what is dispersed camping

What is Dispersed Camping? 101 Ultimate Guide

What is dispersed camping? This immersive guide will explore the essence of dispersed camping, a practice that brings you closer to the untouched beauty of nature, offering a unique blend of adventure, solitude, and environmental stewardship.

Let’s delve into a comprehensive exploration of what dispersed camping entails, from preparation to practice, ensuring you’re well-equipped for your journey into the wilderness.

Table of Contents

Introduction: What is Dispersed Camping?

Dispersed camping is the epitome of raw adventure—setting up camp in the wilderness, far from the structured confines of designated campgrounds.

This form of camping is devoid of amenities such as running water, waste disposal systems, showers, bathrooms, or picnic tables, challenging adventurers to be self-sufficient and deeply connected with the natural world around them.

Where is Dispersed Camping Allowed?

Understanding where dispersed camping is allowed is crucial, as not all public lands are open to this practice. Generally, national forests and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) areas are welcoming, but it’s essential to check specific area regulations and obtain any necessary permits to ensure compliance with local laws.

The Allure of Solitude

The solitude found in dispersed camping is unmatched, offering a tranquil escape from the digital and noisy clutter of everyday life. It’s a chance to commune directly with nature, experiencing the peace and quiet that only remote wilderness can offer.

Halfmoon Road Dispersed Camping

Types of Dispersed Camping

There are a few different types of dispersed camping, each with slightly different rules and restrictions to help protect public lands. Here is a quick overview of them each and what you should know.

I. Designated Camping

Staying at a campground is how most people camp. With established, designated sites and amenities like drinking water, bathrooms, waste collection, and even electrical hookups, it is the easiest way to camp. However, it also usually involves camping fees, crowded campgrounds, stringent rules, and advance reservations.

II. Dispersed Camping

What is dispersed camping? Essentially, the opposite of designated camping: You can pull up to any good campsite in a national forest or BLM land and camp for free on your own for up to 14 days (in most cases). However, you must be self-reliant as there are no amenities, and no reservations.

III. Designated-Dispersed Camping

In some areas, especially where the impact of dispersed camping is becoming too much to bear, designated campsites are being set aside. This avoids the issue of creating new campsites at levels that are unmanageable in the long run. These sites are usually marked with signs and permanent campfire rings. While usually first-come, first-serve, they sometimes charge a nightly fee to help manage the system.

Preparation is Key

Dispersed camping requires more preparation than camping at a campground or resort. This includes packing more gear to be self-reliant and researching your destination and the weather forecast. Here is a rundown on preparing for dispersed camping.

Essential Gear for Dispersed Camping

Preparing for dispersed camping means packing strategically: a durable tent, a reliable water purification system, comprehensive navigation tools, and a well-stocked first-aid kit. Opting for lightweight and robust gear can make your journey both enjoyable and safe.

Here is a complete packing list for dispersed camping.

  • Tent/Camper
  • Sleeping bag
  • Sleeping pad
  • Pillow
  • Water: purification system or 2 gal/person/day
  • Comprehensive first-aid kit
  • Navigation tools (map, compass, GPS)
  • Cooking stove and fuel
  • Cooking utensils, pot/pan, forks/spoon/knife, plate/bowl
  • Food and spices
  • Insulated cooler
  • Bear-resistant food container (if in bear country)
  • Shovel and toilet paper
  • Multi-tool
  • Firestarter and matches/lighter
  • Firewood/kindling
  • Lantern or headlamp with extra batteries
  • Appropriate clothing and footwear
  • Trash bags (for pack out)
  • Camping chairs

Planning and Research Before You Go

Thorough preparation involves more than packing; it includes researching your destination, understanding the terrain, identifying water sources, and being aware of potential wildlife encounters. This foundational knowledge is pivotal in crafting a memorable dispersed camping experience.

Remember to check the weather forecast and plan accordingly. Conditions can vary widely and roads in national forests can get far worse during storms. Bring the right clothing for the forecast and delay or re-schedule when things look like they are especially hazardous.

Castle Creek Dispersed Camping Area

How to Find Dispersed Campsites

Dispersed camping is easy to find in most national forests and on land owned by the Bureau of Land Management. This includes most western US states, but also areas in the midwest, northeast, and south. Here are a few of the best ways to find dispersed campsites in your area.

1. Motor Vehicle Use Maps:

Each national forest issues an official motor vehicle use map (MVUM) which shows the main forest roads open to the public. They also show where dispersed camping is allowed, with small dots along roads where there are dispersed campsites.

2. Online Camping Databases:

There are many websites like campendium and the Dyrt that have a large number of dispersed campsites with reports from real-world visitors. Take the information in these sites with a grain of salt unless there are a large number of detailed reviews and photos.

3. Forums and Social Media:

There are a lot of groups on Facebook and sub-reddits dedicated to dispersed camping and boondocking. Joining these communities is a great way to learn about dispersed camping and find information about areas and campsites near you.

4. Go Out and Find One:

My favorite way to find good dispersed campsites is to explore each time I go hiking, camping, or climbing and try to discover new hidden gems. If you stumble upon a great dispersed campsite on your adventures, take a photo and make a note of where it’s located so you can go back later with friends to sleep there underneath the stars.

Leave No Trace Principles

Dispersed camping is a high-impact activity on the land. Clearing campsites, building fires, and disposing of human waste and garbage create significant visible impacts that must be mitigated to protect our access for free camping and recreation.

Here are some ways you can limit your impact and help protect these special places.

Core Principles for Dispersed Campers

The Leave No Trace principles are a set of guidelines designed to minimize campers’ impact on the environment.

  1. Plan Ahead and Prepare: Understand the regulations and special concerns for the area you’ll visit. Prepare for extreme weather, hazards, and emergencies. For dispersed camping, this means researching the area, checking the weather forecast, and bringing the necessary gear.
  2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces: Durable surfaces include established trails and campsites, rock, gravel, dry grasses or snow. For dispersed camping, this involves setting up camp on level ground away from water sources, and only using pre-existing sites when possible.
  3. Dispose of Waste Properly: Pack it in, pack it out. This includes all trash, leftover food, and litter. Dispersed campers must manage their waste effectively, which includes packing out all trash, burying human waste properly, and using biodegradable toiletries.
  4. Leave What You Find: Preserve the past by examining, but not touching, cultural or historic structures and artifacts. Dispersed campers should leave natural objects and not disturb wildlife.
  5. Minimize Campfire Impact: Campfires can cause lasting impacts to the backcountry. Use a lightweight stove for cooking and enjoy a candle lantern for light. Dispersed campers should use existing fire rings where possible, keep fires small, and fully extinguish them before leaving.
  6. Respect Wildlife: Observe wildlife from a distance. Do not follow or approach them. Dispersed campers should secure their food and maintain a respectful distance from wildlife.
  7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors: Respect other visitors and protect the quality of their experience. In the context of dispersed camping, this means minimizing noise and leaving the camping area as you found it for future visitors.

Campfire Safety

Fire safety is a critical skill for dispersed campers. Campfires and the risk of wildfires are the biggest LNT issue related to dispersed camping. Always check the area you are visiting to learn the local fire restrictions and abide by any fire bans or policies.

Utilize existing fire rings where possible, keep fires small and manageable, supervise them at all times, and fully extinguish them before leaving. We recommend putting fires out until they are cold to the touch: be sure you have enough water available to extinguish your campfire.

If you do not need a campfire, it is sometimes easier to skip it and do your cooking using a stove and fuel. This is the lowest possible impact form of dispersed camping.

Wildlife Encounters

Wildlife encounters, while awe-inspiring, require preparation and respect. Secure your food, understand how to safely interact with wildlife, and always maintain a respectful distance to protect both yourself and the animals.

If you are dispersed amping with pets or dogs, keep them leashed and under control at all times to avoid negative interactions like chasing or killing wildlife.

Finding the Perfect Camping Spot

Finding the ideal location to set up camp while dispersed camping involves more than just picking a spot with a great view. It’s about balancing the desire for solitude and immersion in nature with the responsibility of preserving the wilderness for future generations.

Here’s how to select your home away from home, ensuring minimal impact on the environment while enjoying the best that nature has to offer.

Choose a Previously Used Site

When deciding where to camp, aim for an area that shows signs of previous use. Look for indicators such as tire tracks, established fire rings, or areas cleared for tents. Opting for these sites helps prevent the expansion of impacted areas and protects untouched natural habitats. Remember, the best campsite is one that requires no alteration.

Minimize Campsite Creep

The concept of “campsite creep” refers to the gradual expansion and degradation of camping areas due to repeated use. To combat this, select sites that are already bare, avoiding pristine or vegetated areas. The goal is to find a spot where you can enjoy the scenery without contributing to environmental degradation.

Proximity to Roads and Water Sources

Compliance with national forest regulations is key when camping near roads or water sources. Distances from roadways vary by forest, so it’s crucial to research the specific guidelines of your destination. Always camp on bare soil and maintain a distance of at least 200 feet from any water source to protect against erosion and contamination.

Assessing the Area

Once you’ve identified a suitable site, take a moment to evaluate the immediate environment. Check for adequate canopy cover to protect your tent from sun damage, assess the risk of falling limbs, and be aware of signs of wildlife activity. These precautions can prevent unpleasant surprises and ensure your safety while camping. Make sure you do not set up in a ditch or runoff area.

Water Source Considerations

When dispersed camping, you are on your own for drinking water. There is usually no water spigot or pump you can rely on to refill your water bottles and containers. Here are some things to think about.

Importance of Proximity to Water

While convenience suggests camping near water, environmental stewardship dictates maintaining a respectful distance to protect aquatic ecosystems.

Always set up camp at least 200 feet from water bodies. Camping closer than that increases erosion of fragile stream banks, leads to runoff pollution, and disturbs wildlife seeking water and food.

Purifying Your Water

In the wilderness, ensuring your water’s safety is paramount. Whether through boiling, chemical treatment, or filtration, purifying your water is a non-negotiable aspect of dispersed camping.

Sometimes, if you are lucky, there may be a nearby campground or trailhead with drinking water access and you can go there to refill your water containers instead of having to buy water in town or treat it at your campsite.

Other Skills for Dispersed Camping

Mastering the right skills will make your dispersed camping adventures safer and more enjoyable. Here are some essential how-tos and best practices to practices before you head out to the mountains.

  1. Starting a Campfire: Make sure you know how to start a campfire, not just for fun but for emergency situations.
  2. Camp Cooking: Cooking while camping takes a bit of extra gear, skill, and knowledge but can be a lot of fun once you get the hang of it!
  3. Treating Drinking Water: Learn a couple different methods of treating water, like boiling it, using a filter, or iodine pills.
  4. Backcountry Navigation: You should know how to read a map, use a compass and GPS to navigate without cell service.
  5. Wilderness First Aid: Accidents happen! Be ready to deal with trips and falls, cuts, burns, altitude sickness, and other common ailments.
  6. Wilderness Survival: Have a plan and carry the ten essentials so you know what to do if something goes wrong or someone gets lost.

The Challenges of Dispersed Camping

Dispersed camping presents unique challenges, such as navigating unpredictable weather, being self-reliant with water and supplies, finding the right campsite, and mastering survival skills for remote areas.

However, embracing these challenges enriches the adventure, offering lessons in resilience and self-reliance and strengthening your confidence and willpower.

Benefits of Dispersed Camping

The benefits of dispersed camping are profound: a deep connection with nature, a sense of accomplishment from thriving in the wilderness, and an unparalleled opportunity to experience the world in its most natural state. Depending on where you go, dispersed campsites offer the most solitude and privacy available in the outdoors.

Dispersed Camping Etiquette

Beyond following regulations, dispersed camping etiquette revolves around a deep respect for nature, wildlife, and fellow adventurers. It’s about preserving the integrity of wilderness areas for everyone’s enjoyment. Here are some ways to be courteous to others dispersed camping near you.

  1. Limit Your Noise: Keep your voice down and avoid playing loud music to avoid spoiling the natural environment for others.
  2. Don’t Arrive Too Late: Get there at a reasonable time to avoid waking up others while you set up camp in the middle of the night.
  3. Watch Your Dogs: Keep dogs under voice or leash control at all times and do not let them wander into other people’s campsites or trails.
  4. Be Friendly: Be kind. Help others who need it, answer questions when asked, and give others the benefit of the doubt to make the outdoors a positive place for everyone.

Camping near Crested Butte

In Conclusion

What is dispersed camping? It’s an adventure that offers an authentic experience of the wilderness for those willing to respect its challenges and responsibilities.

By preparing adequately and adhering to Leave No Trace principles, campers can enjoy these wild spaces responsibly, ensuring they remain pristine for generations to come. Embark on your adventure, respect the wild, and discover the serene solitude that dispersed camping provides.

FAQ: What is Dispersed Camping?

If we have not addressed your question already, leave a comment and we will get back to you with an answer and more information as soon as possible.

Q: What is meant by dispersed camping?

A: Dispersed camping, also known as backcountry or primitive camping, is a type of camping that is done outside the confines of designated campgrounds. Usually on public lands, such as national forests or Bureau of Land Management areas, dispersed camping involves selecting a camping spot in the heart of the wilderness. Unlike traditional camping, dispersed camping lacks amenities such as running water, waste disposal systems, or picnic tables. This requires campers to be self-sufficient and deeply connected with the natural world around them.

A: Most often, dispersed camping is free of charge. This is because it typically takes place in remote areas of public lands where there are no facilities or services. However, it’s important to note that free camping doesn’t mean unrestricted camping. Even without fees, there are still rules and guidelines that campers must follow to protect the environment and respect other visitors. Always check with local authorities or land management agencies for the specific regulations in your chosen camping area.

A: Dispersed camping involves setting up camp in a spot of your choosing, generally away from developed recreation facilities. Campers are expected to adhere to the Leave No Trace principles, which include respecting wildlife, minimizing campfire impacts, and managing waste effectively. This form of camping requires a high level of self-sufficiency, as you won’t have access to amenities such as restrooms, trash collection, or water supply. Campers must bring all necessary supplies, including a tent, food and water, a map and compass for navigation, and a first-aid kit.

A: Dispersed camping goes by several names, depending on the region or context. Some of the most common alternatives include wild camping, backcountry camping, or primitive camping. Regardless of the term used, the concept remains the same: camping outside of designated campgrounds, usually in more remote or undeveloped areas.

A: Boondocking and dispersed camping are two terms often used interchangeably, but they do have some minor differences. Both refer to camping outside of developed campgrounds. However, boondocking is a term primarily used in the RV community and refers to camping in an RV without hookups to water, electricity, or sewer services. On the other hand, dispersed camping typically refers to tent camping in remote locations, rather than RV camping.

A: Packing for dispersed camping requires careful thought, as you will need to bring everything you need to be self-sufficient. Essential gear typically includes a durable tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad, as well as a reliable water purification system, as you may need to source water from lakes or streams. A well-stocked first-aid kit, comprehensive navigation tools such as a map and compass, and a sufficient supply of food are also crucial. Lightweight, compact, and multi-purpose items are favored to reduce the weight of your pack. Always remember to pack out whatever you pack in, to leave the site as you found it.

A: Dispersed camping is typically allowed on public lands overseen by agencies such as the National Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). However, not all public lands are open to dispersed camping. It’s crucial to check with local land agencies to understand where dispersed camping is allowed, and what rules and regulations apply. Some areas may require a permit, have limits on the number of consecutive nights you can camp, or prohibit camping altogether.

A: Dispersed campsites are not officially designated or marked, so finding a good site requires some effort. In general, look for areas of flat, clear ground that are at least 200 feet from water bodies and trails. Online resources, topographic maps, and information from local ranger stations can help guide you to suitable areas for dispersed camping. Remember that a good dispersed campsite is not just about the views, but also about minimizing impact on the environment.

A: Food storage is a critical consideration when dispersed camping, as improperly stored food can attract wildlife. In many areas, especially those with active bear populations, you’re required to store food in bear-resistant containers or hang it from a tree at least 10 feet off the ground and 4 feet from the tree trunk. All food and scented items should be stored properly when not in use and never left unattended. Furthermore, all cooking and eating activities should be done well away from your sleeping area to reduce the chances of attracting wildlife to your tent.

A: The need for a permit for dispersed camping depends on the location. While many national forests and BLM lands allow dispersed camping without a permit, there are exceptions, especially in high-use or sensitive areas. In some places, you may also need to register at a trailhead or ranger station. It’s always a good idea to check with local land management agencies before you set out to ensure you’re following all rules and regulations.

Additional Resources

Here are some websites, articles, and resources to continue your research on dispersed camping. If you have a link to add to our list, share a comment and we might add during our next article update!

Alex Derr, Founder of The Next Summit

Alex Derr is an Eagle Scout, climber, and environmental policy expert located in Denver, Colorado. He created The Next Summit to help others stay safe exploring the mountains and advocate to preserve the peaks for the future. Follow him on Linkedin or Twitter or click here to contact him.

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Hi, I'm Alex!

In 2018, I watched in disbelief as dozens of people hiked into a storm on Longs Peak, unaware of the extreme danger. Soon after, I started The Next Summit to educate and empower the public to safely and responsibly explore America's mountains.

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