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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Trip Insurance

I am a big fan of trip insurance, and its from a personal experience where myself and my employer were out thousands of dollars because we did not have a policy.


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I was paid up and ready to go on a trip to the Galapagos Island. As a conservation biologist, these islands are on the short list of places to visit.  

Unfortunately, I had an emergency gall bladder surgery on the eve of the trip and was unable to go.

No big deal, right?

Well….my employer nor I were afforded any sort of refund on the plane tickets, hotels, transportation, visas, food, etc., because we did not have a trip insurance policy to cover an unplanned cancellation.

Since then, I’ve always taken out a policy when I’ve traveled internationally, and, depending on the trip, domestically. I always take one out when I travel in a road-less or remote area where vehicle access is minimal or non-existent, like my recent trips to hike the Kekekabic & Border Route Trails.  

An Outfitters Perspective

Owning an outfitting business, we pre-sell many of our programs and services. We plan our staff, vehicles, and equipment based on advance reservations. We even combine groups to help lower the price for those travelling/participating together.

We release our employees schedules to them 2-3 weeks before they are scheduled to work. Our employees are depending on these opportunities to earn income. Their schedules are driven by advance reservations.  

We do understand that things happen. Injuries, family emergencies, job changes, etc., may cause you to cancel your trip. Our current policy for outfitting services has been if you notify us 14 or more days in advance, we gladly give you a full refund. Less than 14 days, its been a sliding scale, and, we’ve even offered to credit your account if you cancel up to 48 hours before your program/service.

Our policy for lodging is more restrictive, if you cancel two months before your start date, we offer a full refund. Less than two months, we will only refund your money if we find someone to take your place.

Another circumstance is customers and non-customers alike needing a non-emergency rescue from the trail. We used to sell our own trip insurance for a measly $5 and we would come and get you off the trail “no questions asked”. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day we had someone on call 24/7 to retrieve hikers off the trail.

In the case of cancellation, we have expended funds based on the advance reservations and are depending on the revenue to fund business operations, including paying our employees. By cancelling and us refunding, we are now in a situation where we are losing money on a cancelled reservation.

In the case of a rescue, our “no questions asked” rescues are quite expensive as we are expending labor and gas at the drop of a hat. The cost of rescuing folks with policies far exceeded the revenue we took in.

We have been kicking around the idea of firming up our rescue policies and rates for customers and non-customers.

The way forward

In a world where trip insurance exists, we are no longer going to offer our own trip insurance. We are going to have a fixed rate for rescues and day-of reservations. We will provide information to our customers about trip insurance policies they can take out. If a situation arises, we can complete the rescue, bill them the appropriate amount, and the customer can submit a claim. 

As for cancellations, we will either keep our 14 day cancellation policy or bump it out to 21 days.. However, less than 14 days, there are no refunds. Customers with trip cancellation insurance can submit a claim. This is a win-win as the customer will get back most/all of their fees and we still get paid and not be out the funds we’ve already expended preparing for our customers.

What is trip insurance?

For those who are unfamiliar with trip insurance, there are four basic kinds of policies:

Trip Cancellation insurance is insurance that will refund your non-refundable fees if you need to cancel a trip. Plane tickets, hotel rooms, program fees, etc. This would cover your program and shuttle fees. There are “cancel for any resason” policies out there.

Trip Interruption Insurance is insurance that will pay your costs in the case you need to end your vacation and pay for associated costs of getting out of where you are and home. This is what you’d take out to cover a non-emergency rescue.

Medical Evacuation Insurance is insurance that, in the case of a medical emergency, will pay above and beyond what your normal health insurance would to evacauate you off the trail and to a hospital.

Supplemental Medical Insurance is insurance that covers costs not normally covered by your medical insurance due to the nature of your activities. This is usually taken out for high risk activities like white water rafting, mountaineering, etc.

In 2019, we will include with every reservation a link to a preferred provider of Trip Insurance. We will make it clear during the reservation process and in confirmations the importance of trip insurance and our policies about cancellations and rescues, and their costs.  You can find quotes by visiting the link below. 


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Need for change

Leave no Trace principle #1 is “plan and prepare”. Make your logistics arrangements with us more than a month in advance and we usually offer some sort of discount or reward for doing so. Waiting until the day of you may be learning a hard lesson on why its important to prepare in advance.

Emergencies happen, we understand that. However, we should not be on the financial hook. That is why you take out insurance.
Thomas Funke, Trailspotters

Disclosure: Bear in mind that some of the links in this post are affiliate links and if you go through them to make a purchase I will earn a commission. Keep in mind that I link these companies and their products because of their quality and not because of the commission I receive from your purchases. The decision is yours, and whether or not you decide to buy something is completely up to you.

Threatened & Endangered Trails

Last year at Quiet Water Symposium, I presented a brand new program “5 Popular & 5 Not so Popular Segments of the North Country Trail”

I’m renaming it to “5 over-run segments and 5 segments where you won’t see another soul”.

In recent years, the number of people who backpack and day hike has grown. A lot. Exponentially? Maybe not, but there are sure a lot more people hiking our trails now than ten years ago. Which is a great thing, knowing so many people are enjoying the natural beauty Michigan has to offer.

However, with growth, comes challenges.

Most recently, Porcupine Wilderness State Park has implemented a new policy that requires reservations for their back country sites. There are 63 sites, and, up until this season, back country sites were available on a first-come, first serve basis. If full, wandering into the nearby woods to set up camp was an acceptable practice. That is, until the MDNR Parks staff noticed people forgot that whole pesky “Leave No Trace” thing. It’s now to the point where there is so much toilet paper on the ground, it looks like it grows there naturally. In addition, the campsites are beaten down and there are a gazillion social trails.

Not exactly the back country experience one was expecting.

Therefore, the MDNR Parks has implemented a policy of one group, one campsite, via advance reservation. No more winging it.

Not surprisingly, this policy has upset those that forgot the #1 LNT principle: “Plan ahead and prepare”. As an outfitter, I can tell you the #1 reason people get into trouble on back country trips leads right back to a lack of planning. But, the disconnect is real, as those that seem to be most upset about it not only ignore rule #1, but like to wing it as well. Here are some comments on a few hiking forums to which I belong. I am paraphrasing the comments as to protect the disconnected, as, I’m sure some of them will read this blog:

              “This stinks! Less places to head out on a whim and camp in the wilderness.”

               “This is really lame! The Porkies were a destination to hike this year. I will not be going since I like to wing it.”

                “ I hate this policy. You arrive only to find the ideal campsite is reserved. So is the next one, and all the others. You have to choose between leaving or hiking 10 miles late in the day to reach the only available campsites. “

              ” I’ve advocated that parks like Tahquamenon Falls follow the old Porkies backcountry camping rules.  Sad, now I have to make an advance reservation.”

I’ve never understood the whole “winging it” to places that recommend or require reservations.

And of course, there are those who think it is a money grab. I just want to shake these people and tell them “You know, if everyone practiced LNT, there wouldn’t be a need to have a reservation system because, get this, they wouldn’t know you were there!”

And, it’s frustrating reading about “stealth camping” & not paying fees. Then, out of the other side of their mouths they will gripe about trail conditions, a lack of backcountry wifi,  or some other nonsense.

           “This stinks! I hate Lansing!”

            “It’s all about the $$”

          And, The disconnect is particularly strong with this one:
“I’m fine with fees if I get something for it. But if its a poorly maintained trail…well, f*ckoff                     with those fees.”

And here we are, loving these places to death.

When someone posts the question “I’m looking for a two day loop hike” in one of the hiking forums to which I belong, seventy-eight responses out of one-hudred are “Manistee River Loop”. Seriously. It has gotten to the point where the admins set an over/under every time this question is asked.

What are the over-used trail systems, you ask? To make this more relevant, I’ll categorize them like we do rare animals. Instead of Endangered Species, lets call them Threatened & Endangered Trail Systems.

Manistee River Loop (No permit system, no limits, beat down campsites)
Jordan River Loop (No permits, one campground, no off trail camping allowed but people do anyways)
Porcupine Mountains (Permits required, social trails, toilet paper part of the flora)

Pictured Rocks (Permits required–however, squatting is problematic & TONS of day hikers)
Grand Island (A few campgrounds require permits, most of island is LNT camping)
Nordhouse Dunes (No Permit system, its the place to party-hike)

Special Concern
Fife Lake (No Permit System)
Hoist Lakes (No Permit System)

Quality Experiences
Isle Royale (Permit System)
North Manitou (Permit system)
South Manitou (Permit system)
Sylvania (Permit system)
High Country Pathway (No permits)
Pigeon River Pathway/Shingle Mill/Green Timbers (no permits)
Tahquamenon Falls (campsite reservations)
Craig Lake State Park (campsite reservations)
….and the other 1000 miles of North Country Trail outside of these places.

Do you see a trend here? I certainly do.

The most popular trails are those that have loop systems. A common and constant conundrum (and complaint) for using the other two thousand miles of backpackable trails (1100 miles of it on the North Country Trail) is logistics. You either double back, spot two cars, pray LYFT is available (its available statewide in Michigan), have a friend spot you/find you, hitchhike, or, use an outfitter to spot you. My recommendation is to embrace one of these options in order to hike a linear trail.

Did you know that Indian Trails stops right on or very near the North Country Trail in several places? If you wanted to do a section hike of more than a few days, there are plenty of stretches on the NCT statewide where you could do this.

Indian Trails bus stops near or on the NCT include:
¼ mile from the NCT in Battle Creek
on the trail in Rockford
6 miles from the trail in Manton
on the trail in Petoskey
¼ mile from the trail in St. Ignace
5 miles from Strongs Corners
1 ¼ mile from the NCT in Marquette
4 miles from the NCT in Ironwood.

Therefore, you could self-shuttle yourself using Indian Trails.

In the Upper Peninsula, Trailspotters has the ENTIRE Upper Peninsula covered when it comes to spotting on the North Country Trail. There are no more valid excuses to make a linear trail work.

We need to spread out. We need to hike in less traveled areas. We need to practice LNT. We may need to browbeat those that don’t, because, it is their actions that ruin it for those of us that do.

I will always be a strong proponent of Leave No Trace. I challenge you to as well. I also challenge you to NOT visit any of the places on the Endangered or Threatened List until you’ve hiked 100 miles outside of these areas.

And when you do your 100 miles, please, Plan and Prepare.

Planning Basics

I subscribe to many hiking, backpacking, and kayaking forums online as well as being a moderator for some. I do this mostly to learn. On occasion, I’m fortunate to give advice.

Recently, I’ve seen the question pop up several times: “Who here doesn’t plan and just wings it when backpacking?”

When I see this, I go into Outfitter Mode.  My typical response:

“As an outfitter, I highly recommend that do not neglect planning out your trip. Unless  you want to be rescued.          And, my rates are Distance x Stupidity.”

A little snarky, yes.  But, I can tell you from experience, most of my rescues are not injury related.  Of the hundreds of rescues we’ve conducted, I can count on one hand how many were from a legitimate injury (and some can say that with proper physical training, you can “plan” by being fit).  The rest were clearly from a lack of planning.

Planning takes time. It involves thinking. It means meeting with others in your party. And it has many faces.  Personally, I like to play the “What if….” game when planning.

What if we get lost? What if we get injured? What if we run late? What if we run out of food?

What if…..

Planning Basics






Whoops! These hikers finished and ran out of food.
Their ride was a day out, and, they called on us to
deliver groceries.

What experience are you seeking?

The utopian answer is “I want to be in a remote place, where I can set up camp wherever I want, and not see another human for days”. Most of my inquiries are for Pictured Rocks, so, I have to let them down easy when I tell them they won’t get that experience.

It used to be it was about getting back to nature and seeing very few or no other people. Now it seems to be more of a social event especially with the younger crowd. It is definitely a spectrum, as you gain experience, you’ll find your comfort level to the number of others you’ll encounter.

Wildlife viewing is another reason folks like to get out on a trail. In the Great Lakes, the best time to view wildlife is in the spring and very early summer. Once you get past Independence day, the wildlife becomes less active. If you are a birdwatcher, you’ll enjoy yourself more than if you are into turtles and snakes, especially in October.

Wild, sweeping views is another popular experience hikers seek. It may explain why permits on the west end of Pictured Rocks fill much faster than on the east end.  And, it may explain why it’s like pulling teeth to get folks to hike outside of the park, even though the trail follows Lake Superior for another 40 miles to the east!

Where can you find the experiences you seek?

If you want to find moose and be out of cell phone range for a week, The Florida Trail isn’t the trail you seek.  If you want wide, sweeping landscapes with tall mountains, the Continental Divide and Pacific Trail is for you. Not so much the North Country Trail. Our mountains are just older.

The number one question I get is about wildlife. Will I see a bear? A moose? Bald Eagles? What are the mosquitoes like? Coming in a close second is “How easy is it to follow the trail?”. Having a good time usually means being able to find and follow the trail tread and markers. I would agree with that! Pretty frustrating when you lose the trail. In a state or national park, very unlikely. Wilderness area? Be prepared to lose it it, but in most instances it’s a momentary thing.

These two are “ultra runners” and ran the entire 42.5 mile trail through Pictured Rocks in a day. They brought with them an overnight kit with 10 essentials just in case they needed to spend the night on the trail

What type of route?

I’d say most backpackers seek out a loop. No need to shuttle or spot a car as your begin and end point are the same. However, in Michigan, anyways, loops seem to be very popular and quite frankly, overcrowded. In Michigan, the Manistee River Loop, Porcupine Mountains, and the Beaver/Chapel loops are quite popular. No shortage of hikers there.

Linear trails mean you’ll either have to hike out, then back on the same route, or, arrange for a shuttle/carspot. Many are resistant to paying an outfitter to shuttle them, but, if you do the math, manytimes it is much cheaper to do that then bring a second vehicle. In addition, you lose time hiking on the trail moving cars around. This fall, I’m looking at either a 4 hour shuttle, or, if we brought two vehicles, losing two days to moving vehicles around. Plus, all the extra gas driving 18 hours to where we need to be. I’d rather fork over the shuttle money to get an extra two days on the trail.

An option that works with young and/or new backpackers is setting up a base camp. Base camps work well where there is a network of trails. Many state parks can accommodate base camping. In Michigan, Tahquamenon Falls, Porcupine Mountains, Yankee Springs, Fort Custer, Waterloo, and Pinckney State Parks have camping and many trails. Pictured Rocks as well, although, you may have to drive to some of the trailheads.

Routes are usually dependent on the skill level and stamina of the group. If you’ve got a six year old with you, they are too heavy to carry and too small to hoof it 15 miles in a day. So, a basecamp, or short days may be for you. If you are doing a linear trail, you’ll need to arrange transportation via shuttle, spotting, or LYFT/UBER

How many days?

The actual, on the ground days on trail is important to know. But, you also need to include travel time to and from trailheads. On my last adventure, it was a two day drive for two in my party to get to a campground about 30 miles from the trailhead. Then, a half day drive, to get to the actual trailhead. On the way home, we red-eyed it back home with an 18 hour drive!

Food will most likely be you limiting factor. Most of our customers are out 3-5 days. Seven days is really pushing it without a re-supply. For trips lasting longer than a week, you can always send packages ahead to a Post Office, rely on friends/family to deliver, or use an outfitter. You can even cache your food in a bear-proof cooler and hide it.

My last trip my companions were Mike Otis (L) and
Keith Otis (R). I’m the disheveled guy in the middle.

Who are your companions?

This can be the most important decision, you, and, the others in your group can make. There are probably more variables and factors in deciding who will be part of the group.  Probably the most important factor that I have found successful is going with people whose company you already enjoy.

Each person will have strengths and weaknesses. It may be wise to identify those skills you are good at and those that you are not, and, seek out others who are good at the things you are not.

Matching confidence, experience, & skill levels to a complimentary trail is also very important. No sense in four newbies being dropped off in the Denali wilderness, although, I’m sure it’s been done. Or, attempting to climb even a slightly technical trail when no one has had any experience.  And, if you are going to rely on your cell phone for navigation, probably doing so in an area with a cell phone signal, numerous road crossings, and the opportunity to see other hikers on a regular basis would be a good idea.

Time of year?

If you hate biting insects, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in early June may not be a good idea. If you hate humidity, starting the Appalachian Trail in July out of Springer won’t bode well for a comfortable hike.

Every year I receive a few calls from enterprising college students looking to hike Pictured Rocsk on their Spring Break to get a northern woods hiking experience. I always ask “What brand of snowshoes will you be bringing?”.  Most college spring breaks are the first week of March, when there is 3-6 feet of snow on the trail and all the feeder roads are closed. Always call ahead to ask about trail & road closures. Even in the summer, especially out west.

Another factor the vast majority overlook, especially in Michigan, is the danger of wildfire. Knowing if you are in a fire season, what the current conditions are, and having a plan in case there is a wildfire during your hike is a wise move.

Always research the climate, as, we all have temperature, weather, and humidity ranges of comfort. I hate the heat (over 80) and humidity (over 60 degrees dew point), therefore, I find most of my Great Lakes backpacking in late August through October. The Florida Trail in January may suit my climate needs as well.

In a future blog, I’ll discuss planning for Food, Shelter, Footwear, Clothing, & Navigation