Camping at a maintained site where you have access to some amenities or creature comforts definitely has its perks. But if you are looking for a more rustic experience or just forgot to make reservations in advance, you may want to try dispersed camping.
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Where is Dispersed Camping Allowed?
Many public lands allow dispersed camping, with the two most common being the National Forests and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The US Forestry Service (USFS) is in charge of 175 national forests which span 193 million acres in 42 states.
The BLM administers many public lands, including National Wild and Scenic Rivers, National Wilderness Areas, National Historic Trails, National Landmarks, and National Recreation Trails. This protected land consists of over 245 million acres in the Western states and it is open to the public for outdoor recreation activities.
National Parks, which fall under the management of the National Park Service, are more protected than other public lands. Because of this, dispersed camping is not allowed in the majority of national parks, although there may be a few exceptions.
In many National Parks, the only camping outside of designated and maintained campgrounds is wilderness or backcountry camping. Still, these sites require a permit and usually consist of a specific location in the backcountry of the park.
Rules of Dispersed Camping
Although dispersed camping may seem too good to be true because it’s free and there are so many places to camp, you still have to follow some important guidelines. While the rules vary from place to place, here is an idea of some of the regulations you may encounter:
- Camp Away From Bodies of Water
Dispersed camping sites must be at least 200 feet from streams, lakes, and rivers.
- Camp at a Distance from Roads
Put up your tent anywhere as long as it’s at least 300 feet from a road.
- Stay Away from Trails
Like roads, the site should also be located 300 feet from trails.
- Limit Your Stay to 14 Days
Camping at the same location is limited to a maximum stay of 14 consecutive days in a 30-day period.
- Avoid Recreation Areas
You’re not allowed to camp close to trailheads or other maintained campgrounds.
- Camp Close to Trees
Stay in a remote area with good coverage or camouflage and avoid camping in clearings or meadows.
- Don’t Chop Down Trees
Any wood that you burn should be collected from the ground. Don’t cut down trees or trim branches for kindling or firewood. Any living trees, shrubs, or plants should not be damaged by your camping trip.
- Practice Leave No Trace
Follow the principles which essential boil down to “pack it in, pack it out.” Dispose of waste properly, do not litter, and be respectful of the environment and wildlife.
- Camp in Used Locations
Try to find places where others have previously camped and use the exact location to minimize your impact on the surrounding environment.
- Be Aware of Wildlife
Do you research and find out what kind of animals live in the area you will be camping. You may need to take extra precautions with your food if there are bears nearby. You won’t have a food storage locker so will need to get a bear-proof container and make sure to store it a safe distance from your tent.
- Follow Burn Bans
Depending on the conditions, there may be bans in place. Make sure to check before starting a campfire and follow all regulations and restrictions.
- Be Responsible with Fires
If you do have a campfire, make sure to attend to it at all times. When you’re finished, thoroughly extinguish the fire. You’ll need to bring extra water for this if there is no source of water nearby.
- Dispose of Waste Properly
There are no toilets available, not even those dreaded vault ones. So learn how to bury any human waste by digging a cathole which is a small hole at least six inches deep. The cathole should also be a minimum of 100 feet from a source of water to avoid contamination Pack out any toilet paper and do not litter.
- Purify Drinking Water
Because you won’t have access to potable water, make sure to bring plenty with you. If that isn’t an option, make sure to have a method of purifying water before you drink it.
- Check the Roads
Look up the road conditions before you head out to make sure they are passable. Flooding or snow can make it difficult to reach a site or strand you once you’re there. Be mindful of changing weather conditions that could hamper your journey.
- Bring a Paper Map
Depending on the location, you may not have cell signal. This is remote camping after all. Always have a paper map of the area with you. Get a compass and learn to use it to avoid getting lost.
How to Find Places for Dispersed Camping
The secret about dispersed camping is out and there are not many websites dedicated to helping you find a great place to camp for free. A quick internet search will yield a wealth of results specific to your area.
Some other ways to find sites include:
- Ask a Ranger
Stop by the ranger station or visitor center and ask about opportunities for camping. They should be able to advise you and recommend a good location based on your requirements and location.
- Look at the Map
Most public lands show up green on an online map. Zoom in to see the roads and hiking trails to get an idea of where you may be able to camp. Topographic maps will give additional details and help you know if there is a change in elevation, for example.
- Check Online
Look at the website for a specific forest or land and see if there is a section on camping or recreation. Although there aren’t designated sites, they may be able to point you in the right direction toward popular locations.
- Ask Other Campers
Talk to those who have previously visited the area or strike up a conversation with people on the trail to see if they know of any areas. Many camping enthusiasts love to share their secrets and tips so look for blogs or videos online detailing the place you’re interested in camping.
- Look for GPS Coordinates
While the exact location won’t be marked on a map, once you’ve found a place you want to go, try to pull up the coordinates. Then plug them into your GPS device to help you navigate where you want to go. Other campers may have previously posted coordinates to great sites as well, so take advantage of their experience and knowledge to find a great place.
Benefits of Dispersed Camping
You may think all the rules and regulations will make dispersed camping more work than it’s worth, not to mention the lack of amenities. But once you get some experience, you’ll find that it’s actually not as difficult as you thought.
After all, the rules in place are there to preserve nature so you can enjoy it again and again. Once you’ve camped a few times, these guidelines will become second nature and make perfect sense to you. Then you can start to really relish the perks of dispersed camping.
- Privacy and Solitude
One of the best parts of dispersed camping is that it gets you away from the crowds and into your own private area. You can relax while enjoying peace and quiet without worrying about neighbors disturbing you.
- Beauty and Nature
Some campsites can get overcrowded and diminish all the natural beauty around them. But with dispersed camping, you are right in the middle of a postcard perfect environment. You can get wonderful pictures as well as feeling like you’re in the middle of nowhere.
- It’s Free!
Best of all, these sites are easy on your wallet. Although some sites may charge for parking, the camping area itself is completely free. Enjoying the great outdoors no longer has to cost an arm and a leg if you’re willing to be a bit more flexible with your location.
Most people are drawn to the designated sites and prefer the comforts of car camping. This means you can find a site anytime and camp whenever you want, even if the big campgrounds are all full. Because reservations aren’t accepted, just show up early and find an amazing spot to camp when the mood strikes.
What is Dispersed Camping?
Dispersed camping is when you camp somewhere outside of a campground on public land. At a dispersed campsite there will be no amenities such as a tent pad, toilets, showers, electricity, or running water.
There may be a fire ring or picnic table in some dispersed camping areas. The only thing you’re really guaranteed is a patch of land to set up your tent on. Other places may allow camping anywhere on the land as long as your campsite does not block roads, gates, or trailheads.
All dispersed camping sites are first come, first served and there is no reservation system in place. They are free to whoever arrives and claims them, making them attractive for those who wish to camp last minute.