Can You Build a Cabin on Public Land? Tips You Should Know!

Can You Build a Cabin on Public Land?

The idea of living in a remote cabin in the woods may sound appealing, but can you build a cabin on public land? Is it still possible? Here is what you should know.

This page contains affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

Table of Contents

Where Can You Build a Cabin on Public Land?

One of the only verified ways to build a cabin on public land involves buying one of the remaining cabins that were built in national forests as part of the Recreation Residence Program (RRP). You can buy an existing cabin, improve it, modify it, and replace it if necessary. However, all construction is strictly regulated.

You cannot build a cabin on public land maintained by counties, cities, or states. In fact, you can even get in trouble for planting a tree on public land without permission!. The remaining cabins from the Recreation Residence Program (RRP) are the only sites where you can build structures on public land in the United States.

Unfortunately, building a new cabin is difficult. You can buy existing cabins in US national forests but cannot build a new cabin without approval from the government.

The RRP allowed citizens to build cabins on specific tracts of public land. The government stopped allowing new cabins to be built in the 1960s (darn it!)

About 14,000 cabins remain on over 800 tracts in 114 national forests, which are spread across 24 states in the US. The US Forest Service still issues new permits for recreation residences, but you must purchase a cabin from a current permit holder.

Before 1960, there were over 20,000 cabins on public lands throughout the United States. So why the decrease?

Well, many recreational cabin owners have cited increased costs, over-regulation by government authorities, and increased risk from wildfires, vandals, and thieves.

What about Cabins in Canada?

Most Canadian provinces have policies that allow individuals to build cabins on public land. However, the policies only apply to licensed fur trappers. Licensed trappers can request permission to build trapline buildings for shelter, accommodation, and trapline management.

Yet, to build a cabin in Canada, you need a valid trapping license and a work permit. You also need to follow specific building guidelines when building the cabin.

For example, the structure cannot measure more than 600 square feet and cannot be built near roads, highways, or water. Some provinces may also limit the number of days that you can occupy the cabin each year while others permit year-round occupancy.

How Does the Recreation Residence Program Work?

The US Forest Service established the Recreation Residence Program (RRP) to allow citizens to build cabins or summer homes in national forests. The US Forest Service is an agency of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and manages over 193 million acres of public land.

The RRP started in 1915 after Congress passed the Term Occupancy Act. The Forest Service set aside specific tracts of land for the development of recreation residences, which were used by citizens for better access to recreation activities, such as hunting and fishing.

The Forest Service stopped promoting the program in 1960 due to decreased interest in new residences. In 1968, the chief of the Forest Service issued a moratorium that ended the development of new tracts. In 1976, the moratorium was expanded to stop the development of new lots within the existing tracts.

While the Forest Service stopped developing new lots and tracts, close to 14,000 cabins are still maintained by permit holders. The permit holders own the cabins and all improvements, but the government owns the land.

Can You Build a Cabin on Public Land?

If you manage to purchase a cabin from an existing owner, you can apply for a special uses permit for a recreation residence from the US Forest Service. The permit is renewed every 20 years. Yet, the government does not guarantee renewal.

After buying a cabin and obtaining a permit, the cabin is yours. However, you must follow strict guidelines when modifying the structure or starting new construction.

For example, you cannot build a new cabin unless the existing one is destroyed by an act of nature, such as a severe storm, fire, or natural deterioration. After the destruction of the cabin, you need to request approval for the construction of a replacement building.

The review process takes about a year, as the agency wants to ensure that the new construction has minimal impact on the surrounding environment. The Forest Service also allows you to build additions and improvements. However, all additions and changes require approval.

Where to Find Recreation Residence Program Cabins For Sale?

You can find cabins for sale on most of the major real estate and rural land listing websites. Try filtering your results to show ‘public land’ or ‘transferable RRP’ permits to see those participating in the program.

Additionally, you can reach out to local associations in your area. Oftentimes, rural cabin owners will be a part of associations or clubs to handle regulation changes and oversight.

A good place to get started is the Cabin Association Directory.

Can you build a cabin on BLM land?

BLM, or the Bureau of Land Management does not have a policy that allows for residential cabin construction. However, you can camp on almost all BLM land as long as you do not stay in one spot for more than 14 days.

Do You Need a Permit to Build a Cabin on Private Land?

In most regions, you can build a small cabin on private land without a building permit. If the cabin is small enough, you may not need to get a permit before building the structure. However, each municipality has separate building codes.

Some counties may require building permits for any structure over 100 square feet while others may permit structures up to 400 square feet. Local building codes often permit smaller structures, such as sheds, barns, workshops, and cabins, without requiring approval or an inspection.

Before building a cabin, review the building codes for your local municipality. Depending on the region, the building codes may be administered by the city, county, township, or state.

Can You Build a Cabin on Public Land?

Along with the size requirements, you may need to comply with additional building codes. In some areas, secondary structures need to be built a minimum distance from the front of the property line. You may also need to ensure that it is below a specific height requirement.

You may also need to build a primary dwelling before adding a secondary structure or build a larger cabin. For example, some municipalities require primary dwellings to be at least 120 square feet, which is equal to a 10’x12’ cabin. Yet, if the cabin is to be the primary dwelling, you may end up needing a permit.

Do You Need a Permit to Connect Utilities to a Cabin?

If you plan on adding electricity, public water, gas, or phone lines to your cabin, you will likely need a permit. Most municipalities require a property inspection before connecting utilities.

How Many Cabins Can You Build on a Single Lot?

As with other building codes, the number of cabins that you can build on a single lot varies from municipality to municipality.

Some areas do not restrict the number of structures that you can build but may require you to maintain a specific distance between each structure. Other regions may limit you to just two dwellings per lot.

Final Thoughts

Gone are the days when you could stake a piece of public land, build a cabin, and start a new life. Most of those programs ended in the 1950s and 1960s. However, you can still acquire a cabin on public land with a little bit of work.

Check out the Recreation Residence Progam, and reach out to your local cabin owners association. Start networking with other cabin owners or take a drive through your local national forest.

You would be surprised at what opportunities are out there, with a little bit of detective work. Good luck and thanks for reading.

You May Also Like: Cabins – A guide to building your own nature retreat