CarCamping on Minnesota Public Lands
The car. Short for caravan. A caravan of all the most comfortable and least portable pieces of camping gear you could throw into it, including a king size bed set, an extra everything and all the toys for all the activities you don't have enough time this weekend to use them all in. But hey, this is car camping.
You get the greatest piece of mind, for the least effort in preparation when the vehicle joins you at the campsite. It's a back up shelter, can heat food under the hood and run an errand for a forgotten item. It can cover many miles along those ritual road trip experiences and keep you well rested for arriving at camp and... sleeping.
The first five ways to camp on Minnesota's public lands are done from the car.
$28 Fee Sites $16
Here is a map of car camping opportunities on Minnesota's public lands.
Click the upper left to open the legend and toggle layers for the first five different styles of camping. To determine the boundaries of state forest and national forest land, use the DNR's Recreation Compass.
Use this link to better view on mobile.
1. Car Camping In Minnesota State Parks
62 CAMPs 3000+ sites $15-28 100% reservable
This first way to camp is the most accessible. Specialized lightweight and portable equipment isn't required. You have plenty of carrying capacity in the car.
Of the 75 state parks and recreation areas across Minnesota 62 of them have modern, highly developed drive-in car campgrounds. These campsites include car parking next to a tent pad, picnic table and fire ring. All sites include access to bathroom facilities (usually running water toilets, sinks and showers), garbage disposal and drinking water. Many have firewood for purchase and optional sites with electric or water hook-ups. They are adjacent to state park attractions, recreation infrastructure and programming. Many have permanent season campground hosts or are otherwise patrolled regularly to provide security and service to visitors.
The state park system is 100% reservable. This can be great to lock in a secure itinerary ahead of time but has also made it tough to find available sites on peak season weekends. Spontaneous trips and "see where the day takes us" trip pacing can run into difficulty trying to access state park car campgrounds. You can find somewhat secluded sites but you'll likely be in large company. State parks also require an entrance pass for your vehicle. A daily pass is $7, an annual is $35.
2. Car Camping In Minnesota State Forests
22 CAMPS 1000+ sites $14 0% reservable
The next step if your state park of choice is full is to opt for a drive-in state forest campground. The southern and western one-third of Minnesota is unforested so there's a sizeable geographic area where this backup plan won't work, but for the rest, Minnesota has 22 state forest car campgrounds that are as widely distributed as the state park campgrounds. They won't be within walking distance of the greatest state park attractions but are almost always embedded in other wild woods and waters.
These are semi-modern areas, designed to furnish the basic needs of outdoor recreationists. Individual campsites have car parking adjacent a cleared area with tent pad, picnic table and fire ring. Campgrounds include access to drinking water, a vault toilet and garbage cans. Many are patrolled regularly to provide security and service to visitors. Most have lower usage rates than the state park campgrounds. The most popular ones will be occupied with similar density, so the company of crowds may remain a feature. There are no entrance fees to the state forests, or their campgrounds. As none of these sites are reservable you have a greater opportunity to roll in and snag a site first come - first served.
3. Car Camping In US National Forests In Minnesota
44 CAMPS 1,257 sites $14-28 80% reservable
Superior National Forest is a 3.9 million acreage of mixed conifer-hardwood forest punctuated by ancient bedrock exposures and pristine lakes. This vast swath of the Minnesota Arrowhead is home to the Iron Range, the Boundary Waters Wilderness Area and 23 national forest car campgrounds with 597 campsites.
Chippewa National Forest is 666 thousand acres of sopping wet north central conifer-hardwood forests, wetlands and recreational waters. It hosts several of the state's largest lakes, the source of the Mississippi River and 21 national forest campgrounds with 660 campsites.
Fee campgrounds provide sites with a fire ring, picnic table, and level tent pad. In the campground are accessible outhouses, drinking water faucets, garbage and recycling. Most of these have access to trail systems, fishing piers, boat launches, picnic areas, beaches, showers, and electricity. Some of these campgrounds are very popular while some see little visitation. Fees for sites with modern amenities are comparable to the state parks. They are lower for the more primitive and remote campgrounds. There are no entrance fees to the national forests, or their campgrounds. Many of the campgrounds are reservable, though they don't tend to fill during peak season like the state parks. Some campgrounds are non-reservable and are first-come first served.
4. Free Car Camping In US National Forests In Minnesota
48 CAMPS 70 sites $FREE 0% reservable
The fourth way to camp on Minnesota public lands is one of the best kept secrets in regional outdoor recreation.
The Superior National Forest maintains 18 rustic campgrounds with drive-in car camping campsites.
The Chippewa National Forest maintains a collection of over 30 designated "dispersed" drive-in car campsites.
These are remote and private, often adjacent a body of water. They are free. That's right, free car camping. The catch? The sites are very limited, sometimes only 2, at most 8 and they are first come - first served, so you'll want to arrive earlier in the day to snag one for yourself. The amenities are limited, but can be managed comfortably. There are cleared spaces for tents, fire rings, tables and toilets. What you will need to be prepared to do on your own, is pack out your trash and bring along your own water or treat one from a wild source.
The US Geological Survey sells large print national forest maps. This are great resource despite lacking information on these remote backpack camping opportunities. Buy one and marker it up with the campsites found here on Minnesota Camp Guide. The Chippewa National Forest provides online a series of dispersed camping maps that are helpful in locating these sites, though they do not differentiate between car, backpack and paddle campsites. The digital maps on this site do.
5. Dispersed Car Camping off State and National Forest Roads
2,500 MILES ∞ sites $FREE
The fifth way requires some exploration and self reliance.
Dispersed camping happens in the general forest area, outside of designated sites. You may set up camp anywhere so long as you are not within 150 feet of roads, trails, water bodies or other designated campsites.
This is pretty close to backpack camping, it's just not far from the car. Unless you want it to be. Where you leave the car, and find a place to camp, there is no infrastructure of any kind. It is your responsibility to safely and responsibly locate a shelter site, treat your own water, keep your food away from animals, dispose of and pack out your waste and leave no evident trace of your visit.
State forest and national forests in Minnesota include more than 2,000 miles of roads and thousands of minimally maintained spur roads used for forestry management. Off of and along any of these roads you can dispersed camp, free of charge. You are not allowed to park motor vehicles anywhere it may impede traffic, harm vegetation or soils. It's not too much of a challenge to achieve this. A vehicle with all wheel drive and significant ground clearance will certainly increase your access to these opportunities, but there are many chances to find logging clear cuts, inactive gravel pits and the like to pull over and set up camp.
When scouting dispersed camping opportunities, determine the boundaries of private, state forest and national forest land with the DNR's Recreation Compass. The large print national forest maps are a great resource for this task also.
US National Forests in Minnesota have the same rules.
Let's go camping...