Rules for camping on Michigan Public Lands

I have the pleasure of being a moderator on several hiking & backpacking forums. Probably the most commonly asked question has to do “what are the rules for camping at [name of place]”

This is a legitimate question and deserves an accurate answer. Thing is, many folks give incorrect information in the comment section when answering the question. I finally created a guide to camping on public lands in Michigan and posted it to one of the forums in which I moderate.

For your reading pleasure, I have copied and pasted it below.

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Where can I camp in a…..

First, some definitions….
There are different types of camping:
Modern Camping:Camping at site that typically has a picnic table, fire ring, electricity, flush toilets and hot showers. Water is via faucet/well. Typically found at State Parks.
Semi-modern Camping:A campsite that has a picnic table, fire ring, pit toilet, hot showers, running water via hand pump or faucet/well. Typical at State Parks.
Rustic Camping:A campsite that has picnic table, fire ring, pit toilet, and hand pump.
Accessible by car.
Backcountry Camping:Camping in a designated spot alongside a hiking trail. Sometimes there is a fire ring and/or pit toilet but don’t count on it. May or may not require a permit. But don’t confuse this with “Trailside Camping”, “dispersed camping”, and “boondocking”, which is explained laterTrail Shelter: Shelters built alongside a long distance hiking trail specifically for the use only by backpackers. Usually no permit needed, first come, first serve.
Dispersed Camping, according to STATE OF MICHIGAN LANDS: Camping outside of an established, designated campsite. There are no facilities with Dispersed camping. Basically, pitch your tent in the woods. Also called “boondocking” by campers, and, “trailside camping” by backpackers.

Dispersed Camping, according to FEDERAL GOVERNMENT LANDS: designated camping areas that are typically park and walk in. There are a formal campsites, each with fire ring. There is usually a pit toilet. These are usually by reservation only.

Primitive Campingaccording to the Federal Government is what the State of Michigan calls Dispersed Camping. Like Dispersed Camping on state forest lands, this is camping with no facilities. You must be more than a mile from any established federal or state campground. There are rules about camping distances from water, trails, and roads. The rules are different depending on forest district, land designation (wilderness vs. semi-primitive, etc.), and whether or not you are backpacking a trail. In general, you do not need a permit on STATE FOREST or NATIONAL FOREST lands if you are backpacking the North Country Trail or other trail to camp alongside the trail. However, the 1 mile from an established campground applies in most situations.

Recreation Passport:This is a user fee allowing vehicle entrance into a State Park, State (Forest) campground, State Marina, State managed boat access.
Fee Use Area:This is a user fee applied by the US Forest Service to park/utilize a trail or area.
It is important to note that different Land Managers have different rules about camping

Known as State Forests, State Parks, State Game Areas. See: DNR Customer Service Centers

State Forests: IMPORTANT: Dispersed camping is
allowed on state forest lands year round. However, there are no state forest lands south of Mount Pleasant in the state of Michigan. You will need a free permit from any DNR office and be more than a mile from a state forest campground. Copied and pasted right from the DNR web page:

Dispersed Camping (camping on your own in a state forest) is permitted on any state-owned land for free. The following rules apply:

  • The campsite must not be located in a designated state park, recreation area, rustic state forest campground or game area. The campsite must also be located more than one mile from a rustic state forest campground.

  • The property must not be posted “No Camping.”

  • A camp registration card must be prominently posted at the campsite for the duration of the stay. It is the responsibility of the camping party to ensure that the registration card remains legible (placing it in a zip-top bag is recommended).

  • State Land Rules are followed.

​The following resources are available to help determine where dispersed camping is available:

The camp registration is available at the local DNR Office or to download:

State Parks/Rec Areas: You must use a designated campground, either Modern, Semi-modern, cabin, shelter, or backcountry. THERE ARE NO EXCEPTIONS. Please, do not disperse camp in a State Park. You will also need a Recreation Passport (if entering by vehicle) which is required for entry. There is a fee for camping, there is no free camping at State Parks. If you are travelling by foot or bicycle, State Parks will never turn you away even if full, they will find a spot for you. You may have to remind them of this little used exception allowing for this situation. However, don’t expect electric or a fire pit and you may have to pay for a shower. I stumbled into Tahquamenon Falls State Park and they put me in a playground once. State Park Page

State Game Areas: Camping only allowed during certain times of the years. NO CAMPING May 15th – Sept 10th. Each Game Area has its own rules about where you can camp. Some have rustic campgrounds, most are at designated areas, there is some dispersed camping opportunities. Check with the local game area office where you can pick up your free permit State Game Area offices. If you are backpacking the North Country Trail through a Game Area DO NOT ASSUME you can camp alongside the trail. Check with the local Game Area and tell them your situation. They may have options for you.

Commercial Forest Lands: The State of Michigan holds easements on 2.2 million acres of private forest lands in Michigan. These lands, as a general rule, although privately owned, are open to day use activities like hunting, mushrooming, hiking. They are open to dispersed / backcountry camping by landowner permission. The Keweenaw Peninsula has a lack of public lands, but a high percentage of Commercial Forest Lands. Check out the rules by clicking here.

Known as National Parks, National Forests, National Wildlife Refuges, Army Corps of Engineer, Military Bases, Bureau of Land Management, Native American Reservations. Click here to see map of federal lands in Michigan.


Rustic Camping at organized campgrounds is the norm in a National Forest. Some take reservations in advance, most do not and it is first come, first serve.
Ottawa National Forest
Hiawatha National Forest
Huron-Manistee National Forest

Dispersed Camping
Usually by advance reservation only. Each dispersed area has its own set of rules, best to read each to see which is best for you. Click the forest for a list of dispersed camping opportunities. Be aware of any Fee Use Areas. Huron-Manistee National Forest Hiawatha National Forest Ottawa National Forest

Primitive Camping
AS A GENERAL RULE, in NATIONAL FORESTS Primitive Camping (also called Backcountry Camping) is allowed without a permit, but, you must be at least one mile from an established National Forest Campground. Be aware of any Fee Use Areas.

Camping in Federally Designated Wilderness areas, is treated like Primitive Camping, however, each wilderness area has its own rules.

Camping is not permitted. Don’t even try.

There are no ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEER, MILITARY BASES, Or Federal Bureau of Indian Camping in Michigan.

Of course, all of this information is subject to change, and, it frequently does. If you feel any information is incorrect, please provide to Tom Funke and provide a qualified source for reference.


Land Conservancy Lands: Private land conservancies, like the Nature Conservancy or Little Traverse Conservancy, are generally not open to camping without permission. However, many of their properties are open to hiking on designated trails. Here is a list of all the Land Conservancies in Michigan.

If you have any questions, your best bet is to contact the local land managing authority’s office.

Tom Funke


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