RV camping in the National Forest (and on mountains!) is Different from Regular Camping

I thought I was prepared to go RV camping with my Little Guy Max camper in the Ozark National Forest but in hindsight, I would have done some things differently especially when looking for free camping.

5 things I did right while preparing for National Forest RV camping

These are actions you are going to want to do too.

  • Know Where You Want to Camp in a National Forest

National Forests are gigantic. The Ozark National Forest, for example, has 1.2 million acres.

If you are completely unfamiliar with the Forest you plan on camp in research to pinpoint a specific area of interest. For example, I love hiking and waterfalls, so to prepare for this camping trip I chose a specific area that had several nearby hiking trails that lead to waterfalls. Find a National Forest RV camping area that will make you happy.

  • Have Offline Mapping

The odds of having a cell signal are not good when National Forest RV camping and because of this, I prepared by downloading maps ahead of time. This is another reason knowing the area you are going to be in is important, so you know what maps to download.

One of these maps was a Motor Vehicle Use Maps (MVUM). These are maps of Forest Service Roads. But what’s great about these maps is they show you where you are in real-time without a signal required. This mapping provided incredibly valuable information. I can’t imagine being in the Forest without having reference to my location because being on Forest Service roads is a very different experience. They might not be clearly marked and turning around is not always an option. You also don’t know which direction they will take you or if after 3 miles you will just lead to a dead end. And when I say three miles, keep in mind you are not driving on a paved freeway.

  • Map Nearby Places

I also used Google maps. Yes, you can download Google map areas and this was extremely helpful to find places of interest without cell service.

One of the places of interest I used Google maps for was campgrounds. There were just two in the area and I made sure my downloaded Google mapping area included these two campgrounds.

To access hiking trails I used the AllTrails app. I have used the free version of this app for a long time to locate nearby hiking trails when camping but just prior to leaving I upgraded to the pro version because with the AllTrails Pro version you can download maps to your phone for offline use. Just like Google Maps, this allows you to view detailed map information and navigate using your phone’s built-in GPS to a trailhead or to use while you’re out on the trail – even when you don’t have a cell signal!

  • Call the Local Ranger

Because this was my first time looking for a free camping spot in a National Forest I had a lot of questions. So, I contacted the local Ranger a couple of times and he was very willing to answer all my questions and was a wealth of information.

Also, each Forest has different rules, so it is important to know the rules before you head out. For example, he told me I could camp anywhere I wanted but it had to be ¼ mile from a campground.

  • Bring Enough Water, Food and Supplies

There are not going to be nearby Walmart’s or grocery stores.  So be sure you have enough food, water, and supplies to last you for the full time you expect o be gone or until you want to make a trip back to civilization. And remember, dispersed camping does not include any amenities you might have at a campground, so you need to be self-contained with a bathroom or bring appropriate portable bathroom options and supplies with you.

Don’t Make These Mistakes While Searching for Free Camping in the National Forest

Here are the mistakes I made when looking for free camping in a National forest and how I would do thing differently knowing what I know now:

  • Have an Offline Map that Shows Elevation

The offline map I downloaded and used to navigate the Forest Service roads was so helpful, I would have been lost without it, but it did not show me elevation. This would have been valuable information. The road on the map looked like any other road. If the map showed elevation this would have let me know this road would be steep and would take me up a mountain. Without knowing elevation changes, I did not know I was headed up a mountain until it was too late. I never would have knowingly towed a camper up a mountainside without knowing what the road conditions would be like! And when I realized we were headed up a mountain there was no turning back. Literally, there wasn’t a place to turn around until we neared the very top.

After this trip, I have learned of an offline Forest Service road overlay map that does show elevation and another resource that offers offline Forest Service Road mapping.

  • Find RV Friendly Camping Spots Ahead of Time

I wish I had found specific campsite locations from other RV campers who have camped in the area and were more familiar with which roads were RV friendly, instead of wandering into the unknown. There are online resources that share dispersed camping spots and I knew of some of these prior to this trip but didn’t think I needed them. In hindsight, I wish I had used them and mapped out some proven RV camping spots ahead of time especially being in an area I was unfamiliar with.

  • Do Not Tow Camper on Unknown Roads

My #1 mistake is towing my camper down unknown Forest roads.

Some of these roads were not RV friendly at all! In hindsight, I should have unhitched the camper and then explored the roads with just the truck first. If I were to do this again, I would spend the first day or night at the campground where the camper could be left while I went out exploring for a free camping spot.

Then, and only then if I found a dispersed RV camping spot that had roads suitable for towing, I would go back to the campground, hitch up and move campsites. It was stressful towing an RV down a road it should not be on and we could have made a better time if we were not towing an RV.  I was fortunate everything worked out during this National Forest RV camping adventure, but there were moments when I wasn’t sure if we would make it.

Offline Map Resources:

– Motor Vehicle Use Map (MVUM) and elevation overlay: https://www.fs.usda.gov/main/arp/maps-pubs
– Google Maps: https://support.google.com/maps/answer/6291838?co=GENIE.Platform%3DiOS&hl=en
– AllTrails App: https://www.alltrails.com/pro/welcome

Alternative Offline Map with Elevation: https://freeroam.app/

Free Camping (Dispersered Camping) Location Resource: https://freecampsites.net/