What Is Dispersed Camping?

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Ready to escape to the wilderness and find some of the most peaceful, scenic spots to camp? Most campgrounds are overrun these days, especially on busy weekends, and unless you planned well ahead and reserved a place in a national, state, or local campground, chances are, you won’t find one available. If you manage to secure a site, you’ll likely encounter dozens of other campers within earshot. However, you can still enjoy a tranquil camping trip without planning months in advance if you’re willing to try dispersed camping. Dispersed camping allows for spontaneity, privacy, serenity, and typically no fees.

What Is It?

Tent set up by lake in the mountains.
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Dispersed camping (also known as primitive camping, boondocking, or dry camping) is camping in areas outside of a designated campground. Typically, most dispersed camping areas are in national forests and grasslands, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands, Wildlife Management Areas (WMA), county and city parks, and private land. Some national parks, recreation areas, and monuments allow dispersed camping in designated areas. Most of these areas don’t require permits or charge fees, although there are some exceptions. While it might be tempting to set up camp anywhere you find a scenic spot, it’s best to do a little research to ensure you’re not trespassing or violating any ordinances.

Dispersed camping can mean camping with a recreational vehicle (RV), car camping, backpack camping, or simply sleeping under the stars in a sleeping bag. Backpack camping requires careful planning and specialized gear, as well as the ability to hike at least a few miles with heavy packs. So for many of us, dispersed camping means camping with an RV, a trailer, or a passenger vehicle (car, truck, SUV) and a tent.

How Dispersed Camping Differs From Traditional Camping

Group of friends warming up near bright bonfire while camping.
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The biggest difference between free dispersed camping and traditional fee-based campgrounds is the amenities — or lack thereof. Most fee-based campgrounds offer amenities such as flush or vault toilets, picnic tables, fire pits or grills, water spigots, and dumpsters. Some have electrical hookups, showers, and playgrounds — and even general stores, recreational equipment rentals, and dining. Most fee-based campgrounds are patrolled by rangers or have a camp host onsite for assistance and emergencies.

When you forego a traditional campground for a dispersed campsite, you give up most or all of these amenities. A dispersed campsite may not even be a campsite at all — it can be a pull-off spot near a paved or dirt road, along a hiking trail, on a beach or riverbank, or really just about anywhere that has enough flat space for a tent or RV.

Benefits of Dispersed Camping

Young bull laying around inside Rocky Mountain National Park.
Credit: Sparty1711/ iStock

Many dispersed campers find the trade-off for the lack of amenities well worth it. The first benefit of dispersed camping is flexibility. There’s no need to plan weeks or months ahead; you can pack up and go when the urge hits and stay up to two weeks in most areas. You also don’t need to spend hours scouring reservation websites or calling local ranger districts to find available sites. You simply drive around until you see a spot you like. Another benefit is cost. Some places will ask for donations to help maintain the area, but typically, there are no fees required for dispersed camping unless your site is on private land.

The most appealing advantage of dispersed camping, though, may be the solitude and serenity. If you’ve camped in a popular campground on a busy weekend, you’ve likely endured some noisy neighbors. Dirt bikes, ATVs, jet skis, and boat engines can also impinge on your peace and quiet. Remote dispersed camping areas allow you to escape the noise and activities of neighbors.

Another consideration: Your furry companions must always be leashed in most campgrounds, so if you’re camping with pets, you (and they) will relish some off-leash time if you skip the campground. In most dispersed areas, your pet must be under your control with voice commands only —  just don’t allow them to chase wildlife or wander off and get lost.

Speaking of wildlife, you’re also far more likely to observe animals near a dispersed campsite — if you're quiet. But you might be less likely to experience unwanted encounters with raccoons and other critters. These animals can become a nuisance in traditional campgrounds because they’ve learned that people mean food. Campers often have food and trash just waiting to be discovered. Animals in the wild typically avoid people since they don’t equate people with food. However, you will need to take some precautions to prevent potentially dangerous encounters.

How To Find Dispersed Campsites

View from inside of tent to the mountain.
Credit: Biletskiy_Evgeniy/ iStock

A good place to start is the U.S. Forest Service website, which allows you to search by state and find a national forest or grassland in the area where you plan to camp. The site also has a handy interactive map where you can choose “Camping and Cabins” to see all the camping areas in any given national forest. The interactive map shows two tent icons to mark camping areas — a small brown triangle inside a white triangle marks traditional fee-area campgrounds. A solid white triangle identifies free dispersed camping areas.

The Bureau of Land Management website also has a plethora of helpful information and a similar interactive map. (Look for the white box icon with a red tent inside for dispersed campsites.) Other excellent resources include Campendium.com and Freecampsites.net, the latter of which includes an interactive map and filters to help you find spots.

Designated dispersed campsites often have tent pads or parking areas similar to a traditional campground. Sometimes you’ll find fire rings or signs to mark sites. The Forest Service site also provides helpful motor vehicle use maps and information to show where it is permissible to drive, as well as road conditions for various motorized vehicles. Some roads are open only seasonally or close temporarily, so check before you head out. You can also contact the local ranger district for current information and advice.

Beyond Designated Dispersed Campsites

Camping in the mountains.
Credit: Christopher Jolly/ Unsplash

You don’t have to limit yourself to designated campsites — the BLM, U.S. Forest Service, and other wilderness areas allow free camping just about anywhere. Even in a dispersed camping area, you’re likely to have neighbors on busy weekends, so if you want almost guaranteed peace and quiet, skip the designated sites entirely.

In general, your site must be 100 to 200 feet away from trailheads, roads, or water sources (a lake, creek, stream, etc.). You also can’t set up your gear just outside of a fee-area or in day-use parking lots, or drive more than 300 feet from a designated road (you can hike as far as you want).

Off-limit areas may also include overused spaces or sensitive wildlife or ecological regions. Posted signs usually mark these spaces. For the best advice, contact the agency that manages the area. Rangers are generally more than willing to share tips, as well as information on current conditions and regulations such as fire bans and hunting. You certainly wouldn’t want to set up in an idyllic site and later find out you’re in the middle of a popular hunting area! You can also use Google Maps and Google Earth to scout out areas.

What to Bring for Dispersed Camping

Campsite with camping supplies around.
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Since you won’t be able to walk to a bathroom, fill a water bottle, or sit at a table, you’ll need to pack a little differently than you would for a traditional camping trip (unless you’re in an RV, where you might have everything you need except an electrical hookup). In addition to the usual tent, sleeping bags, headlamps, LED lanterns, camp stove, and cooler, you’ll need the following gear:

Printed Maps: Since you’re likely to be somewhere without strong mobile phone reception, bring printed maps or a new road atlas of the area. Check agency websites or local agency offices for maps. You can also use a handheld GPS device or apps that let you access maps offline, such as All Trails and The Dyrt.

Water and Biodegradable Soap: You’ll need water — lots of it — for bathing, washing dishes, cooking, and drinking. (Don’t forget about pets.) If you’re near water, you can dunk or splash yourself and reduce water needs for bathing. In general, expect to use about three gallons per person per day. You can also bring a water filtration system if you’re near a relatively clean water source.

Trash Bags/Containers: Bring bags and containers for trash since you won’t have a dumpster or bin to dispose of trash.

Shovel, Wag Bags, or a Portable Toilet: Since you likely won’t have access to a toilet of any kind, you’ll need a way to answer nature’s call. One way is to bring a shovel and dig six to eight-inch “catholes” in the ground at least 100 feet away from your campsite and any water source. You should know, though, that you can’t bury toilet paper since it can contaminate water sources. Another option is “wag bags,” which are essentially like doggy poop bags for humans. They usually include a NASA-designed solidifying powder, toilet paper, and hand sanitizer. For about $20 (not including liner bags), you can also buy a portable toilet like this one from REI.com.

Camp Chairs and a Table: Dispersed camping is all about solitude and natural places, but to be comfortable, you’ll want some folding camp chairs and, ideally, a table. In a pinch, you can use a cooler top, truck tailgate, or the back of your SUV for a table to prep food.

Know Before You Go

Tent by the seaside in British Columbia, Canada.
Credit: Jasper Garratt/ Unsplash

The BLM website provides a comprehensive list of camping guidelines, including information about bears, snakes, flash floods, fires, and other risks. The last thing you want is to have your pristine campsite turn into a flooded mess or be ransacked by a hungry bear. As a responsible dispersed camper, you’ll want to follow the “7 Principles of Leave No Trace” guidelines:

Plan Ahead: Poor planning can leave you uncomfortable at best and in serious danger at worst. Planning also makes it easier to leave nothing behind and minimize damage to the land.

Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces: Stay on trails and avoid trampling vegetation or fragile soil (often found in desert regions). Look for previously used sites (bare spots, fire pits, etc.) to minimize further damage to the environment.

Dispose of Waste Properly: You might wonder why it’s necessary to properly dispose of human waste while wild animals poop everywhere. It’s important because animal waste decomposes much faster than human waste and is less likely to contaminate water sources, be found by others, or spread disease. Burying waste is usually the most effective way to dispose of it; however, in high-use areas, you may be required to pack it out using wag bags or other accessories.

Leave What You Find: If you find an antler, flowers, colored rocks, or other interesting natural objects, leave them for the next visitor to enjoy. This also means you should return your campsite to its natural state before you leave. For example, replace pinecones, twigs, or leaves if you removed them. Avoid hammering nails or tying things to trees.

Minimize Campfire Impacts: Consider using a camp stove instead of fire for cooking. If you make a fire, be aware of fire risks or restrictions and be sure your area has sufficient firewood. If there are multiple fire pits, dismantle all but one.

Respect Wildlife: Observe wildlife from afar and don’t pick up any young or injured animals. If you’re camping near water, be sure to leave a large buffer zone so animals can access the water. Store food and trash securely — and if you’re camping in bear country, follow these guidelines from the Forest Service.

Be Considerate of Other Visitors: Most of us camp to enjoy the natural sounds and undisturbed sights, so make sure your behavior isn’t interfering with others’ enjoyment. Be mindful of making excessive noise, listening to loud music, or letting your pet disturb others. Try to set up your tent or camping area behind trees or out of sight of trails.

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