Campgrounds offer the convenience of reservations, outhouses, and drinking water, along with basic amenities like a picnic table and fire grill. However as people pack into a campground they bring noise, alcohol, and lots of other nuisances with them. In addition, most campsites cost money – sometimes $30 or more for private locations.
Dispersed camping in Colorado is a great alternative to campgrounds, allowing you to camp for free almost anywhere on public land where you can find a pre-existing spot. Here’s an introduction to Colorado dispersed camping, including tips to find good spots, advice on what to pack, and other best practices, tips, and tracks.
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How Exactly Does Dispersed Camping in Colorado Work?
If you have only camped in a campground before it is normal to wonder how this works. Essentially, dispersed camping is a first-come, first-serve system on most National Forest and Bureau of Land Management public lands. In most areas, you can spend up to 14 days and nights in one location before you have to move. Keep in mind that most state and national parks are much busier and require a permit for dispersed camping if they allow it at all.
Dispersed campsites have no standard check-in and check-out time, but they are usually much busier during the weekends. Sites in busy areas will usually fill up by Friday afternoon and stay busy through Sunday. However, it is pretty easy to find a weekend site for dispersed camping in Colorado. Go early if you want to be sure to snag a spot, and have a backup plan in case your preferred area is full.
What Do Dispersed Campsites in Colorado Look Like?
Most dispersed campsites are located along national forests or BLM trails and roads that wind through the mountains. They range quite a bit, but generally, they consist of a small clearing, large enough for 1-2 tents. There is usually a small rock fire pit, although this is not always the case. Some small sites are little more than parking spots that have been enlarged over time. Other sites can fit 5-6 tents comfortably and are located 50-100 feet off the trail. It really varies quite a bit.
Remember: Campsites are found, not made. If an area you visit is full, never clear a new camping area. This leads to overcrowding and overuse and leads to the same conditions that make campgrounds so unpleasant. Using existing dispersed camping sites helps protect the wilderness experience for all those who come after you. In some cases, you may be fined if you are caught clearing a new campsite, or camping in a non-approved area.
What Do You Need to Bring When Dispersed Camping in Colorado?
You will need more dispersed camping than if you were at a campground – there isn’t a camp store nearby in case you forgot your bug spray. Here is my packing checklist for dispersed camping in Colorado.
- Tent & ground cloth
- Sleeping bag & pad
- Firewood and firestarter
- Drinking-Water: 2 gallons per person/per day
- Camping chairs or blankets
- Toilet paper and a small shovel
- Food: 2,500 calories per person/per day
- Light source
- First Aid Kit
- Bug spray & sunscreen
- Cooking Supplies
How to Find Dispersed Campsites in Colorado
Most dispersed camping sites are not listed online, and the few that are listed are often overrun by crowds. Part of the fun of dispersed camping comes from the excitement of searching for the right site, and not having to deal with reservations online. I recommend starting by picking a general area you want to camp in. Use Google Maps to identify roads in the area easily accessible from the highway.
I recommend bringing a 4WD vehicle if possible as many of these roads are in poor condition.
Once you have a list of roads, program them into your GPS and head out to the mountains. Drive along the road and keep an eye out for campsites. You may wish to stop and hike around, as there may be better sites located down a trail or turn off away from the main road. When picking a site, look for areas without dead trees, which are a common falling hazard. Flat ground is better for tents, but avoid depressions that collect rainwater.
In some areas like Montezuma Road and Guanella Pass dispersed camping is not allowed or requires a permit or reservation. While there are usually roadsigns in the area that say this, it is ultimately your responsibility to know where you can and cannot camp. Check online at the Forest Service website to see a list of areas with dispersed camping regulations.
Campfire Tips While Dispersed Camping in Colorado
Most dispersed campsites have a small rock fire ring, built by hikers rather than by land managers. These rings are sufficient for containing small fires but are not nearly as protective as a metal fire ring. Therefore, keep campfires small when using rock campfire rings, as sparks and embers easily spread beyond them. In dry conditions, this can quickly cause a brushfire that grows out of control.
When collecting firewood, use only dead wood already on the ground, and grab sticks smaller than your arm in width. Cutting down sticks or logs (even dead ones) is a bad idea, as it speeds up erosion and destroys potential wildlife habitats. Never collect wood near the tree line as growth here takes centuries. Removing wood removes vital nutrients from the area that plants depend on. If possible, skip a campfire entirely while dispersed camping and use a camping stove instead.
Going to the Bathroom While Dispersed Camping
There is no outhouse at a dispersed campsite. You will need to prepare to pee outside – terrifying, I know. The only difficult part comes with number two – you will need to bring a small hand shovel to dig a cathole to bury your poo. Pick a spot away from the campsite, trail, and other places people will likely walk. Dig the hole 8 inches deep and 4 inches wide, at least 200 feet from any lakers, streams, or other bodies of water.
Do your business and bury the results in the hole, packing down the soil firmly with the back of the shovel. If you are camping above the treeline, you will need to pack out your poo – it will not decompose in the extreme mountain conditions found at that altitude. I highly recommend double bagging it just to be safe.
Practice Leave No Trace Ethics While Dispersed Camping
One downside of dispersed camping is the potential for unnecessary damage to the land and wildlife from overuse and bad practices. With more self-sufficiency required, and no camp host or rules, people can cut down trees, damage fire rings, leave trash and litter, and do other harm without getting caught or fined. This is why it is so important to practice Leave No Trace ethics while dispersed camping in Colorado. Here is a reminder of the seven LNT principles.
1. Plan Ahead and Prepare
By reading this blog you are already doing this successfully! Make sure you check local guidelines for the area you plan to visit before dispersed camping in Colorado, and bring the gear and equipment you need to stay safe, as rescues can be quite resource-intensive with significant impacts on the land.
2. Travel and camp on Durable Surfaces
Don’t build new campsites or create new trails while dispersed camping in Colorado – use those already present. Avoid camping directly along streams and lakes, and move your camp every few days so you do not leave a scar where your camp was. Leave the site natural, with no camp furniture or trenches.
3. Dispose of Waste Properly
Pack out your garbage whenever you go dispersed camping in Colorado – never bury or burn it. Use catholes to properly dispose of human waste, unless you need to pack it out (if it is required or if you are above tree line for an extended period of time).
4. Leave What You Find
Don’t pick flowers, collect rocks, or take any wildlife souvenirs while dispersed camping in Colorado. Take only pictures and leave what you find so that others can discover and enjoy them as well. Anything human-made that has been there for 50 years should be left in place as it is now considered part of the historical legacy. Let experts determine if it should stay or go.
5. Minimize Campfire Impact
When possible skip having a campfire to reduce its impact on the land. If you choose to have one, keep fires small within well-built rock campfire rings. Put out fires with water until they are cold to the touch. Smothering with dirt often only buries coals – use water to ensure it will not re-light. Do not light fires while dispersed camping in Colorado. if there is a fire ban in the area. Collect firewood from the ground – do not burn any wood that is upright, alive, or near the treeline.
6. Respect Wildlife
Give wildlife plenty of space while dispersed camping in Colorado. A good rule of thumb is 100 feet for most animals. If they respond to your presence by moving towards, or away from you, you are too close. Keep food secured in your locked car at night or in a bear bag to ensure animals to not get into it.
7. Be Courteous to Others in the Outdoors
Keep your noise to a minimum while dispersed camping in Colorado so that others can enjoy the sound of the outdoors. Keep party sizes small, usually six or less where possible. Be courteous to others who you may come across, and leave your campsite in a good condition for the next group who comes to visit.
Remember: Dispersed Camping in Colorado is Cold Year-Round
Many people visit the mountains in July expecting warm weather and sunny conditions. Do not be tricked by the hot summer days; the temperature drops dramatically at night throughout the mountains, and snow is possible in every month of the year. Always bring extra layers and a warm sleeping bag when you go dispersed camping in Colorado.
It is not just an issue of comfort – hypothermia and frostbite are serious issues, but they are easily preventable with the right gear, clothing, and equipment. If you go camping in the spring or autumn, expect even colder temperatures, and pack gloves, hat, and other winter gear. A few extra blankets are always a good idea when dispersed camping in Colorado.
Some of My Favorite Areas for Dispersed Camping in Colorado
Over the past five years I have stumbled upon some great locations for dispersed camping. Thse six areas have a large number of camping sites, but be warned as they get busy on the weekend. Your best bet at finding a quiet area is to go exploring yourself along some national forest and BLM roads in the public lands nearest you.
Area 1: Michigan Creek Road near Jefferson, Colorado
Head north into the mountains from Jefferson, Colorado along County Road 35, and then take a right onto County Road 54 to reach the Michigan and French Creek areas. There is a formal campground and significant numbers of dispersed campsites scattered along the roads, with more located a short hike into the forest. This area is off the beaten track so it is not as busy as some of the other Colorado dispersed camping options on this list.
Area 2: Clear Creek - Winfield Area near Buena Vista, Colorado
This national forest road, officially County Road 390, heads west into the Sawatch Range. The trailheads for several 14ers are along the road, including the Missouri Gulch peaks and Huron Peak, along with two abandoned ghost towns from the silver mining era.
All these attractions make the area a busy place to be during the summer months. I recommend visiting in the spring or fall, or on a weekday when things are not as crazy. If you want to visit on a weekend here to go dispersed camping in Colorado, I recommend arriving as early on Friday as possible.
Area 3: Halfmoon Creek Road near Leadville, Colorado
North of Clear Creek is a similar west-to-east oriented valley and creek. The Halfmoon Creek area leads to the Mount Elbert and Mount Massive trailheads, along with two large formal campgrounds. This means it is another busy area on most weekends, and you will need to get there early to save a spot. Be aware of closed restoration areas and sites near the creek, which should not be used to allow re-growth.
Area 4: Divide Road near Grand Junction, Colorado
In the southwest of the state lies the Uncompahgre Plateau, a large forested ridge that runs for nearly 100 miles southwest of the major mountain ranges. Divide road runs along the top of the Plateau for most of its length, reaching elevations of 9,000 feet or more. There are great dispersed camping sites along most of the road, with great hiking, climbing and backpacking opportunities throughout the area. This region doesn’t get many travellers, so finding a good site shouldn’t be a problem.
Area 5: Jones Pass near Empire, Colorado
Looking for some dispersed camping in Colorado a bit closer to the Front Range Denver area? Consider the road up to Jones Pass near Empire, Colorado. The road is open each summer and is well-maintained by the national forest service so most cars can make the drive.
There are dozens of great camping sites along the road on both the east and west sides of the pass itself. At the top there is a large parking area so you can stop and enjoy the view from the 12,454 foot pass. I recommend a night of acclimation before camping in this area.
Area 6: Lake Como Road near Alamosa, Colorado
In the southern Sangre de Christo Mountains Mount Blanca reigns supreme as the tallest peak for hundreds of miles. Lake Como Road runs through a dozen miles of BLM and national forest land, progressively getting worse as the road gets more rugged. You can pull over and camp at multiple sites in this unique San Luis Valley region. The area transitions from high desert, to juniper foothills, and finally alpine forest as it climbs in elevation, providing a number of different experiences for dispersed camping in Colorado.
Dispersed Camping in Colorado: Now Your Know!
There is no better way to explore and enjoy the rocky mountains than through dispersed camping in the backcountry. With no fees or reservations, and no loud neighbors, it has all of the best of the outdoors with none of the irritation.
However, this isolation means you must be self-reliant and provide more of your own gear and water. It also requires a bit of willingness to explore and go searching for the unknown – the reward is well worth the effort. I hope my guide helped you learn more about dispersed camping in Colorado. Enjoy your next trip and safe travels on the trail!
Additional Resources About Dispersed Camping in Colorado
Looking for more information about dispersed camping in Colorado and the Rocky Mountains? Here are several articles and resources with advice and information that may help you..