areas has been tested and treated and is safe to use.
Pack it in, Pack it out. This mantra applies to your camp waste as well as the waste left behind by previous campers. Be prepared to pack out all garbage, including tin, glass, plastic, paper and food scraps such as peels and bones.
Remember, your fire ring is not a garbage receptacle. Well-intended campers often consolidate their garbage in a fire ring expecting the following camper to burn or dispose of it properly. Garbage that is left behind is typically dispersed by animals making the cleanup job much more difficult and creates unwanted behaviors in birds, squirrels and bears. Yellow jackets are attracted to meat juices and sugars and can render a campsite unpleasant and unsafe for future use.
Respect Your Neighbors
Keep noise levels down to avoid disturbing other campers and recreationists in the area. If you bring pets, keep them in control at all times. Also, respect private landowners and refrain from camping and trespassing on private lands.
If you follow the tips above, you can have a safe, low impact, primitive camping experience. Thank you for helping care for YOUR National Forest!
Alerts & Warnings
- FIRE CLOSURES: Wiley, Lookout, Bedrock, Cedar Creek, Beachie Creek & Lionshead
- ACTIVE FIRES: Petes Lake, Lookout, Bedrock, etc.
- Public Use Restrictions (Fire Restrictions) in Effect
- Prescribed burn planned in McKenzie this fall
- Forest Road 46 open from Detroit to Estacada for summer
- Road NF-1993 across Cougar Dam closed for construction June 5-Sept. 28, 2023