When you think of camping, do you think of campgrounds? I’m sure most people do. When I’m going somewhere and plan on camping, I usually look to see where the nearest campgrounds are and how close they are to my planned activities. The thing is, if there is state or federal forest land available, you can probably take advantage of a kind of freestyle camping, which offers much more flexibility and is free of charge. It’s called “dispersed” camping, and most people don’t even know about it.
Dispersed camping, in a nutshell, is camping anywhere you like, so long as you observe a few reasonable rules. I have been taking advantage of this allowance in the last few years, and it has added much value and convenience to my hunting and fishing excursions.
Now, dispersed camping usually doesn’t get much more than a mention in the lists of rules for users of state and national forests. Unless you dig around a bit, you may not know what is allowed and what is not. Fortunately, there isn’t much to know. The following is a summary of what I believe are the most important considerations; follow links to find information that is most location-specific and most complete.
Dispersed Camping in Minnesota’s State Forests
Let’s begin with Minnesota’s state forests, because rules and terminology are uniform across the state system. “Dispersed Camping” is defined as “camping overnight outside of established campgrounds or designated campsites.” The following is my summary of the rules. In the interest of being thorough, read the full state statute and consult the rules for each state forest unit to check for special conditions.
The first and most important rule is probably that dispersed camping is not allowed “within one mile of a fee campground,” nor is it allowed where “posted or designated to prohibit camping.” This is not usually a problem, because state forest campgrounds are typically few and far between. Also forbidden while dispersed camping are digging, constructing “permanent camping structures,” and placing “wood, nails, screws, or other fasteners in a living tree at a campsite.” Also, human waste must be buried “at least 150 feet from a water body, in a manner that does not endanger a water supply.”
What is allowed includes gathering firewood, as long as it is dead and on the ground, and used while camping in that location. Campers may also stay in one location for up to 14 days “from the first Saturday in May to the second Sunday in September,” and 21 days during the rest of the year. When you leave, however, you must move to a new location “at least 15 miles from the previous camp.”
Dispersed Camping in Minnesota’s National Forests
When it comes to gathering and assessing information from the Forest Service’s website(s), terminology can stand in the way of the user. Minnesota has two National Forests: Chippewa and Superior. Their uses of the term “dispersed camping” and others differ, however, dispersed camping is still available.
Superior National Forest’s website is informative and well-organized when it comes to camping information, stating, “Types of camping include Campground Camping, Dispersed Camping, RV camping, and Wilderness Camping.” Each type is given a separate web page, and information is laid out logically. They also offer a “Camping Recreational Opportunity Guide,” a 4-page document that displays camping opportunities with helpful maps and charts. At the bottom of the document is the section on dispersed camping.
It defines Dispersed Camping as “camping outside of designated sites,” which is the simplest and most widely accepted definition of dispersed camping. The relatively few rules pertaining to dispersed camping are also spelled out plainly: be aware of fire restrictions, do not park in a way that will impede traffic or damage vegetation or soil, no digging or cutting live trees, and generally follow the Leave No Trace principles.
Chippewa National Forest’s website, on the other hand, can leave you guessing with regard to terminology. This is puzzling to me, because in my experience national forests and grasslands have all used camping terms in ways that align with Superior N.F. Why “the Chip” should be any different is still unknown to me. I have made the following table to compare terms.
What Superior calls “Fee Campgrounds,” Chippewa calls “Developed Campgrounds.” No big deal, really. But what Superior calls “Backcountry Campsites,” (single designated sites without facility beyond fire ring and pit toilet), Chippewa seems to call “Backcountry,” “Dispersed,” and even “Primitive” campsites. Yes, it seems all three terms are used interchangeably. Not only does it use “dispersed” for some designated sites— which in itself is a departure from the accepted meaning of the term— it doesn’t seem to even acknowledge the possibility of camping apart from designated areas.
I called Ken at the Forest Service office in Blackduck for some clarification. I explained the problems with terminology on Chippewa’s website, and its failure to even mention camping outside designated sites (with any term attached). He assured me that “…any place you decide to camp that’s not in a designated campground” is allowed, except in any location where posted signs prohibit. That is the rule basically anywhere else, so it was good to hear even though finding it in print/digital is presently difficult to impossible. When he added, “You can camp anywhere on this forest,” I was satisfied.
Dispersed camping is a useful recreational tool that every outdoor-oriented person should be aware of. As I’ve stated before, it can add convenience and cost savings to outings, especially when pursuits take us far from cities or campgrounds. With millions and millions of acres of state and federal lands available in Minnesota for hunting, fishing, foraging, camping, trail riding, and more, the opportunities for dispersed camping can influence and improve the way we plan our outdoor adventures.
Minnesota State Forests and our two National Forest Service entities allow dispersed camping with relatively few restrictions. As always, the onus is on the user to find and understand information and applicable rules, whether they be system wide, location specific, or temporary. Dispersed camping may be an under-utilized resource, but it is conceivable that misuse, especially by large numbers of users, could decrease or eliminate dispersed camping on our public lands.