Primitive and Dispersed Camping in Wisconsin

Have you ever wanted to walk off the trail into the forest and find the perfect fishing stream to set up camp next to? If the image that comes to mind when you think about camping is a private site deep in the wilderness you are probably dreaming of primitive camping. Primitive camping goes by different names. Dispersed camping, remote camping, backpack camping, wilderness camping, and non-designated camping all generally mean the same thing: walking off the grid and making your own campsite.

Wisconsin provides a large amount of public land to primitive camp on. There are half-a-million acres of state forests, 2-million acres of county forest, 1.5-million acres of national forest, and five designated federal wilderness areas. Add that up, and there are approximately 4-million acres in the state of Wisconsin where you can enjoy primitive camping.

Each forest has its own rules, regulations, and permitting required of primitive campers, so you will have to research the area you want to camp in well in advance of your trip. This article will summarize the types of primitive camping in Wisconsin and provide a springboard for finding your perfect campsite in the Wisconsin wilderness.

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Primitive Camping - What You Need to Know Before Going

Primitive camping is the ultimate freedom in outdoors recreation. There are millions of acres in Wisconsin where you can make your own campsite. The enormous size of the areas where you can camp and the variety of regulations between the areas present several challenges to those seeking to primitive camp.

Unlike with family camping in designated campgrounds, you will have to rely completely on yourself and the skills and preparedness of your group. If you are planning to primitive camp you need to be an absolute expert in camp craft, orienteering, wilderness navigation, wilderness survival, first aid, and emergency preparedness. To become an absolute expert in these fine arts of the outdoors you will need to practice by doing it. If you are new to primitive camping, then it is best that you start by choosing sites within view of a road, forest road, or major trail. As you become stronger at navigating by paper map and compass and have collected the appropriate survival gear for spending time in the wilderness then you can begin to venture further into the woods. This is when it gets really exciting, and you'll find the best locations to camp far from trails and roads where you can experience full immersion in the outdoors.

Beyond orienteering, you will need to become an expert in finding, preparing, and reading maps. The boundaries of primitive camping areas are vast, but jagged. There are many plots of private land surrounded by county forests. It is a big problem to accidentally camp on private land. If a landowner catches you camped on their land a confrontation can quickly escalate.

Some maps provide excellent information on roads, features, and topography. But GIS maps are the best for locating property boundaries. In this comparison the Forest Service GIS map provides clear indication of where one can primitive camp (anywhere in the green area) whereas the USGS topo map does not show property boundaries.

Before you head out into the woods you will need to prepare detailed contour maps of the areas you plan to travel through, and verify which areas are open to primitive camping. Most county forest websites also include GIS maps which you can download and open in Google Earth. GIS mapping is the best way to be sure of where forest boundaries are located. You will then need to download and print USGS topographic maps of the quadrangles you plan to camp within. After gathering your maps you will want to compare your topographic maps to GIS and will sometimes need to transcribe boundaries to your paper maps by hand.

Even your best efforts to create detailed maps may fall short. It is essential to personally contact the ranger for the forest you want to camp in and verify that the locations you expect to camp in are indeed on public land open to camping. Another reason it is important to check-in with rangers is that logging is allowed in all Wisconsin forests outside of federal wilderness areas. A ranger can communicate where logging is planned in the forest and make you aware of road closures, storm damaged sites, and fire restrictions.

To download US Forest Service GIS maps vist the FSTopo Map Product website here
To download USGS topographic maps visit the TopoView website here.


Dispersed Camping in a National Forest

Primitive Camping along the Ice Age National Trail in the Chequamegon National Forest
Primitive Camping along the Ice Age National Trail in the Chequamegon National Forest

The Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest is one of the best places to find scenic areas for primitive camping. You can primitive camp anywhere in the boundaries of the national forest ... fee free. The Chequamegon-Nicolet is a large forest that covers most of the north central region of Wisconsin.

You can access the Chequamegon from the North Country Trail and the Ice Age Trail. There is also a vast network of forest roads where you can get closer to a remote lake or river to camp next to. Excellent mapping and orienteering are needed to plot a course from roads to the location you'd like to camp in. There are a few rules you will have to follow while camping in the Chequamegon. These include camping at least 100 feet from a trail, and at least 100 feet from a body of water. You will also need to pack out everything you pack in and practice leave-no-trace standards which includes dismantling fire rings and leaving your campsite exactly as you had found it.

Dispersed Camping in Federal Wilderness Areas

campsite beneath pines on hill
Primitive Camping in the Porcupine Lake Federal Wilderness Area

There are five designated federal wilderness areas in Wisconsin which are managed by the Forest Service. These are, by far, the best areas to use for a primitive camping adventure. You won't have to worry about logging in the wilderness areas, the scenery and topography is exceptional, and there are lots of unmarked footpaths to follow to particularly good camping locations. You will still need excellent orienteering and navigation skills to follow these trails as they are scattered and unofficial trails that are not maintained. Rules for camping in wilderness areas are the same as national forest rules, and no fee is required.

Primitive Camping in County Forests

A primitive campsite at Harwood Lakes in the Chippewa County Forest
A primitive campsite at Harwood Lakes in the Chippewa County Forest

County forests in Wisconsin offer extensive acreage for primitive camping. Each county that allows camping in their forests has unique rules and permitting. County forest camping requires more research than camping in the national forest. Some counties don't require any fees or permits, while others charge as much as $20 per night and require you to post your permit in clear view on your tent.

The Ice Age Trail traverses hundreds of miles through county forests. If you are planning on long distance hiking and primitive camping along the way you will have to keep track of which county you are in and have the appropriate permits secured ahead of your backpacking trip.

Primitive Camping in State Forests

Remote campsite in Governor Knowles Nelson State Forest
Remote campsite in Governor Knowles Nelson State Forest

State forests in the northern half of the state allow primitive camping with a fee and permit. Like counties, each forest has different rules and permitting process. In the state forests you generally cannot set up camp within view of any body of water, which is a bummer. It's not very much fun camping far from a lake or river. As I have researched primitive camping in Wisconsin I have found the state forests to be the most restrictive. However, I am excited by potential primitive camping options in the Black River State Forest and Flambeau River. There are remote sites in the Peshtigo River State Forest that I'd like to check out some day as well.

You can access the Brule River State Forest via the North Country Trail. Along the trail there are already established primitive sites that you can locate on forest and trail maps.

Watercraft Access Primitive Campsites

Watercraft Access Site on Pallette Lake
Watercraft Access Site on Pallette Lake

The Boundary Waters in Minnesota is the first place that many adventurers think of for canoe camping. But, Wisconsin has several areas that offer a similar experience. There are primitive campsites lining the shores of lakes and rivers in northern Wisconsin that are intended for use by campers arriving by boat. These campsites are fee-free and first-come-first-served. While most boaters enjoy bouncing from site to site on a multi-day trip, you are also free to setup for a weekend at some sites. You could select an island campsite just a half mile paddle from a boat ramp and enjoy the adventure of camping on your own private island while still being a close paddle to your vehicle for side trips into town.

For those in search of great winter camping sites, watercraft access sites are also available for winter camping and can be accessed by foot/snowshoe over frozen lakes and rivers or by snowmobile. Fair warning, there's not alot of peace and quiet at these sites during snowmobile season.

Northern Highland American Legion State Forest manages canoe routes from lake to lake throughout Northeastern Wisconsin with primitive campsites established along shorelines. The experience of canoe camping in NHAL is similar to the Boundary Waters with multi-day trip routes, portage trails, and campsites with fire rings and picnic tables. Most sites do not have latrines, so they are pimitive in that respect. Northern Higland American Legion State Forest Canoe Camping

The Turtle-Flambeau Flowage is a convergence of waterways in Iron County that is popular for boating, fishing, and camping. The interactive map develped by Miles Paddled offers the best information on the campsites. More information about Turtle-Flambeau Flowage can be found here.

Another popular destination for canoe-camping is the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway which includes both the St. Croix River as well as the Namekagon River. Campsites on the rivers are fee-free, first-come-first-served, and a maximum stay of one night. I've mapped out all of the campsites and landings for the St. Croix Scenic Riverway on an interactive map here.

Cross Country Ski Areas

Primitive Site in the Nicolet North Ski Area

Northern Wisconsinites love their xx-skiing. These vast land reserves are crisscrossed with wide trails that are ski-worthy in winter, but the same trails make at least moderately good hiking trails in the three-seasons. Most ski areas are already located on national forest land, so you are good to go with primitive camping in them. Some ski areas are organized by counties or localities. In these cases you will have to contact the owner to learn if primitive camping is allowed. There's a good chance there will already be some established primitive sites in any large cross country ski area.

Dispersed Camping Areas on the Ice Age Trail

Dispersed Camping Area on the Ice Age Trail Straight River Segment
Dispersed Camping Area on the Ice Age Trail Straight River Segment

If you hike along the Ice Age National Scenic Trail you will come across designated Dispersed Camping Areas (DCA). These are designated areas for long distance hikers to set up camp along the trail. A DCA is intended just to be a place to set up for one night on a long distance hike.

It is common practice at a Dispersed Camp Area to welcome any long distance hikers who arrive and are seeking a place to set up for the night.

One of the advantages of Dispersed Camp Areas is that they are indicated on maps and atlases of the trails. This allows you to plan your backpacking trip form point-to-point in advance of your hike. You cannot reserve a DCA, and that has a bonus and downside. On the one hand, someone can't lay claim to a DCA site a year in advance - so it will be available to you when you arrive. On the other hand, you won't know if a DCA is occupied until you reach it. This can present a major challenge when backpacking.

National Trail Shelters

Dog Lake Shelter on the Ice Age National Trail
Dog Lake Shelter on the Ice Age National Trail

Wisconsin hosts two national trails, The Ice Age Trail and the North Country Trail. There are a few remote shelters set up along the trails that can be used by backpackers for one night. Some of these shelters are first-come-first-served and fee-free. But, shelters in the Southern and Northern Kettle Moraine State Forest must be reserved in advance for a fee.

Trail shelters usually include the shelter, picnic tables, fire rings, latrines, and space around the shelter for tents. They usually do not include water.

Like Designated Dispersed Camping Areas (DCA's) It is expected that any long distance hiker arriving at the shelter will be welcome to setup at the shelter and use its amenities even if it is already occupied. This general rule, however does not apply to the reservable shelters in the Kettle Moraine. Reserved means reserved for the party who paid the fee.

Random National Forest Remote Sites

Random remote campsites are scattered throughout the forests of Northern Wisconsin. Some have very rustic roads leading to them. Others are accessed from forest service roads via short hiking trails. Some have pay boxes and fees, others don't. They usually have fire pits and picnic tables, and sometimes an outhouse. Almost all of them have incredible scenery and are isolated on their own little lake that you won't have to share with anyone else.

So, how does one find such random campsites? You just kinda have to know about them. For years, I mean decades stretching back, the only people who knew where to find these sites were locals who grew up in the area. But, the internet has changed things, for better or worse. If you zoom close in on Google Maps on an area with lots of lakes and a nearby forest road some little green placemarks will pop up on your screen with names of campsites (and there are usually campsite photos too). This is how you can find some of them. But, even in the area I've used for my screenshot above (Which is near Butternut Lake) only a few campsites are revealed on Google Maps while I know there are least ten more in the area.

Whenever I am up visiting a National Forest Campground, as I'm driving for miles and miles on gravel forest roads and I happen to see some random pull-offs or a tiny sign off the road indicating a nearby campsite, I jump out, survey the site, and make a note of where these random sites are. That way, on a busy holiday weekend in summer when I haven't made a reservation and all of the campgrounds are full, I know I can find one of these hidden gems for a last minute getaway.

General Rules and Best Practices for Primitive Camping

  • Set up camp at least 1/4-mile from where you park your vehicle (This rule is intended to prevent campers from establishing drive-in sites along forest roads)
  • Set up camp at least 100 feet from a trail ... or out of view of a trail (This is to maintain the wilderness feel as hikers pass through along trails)
  • Set up camp at least 100 feet from a body of water. (This maintains the shorelines and preserves the wilderness feel for boaters)
  • 100 feet is approximately one and a half times the length of a bowling lane.
  • Post your permit in a waterproof baggie near the door of your tent in plain view.
  • Only use deadwood found on the ground for fire wood.
  • Completely douse your fire and be sure it is extinguished. You should be able to jam your hand in the ashes and not be burned. If your fire is completely extinguished and the stones are cooled then you can dismantle your fire ring.
  • Scatter unburned fire wood you collected.
  • If someone walks into the area you set up camp a week after you left will they be able to distinguish that it was a campsite? The answer should be no. It won't be perfect, there will be a pile of ashes. But in time, the site should return to a wilderness look if you have cleaned it up well.
  • Be sure to share your camping plans with a ranger and a family member or friend so that a search party has a place to begin if you don't return on time. 
  • Keep a compass and paper topographic map on you at all times. Know and practice wilderness navigation in advance of your trip.
  • Carry out everything you carried in and practice leave-no-trace.
  • Be bear and animal aware. Keep your camp clean and your food stored in bear bins or bear bags. This is helpful for keeping out mice and raccoons as well. Set up your fire, cooking area, and food storage as far as 300 feet downwind from your sleeping area.
  • 300 feet is approximately the length of a football field.

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