The Lesser-Known, FREE Camping Areas in Ohio (Spring 2024)

Unknown to many campers, Ohio state is actually home to a lot of free camping areas. Most of the dispersed camping areas are located in the state forests near the eastern and southern borders.

They are generally less than 2 hours drive away from cities such as Cleveland and Cincinnati. Due to their proximity to civilization, they are extremely popular especially during the summer for a short getaway with the family and kids.

On this page, we will share some of the best free campgrounds in Ohio you can consider for your next camping trip.

Where to camp for free in Ohio?

  • American Electric Power ReCreation Land. Also known as AEP, they have the largest and one of the most diverse outdoor recreation areas in Ohio. The sites are all primitive and usually come with vaulted toilets and hand water pumps. While free, you will need to apply for a permit to camp here. Some of the popular ones include Bicentennial Campground, Woodgrove Campground, Sawmill Campground outside of the small town of Cumberland.
  • Wayne National Forest. There are 9 campgrounds within the 250,000 acres forest. Many campers like to camp at the trailheads during late fall to early winter. With over 300 miles of trails for hiking, biking, horse riding, and OHV, this area has something for everyone.
  • Ohio State Forests. The Fernwood State Forest and Harrison State Forest in the central part of Ohio have highly rated sites such as the Hidden Hollow Campground, Ronsheim Campground, and Trailriders Campground.
  • Ohio State Parks. While not as popular as AEP lands and the state forests, some state parks such as the Jesse Owens State Park and Adams Lake State Park are hotspots for those within the vicinity of Columbus and Cincinnati. The Muskingum River State Park is another option.

Hook Lake Campground, Jesse Owens State Park

Jesse Owens State Park, which opened in July 2016, is Ohio’s newest state park. Hook Lake Campground (also known as Campground A) is one of the four free camping locations in the park. It is open from April 1 to mid-December with the majority of campers coming here during the summer and fall.

Each site is quite basic, features only vault toilets, picnic tables, fire rings, and garbage bins. There are two fishing ponds, wooden pavilions, and an archery range, as well as some great hiking trails.

McConnelsville, which is only a 20-minute drive away, offers shopping opportunities as well as buzzing businesses, restaurants, and a brewpub to explore.

Sand Hollow Campground, Jesse Owens State Park

This campground is also located inside the Jesse Owens State Park. Called campground C. It borders Horse Run Lake and is located on the northern side of the state park and not too far away from Hook Lake Campground A. Several sites are right on the water, and there is a boat ramp for lake access.

The campsites are basic, with only a picnic table and fire ring. The campground has a wooden shelter and vault toilets. It’s open from April 1 to mid-December.

Maple Grove Campground, Jesse Owens State Park

Maple Grove Campground is located nearby to Hook Lake Campground A and Sand Hollow Campground C within the Jesse Owens State Park. Widely referred to as Campground G, this area has just 10 campsites and is near to the roads. If you want some privacy, try your luck with the sites towards the rear.

There are waste disposal bins, vaulted toilets, and fire rings available here.

Hidden Hollow Campground, Fernwood State Forest

Hidden Hollow Campground in the northeastern of Ohio is often referred to as a hidden gem by those in the know. The campground does have paved tent pads, but it’s generally rustic. The 22 sites here only have vault toilets, fire rings, and picnic tables. There are also plenty of garbage bins available, so you don’t need to pack out your waste.

The region is part of the 3,023-acre Fernwood State Forest. It was once strip-mined for coal and has since been reclaimed by the state. There is a 14-day limit on free camping in this area.

Ronsheim Campground, Harrison State Forest

The tiny Ronsheim Campground in Harrison State Forest has just seven paved sites. So if you are after some privacy and solitude during your camping trip, this area is ideal. There is a tiny lake nearby with a walking trail that ends at it. 

Everything else is basic and what you’d expect from a primitive camping site. As a bonus, there are many trash bins available.

The beautiful terrain of the region is complemented by its hilly nature, which makes it an excellent location for some solitude. There are also several horseback riding routes that are popular among day hikers.

Trailriders Campground, Harrison State Forest

The 20 primitive camping sites at Trailriders Campground are located in a beautiful and secluded part of the Harrison State Forest. They’re paved and well kept, to say the least.

Furthermore, the campground has a peaceful atmosphere for those looking for a relaxing camping trip. The campground sits on a grassy surface that is ideal to pitch your tent.

Bicentennial Campground, AEP Recreation Land

This is a fantastic location if you want to enjoy a peaceful solitude by a lake. The Bicentennial Campground is located near Caldwell in southeast Ohio, making it an excellent spot for a weekend camping trip.

For hikers, it’s also a starting point of the Buckeye Trail, which leads to spectacular hikes whichever direction you head into. However, don’t stray too far away from the route as the entire trail covers a distance of 1,400 miles!

The only facilities at this campground are benches, fire rings, vaulted toilets, and garbage bins.

Things to know about dispersed camping in Ohio

  • Free of charge. Dispersed campsites are free and don’t require reservations as they are situated on public lands, state parks, or national forests. In some locations, there is a small donation box where you can make contributions to help the park rangers maintain the area.
  • Campsite selection. Pitch your tent at a designated area, or on areas where it has been used before to minimize the environmental impact.
  • Maximum stay is 14 days within a 30-day period.
  • No amenities. Don’t expect the campground to have showers, toilets, tables, benches, or fire rings. Bring everything you need with you.
  • Waste disposal. Most areas do not have garbage bins. You’re expected to pack your garbage out.
  • Fire permit. Check the United States Forest Service website to determine if you need a permit before setting up a campfire.

Amanda Williams

Amanda Williams is a writer, plant-nerd, and outdoor enthusiast. She has traveled extensively, around the U.S., throughout Asia, Europe, and Latin America. Everywhere she treks, she takes time to enjoy the outdoors. John Muir is her hero. She aspires to inspire people to live better as he did.

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