For the longest time, I never knew what dispersed camping was. I always thought that camping had to be done in a developed campground. The problem is that some developed campgrounds can be more like parking lots. If you want to truly get away and escape into nature then you have to give dispersed camping a try.
So, What is dispersed camping? Dispersed camping is a term that refers to free camping outside of a designated or developed camping area. Dispersed camping is best known in U.S. National Forests, but there are other public lands available where you can disperse camp.
If you are even the slight bit interested in dispersed camping then you need to know a few things before you go. Dispersed camping is readily available in the United States, and the best part is that it is free. Dispersed camping is also a great way to enjoy some isolation in nature.
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What is dispersed camping?
Generally speaking, dispersed camping is camping anywhere outside of a developed campground. The U.S. National Forest Service (USFS) defines it exactly as “Dispersed camping is the term used for camping anywhere in the National Forest OUTSIDE of a designated campground.” While it is a popularly used term within National Forests, dispersed camping can be done in many other areas as well.
There are a lot of other terms and phrases that mean dispersed camping. Some other terms you might have heard are boondocking, wild camping, free camping, and roughin’ it. All of these terms pretty much mean the same thing. Camping without any or very little services called dispersed camping. Most often times it involves just driving down a dirt road on public and setting up camp a few hundred feet away from the road.
Dispersed camping means that most of the time you will have no access to potable water, toilets, trash disposal, fire grates, picnic tables, or a paved road. Without those services, you are completely on your own, and that means more responsibility and more of a camping challenge. If you welcome a challenge and love camping then dispersed camping is probably just for you.
All you need to do is make sure you are following the rules and have a good time. There really isn’t much to know besides the specific rules for the area you plan on camping in. Most of it has to do with protecting the environment. If you do that, then all you really need to worry about is being self-contained while on your camping trip.
What to bring with you for dispersed camping
You should bring pretty much the same stuff you would bring for camping in a regular “self-contained”. This means that you should be able to disperse camp safely without any services that are offered at a regular campsite such as trash disposal, a toilet, a fire pit, a bear box, running water, or even a picnic table. You will learn more about dealing with these in a later paragraph.
If you need somewhere to start with stuff to bring, I highly recommend you check out this post that I wrote. It is a comprehensive checklist for camping that includes a free .pdf downloadable checklist for you to use. It has all the essential camping gear to bring camping.
Where can you disperse camp at?
Disperse camping can be found in many public lands such as:
- National Forests (Most well known for dispersed camping)
- Bureau of Land Management (BLM) (less known, but tons of opportunities)
- Some National Parks (Only a limited amount of them)
- Some State Parks (Varies state to state, park to park)
- Some Wildlife Management Areas (Get permission first!)
Your best bet is to search for the area you want to go camping with “dispersed camping” at the end of it. Some places offer dispersed camping but no one talks about it on the internet. Another great thing to do is contact someone that works and manages the land like a ranger station. They have the best and most accurate information on dispersed camping (they are the ones enforcing it anyway).
How much does dispersed camping cost?
One of the best things about dispersed camping is that it is pretty much free. Mainly because you receive no services and so there is no upkeep that is done. That is why it is all of our responsibilities to leave a dispersed camping area just the way we found it (or looking better than we found it.) Most often the only thing you will need to pay for is the gas in your vehicle, the stuff you bring, and maybe an entrance pass if it is necessary for the land you are camping on.
Rules for dispersed camping
Dispersed camping rules can vary depending on where you are camping, but for the most part, there are general rules and guidelines that most areas put in place. The exact rules can vary a little bit or drastically, it just depends. Luckily for us, there is a ton of good information offered on the website that represents the land. So always do a search to find the rules specific to the area where you plan to go dispersed camping. Another great resource is the rangers or personnel that actually work there.
Leave No Trace (LNT)
Perhaps the most important rule and one that I guarantee applies to everywhere you go is leave no trace (LNT). What LNT represents is a set of outdoor ethics that helps us minimize impacts and helps preserve the outdoors. A popular quote that is often associated with LNT is “take only pictures, leave only footprints.” While that covers a lot of LNT, there are actually seven principles that all outdoor enthusiasts should follow.
1. Plan ahead and prepare.
2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces.
3. Dispose of waste properly.
4. Leave what you find.
5. Minimize campfire impacts.
6. Respect wildlife.
7. Be considerate of other visitors.
Leave no trace might sound like a lot, but really it should be common practice for outdoor enthusiasts like regular campers. If you are interested in dispersed camping then it is even more important that you follow these principles because dispersed camping takes place in undeveloped areas that are sensitive to human activity. Leave No Trace has an entire website dedicated to it, so if you want the best information on how you can protect and preserve the outdoors while you are camping then definitely check it out.
As much as free dispersed camping is an awesome thing, there are limits. Most lands that allow dispersed camping impose stay limits. Those limits aren’t just to ruin your fun, but mostly so that the local ecosystem gets a break from human activity. The stay limit for most circumstances is 14 days on public lands, but that can vary to more or less. I discuss in full detail how long you can camp in one spot in this article that I wrote.
Most of the time dispersed camping is allowed anywhere on some public land like National Forests or BLM land with a few exceptions:
- No dispersed camping in any day use only area.
- No dispersed camping in any area posted as “no camping”.
- No dispersed camping within a certain proximity of highways.
- No dispersed camping within a certain proximity of developed campgrounds.
- No dispersed camping within a certain proximity of water sources (typically 200 feet)
- No dispersed camping within a certain proximity of trailheads.
- No dispersed camping within a certain proximity of any private property.
- No dispersed camping within a certain proximity of any other developed area.
Those are the typical location-specific rules, but they can vary a little bit depending on where you go, so do your research beforehand.
Things to keep in mind
Dispersed camping carries a lot of extra responsibility for yourself and for the environment. There are typically no services offered when you go dispersed camping. This means you won’t have trash disposal, a toilet, a fire pit, a bear box, running water, or even a picnic table. You will have to be responsible for taking care of all these things on your own.
Going without trash disposal seems easy at first right? Just put everything in a trash bag and forget about it. Unfortunately, it isn’t always that simple because you have to put that trash somewhere. Trash is seen as food by a lot of wild animals and so your trash could invite lots of creatures looking for an easy meal into your dispersed campsite. Animals big and small will want to break into your trash bag. They can cause a huge mess that you will be responsible for cleaning up.
You might have to store your trash inside of your vehicle and hope that a bear doesn’t find their way into your car. Another good option could be to hand up your trash in a tree, but many animals are able to climb trees (including black bears). If you do tie up your trash you need to do it the right way. Luckily, there are many effective ways to hang up food or trash in a tree.
Another good option is to bring a strong lockable container and put your food or trash into it. I wouldn’t put trash and food into the same container, but that’s just me. Whether or not you need to go with such a heavy-duty option depends on where you are camping and what kind of animal visitors you might encounter, but the point is that you need some kind of way to properly store your trash.
At the end of your camping trip, you will need to bring all of your trash back home with you because there will be no trash receptacles when camping in the wild. Be sure to bring more trash bags than you think you will need, and also make sure they are heavy-duty enough to last.
Dispersed camping means to flush toilets, no porta-potties, and no outhouses. This means you are going to have to take care of your business in a different way. There are a few options for this. For one, you could take care of it in nature and bury it correctly. Another option is to make your own portable toilet and pack it out with you. Similarly, you can buy portable toilets that are designed for the outdoors.
- Natural Toilet
If you decide to use a natural toilet (i.e. a hole in the ground) then you are going to want to make sure that you do it correctly so that you don’t negatively affect the environment. Human feces can be very damaging to the environment believe it or not so you need to take some extra precautions. The first thing that we want to do is make sure that we do not contaminate any water sources. This means that we need to do our business at a minimum of 200 feet away from any water source.
We also need to dig our natural toilet at least 6 inches in diameter and at least 6 inches deep, but preferably closer to 8 inches deep. While doing your business, please keep toilet paper separate from the other stuff. It is essential that we pack out our toilet paper and do not put it into the hole. Once you are done, place the “stuff” in the hole and your toilet paper into a sealable plastic bag. Cover the hole and add something natural like sticks and rocks on top of it. Congratulations, you have just used a natural toilet correctly.
- Portable Toilet
You can make your own portable toilet pretty easily with a 5-10 gallon bucket, a pool noodle, and a trash bag. You are going to need a strong bucket that can hold your weight. Put the trash bag inside of the bucket like you would in a trash can, slice the pool noodle open and place it around the top of the trashcan so it becomes a comfier seat and wallah, you now have your own portable toilet. Some people like to add things in the toilet that negate the small and allow it to be used multiple times, or you can just replace the trash bag each time.
There are also plenty of options for buying more professional portable toilets such as this one from Amazon that is literally a portable toilet. Another great option, especially for those of us that like to travel light is whats called “WAG Bags”. They are portable plastic bags designed specifically for outdoor use. You can check them out on Amazon.com by clicking here. I personally have had the pleasure of using WAG Bags when I hiked Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 48 U.S. States.
You are going to have to find a way to safely contain your campfire while dispersed camping. Typically there are no provided fire pits so you are going to have to create your own or bring your own fire pit like this cool one on Amazon.com. Additionally, you should make sure to set up your campfire in an appropriate area that is low impact and has a lesser chance of fire spreading. Never start a campfire in high wind conditions and always have a bucket of water nearby to put it out quickly. Your campfire should not extend past the fire pit you create or bring.
Some dispersed camping areas do not allow campfires at all, so make sure you know the rules of the are you are going to. Sometimes there are high fire danger conditions that temporarily ban campfires as well. One more thing to look out for is permits because some backcountry areas require that you obtain a campfire permit before heading out. These permits usually teach you everything that you need to know about campfire safety when dispersed camping. If you do decide to make your own fire pit, please disassemble it afterward and try to cover up your human activity for the next person.
You probably won’t find a big heavy bear box while dispersed camping, this means that you are going to have to protect your food and scented items on your own. Hanging your stuff in a tree can work, but not always since bears are very smart when they are hungry. If you made one mistake when tying your scented items in a tree then you could wake up to a disaster the next morning.
Storing your food and scented items in your vehicle is also another option, but bears can and will break into your vehicle if they are hungry enough. No one wants damage to their vehicles so this might not be the best option either, especially in an area with high bear activity.
Probably your best bet for keeping your scented items safe from bears while dispersed camping is to get a bear-proof cooler like this Yeti Tundra Cooler on Amazon.com. They are much more expensive than your average cooler, but your average cooler can’t take on a bear either. The unfortunate thing is that once a wild bear gets a hold of human food, they will never stop since it is so easy compared to getting food in the wild.
This can cause them to become aggressive toward humans and so it often ends with them having to be put down… That is why it is so important that we correctly store our food when we are camping, especially dispersed camping.
You might also want to get a bear canister like this one on Amazon.com. These are popular for backpackers that hike in bear country, but they are also extremely useful for anyone camping with bears around and no bear boxes.
You won’t fund any faucets with potable running water while dispersed camping. This means that you are going to have to bring all of your water yourself or treat all of the water that you find naturally. There is no safe natural water source, you must always treat natural water if you are going to consume it in any way. Also remember that you need water for more things than just drinking, you also need it for hygiene and cleaning dishes.
- Drinking water
I love to bring all of my drinking water with me when I go dispersed camping, for this, I love to use those 5-gallon water jugs with a built-in spigot. The Coleman camping company makes them. You can find them on Amazon.com for a very reasonable price. They are perfect for packing in your drinking water.
If you don’t want to bring all of your drinking water then you are going to need to treat it before consumption. There are three main options for doing so: Boiling, Filtering, and Chemical Treatment. If you are going to boil your drinking water then you only really need to bring the water to a rapid boil for at least 1 minute, or if you are above 6,500 feet then you need to boil water for at least 3 minutes according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
If you are planning on filtering your water then your filter needs to be of high quality. Life Straws is a company that is known for its high-quality water filters that are designed for outdoor situations. You can check out their life straw product on Amazon.com. In most cases, this filter is going to be more than adequate for natural water sources that are found in backcountry camping areas. Also, you don’t have to drink hot water if you use a filter instead of boiling.
Chemical treatment is another option that is usually reserved for more heavily contaminated water. You also need to be careful because these pills can expire and end up not being effective. They are low cost and can be used safely.
Most campsites come with a picnic table, but the backcountry doesn’t. So bring your own chairs and table if you need them. I would recommend a camping chair with a built-in like this one on Amazon.com because as the sun moves throughout the day, you don’t want to lose valuable sun protection.
Who should try dispersed camping?
If you are the adventurous type that loves the real outdoors then dispersed camping is for you. Believe it or not, a lot of people have no idea that dispersed camping is an option. Dispersed camping is not heavily advertised anywhere, including by public land management organizations. I first got into dispersed camping after I got tired of camping in campgrounds that were too loud and too developed.
Dispersed camping is an activity for those campers that want to get closer to nature. It is an opportunity to gain some isolation away from other people. It can be fun for solo camping, couples, or groups. Dispersed camping is considered a bit more serious than camping in a traditional campground because you must be self-sufficient. It is more of a challenge, but a fun challenge for most that give it a try.
Dispersed camping can be difficult if you are car camping with a small vehicle. Many dispersed camping areas are only accessible by off-road vehicles, trucks, and SUVs. This can make dispersed camping nearly impossible for those of us with regular vehicles but fear not. Dispersed camping can also be done by walking all of your camping gear into your spot. As long as you properly park your car with a recreational pass you have nothing to worry about. This is known as “backpacking” but you will be hiking down roads instead of trails until you find a good camping spot.
At the same time, there are some roads that are accessible to regular vehicles. Try to scout out the road before you drive onto it. This can be done by doing some searches online or by physically walking the road before you drive on it. The point is that you should not feel shut out from dispersed camping just because you drive a small vehicle.
Is dispersed camping legal in National Parks?
Dispersed camping is allowed in some National Parks, but not all of them. Some National Parks openly state that dispersed camping is prohibited. For a complete guide that I wrote on which National Parks offer free camping (such as dispersed camping) click here.
What do you need for dispersed camping?
For dispersed camping you should bring the same things you would bring for regular camping except you will need a method for carrying more water, a method for proper human waste disposal, a method for animal proofing food, a method for maintaining a campfire (if allowed), and a method for packing out all trash.
My Favorite Camping Gear
- Air Mattress: click here to check out my favorite on Amazon.
- Tent: click here to see my favorite tent available on Amazon.
- Sleeping Pad: click here to check out the one I love on Amazon.
- Sleeping Bag: click here to see the one I recommend on Amazon.
- Camping Stove: click here to see the best camping stove on Amazon.