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Campsite Regulations: The 200 Foot Rule

Camping at a Pre-existing Campsite
Camping at a  non-designated, pre-existing campsite

I recently met a pair of new backpackers, Bill and Elena, and they asked me my opinion about the 200 foot rule. This is a  a backcountry camping rule in many federally regulated forests.

Check your local regulations for specifics because they vary accross different federal and state jurisdictions. If you hike within the White Mountain National Forest, here is a link to their Backcountry Camping Rules. In certain fragile areas, the 200 foot rule is replaced by a distance of is 1/4 mile.

The 200 foot rule says: No camping within 200 feet of any trail except at designated campsites.

Taken literally, it means that you can’t pop your tent or shelter down anywhere you choose within 200 feet of a trail, unless you’re at a designated campsite. Designated campsites are signed by the forest service or local administrative authority and are usually listed on maps. They can be free to use or may require payment.

Contrary to the rule, a White Mountain forest ranger had told Bill and Elena that it’s ok to camp in a non-designated campsite within 200 feet of the trail, if it’s at a pre-existing campsite, because it’s better to camp at a site that’s already been impacted than to create a new campsite on virgin turf.

You’d be surprised how little it takes damage or kill off the vegetation under your tent or to create a discernable pathway through an area if you walk over it several times. That’s why it’s recommended that you use an existing tent site if one is already available.

Camping at a Previously Impacted Campsite
Camping at another non-designated, pre-existing campsite

The night before I’d met Bill and Elena, I’d camped at a pre-existing tent site along Carrigan Brook (which has so many pre-existing tent sites that it’s hard to find any ground to pitch a tent on that hasn’t been previously impacted). That’s just the reality of the White Mountains when you get close to areas that a lot of people visit like the 4000 footers.

How to Tell if You’re Camping at a Pre-existing Campsite

How can you tell if you’ve found a pre-existing campsite? Here are a pair of dead-give-aways:

Fire Ring Containing Burnt Wood
Fire ring containing burnt rocks and wood

1. Someone has built a fire ring and there are burnt rocks or wood in it. This doesn’t give you license to use the fire ring, but it’s a sure sign that someone’s camped at the spot previously. Creating a fire in the fireplace will further impact the site because you’ll further blacken the rocks in the fireplace and create more ash. It’s best to use a cooking stove instead, dismantle the fire ring, and throw the rocks in it back into the forest.

The barren ground of a pre-existing campsite
The barren ground of a heavily impacted, non-designated, pre-existing campsite

2. The ground of the campsite is heavily compressed with finely ground leaf litter that’s been broken up by the passage of many feet. There’s no vegetation understory left and there aren’t any sticks on the ground, where people pitched tents previously.

Rationale

While camping at a pre-existing campsite breaks the 200 foot rule, there’s a trade-off between using an existing site that’s been impacted versus creating a new one. This is the same reason why designated campsites and privies are created – to concentrate the damage to a backcountry area, so that the remainder can be enjoyed keeping other areas in as wild a state as possible. Only in this case, the pre-existing, non-designated sites are usually made by people with their own agenda, who were ignorant of local backcountry regulations and Leave No Trace practices.

Note however, that a backcountry ranger may still fine you for egregious violations of the 200 foot rule . Your best defense in such cases is to know what the local backcountry regulations are and to practice Leave No Trace wilderness ethics so you can make defensible decisions.

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13 comments

  1. NY State has a 200′ policy that also bans camping in pre-existing campsites. Pre-existing shelters are OK, but no camping next to the shelter.
    I’ve been rousted in my sleep for this in the Catskills. It’s one of the many reasons I switched to a hammock.
    It can be very difficult and time consuming to find open flat ground 200′ from trails in many mountainous locations.

    • Steve, actually a general 150′ rule is in place in NY, except in specified areas.
      “Camping is prohibited within 150 feet of any road, trail, spring, stream, pond or other body of water except at camping areas designated by the …”
      from http://www.dec.ny.gov/regs/4081.html

      Tent camping near a lean to is allowed, provided you maintain group sizes. A tent IN a lean-to is not allowed, though they wink at mesh tents for bug protection. Boy scouts do this all the time, usually leaving the lean-tos to older members or advisors.

  2. Understand the rules. They are there for a reason in certain areas that have huge numbers of people or delicate fauna. Others areas just like to have the rule which I find kind of dumb.

    I tend to rise much earlier than most. Eat on the trail and before I hit sleeping area, and eat after I leave in the am. Which I think leads to the less impact than the traditional triangle(tent area, latrine area, food storage area) campsites with trails connecting the areas like a maze.

    So when I lay down at night it is dusk if not completely dark. I sleep about ten foot off the trail in my bivy sack. Size of about a deer laying on the ground. I have never seen a person ever. Seen some other things saunter down the trail, but never a person.

    If the weather looks super crappy I bring my Duplex and follow the rules.

    Not sure I understand the existing non 200 foot rule. Kind of creates the idea to keep breaking the rules by saying well they did it so should I. I know dollars are scarce for projects like closing campsites and reforestation of an area, but worth a shot every now and then.

    • “Not sure I understand the existing non 200 foot rule.”

      It’s pretty a standard Leave No Trace practice to ask that people use existing campsites that have been trampled to death already if they can’t follow the 200 foot rule (because they don’t give a crap about it or they need to set up a campsite in an emergency) That’s actually better than walking in 200 feet (80 paces) and creating a new trampled area, especially in heavily used areas.

      You are probably the exception because you are such a low impact camper. However, that wouldn’t stop you getting fined in the unlikely event that a ranger were to come across you sleeping 10 feet off the trail in areas that enforce the rule.

      • Agreed. Could get a ticket. If I do its job security for the rangers we need them. Its been a number of years I have done this. My thought it really is not a site, and I can always play the emergency card due to medication or something like I was day hiking and had to settle down since I really have done nothing but fall asleep. Use my BV or Ursack depending on length of hike. Hide it another ways down the trail.

        Only ticket I ever got was accidentally hiking down a horse trail after a wrong turn in Florida no less. Made me chuckle. The officer was a big jerk and told me later on he was setting up trail cams for a poacher. I was like thanks did not know it was a horse trail, and where I am from we all get along horses and hikers.

    • Outdoors, like you I use a bivy which occupies very little real-estate. The bivy is unobtrusive, almost like hiding. Like you I hike until dark and usually am more interested in rest & sleep than eating. Yes, I can get so tired that eating seems unimportant. In bear country(Alaska) I started a routine of never eating where I sleep. I only eat one prepared meal a day, the rest is just snacking as I hike. I use a thick cushy sleeping pad because my sleeping location is often sub-optimal. As long as its flat I can sleep on most anything. I would describe the style of camping you and I have adopted not as ‘leave no trace’ but ‘remain unseen’. Being on the trail at sunrise I pass tents of other hikers that are sleeping in. The only time this mode of hiking is a problem is when there is eighteen hours of daylight and I am exhausted before dark.

      • 200 feet or the first impacted campsite isn’t exactly a long distance. Why don’t you guys just walk 2 minutes further off trail and make camp where you are supposed to?

        In New England, I see so much Moose and Deer poop on the trail, I would be terrified of getting trampled if I slept so close to the trail.

        My biggest concern as a hiker in New England is that these trails won’t be as accessible for my son as they are for me, because of human impact. I only camp in designated camping areas no matter how tired I am or how much it work it takes to reach them. In the rare event I can’t reach a designated camping area (usually due to weather) I use a hammock w/ tree safe straps, eat cold dinners, and follow the specific rules of a given area.

  3. Well. I don’t hike in New England unless my friends drag me. I am a soloist. Not a violin soloist, but a hiking soloist. I also tend to avoid areas with easy access to hiking trails and large concentrations of population.

    I also think the idea of camping is much different than what I do or Plan B does. The word camping in my mind involves fire rings, logs moved around the fire. Rock stacked for cooking, TP littered in a corner where people don’t dig, clothes lines with stinky socks. Are there better examples of a campsite yes.

    I prefer Cross Country travel. I use a trail like some use an expressway. It gets me to my exit and I am gone. That is a little harder out east with the bushwhack….

    This method also came about because of grizz company. As solo I feel I have a few less chances than groups. That is another reason a campsite sends me running. Wrappers, powdered milk, granola they are enough for me to say to any ranger that is not safe.

    So I understand you wanting to protect for future. So do I, but I also look at my real impact. Plus I bag an extra 4 miles a day due to time saved and really nothing else to do but travel. Spend the early morning sun, see a moon rise, seeing the views not a campsite at 5pm. Those extra 4 miles a day lessen my impact by one or more less days in the wild than the average folk.

  4. 200 feet? Well that is still like holding on to the Apron strings, it gives a bit of mental safety to those who are unfamiliar or get lost easily in the woods. My ex for example, she would get lost in the City where we lived. She had no sense of direction which caused so many heated arguments and filled her with fear especailly on trips in the R.V…So a GPS system was a God Send for her. Me, I just take off into the woods and make sure that I am so far away from the trail that someone could yell as loudly as they could and I would not hear them.. The forest has many areas that are free of inpediments to setting up a tent. My current tent a Sungpak Onosphere has a footprint of only 4 ft x 7 ft and if I have a campfire I only need 3 more feet for a total of 4ft x 10ft. My campfire consists of a hat sized hole in the ground with a two foot area cleared about it. Most of the time I forgo the Fire and just use my Sno-Peak Stove to cook on. When setting up the tent I gently brush all the duff to the sides. Then when I leave I “Sprinkle” that Duff back on to the ground from my hands at a height of about 3 feet, just like Mother Nature did in dropping it from the trees. Learned this trick from the Boy Scouts in 1960. We had contests to see who could return the site back to it’s original look, I never won, so I practiced every chance I got until I finally won… We never used stones to encircle a fire, instead we dug the Hole which was easier to cook over and required less fuel and was warmer than one of the bigger fires as show in the picture. Someone made up a saying about fires allegedly saying it came from the Indians as in “White man make big fire and have to sit far away and they are cold, Indian make small fire sit near and stay warm”. I also on occasion use my Bivy Sack if the air is forecast to be dry, those things become swimming pools with humidity especially in the South or South of Kentucky. Hammocks are nice but the gaudy colors or a Mexican Rainbow I find very disturbing to my inner peace and well if anyone is around they can see it for a mile. The Tarp Tent in the second picture is a nice one, but it is my opinion it is set up in the wrong place, especailly if it is a Tarp tent with no floor.A trained eye will tell you in 3 seconds it is pitched in a natural water drainage an if it rains someone is going to get wet. That fire place is just an abomination in my mind. When I come upon one I dismantel it and respread the forest duff around it to try and put it back the way it was.. Now something I always build, especailly if it is cool. When I dig my hatsize fire hole, I put together a natural material got from the ground Stick FireBack which radiates the heat back at me. It is generall only a foot to a foot and a half wide and about a foot tall. I place two sticks in the ground about a food apart. Bend them slightly backwards, the lay one stick upon another like a log cabin until it is about a foot or so high. This reflects the heat back at me and also acts as a wind break..Oh I am late gotta go…

  5. A point of clarification. In most places within the White Mountain National Forest, IT IS OK to camp right off the trail. The 200′ and 1/4 mile rules discussed above apply only in specific areas. Those specific areas and trails are listed in the Backcountry Camping Rules that Philip linked to at the start of this posting.

    • Some of those “specific areas” include the entire Pemigewasset Wilderness, the Dry River Wilderness and the Great Gulf which is a pretty substantial part of the WMNF. Regardless, make sure you check the backcountry regulations when plannning a trip.

  6. I’m a fan of the 200′ rule or the how ever far you feel like getting away from the trail rule. For me, the further away from the trail the better. Getting that experience of being out alone and giving that experience to the hikers by is a great thing.

    I am with you on the habitat impacts and our role to protect a fragile ecosystem. If you are hiking with a larger group it is especially important to find a good campsite. Do your research before hand to get a feel for some of these potential spots along the trail.

    Thanks for all of the comments on this one!

  7. Grannyhiker aka MaryDee

    Depending on the jurisdiction (and often the popularity of a given area), the rule may be 100 feet, 150 feet, 200 feet–I’ve seen them all. While some distance from the trail is often mandated, there is more concern with the distance from water sources. Or camping may be restricted to USFS-established sites marked by a post–once those are full, you have to go elsewhere. Out here in the Pacific NW, especially on the western slopes of the Cascades, we are basically limited to sites already used, since anything else is grown up to brush or trees. I understand that out here the USFS won’t ticket you if you’re in an “established” (already well-used) site, unless it’s flagrantly too close, such as right at the edge of the lake.

    I really appreciated the Big Sandy Opening trailhead in Wyoming’s Wind Rivers–at the beginning of the trail there are markings for 100 feet and 200 feet, so you can pace it off. I found that while the “average” is 40 paces for 100 feet, with my short legs it’s 44-45 paces.

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