What is — and isn’t — allowed when camping in MN this Memorial Day weekend

Canoes on the shore of a lake as the sun rises.
Canoes sit on the shore while the sun rises in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in September 2018. Aside from the Boundary Waters and Voyageurs National Park, the only option for a night under the stars is dispersed camping in state forests. Here’s what that is and why it’s best for experienced campers.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2018

Minnesotans hoping to go camping Memorial Day weekend are out of luck, for the most part. 

All campgrounds, aside from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and Voyageurs National Park, are closed due to the coronavirus — as they have been for over two months.

Gov. Tim Walz on Wednesday announced that campgrounds, public and private, will be allowed to reopen June 1 with new cleaning and social distancing protocols in place. But for the rest of May, dispersed camping on national and state forests is the only camping option, other than the Boundary Waters and Voyageurs, which are federally managed. 

Essentially, dispersed camping is pitching a tent in the woods with none of the amenities that are often available in state parks. Campers need to be ready for some ruggedness.

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!

“It is a true wilderness experience. There are no campsites and you have to pretty much do everything yourself,” said Kim Pleticha, spokesperson for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “You have to make your own fire ring. You have to do other things that people might find a little unpleasant. But it is a wonderful experience for those who are experienced campers and know what they're doing.”

There’s no electricity or trash or toilets in dispersed camping — you bury your waste and pack out garbage. And there aren’t showers or potable water sources — you need to need to bring drinking water or a filter. 

Dispersed campers need to follow a few rules, too: 

  • Obey fire restrictions.

  • Camp at least 100 feet away from water sources and at least a mile from designated campgrounds.

  • Limit your stay to 14 days in the summer.

  • Under COVID-19, camp only with your household members.

Despite the difficulty, there are still plenty of benefits to going off the grid and trying dispersed camping, said Cliff Jacobson, an outdoors writer and guide. 

“The camping tends to be more primitive. You're not going to have hot showers and that sort of thing like you have in many of the parks. The result, of course, is you're going to have a lot fewer people. You're just going to get a nicer experience,” he said. “In many ways, it's more rewarding than going to the big name places.”

Another benefit of dispersed camping: It’s free with no permit or reservations required. 

While dispersed camping may sound appealing, Pleticha cautioned that it is for people with experience in the outdoors. 

“I would hate for somebody to go out dispersed camping and thinking it is similar to going camping in a state park because it's not,” she said. 

When state parks and campgrounds reopen, they won’t be the same as last summer. For example, visitor centers will be closed; some places may have capacity limits; amenities like bathrooms and showers may be closed or limited if the campground can’t find a safe way to open them.

Pleticha said reopening the parks and campgrounds can’t be like flipping a switch — the DNR and state leaders need to find a way to make it safe. 

“Progress has been made in slowing the spread of COVID-19. But despite that, certain facilities, including those like campgrounds where people linger and we use shared amenities, those do continue to pose a health risk,” Pleticha said. “We're working very hard to get our state managed campgrounds ready to open as soon as it's safe to do so. Like all of you, we are eager to get out camping. We're outdoors people. So, this is something we all enjoy, too.”