What Is Dispersed Camping?

Freedom is something we all aspire to have. Whether it is freedom financially, physically or mentally, it’s something worth working towards. There’s something about camping that gives me the feeling of being the closest to free I have ever been. Not particularly when I’m camping at a campground, but dispersed camping, now that’s a whole other kind of free.

What is Dispersed Camping?

This will likely be your first question. Dispersed camping is camping that takes place outside of designated campgrounds and recreation facilities. It’s always on federal lands, because it’s illegal to camp on privately owned land without their express permission, please do not try that!

Federal lands in the US include National Forests, Wildlife Management Area and Bureau of Land Management District (BLM) and they’re FREE to camp there as long as you adhere to some (very reasonable) rules.

When you’re dispersed camping it is not like a regular campground, so there are no facilities available to you. That means no toilet, no bear lockers (usually), no showers or electricity hookups. It is off-the-grid, back to nature, poop in a hole kind of camping.

Why Go Dispersed Camping?

So, if you have to poop in a hole, you might be wondering why on earth would I go dispersed camping? Did we mention, it’s FREE. Yep, you get to camp in some of those most beautiful, pristine landscapes in the world, for free.

You’ll usually have the area to yourself. With 247 million acres of land managed by the BLM and 193 million acres managed by the U.S. Forest Service, there’s no shortage of land to camp on and you’re not likely to bump into many campers if you go off trail.

You can find your own little slice of paradise. These may be places that no-one has been before. What better incentive is there to go dispersed camping than getting to be the very first people to ever camp there!

Where Can I Camp?

Maybe you’re sold already, the car is packed up and you want to know where you can go. Well, there are a few helpful resources online for finding out where you can camp:

• For the National Forests
• For the BLM Lands
• Campendium

The National Forest map is interactive which is pretty cool and national forests are a stunning place to camp. There’s not much that differentiates them from National Parks except they’re free! There’s 155 national forests so we don’t think you’ll get bored of them any time soon.

Another way to find out where to camp is the good ol’ fashioned way, by talking to people! In particular, go and talk to the area Park Ranger. They’re going to be the ones who know the area best and can give you some really unique tips.

Alternatively, if you find an area you want to camp near; let’s say it’s a national park. Then figure out the nearest U.S. national forest or BLM land, go to Google Maps, find the area and turn on satellite view. When you zoom in on this mode you’ll be able to see if there are any areas that have already been cleared for camping or figure out good clearings near a roadway.

Can You Disperse Camp at a National Park?

Most of the time, no, you won’t be able to camp for free in National Parks. There may be some parks that allow dispersed camping in certain areas, away from the recreation areas and current campgrounds, but you will have to contact the national park themselves to check before you arrive.

To avoid paying camping fees and having to book in advance to reserve your space at a campground in a national park, you could just find a dispersed camping area close by. Most national parks luckily have national forest or BLM land right nearby so as long as you’re more than 1-mile away from their recreation areas, you can set up camp there instead!

Can You Just Camp Anywhere?

Quick answer: no, but almost! Like we said, there are a few rules when it comes to dispersed camping and that includes where you can camp. If you’re dispersed camping you have to:

• Be 1-mile away from any public campground or recreation area
• Be at least 100-meters away from a water source
• Don’t camp at a site for more than 16 days
• Check beforehand if there are any restrictions in that area
• Leave No Trace

What Does “Leave No Trace” Mean?

Leave No Trace is basically a set of unspoken rules and ethics that, those of us enjoying this beautiful planet, should stick to in order to conserve the nature we’re enjoying. There are seven main principles:

• Take what you bring: Don’t leave your garbage there, no-one wants to be that guy.
• Camp on durable surfaces: If there’s already a clearly durable and open area for camping, use that rather than stamping on a bunch of flowers and shrubs to make a new camping area.
• Plan ahead, be prepared: Prepare for all events, pack extra food and water, have a plan if you get lost or fatigued.
• Don’t take souvenirs: It can be tempting when you’re in super beautiful places to take a little something to remember it by, please don’t.
• Don’t play with fire: Of course, you’re likely to want to make a campfire, but take precautions and don’t leave it unattended or to burn out on its own, that’s how forest fires start!
• Respect the wildlife: After all, you’re in their home.
• Be considerate of other people: If other people are around just be a nice guy, don’t be super loud and obnoxious, don’t go and set up camp right next to theirs (that’s weirder than someone sitting next to you on an empty train carriage!).

What Do I Need To Take Dispersed Camping?

The short answer would be pretty much everything! Like we said, dispersed camping sites do not have facilities so you’ll want to take everything you need for the time you’ll be there. If you’re planning on parking up an RV or campervan next to the road, you won’t have to plan so much, but if you’re backpacking up a mountain you’ll need to carry everything you need!

The only things you’ll already have there are trees, rivers, mountains, grass and possibly the remnants of an old fire pit from previous campers!

If you’re planning on backpacking, check out this handy packing guide. Don’t forget to take more water than you think you’ll need as well as some form of water purification and let someone know where you’ll be hiking. Even better still, get yourself a GPS device.

A quick look at what to bring:
• Water: Bring more than you need and bring a water purification tool in case you run out and have to go all Bear Grylls.
• Food: Bring plenty, plan your meals and bring dried foods. Don’t forget the proper storage if you’re going to be around those hungry, hungry bears!
• Shelter: This very much depends on whether you’ll be car camping or backpacking. Something compact and light will usually be best either way.
• Cooking Supplies: You’ll probably get hungry while you’re camping, you’ll be amazed what a little camping stove can do!
• Cleaning Supplies: Biodegradable soap, people! Let’s not add any more harmful chemicals to the environment while we’re there.
• Personal Hygiene: If possible, again go with something biodegradable here too.
• Safety Supplies: We all would like to think we’re safe when we’re camping but there are no guarantees. Taking a whistle, flashlight, bear spray and knife could make all the difference. Oh, and of course the obligatory RPG, never leave home without that tucked in my back pocket (joking, of course! It wouldn’t really fit in my back pocket).
• A Map: No, not Google Maps, but an actual physical paper map. It could quite literally save your life.

Mariska Lee

Mariska is a recovering attorney who gave up her professional job to discover new perspectives of life while traveling in a 2009 Ford Transit. She has been living the van life for 3 years and has not looked back since.

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