I get a lot of questions about where our renters should actually go camp. This includes requests for camping guide books and cool spots in the area. I'm always somewhat stymied by this question as there are so many options! The answer is also dependent on how you like to camp from being completely self-supported in a remote location to wanting a traveling hotel room with access to toilets and showers. I decided it is time to try to address this question of where to camp in Montana. Below are categories of camping in Montana from National Parks to private backyards.
National Park Campgrounds
As most of our renters are heading to either Yellowstone, Grand Teton or Glacier National Parks this seems like a good place to start. Each National Park has numerous campgrounds. Some of these you can reserve in advance and others are first-come-first-served. Regardless, these campgrounds are full almost every night in the summer. Each park has a website listing when the campgrounds are full. Reservations are strongly recommended if you can plan in advance.
The National Park campgrounds all have developed campsites with a picnic table, fire ring, and level parking spots. They also offer potable water, toilets and trash service. You will have to pay a fee to camp in these campgrounds. Some may have additional amenities like flush toilets and showers, Most of these campgrounds will have a camp host who keeps an eye on things including campers and wildlife. Campsites are priced based on what type of vehicle is allowed - this is usually more limiting for very large RVs. Our rigs can usually be parked in any spot with the exception of the Fishing Bridge Campground in Yellowstone which is closed to tents and soft-sided campers.
Camping in the National Parks will be great for some people especially those who prefer more developed campgrounds and don't mind camping around other people. Other campers will probably feel a bit overwhelmed by the amount of activity and lack of privacy. Regardless, most of these campgrounds are in very pretty areas and allow you access to the park's amenities.
National Forest and BLM Camping
Camping in the National Forests and on BLM land in Montana is the easiest and often most rewarding camping there is in the state. Camping options range from well developed campgrounds to remote dispersed camping. Dispersed camping means you are camping outside of a campground with little to no amenities. Going this route will get you a true camping experience.
There is less pressure on these resources than the National Parks so it is easier to get a site and campgrounds are located all over the state from the mountains to rivers to prairies. That being said the locations closer to populated areas do fill up fast especially on summer weekends. It pays to plan in advance if you have a specific location in mind. You can camp pretty much anywhere in National Forest and BLM land as long as you follow a few rules so there is an abundance of camping locations if you go this route.
Many sites in National Forest Campgrounds can be reserved in advance on recreation.gov. Developed campgrounds generally have picnic tables, outhouses and potable water though these amenities vary. Some of the more popular campgrounds will have a camp host while many others do not. Fees are often charged for campsites so make sure to have $5-$25 in cash per night. Dispersed camp sites cannot be reserved and do not have any amenities except for sometimes a primitive outhouse and fire ring.
National Forest campgrounds are my favorite campgrounds to visit. They are often spread out so you can have privacy, but provide water, toilets and fire rings which can make camping a bit easier. Generally, they are located next to some sort of recreational activity such as a trailhead, or water body for swimming or boating. They are also cheap for budget minded campers!
Dispersed Camping Rules
To me dispersed camping is "advanced" camping. The reason being is you need to know a few things to camp safely and respectfully. Always check out the rules for the public land you are visiting as fire restrictions are often in play in the summer and some have restrictions on how to deal with human waste (rarely is this an issue in Montana). The main rules are:
If you do not follow these rules you ruin the camping experience for the next people and could put yourself and other campers in danger.
Montana State Parks
Camping in Montana's State Parks is similar to camping in the National Parks. I separated them as their own category because they exist to highlight a specific resource or historical area special to Montana. I often recommend the State Parks to our renters as they are less crowded than the National Parks and are fun to explore.
These campgrounds will fill up in the summer, but you can reserve sites online in advance. As a traveler you also have the ability to visit them in the middle of the week which helps with campsite availability. As a local I visit the State Parks in the spring and fall when they are often completely deserted.
These campgrounds are developed with picnic tables, fire rings, level parking areas and outhouses. Some may have additional amenities. Campsites are often fairly close together, but the setting is usually pretty. There will be a campground host or park ranger available on site. You will need to pay a fee to camp in these sites.
While the campgrounds fill up, their small size makes them seem less crowded than the National Park campgrounds. This is a great way to see really interesting locations in the state whether for historical significance or natural resource. The experience will be great for those looking for a more developed camping experience, but it will feel crowded to those who prefer wild camping. In my experience the camping conditions are entirely worth visiting the park amenities.
Private Campgrounds & RV Parks
There can be a huge difference among the camping options which fall into this category so my best recommendation is to do some online research.
Because of the increased cost I think private campgrounds often have more availability than the more popular National Forest and National Park campgrounds. However, this again depends on where they are located. RV parks outside Yellowstone can be full months in advance. Often you can reserve sites online.
Each location is going to be different. I would expect picnic tables and possibly fire rings with toilet facilities. Many private campgrounds will also offer showers and other amenities like swimming pools or cabin rentals.
I find private campgrounds and RV parks often have little to no privacy for the campers. Most people camping in these areas are in large RVs which provide their own privacy. They can also be loud due to generators. However, there are exceptions to this you just have to dig to find them. There are a few small private campgrounds in the area which exist solely as a place to stay for whatever else they are offering like concerts or hot springs.
Alternative Camping Options
I have been coming across more and more alternative options to camping online. One site which has promise is Hipcamp which lists camp spots available on private property. There are not a lot of locations listed currently for Montana, but I think this type of camping will grow. The options are very diverse from camping on working ranches or in someone's back forty. There was even a listing for a hay loft!
Right now I would say there is good availability. Once this type of camping catches on in Montana they may fill up faster.
I can't tell you much here as each location will have it's own amenities and rules. The sites range from full services to a grassy spot in the woods. Make sure you do your research before committing to a site if you are at all particular about what you need camping.
I feel like this type of camping could be really amazing... or really bad. Hipcamp lists ratings so I would look into those before paying for a site.
We rented a site on Hipcamp in a very popular area near our home. I appreciated the ability to show up whenever I wanted on a busy holiday weekend and I knew my site would be available. The spot was beautiful on a river with some trees giving us privacy from the road. However, there was nowhere to dig a cathole without being visible from the road which was a problem for a three day camp trip! We made do, but I realized bringing our own toilet for private campground rentals may be a good idea.
Amy Bowser is the co-owner of Paradise Overland with her husband Jon. In their free time they explore anywhere they can get to with their Toyota and roof top tent.