Pennsylvania is a lovely place to go camping. With its mountains, streams and wooded areas, it’s beautiful all year round. Best of all, there are abundant places for free camping in Pennsylvania.
Campers should keep in mind that many of the areas are not planned for inexperienced city weekenders. They are geared more toward the serious backpacker or hiker. In many cases, you’ll need to make your own arrangements for sanitation and might have to pack in your drinking water.
Not all free camping in Pennsylvania is quite that primitive, however. Many are equipped with toilets, fire rings and even a source for drinking water. Plan ahead so that you’re prepared for the type of facilities that are available.
It’s courteous to be prepared to follow the rules for your selected camping area. Be aware of whether you can cut wood or whether your use will be restricted to dead wood, or if you’ll be required to pack in fuel for your campfire.
Many locations forbid picking or digging up vegetation, especially endangered species, so read the regulations carefully if you plan to try foraging. Always pack out any wrappers or other trash that you might take in so that your campsite will be beautiful for the next camper.
Free Camping in PA
Here are the best places to camp in Pennsylvania:
1. Delaware State Forest
The Delaware State Forest, named for the Delaware River, is 83,510 acres of glacial lakes, bogs, and forest. It encompasses areas in four different counties, Pike, Monroe Northampton, and Carbon.
The park is what’s known as a working forest. That is, not only is it set up to conserve local ecologies, but certain areas are logged, while others might have areas where natural gas is being pumped.
In addition, some areas might have deer exclosures, prescribed fires, gypsy moth spraying, buffered streams or places that are set aside to protect an endangered species or to conserve its wild character.
Because of its status as a working forest, visitors are required to get permits for camping.
They come in several types:
- 29 Motorized Camping – These are areas that might include a fire ring, picnic table, and signboard.
- Group or Primitive Camping – Visitors need to contact the central office at least two weeks in advance to reserve their campsite. Groups are defined as ten or more campers. Primitive camping is your selected spot with no amenities provided.
- Upper Delaware River Camping – Area is accessible only by boat. Again, visitors are requested to reserve their location and to make plans well in advance.
Authorization and permits for Motorized, group and primitive camping can be arranged by calling 570-895-4000 to arrange authorization and to receive a free permit. River camping can be arranged by calling 570-685-4871, and entering extension 6608 or 6610.
Bus transportation is available to some parts of the park.
2. Loyalsock State Forest
Loyalsock is named for Loyalsock creek which winds through it. It covers 114,552 acres and is located in parts of Sullivan, Lycoming, and Bradford counties.
Like Delaware State Forest, Loyalsock is a working national forest. It’s set up to conserve natural resources such as water and timber while providing beautiful areas for campers, hikers and picnickers to relax in and enjoy. To this end, it’s regulated.
There’s a brochure that sets out the particulars, but the general overview is as follows:
- Portable sanitation facilities are recommended, especially in areas accessible by motorized vehicles.
- Trench or hole facilities must be at least 100 feet from any water source, and 25 feet from trails.
- Decentralized camps shouldn’t be visible from the trails.
- No cutting of trees. No nailing anything into trees.
- Campfires must be attended at all times, and can’t be set during alerts or between the beginning of March and the end of May.
- No cutting, damaging or removing of vegetation.
- Portable gas stoves are recommended.
- No target practicing or indiscriminate firing of firearms.
- When you leave your campsite, remove everything and scatter your stone fire ring.
- No more than two dogs per campsite, and they must be restrained.
- Permits are required in most areas, but they are free.
- No loud music.
- Where permits are not required, registration is recommended for your safety.
With all that said, it’s a big beautiful place to get away from the city and let nerves over-stressed by civilization relax.
3. Elk State Forest
Elk State Forest is named for the majestic beasts who were once plentiful in the area. It consists of 200,000 acres of mixed hardwood and oak forests, as well as some open meadowland. Elks are making a comeback, and, at the right season, you can see them.
The park features the Elk Country Visitor Center and the Elk Scenic Drive.
Camping is permitted. It has rules similar to the other parks, and there’s a brochure available too. There are areas for motorized camping, but there are also places where visitors can camp that are more off the beaten trail, including campsites that can be accessed on horseback or by bicycle.
Hunting is allowed in season, and so is fishing. There’s a schedule for forest harvesting.
4. Bald Eagle State Forest
The Bald Eagle State Forest is comprised of 193,424 acres spread across Centre, Union, Snyder, Mifflin, and Clinton Counties.
It’s farther above sea level than some of the other state forests, parts of it consisting of sandy ridge areas that are as much as 2,300 feet above sea level. At least a third of it is part of the watershed system for the Susquehanna River.
Backpack and primitive camping is permitted throughout the area, as well as designated areas for group camping. There are 320 miles of trails for hiking. There are 40 locations for motorized camping, as well as places for horse backing.
Hunting is permitted in season. All activities must follow Pennsylvania state regulations for use of parks.
5. Rothrock State Forest
Rothrock consists of 215,500 square miles of rugged forested terrain, stretching across Centre, Huntingdon, and Mifflin counties. The main center is in the city of Huntingdon. It’s near Penn State, making it a popular resource for the university.
Rothrock offers 8 locations for motorized camping. These sites parking, picnic tables, and a place for a campfire. Permits to camp at these sites are required and can be obtained at the District Office.
Backpackers may camp for one night anywhere as long as the area isn’t designated as a Natural Area. Other conditions for camping include finding a location more than 200 feet from a forest road or 25 feet from a trail, and more than 100 feet from any natural waterway or water source. If you plan to camp for more than one night, a permit is required.
For their own safety, overnight campers are encouraged to register with the District Office.
Rothrock is a beautiful resource for hikers. The forest encompasses almost 300 miles of hiking trails. It is crossed by the Mid State Trail, which runs from Maryland in the Green Ridge State Forest to the New York Finger Lakes area. The MST is a challenging trail. People who want to traverse it should check in with the Mid State Trail Association for maps and safety suggestions.
Another popular hiking trail that passes through the Rothrock State Forest is the Standing Stones Trail, originally called the Link trail. It connects the MST with the Tuscarora Trail, bringing hikers into the Greenwood Furnace State Park.
6. Greenwood Furnace State Park
Greenwood Furnace State Park Campground isn’t completely free, but the well-equipped, affordable, facility makes a nice place to stop off, do some laundry, charge up batteries and take a break from hiking or even from motorized camping.
The cost of the sites will vary, depending on the number of people and whether pets are involved. Service animals don’t count as pets.
Greenwood is interesting in that it’s a once-industrialized area that has been returned to nature. From 1834 to 1904, it was a thriving mill town, where iron was smelted. The village wrapped around the ironworks. Today, it’s a popular tourist destination.
You can make camp reservations as long as a year in advance by calling 888-727-2757 during office hours, but there are penalties for late cancellations.
There’s no charge for using the park dump, and there are many interesting things to see even if you don’t plan to stay overnight. Primitive camping is available in the surrounding Rothrock Forest.
Greenwood Furnace and some of the surrounding areas are under a wood quarantine. This is to prevent the spread of the spotted lanternfly. Since it can infest firewood, only certified, kiln-dried wood is permitted to be brought into some areas, and no wood is allowed to be removed from those campsites. All wood must be burned completely.
Spotted lanternfly is a leafhopper that was first noticed in Pennsylvania in 2014. It originates in Asia. The little pests don’t bite or sting, but are devastating to timber and other types of wood. They can hitch-hike on vehicles, so cars, trucks and camping equipment need to be carefully checked when moving in or out of a quarantine area.
Campers can do their part by complying with inspections and checkpoints, as well as following the guidelines for campfires and wood use in these locations.
7. Clear Creek State Forest
Clear Creek State Forest encompasses 16,229 acres located in sections of Jefferson, Clarion, Venango, Forest, and Mercer counties. It’s one of the areas under Lantern Fly quarantine, so be sure to inspect your gear or vehicles when entering and leaving the area, as well as complying with regulations for using wood.
Clear Creek Park, which consists of 1,901 acres in Jefferson county has camping areas as well as rustic cabins that can be rented. It also allows access to the Clarion River for fishing and boating.
Cook Forest State Park, 8,500 acres of scenic beauty, is only 11 miles from the Clear Creek Park and connects to the 3,136 acres of Clarion River Lands. This makes it a popular destination for kayaking, tubing, or canoeing. Like Clear Creek Park, it shares the Lantern Fly quarantine. So please be extra vigilant.
The park is open sunrise to sunset throughout the year. Designated camping spots are open seasonally. Contact the park office for times and regulations, as well as for information about events that are held throughout the year.
8. Forbes State Forest
Most areas in Forbes State Forest are open to primitive backpack camping. There are six areas set up for motorized camping. A brochure with regulations, maps, and an application for a camping permit can be found here.
Camping Along the Appalachian Trail
Appalachian Trail, 230 miles of which are located in Pennsylvania, is a rugged, challenging hike. Rules for camping along this famous trail will vary. As a general rule of thumb, you need to be at least 50 feet from the trail, but no more than 100 feet from it.
You need to camp at least 200 feet from water sources, at least 100 feet from other campers, and have fewer than 10 people in your party. You should also be aware that firearms aren’t permitted on federal land, regardless of whether you’re licensed to carry.
One source recommends that hikers who attempt this trail should train in martial arts self-defense and carry pepper spray. It’s a sobering thought, but the world is full of imperfect people.
This is one reason that the various park and forestry offices recommend that camper register, even if they only plan to utilize primitive camping for one night.
Campers will find 20 designated shelters along the Appalachian Trail as they trek through Pennsylvania. These will vary in size, although most include a privy and a water source. The availability of an area to pitch a tent will vary, also.
Some parts of the trail don’t have enough area to allow camping. It’s a good idea to enquire about up-to-date maps and brochures at the various parks along the way.