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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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    I'm afraid this question is hopelessly broad, and will strongly depend on exactly which part of the country you are in at the moment. Whether you can camp or set up a fire pit depends strongly on where you are, and what time of year it is. Sometimes private property will be fenced and posted with no trespassing signs, sometimes it will only be indicated by a line on a map. The only possible answer is to check on local rules. – Charles E. Grant May 21 '16 at 18:29
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    Agree, this will vary from state to state and county to county. Simplest would be to identify national parks and national forests along your route and check the websites for each. State parks might also work, but then the number of potential sites grows impractical. Assume everything else is private property. – requiem May 21 '16 at 20:36
  • These questions can be made a good fit for this side with some more specifics, but you need to ask them separately. While the first three are at least connected, the last one is unrelated (and way too broad). So split up your questions and make them more specific. I voted to close as too broad. – imsodin May 21 '16 at 22:33
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    I don't think a good answer would have to explore every possible scenario. I think this is a fair question which could be answered by a general introduction of state parks, national forest, etc. as a starting point for the OPs research. – ppl May 22 '16 at 1:45
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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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    I agree about the permission in writing from private land owners when the land isn't otherwise open to the public for the use you intend. Otherwise this is unnecessary overkill. If a land, particularly something like a National Forest, has a web site that says where you can camp and what the rules are, you don't need to get them in writing explicitly. If you took reasonable steps to only do what's legal, a worst you're going to get thrown out if there is some obscure detail you missed. – Olin Lathrop May 23 '16 at 11:40
  • " If a land, particularly something like a National Forest, has a web site that says where you can camp and what the rules are, you don't need to get them in writing explicitly." -- Yes, I agree wholeheartedly. I phrased my answer poorly. If they have an official policy allowing camping, that is effectively "in writing". – Russell Steen May 29 '16 at 22:00
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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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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.

  • As a general ranking, BLM land is the most relaxed with respect to dispersed camping, followed by national forests and then national parks. State parks vary from state to state (and park to park) but are generally at least as restrictive as national parks. County, city, and other local jurisdictions fairly uniformly forbid camping in their parks outside of established campgrounds. – Mark Apr 12 at 3:24
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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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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

  • The restrictions on unrestricted camping in national forests have increased greatly over time. There are many places that now restrict camping that did not even as few as 5 years ago. Check with the local ranger district, rules are generally pretty clearly stated on the usfs.gov website for the district. You will likely need a fire permit even for a campstove. – Fred the Magic Wonder Dog Apr 9 at 21:52

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