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Q&A

What are the laws for backcountry ("dispersed") camping in the US?

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I'm planning on taking a trip across the US and was planning on doing as much dispersed camping (a.k.a.backcountry camping) as possible. I wanted to educate myself on where it is legal to go off trail trekking and camping. I am unsure about the logistics for preparing for this trip. To begin with I am wondering...

  • What permits may be necessary?

  • What agencies may need to be contacted?

  • What areas are likely to allow this type of trip?

Does anyone have some insights regarding what is required to legally and properly go into the woods to camp for 3+ days?

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This post was sourced from https://outdoors.stackexchange.com/q/11816. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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5 answers

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The biggest landowner in the US, and that allows widespread camping, is the Bureau of Land Management, or BLM. They have offices on a state and regional level. If you visit the web pages of the BLM in the state(s) that you are going to visit, then I'm sure that you will find information on maps and areas. You can camp in ANY land that is owned by the BLM and most of them have very few rules and don't often require permits or fees.

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This post was sourced from https://outdoors.stackexchange.com/a/13016. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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As to answer what areas may be more likely to allow backcountry camping, I usually look at the two following things.

If you are unsure where to start, I would consider any long trails in the vicinity of where you want to backpack. Popular long trails, such as the AT, PCT & etc. allow you to camp mostly anywhere around the trail. There are some exceptions but these are fairly well documented on their respective websites (AT, PCT). You should be able to figure out the details for each individual trail and their specific areas. Typically, you can avoid the more restrictive areas.

Some long trails, such as the JMT, have more restrictions and may not be a good option. Looking at a top 10 list may provide you with some inspiration.

Secondly, I like to look at National Forests because they usually have less restrictions if any at all (e.g. don't stay at the same spot for > 2 weeks). In many cases, you can camp just about anywhere in national forests. In some places, e.g. in California, they may still require a permit.

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This post was sourced from https://outdoors.stackexchange.com/a/11837. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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US Department of Agriculture - Forestry Service (USDA-FS) regulations on dispersed camping

USDA-FS Permits overview

“Unless otherwise indicated by specific restrictions that supercede the default, U.S. National Forests generally allow backcountry camping anywhere you choose. They also generally allow dispersed camping along roads anywhere you want unless otherwise noted. Contact the local U.S. Forest Service ranger district or other relevant land management agency for the area you're interested in to discuss the specifics for that area. “

~Jonathan Pratt

Taken from other Outdoors.SE thread

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There is no universal answer. Each property is managed separately, so the only real answer is you have to ask the management of each property that you intend to camp in.

By separate property, I mean individual National Forests, for example, not the whole National Forest system. Within any one forest, there will likely be restrictions by location, time of year, and possibly fluent conditions like fire danger. At least there is one place to ask for each forest. Often such rules are posted on the web site for each forest.

For example, camping rules are totally different in the White Mountain National Forest of New Hampshire than the Tonto National Forest of Arizona. Every National Forest, National Park, National Monument, BLM land, National Wildlife Sanctuary, State Park, State Forest, etc, etc, has its own rules. In general, National Forests are more lax than National Parks and Monuments, but that's at best only a guide to decide where it might be better to spend time drilling down to the details.

Always get a definitive answer by asking or checking the web site. Don't assume.

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Throughout the entire US the law boils down to this: Whether government or citizen owned, you cannot travel on land without the landowners permission. Doing can result in charges from criminal trespass to much, much worse (in the case of some private government lands).

So you'll need permission. In short, for each part of your journey.

  1. Find who owns the land.
  2. Contact them to find out what their rules are.

Even in the case of state and national land this isn't necessarily trivial, but you can find most of what you need on the web.

With private land you'll need to first check with the local courthouse. If you're not lucky, this can mean going in person to look at plats. If you are very lucky, the plats will be web accessible. Next, you'll need to get contact information for the owner. This can be tricky as the courthouse may have only an address. Once you've done that you will need to contact the owner and get permission.

In both cases (government and citizen owned) get permission in writing. "He said I could" will not hold up in court. (edit) As Olin notes in his comments, an official policy that allows use is good enough and can be considered "permission in writing".

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This post was sourced from https://outdoors.stackexchange.com/a/11822. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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