The Unsung Heroes of Backcountry Camping in the Mitten

Written By: Nick Meekof

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It is possible to camp in Michigan year-round, for free, and away from the constraints of a modern campground. Pristine stretches of river where you can paddle unseen for days, primeval forest glades to pitch a tent wherever your whim fancies, and quiet Great Lakes islands to have all to yourself—these places are available in every county in the Lower Peninsula free of charge. As long as you’re comfortable finding your own campsite and tenting it you will never need to reserve another campsite again; you just need to know where to look, and you don’t have to look far.

Barry State Game Area Photo: Nick Meekhof

The “State Game Area (SGA)” designation may not conjure the rustically relaxing imagery of National & State Parks, but outside of hunting season, many of these remote lakes and rivers go virtually unused for the remainder of the year.

Various state parks throughout Michigan offer backcountry permits for around $15 per night. At Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, that $15 pass grants you access to 60,000 acres of rugged trails, thunderous waterfalls, and the jagged outcrops of the Gogebic Range. At Negwegon State Park near Alpena, you have a 12-mile stretch of untrammeled Lake Huron shoreline wilderness to explore at your leisure. There are many such options for backcountry camping throughout the Wolverine State—Pictured Rocks, Isle Royale, Waterloo-Pinckney, and the Manistee River Trail to name a few more—and these places are popular for a reason.

But planning an itinerary via the National Park Service or the State Park system can be restrictive. In most cases, you are subject to an already overbooked reservation system, limited to a handful of designated campsites, and out at least $15, the cost of a higher-end six-pack of Michigan craft.

While it remains true that Michigan’s tallest dunes, oldest forests, and biggest waterfalls are all protected with grander designations on the state and national levels, SGAs ought not to be written off. The Department of Natural Resources maintains a detailed database for all 185 SGAs in Michigan, making it easy to plan your backcountry bivouac. And they’re everywhere; I’ve gone bikepacking in Grand Rapids, canoe-camping in Portland, and island camping in Detroit, all for free, thanks to SGAs. And the process is simple; park your car, hike into the woods or paddle down the river, and set up camp where it suits you. There are no commitments to prior reservations, no cramped RV parks, and no crowds.

Rogue River State Game Area Photo: Nick Meekhof

If your interest in backcountry alternatives hasn’t been piqued yet, consider some examples:

The Allegan State Game Area is Michigan’s largest, encompassing 50,000 acres. If it were a State Park, it’d be the second in size only to Porcupine Mountains. A haven for snowmobilers, backpackers, cross-country skiers, and mountain bikers, Allegan also abuts 55 miles of the Kalamazoo River, the longest continuous stretch of public river frontage in Southern Michigan, an excellent route for a backcountry canoe trip.

Or consider the alluringly-named Lost Nation State Game Area. Lost Nation claims 2,471 acres of undulating wilderness in the Irish Hills. Accompanying the rivers and ravines that traverse its wooded knolls is the North Country National Scenic Trail, the longest hiking trail in the United States. Stumbling across a thru-hiker here deserves double the praise of their Appalachian counterparts.

If you’re more into sea kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding, head out to the Erie State Game Area, where you can take your pick from islands, peninsulas, marshes, and beaches to watch the sunrise over Lake Erie.

Martiny Lake State Game Area map Photo: Nick Meekhof

The opportunities for backcountry excursions of all styles are convenient and endless. While I am a strong advocate for SGA camping, it is important to remember their primary users: hunters. While many SGAs are virtually deserted outside of hunting season, it is always a good idea to wear bright colors and be respectful of others’ presence. A couple once asked me where they might find a good hiking trail close to Grand Rapids, and I enthusiastically recommended the North Country Trail through the Rogue River State Game Area. As someone who knows the area, the fact that Rogue River has a shooting range near the trailhead has never bothered me, but for the two novices I had blithely sent into the wilderness, the constant echo of gunfire was terrifying. Those who haven’t spent much time outdoors are understandably wary of the woods, the same way a country boy feels apprehensive navigating a big city at night. We fear what we don’t know.

As a hiker or a camper, there is no reason to feel unsafe in State Game Areas—a quick read-up on Michigan hunting regulations will assure you of this—but it’s always a good idea to study up on where you’re headed.

There is an element of the “wild west” mentality when it comes to game areas. Not many people know of them, and so not many people use them. They are all managed differently, with varying levels of supervision. While presenting at the Quiet Water Symposium in Lansing last March, I took the opportunity to ask several DNR officers about the legality of camping in SGAs. Each answer I received was a tentative “yes,” with the caveat that you should check with your local district first. In terms of the state budget, SGAs are a much lower priority than Michigan’s prized State Park system, and so policing the hundreds of thousands of acres is like cutting the EPA down to a handful of inspectors.

And while there is something tempting about this “no lifeguard on duty” situation, I have seen SGAs abused to tragic lengths, and that worries me. I’ve seen mattresses dumped out in parking lots, trails littered with beer cans and broken glass, healthy trees cut down for firewood, and sloppily-abandoned campsites.

I enjoy a free night in the woods as much as the next guy, but I cannot stress the importance of “leave no trace” enough. Besides the environmental damage that a careless attitude invites, the possibility for lost privilege is also on the horizon. State Game Areas are incredible, underutilized resources that I strongly recommend exploring, but we need to treat them with the respect they deserve if we want to keep our backcountry camping options free, legal, and pristine.

Pointe Mouillee State Game Area Photo: Nick Meekhof


  • Sean Gauvreau

    You cannot dispersed camp in Michigan State Game Areas legally between May 15 and September 10th. For year-round free camping the best option is Huron and Manistee National Forests.