With the recent news of the outdoor industry’s valuation at a whopping $373.7 billion – that’s 2% of the United States’ GDP – it should come as no surprise that more and more people are getting outside and going camping. And while most people find plenty of joy in staying at designated campgrounds, there are those of us who like to take a bit of a more solitary approach.
Thankfully – when it comes to National Parks, Public Lands, State Forests, and more – there’s a much larger abundance of available camping spots than most people are probably aware of. And, at a lot of them, you can camp entirely for free (with some caveats) – which is pretty enticing when you take into account the cost of more traditional groomed campgrounds. While the dispersed camping grounds you can stay on vary from place to place, there are a few constants that can help you traverse the landscape appropriately, in safety, and without making too much of a human impact on the surrounding area. It’s for this reason that we’ve put together the following complete guide to dispersed camping. So go ahead and get out there.
What Is Dispersed Camping?
Off the Beaten Path
Approximately 28% of the land in the United States is federally-owned. And the greater portion of that percentage is dedicated to natural spaces – National Parks, Public Lands, Wildlife Management Areas, State Parks, etc. And, as most folks know, there’s an abundance of well-groomed campgrounds available for use by the public. What you may not know, however,You don’t necessarily have to stay in a designated area to camp on federally-owned land. is that you don’t necessarily have to stay in a designated area to camp on federally-owned land. And you don’t even have to pay for it.
Most of these natural public spaces allow for a number of park-goers to camp outside of the normal camping areas (generally outside of the vicinity of normal recreation areas) – this is known as “dispersed camping.” It’s an excellent way to get out into the wilderness without the risk of having pesky partiers as your campground neighbors or to just be a little more isolated from civilization.
There are, however, a few caveats. As dispersed camping is generally done in less- or non-groomed regions of park, the amenities are fewer and further between. Most often, that means there are no trash services, bathrooms, running water, tables, or even fire pits – though there are a few exceptions. Plus, if you’re going to camp for free, the rules and expectations are a lot more stringent. Dispersed camping is certainly more of a challenge than your typical run-of-the-mill campsite stays, but it can also be incredibly rewarding as a means of achieving solitude in your adventures and testing your mettle outside the confines of normal civilization.
Is Dispersed Camping Free?
Yes and no. Typically, when it comes to public land, land held by the BLM, National Parks, and more – there’s no up-front cost to camp. There are, however, a few caveats. For instance, depending on what kinds of permits you need, there could be fees involved. You can’t just hunt without a hunting permit and that will cost you some scratch. Similarly, there are service fees to acquire permits online. Lastly, the biggest cost isn’t monetary, but rather in responsibility. There’s a lot expected of you when you use free camping areas – and those rules are to be respected. Don’t ruin a good thing for everyone else.
Rules to Follow
No matter where you choose to stay, what time of year, or how many people are going to be going on the trip with you, there are a few basic rules and guidelines you can follow to ensure you have the best possible time, leave the smallest footprint, and keep yourself and the park of your choice safe. We’ve outlined the basics below.
Be Self-Contained: At dispersed camping areas, there are likely not going to be trash cans, water fountains, bathrooms, or even fire pits. If you can, get information as to what amenities are available to you before hand. If there are none, plan for the worst. And plan on leaving absolutely nothing behind when you leave.
Stay 100 Feet From Any Water Source: To reduce human impact on the surrounding land as much as possible, it’s important to stay some distance from any bodies of water. That also includes whatever spot you designate for waste. Not only will this help keep the water as unaffected by your presence as possible, but it will also lessen the likelihood that you will encounter potentially dangerous wildlife coming by for a drink.
Stay Within Earshot Of A Road: Though National and State Parks are things we are allowed to enjoy, it’s important to remember that they are wild places first. Keeping within about 150 feet from any road will help reduce your impact on the environment, as well as make it more likely that you can be rescued in the case of an unforeseen disaster.
Leave No Trace: We’ll cover this more in-depth later, but you should absolutely leave any place you camp cleaner than when you got there. Not only does it demonstrate a respect for our natural areas, but it ensures that people will continue to be able to enjoy them for generations to come.
Obtain The Proper Permits: Though many people see them as a difficult-to-obtain burden, park permits exist for a very specific set of reasons: to ensure the safety of our Public Lands, National Parks, other government-run natural spaces, and the park-goers that hope to enjoy them. If you don’t get the proper permit to build a fire, then you are breaking the law and putting yourself and the surrounding world in unnecessary risk. It might be a hassle, but it’s important for the continued survival of these lands and the people that use them.
Practice Proper Fire Safety: Though this is the last tidbit on our list, it is of the utmost importance. California has just been through one of the worst wildfire seasons to date, with literally hundreds of thousands of acres of land being burned. And nearly all of it could have been prevented with proper fire safety. Keep your fires contained, don’t burn anything that could easily float off into the woods while still lit (like newspaper), and make absolutely certain that your fire is completely put out before you leave – that means cover it with sand and stamp it out. Even a single ember can turn into a fire that will burn down an entire forest.
Choosing A Site
What Amenities Exist?
There are a few good ways to figure out a good site for dispersed camping, and they start long before you’ve left your house. Your first step is to find a suitable park in which you can camp. And there are a couple ways to make that happen. For starters, you can check out your local National Parks, as all of them offer dispersed camping as a part of their overall services (so long as you follow the given rules at any location). Remember, this will vary depending on the location and time of year – for instance, some parts of the parks close based on the activity of wildlife, incoming storms, natural disasters, If you’re not even sure where there are available parks for your dispersed camping experience, you can always turn to Google.and so on. You can check online, call, or even go to a ranger station in person at park entrances to learn more.
Similarly, any lands held by the BLM (Bureau of Land Management), WMA (Wildlife Management Areas), and State Parks should offer at least some measure of dispersed camping. Just get in contact with the governing body of the land you hope to stay on and they should be able to point you in the right direction in regards to rules, available dispersed camping areas, the cost to camp there (as well as permit pricing and/or fees), and other information and amenities.
More generally, if you’re not even sure where there are available parks for your dispersed camping experience, you can always turn to Google. In Google’s Maps function, any public lands, parks, etc. are highlighted in green and, if you’re zoomed close enough, clearly labeled. This is not, however, a reliable way to tell the borders of public lands – so you should still get in touch with the local governing body before heading out onto the trails. Generally speaking, asking before camping is a best practice – as it can help keep you and the land safe.
When you finally get to your location of choice, there are a few other things to pay attention to. You don’t want to make too much of an impact on the surrounding flora and fauna. Most park services will suggest that you stay within 150 feet of a ranger access road and at least 100 feet away from any body of water, so as to limit the risk of human contamination. It’s also best to try and stay at sites that have been previously used (if available), What looks good on a map might not actually be a suitable camping area in real life.or at least pick a spot that will be impacted as little as possible by your presence (e.g. your tent’s footprint, campfire area, waste disposal, etc.)
Finally, you’ll want to be a little bit fluid with you selected campsite. What looks good on a map might not actually be a suitable camping area in real life. So, when heading out, give yourself ample time not just to erect your tent and set up your campsite, but to also make adjustments to your location as necessary. For instance, if you pick what looks like a big flat field and it turns out to be a bog, you’ll want to maybe get to higher and drier ground, rather than be stubborn and put yourself in danger.
Be Aware & Wary
In conjunction with the general guidelines laid out by the National Parks Service, there are some other things you should pay close attention to when dispersed camping – things that could spell certain doom if you do not take heed. For instance, camping at a regular groomed campground can expose you to curious wildlife. That exposure is heightened exponentially when dispersed, Animals aren’t the only dangerous things in the wilderness.as wild animals are in greater abundance away from traces of civilization.
Whether choosing your campground, finding a place to use the bathroom, or going on an out-and-back hike from your tent into the greater park, watch for signs of wild animals. Usually, your best bet is to watch the ground. Footprints, especially fresh ones, should be a sign that the space is trafficked relatively frequently. And if the footprints you find happen to look like paws, chances are you’re on the path of a predator. Best to steer clear. Even hoof prints – like those of deer – can be a warning sign. As even herbivores can become angry and violent if you intrude on their grounds. Similarly, you should watch for droppings. Those that are in abundance or are large (and especially if they’re fresh) are a good sign of animals you’ll probably want to avoid.
But animals aren’t the only dangerous things in the wilderness. Weather can be a harsh and unforgiving companion on the trails, so it’s important to know what you might be in for while camping. The risks, however, can be mitigated with a little bit of ground-laying before you leave and while finding a place to call temporary home. Check the forecast before you leave. If you see chances of storms, even light ones, you may be better off postponing your trip to a dryer time. If you are determined, however, you should pay close attention to the grounds in which you camp. Flood planes, for instance, tend to a bit look like dry river beds and are often void of foliage – and they are to be avoided at all costs. Similarly, if you see hillsides where rocks have slid, these areas tend to get more dangerous the more moisture there is in the air – fog, rain, snow, whatever. If you can find a dry place to camp away from these hazards, your safety will be much more certain.
These potential pitfalls are also why it’s an important idea to follow all the given rules of the park of your choice. Being near the roads that Forest Rangers use makes it a lot more likely that you will survive in a disaster. Acquiring the proper permits also help keep you and the environment safe, as it helps rangers keep tabs on the happenings in their park.
Leave No Trace
Reduce Human Impact
Remember, when you are camping away from larger groomed campgrounds, there’s a chance you’ll be the only human there for a very long stretch. And that means you can’t rely on the next person who comes along to clean up after you. If we don’t take care of our natural spaces and the flora and fauna that call them home, we won’t be able to enjoy them for very long.Truth be told, you should leave every single campsite you use cleaner than when you got there – but it is especially important when it comes to camping for free.
Make sure, before you ever leave your house, to bring anything you might need to clean up after yourself. That means trash bags or storage containers you can repack and dispose of properly when you get back to civilization. That also means paying close attention to the things you don’t wish to transport back with you. For instance, if you’re not staying within walking distance to a bathroom, you’ll likely designate a spot in which to defecate (away from water sources, please). And you’re probably not going to want to bag that up to trash it later. Bury it at least 6 inches below ground and at least 100 feet from any water source. If you are going to bring toilet paper, you carry a biodegradable variety. Otherwise, you’re effectively turning your old campsite into a sewage dump. And bury your biodegradable toilet paper, as well. Leave nothing above ground, as it will be more likely to contaminate the surrounding areas.
The natural world is to be respected by all those who use it – which is even truer if it’s not costing you anything to enjoy it. If we don’t take care of our natural spaces and the flora and fauna that call them home, we won’t be able to use them for very long, as they will eventually cease to exist. Pollution, carelessness, and asinine behavior will only serve to harm the outdoor spaces we love to enjoy. If you treat them poorly, you’re not just being disrespectful – you’re being destructive. So follow the outlined rules and show appreciation for your campground, no matter how far off the grid it is.
Dispersed Camping Starter Kit
By no means would we suggest that this is all you need to head out into your favorite National Park or Public Lands. After all, you’ll likely need something to sleep in (be that a tent or just a bivy sack), clothes to suit your location, food, survival tools, a backpack, and more. But, if you’re going to be away from the normal amenities of campgrounds, these are four of the most important pieces of gear you should have with you to help you make up the difference.
Coleman Camper’s Toilet Paper
Everybody needs toilet paper every now and again. But sanitary wipes are one of the most damaging pollutants when it comes to camping. Not only are they filthy on their own, but they have the potential to actually poison nearby water supplies. Use these biodegradable wipes out on the trails. They’ll get the job done and, when you bury your waste, they’ll break down with the rest of the waste instead of sitting in a dump for generations.
Gerber E-Tool Folding Spade
Whether building a campfire, burying your food, making a clearing for a tent, or disposing of waste, an entrenching tool is incredibly valuable to have in your dispersed camping gear kit. And you could do a lot worse than this one from Gerber. It’s compact (and folds down for easier storage and transport), lightweight, and super tough.
MSR TrailShot Water Filter
One of the hardest things to come by when you’re away from civilization is clean drinking water. But rather than hauling gallons and gallons of it with all your other gear, you can use the MSR TrailShot pocket water filter. This thing will clean out over 99.9% of all bacteria and protozoa from up to 2,000 liters of water – making it potable when it otherwise wouldn’t be.
Snow Peak LiteMax Titanium Stove
Depending on the location in which you choose to camp and the seasonal requirements, you might not be able to build a traditional campfire while dispersed camping. If that’s the case or even if you just want to streamline things a bit, you can contain your fires to this foldable packable titanium camp stove from Snow Peak. It’s light, tough, easy to use, and helps curb the risk of starting a forest fire when compared to more traditional wood fires.
Best Camping Tents
Whether you’re heading off the beaten path or you’re playing it safe at a designated campground, you’ll still need a temporary shelter for your stay. Pick one from our list of the best camping tents for outdoor adventure.