If you’ve gone camping, you may be used to campground amenities that make the wilderness less rough. Anything to escape the stress of life counts, right? But have you thought about taking camping a step further and really escaping?
Think about it; most camping trips involve things that defeat the purpose of relaxing—things like fees, reservations, and crowds. With dispersed camping, you can avoid these hassles, and you don’t need amenities to do so.
Keep reading to learn what you need to know about dispersed camping so you can prepare for your off-the-grid trip!
What is Dispersed Camping?
This camping method has you setting up a campsite outside of designated campgrounds in remote areas and public lands. You can do this by backpacking to a campsite or by driving on forest access roads to find a secluded area.
In essence, you’re camping off the grid and providing yourself with everyday necessities—roughing it out without the help of technology. Maintenance issues are part of life’s stresses, so temporarily depriving yourself of technological conveniences will give you a much-needed break.
Dispersed camping comes with many perks besides completely unplugging from the stresses of life. You don’t have to set up reservations or budget your money for camping fees with this type of camping!
In the backcountry, where no city lights pollute the sky, you’re treated to unobstructed views for star-gazing before you sleep. Besides the lack of city lights, there’s also the lack of crowds. So if you need privacy and solitude, this dispersed camping is for you!
Another advantage to this type of camping is the land itself. By camping around untampered land, you’ll experience better views of the wildlife and landscape than you would at a designated campground.
As good as dispersed camping sounds, there are certain things about it that can make it undesirable. For one, there are no facilities or amenities you’d find at a designated campground—no RV hookups, bathrooms, showers, and the like.
Just because first-come, first-served sites don’t require any booking doesn’t mean they’re easy to find or won’t likely be taken. You may need to drive around for some time looking for an available spot. At least that would be a good sightseeing opportunity!
If you forget to bring something, you won’t have the luxury of traveling a short distance to a store. You’ll have to either make do without that item or make the long trek back to civilization. Camping off the grid requires you to be efficient, so keep a camping checklist while you pack.
Comparing Dispersed Camping
If you hear the term dispersed camping, you’ve likely heard of other terms like primitive camping, remote camping, or wild camping.
These names seem one and the same, some are used differently outside of the US. For example, wild camping is more of a European term for dispersed camping.
Let’s go over a few differences between the terms to understand what may or may not count as dispersed camping:
This type of camping is the most interchangeable term with dispersed camping; after all, both types involve doing without modern conveniences. But primitive camping is mostly used in the sense of certain areas within an established campground.
Also, though primitive camping excludes certain amenities, it still provides others. Examples include flush toilets but no potable water, fire pits but no picnic tables, and more.
It’s dispersed camping, but it includes an RV or travel trailer and public lands and roads that are accessible to them. What’s not included in boondocking are RV hookups—water, electricity, and power.
Some people who drive vans through public lands dub their camping style as boondocking. However, that’s debatable for some campers because vans can easily drive to certain areas RVs can’t reach.
This simply means no supplied water is available on your camping trip. You’d have to bring your own water or obtain it from a pond, lake, or other water source and purify it. In a way, this is a specification for dispersed camping, as running water would be an amenity.
Locations that Allow Dispersed Camping
Here are three common locations to consider for this type of camping:
Lands under the Bureau of Land Management
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages certain lands in the Western US like deserts and open landscapes. RV and van camping are allowed on these lands, and sometimes tent camping is allowed as well.
Now, these lands may be used for other things besides camping, like landscape restoration. Unless No Camping signs are posted, you can disperse camp for no longer than two weeks at your chosen campsite.
These forests often border national parks. One rule for dispersed camping is that you’re not allowed within a mile of the parks’ developed recreation areas. These include campgrounds, picnic areas, and trailheads.
Depending on the forests’ regulations, you may disperse camp there for up to two weeks in RVs or tents.
Here are a few national forests we recommend for the best dispersed camping:
- San Bernardino National Forest: Any area of the forest that follows certain distance guidelines is good to camp in. Though wood and charcoal fires aren’t allowed, you can use a chemical or propane stove with your California campfire permit.
- Ozark National Forest: All types of campers are welcome here, especially dispersed campers. You can camp here for 30 days for free, but afterward, you’d have to move your campsite 5 miles away.
- Sequoia National Forest: There is plenty of space for dispersed campers here as long as you’re far away from water. You’d receive stunning views of various wildlife you wouldn’t likely see at a designated campground.
Dispersed Camping in National Parks
That heavily depends on the national park. Some parks allow backcountry camping (a more specific term for dispersed camping) because they don’t want the landscape compromised by tents.
National parks like Joshua Tree and Death Valley allow dispersed camping, but there are rules you need to follow. They range from camping more than 100 feet to a mile from water to obtaining a free permit.
Other parks won’t allow this type of camping, period. Check with the park’s visitor center or research the park before you leave for your trip.
Wildlife Management Areas
These areas, including forests, are run at the state level, usually under each state’s Fish and Game Commission. They consist of wildlife refuges and game preserves, with many regulations for camping, hunting, fishing, and other recreational activities.
Understand that some of these areas are open seasonally for camping. Research your destination or call a wildlife ranger or manager to see if camping is in season before you go!
Is Dispersed Camping Free?
Most of the time, dispersed camping is free, but it depends on the type of land you’re seeking. Some lands will actually require fees and permits for this type of camping, but the prices are affordable.
For example, specific areas under the BLM may require fees. These could be for maintenance and improvements to the lands people visit. Contact the BLM office to find out if your chosen destination requires fees.
Fortunately, if you’re camping in a national forest, fees and permits aren’t required. But some states’ wildlife management areas may have you paying day-use or seasonal permit fees. Check with the wildlife manager to go over any costs.
Dispersed Camping Tips
With no running water available, pack a good number of water bottles. Though water bottles may save you from obtaining water from a nearby water source, pack a water filter.
You would need the water not just for drinking but also for cleaning yourself and your supplies. If you’re not collecting and boiling water from the lake, pond, or river, you could set up a solar still. This is extremely useful if you’re not camping anywhere near a water source.
There’s also the option to create a homemade water filter as a way to pack lightly. Should you ever use up all your water bottles while camping, they make great containers for filtration.
Choosing a Campsite
When choosing a campsite for your dispersed camping trip, it should be far enough away from roads, trails, and water. Ideally, be close enough to access them without camping too close, or settle for a previously established site.
You also want to choose a site that will minimize any chance of impacting the area, like compacted surfaces. Pay attention to your surroundings—we don’t recommend camping near drop-offs, animal and insect habitats, and dead trees with hanging branches.
As mentioned before, sometimes it’s difficult to find a dispersed campsite, especially if first-come, first-served sites are taken. If you need more suggestions on where to set up camp, talk to the land’s managers or rangers. They’ll be glad to help you out.
Dispose of Waste Properly
Dispersed camping means no portable potties or restrooms, so you’ll need to set up a camping toilet. But before you do, research any health code laws in the area you’re camping in.
One way to create your own toilet is by digging a cathole. Put 200 feet of distance between yourself and water, trails, and your campsite. Dig a 6–8-foot-deep hole in dark soil that gets plenty of sunlight, do your business, and fill in the hole.
You could also invest in an off-the-grid toilet as you plan your trip. Either way, pack wipes or toilet paper, but don’t forget to store them in a container after you’ve used them. As a last resort, you could use leaves as makeshift wipes, but make sure they’re not poisonous!
Before you start a campfire, speak to the land’s manager in case fire restrictions are in place. Whether or not drought or dry winds are a problem at your specific dispersed campsite, learning campfire safety is essential.
When setting up a campfire, find a spot that’s clear of any flammable material like dry leaves and wood. Then build a 2-foot diameter circle of rocks 100 feet away from water and use dead wood to light your fire.
If there’s a pre-existing fire ring at your site, build a fire there. In some dispersed camping locations, you may only be allowed to use a camping stove.
Keep a bucket of water and a few shovelfuls of dirt to extinguish the fire. You’ll need to stir the pit’s contents in between pours to do this. Above all, never leave a campsite until the fire is completely out.
Prepare for Emergencies
Always plan and prepare for the worst that could happen on your trip, especially if you’re in a secluded area.
One emergency could involve encountering a bear, a mountain lion, or other dangerous wildlife near your campsite. Mountain lions, for sure, need to be reported to a ranger. Keep a bear spray or firearm in hand, and learn about wildlife safety guidelines and proper food storage.
There’s also a chance that you could get sick or hurt during your trip. Wherever you’re dispersed camping, there may not be any cell service. Even if family, friends, and neighbors know where you are, pack a satellite phone to call for help for medical emergencies.
In addition to getting sick or hurt, learn about basic first aid and managing pre-existing medical conditions. For asthma, allergies, diabetes, and such, you’ll need to include the appropriate medical supplies in your kit.
Leave No Trace
When camping, there’s always the risk of altering part of the land where you’ve set your campfire or pitched your tent. To preserve the beauty of the land, follow the Leave No Trace principles.
One example of how you can do this is, as mentioned before, by choosing a previously used site. This will deter any more impacts on the surrounding areas.
Another example is to leave whatever you see at or near your campsite alone (fauna and flora). The only souvenirs of the landscape you can bring home are the pictures you take.
Disperse and Camp at Your Leisure!
Fees, reservations, and crowds can put a damper on the rest and relaxation you seek while camping. Even with modern conveniences and amenities, it’s worth putting them aside to see what the great outdoors has to offer.
Now that you know what there is to dispersed camping, you can save money and experience a true getaway.
Check out our post on Free Camping in the US to learn more about roughing it out as you camp!
- About the Author
- Latest Posts
Sarah Keck is a long-time resident of the Midwest and loves its warm and cool atmosphere. She takes any walking or hiking opportunity with open arms and likes to learn and write about the best trails.
Sarah’s first camping experience was her church’s teens’ and twenties’ summer conference years ago. Her favorite activities were exploring the campground and sitting by the fire, listening to the wildlife.
As time went on, Sarah looked forward to camping and other vacation opportunities. Writing for Beyond the Tent has opened her eyes and mind to the country’s many beautiful destinations.