Camping on PA State Game Lands and state forests: All you need to know

Although both in the beautiful PA wilderness, state game lands and state forests have very different requirements when it comes to camping. You are almost free to camp wherever you want in a state forest for no charge. You will need a free permit or registration in some cases, but you are allowed to wild camp here with no issues and no fee. 

But you can’t camp on PA State game lands. The land is used for legal hunting and trapping, so it’s not the ideal place to camp. There are a few exceptions to this rule though, but you will generally want to find a state forest to camp in rather than on state game lands.

Illuminated yellow camp under the stars in the wild
Wild Camping can be a great experience away from other campers

Can I camp on PA State Game Lands?

Generally, camping is not permitted on state game lands. However, there is one exception to this rule. You can camp within 200 feet of the popular Appalachian Trail if you are a hiker.  140 miles of the trail runs through state game lands, so although camping is prohibited in most of the 1.4 million acres of game lands, there is still a large area where you can set up camp for the night.

There are several shelters on game lands along the Appalachian trail and these can be used for camping by thru-hikers. These shelters are usually near the trail and are very well marked and they can accommodate five to eight people. There are also campsites near these shelters to handle overfolow as shelters tend to get overcrowded quickly.

The game commission does limit camping for hikers to one night per location on the game lands along the Appalachian trail and these campers have to be at least 500 feet away from any springs.

Since Pennsylvania game lands are used for hunting, the game commission does require specific types of clothing for hikers and anyone on game lands for everyone’s safety. From November 15 to Dec. 15, anyone on state game lands must wear “250 square inches of daylight fluorescent orange-colored material on the head, chest, and back combined or, in lieu thereof, a hat of the same colored material. The material shall be worn so it is visible in a 360° arc.”

Can I camp in PA State forests?

PA state forests are a haven for wild campers, as you are able to camp in PA state forests. There are hardly any regulations that you have to follow in most cases. There are plenty of free sites across the many forests in the state, but you should be aware that very few of them have any amenities at all. They are very primitive. The most you can expect is a fire ring and maybe the odd picnic table. Most of the designated sites are accessible by vehicle, although they can be impassable or tough to get to during the winter.

Most of these sites have no fee, but you may be required to have a registration and permit, so always check first.

Difference between State Game Lands and State Forests

The main difference between state forests and state game land is that state forests tend to be used for recreation and state game lands provide space for hunting particular game species.

You will find state forests all over PA, and the beautiful lands are used for all sorts of activities such as ATV riding, wildlife watching, hiking, biking, fishing and hunting and snow sports in the winter. The DCNR administers them, and you should expect to see them filled with plenty of others who are out and about, ready to enjoy the great outdoors.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission administers game lands, and these dedicated spaces are for the use of hunting specified species. The lands are properly managed to support wildlife, providing plenty of lawful hunting and trapping opportunities.

How and where can you camp for free in PA?

There are plenty of places you can camp for free in PA; you will be spoilt for choice, all of which will give you that true off the grid experience. Most of the vast areas of national and state forests are sitting waiting for boondocking adventurers. Although they don’t have amenities, they will allow you to camp for free, with some stunning scenery thrown in as a bonus. In addition to the forests, wilderness areas and other state recreation spots are also good options for free camping. 

There are too many stunning locations to list. Still, some of the most popular camping spots include Sproul State Forest, Pinchot State Forest, and Hickory Creek Wilderness in the north of the state, and Rothrock State Forest, Tuscarora State Forest, and Michaux State Forest in the south. 

What is boondocking, and where can you boondock in PA.

The term Boondocking is used to describe a type of camping that is pretty wild. You will have none of life’s luxuries such as water, electricity or sewer hookups, so you really do have to fend for yourself. There are not even any toilets or water spigots, so you will have to ensure that you have everything with you that you will need before you set off.

Boondocking allows you to camp off-grid, away from busy campsites, and away from the helpful amenities they provide. Many people prefer this option to camp in an actual campground for several reasons. It brings with it s a sense of freedom, you get to see some incredible landscapes and often have them to yourself, and for the most part, they are completely free.

There are some restrictions however, you can’t just set up camp wherever you feel like it. Sometimes permits are required, and on some land, boondocking is completely prohibited. You are usually able to boondock on public land, which is known as dispersed camping. It is not considered boondocking if you are inside a designated campground. The National Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Department of Fish and Wildlife all offer options for boondocking, but always check the restrictions before pitching your tent for the night.

Conclusion

PA is a great place to stay in the wild and get that true rustic camping experience. Although you cannot just camp anywhere, plenty of options are available. Unless you are within 200 feet from the Appalachian Trail, you cannot camp in state game lands, so you should get your boondocking fix in one of the many other options, such as the acres of scenic state forest.  

Emily Winters

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