You just can’t beat dispersed camping…
Imagine waking up to total silence – except for the wind in the trees, some birds singing, and maybe even a trickling creek if you’re lucky. You’re the only one around to appreciate your own little personal slice of heaven. Better yet, camping here is completely free.
Sounds great, doesn’t it? Well, this is exactly what you get when dispersed camping on public lands far from the hustle and bustle of developed campgrounds.
Let’s dive right in – here’s how to find the best dispersed campsites in the United States!
What Is Dispersed Camping?
Dispersed camping is simply camping on open public land rather than at a developed campground.
Many different types of public lands offer dispersed camping in the US, although it’s most common in National Forests and on BLM-managed land.
It’s somewhat similar to backpacking or backcountry camping except that you don’t need to hike or walk in. Most dispersed campsites are located in pullouts just off dirt or gravel access roads.
Remember that this is primitive camping at its finest. Don’t expect any amenities or services, including garbage removal or toilets. You must pack out all of your trash (always follow the Leave No Trace Principles) and know how to go to the bathroom in the woods. If you’re camping in an RV rather than a tent, understand there will be no hookups or dump stations.
Dispersed camping is sometimes called boondocking, dry camping, free camping, or wild camping – although, all these actually mean slightly different things.
Where Is Dispersed Camping Allowed?
Dispersed camping is legal on a surprising variety of public lands in the United States.
However, the greatest abundance is in National Forests and on BLM-managed land. In my experience, these dispersed campsites are the most scenic and most easily accessible. Plus, the abundance of spots allows you to pick the perfect campsite.
Other public lands that offer dispersed camping include National Grasslands, National Recreation Areas, Wildlife Management Areas, and more.
How to Find Dispersed Camping
Google Maps is a fantastic tool to find free dispersed campsites.
I use it to find National Forests I hope to explore. Then I zoom in as close as possible in satellite view and follow promising-looking Forest Service roads to locate potential pull-offs. A good trick is to start your search near developed campgrounds or trailheads.
The websites for most National Forests often list their main dispersed camping areas which further helps you narrow down potential campsites.
Tools like Campendium, The Dyrt, and FreeCampsites.net can also help you locate dispersed campsites with a convenient map search tool.
But the two best ways to find dispersed campsites, in my experience, are to just drive around and explore as well as talking to other dispersed campers.
Set some extra time aside to spend an hour or two driving back Forest Service roads looking for promising pull-offs. Don’t be afraid to scout ahead on foot – especially if you’re in an RV or pulling a trailer – as some of these roads can be quite rough, narrow, and without room to turn a large vehicle around.
Once you do find a dispersed campsite, don’t be afraid to say hello to your neighbors. I always ask other dispersed campers and boondockers for their wild camping recommendations.
And, if all else fails, stop by the ranger station. They’ll be happy to point you in the direction of the more popular dispersed camping areas and will also fill you in on all local camping rules and regulations.
Some of My Favorite Dispersed Campsites
There are literally thousands of great dispersed campsites in the United States.
In my home state of Washington (check out my list of the best camping in Washington), the Mountain Loop Highway between Darrington and Granite Falls is hard to beat. Dozens of dispersed campsites line the Sauk River and countless others are located off spur roads.
Montana is another one of my favorite states for dispersed camping. Lolo National Forest, Beaverhead National Forest, and Kootenai National Forest among others all have unbeatable free campsites if you know where to look.
Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico are almost impossible to beat in terms of dispersed camping as is much of California. The Mogollon Rim in Arizona is one of my favorite dispersed campsites with an incredibly view.
Simply put, almost every state with a National Forest, National Grassland, or BLM-managed land has dispersed camping opportunities, although the highest abundance of these type of free campsites are out west.
I try to keep my absolute favorite dispersed campsites somewhat hush, hush – but if you’re planning a trip to a specific location, especially in the Western United States, let me know in the comments below and I’m happy to send you directions to some of my top-secret campsites directly!
Go Dispersed Camping Today!
Hopefully this guide will help you find the best dispersed campsites on your next trip!
Now, I’d love to hear from you. What’s your favorite place for dispersed camping? Do you typically dispersed camp in a tent, van, or an RV? Let me know in the comments below.
And, like always, don’t hesitate to ask if you have any more questions about finding the best dispersed camping near you!
Because they’re self-contained with water storage, kitchenettes, and bathrooms, RV boondocking is often easier for first-time dispersed campers than tent camping, especially for families with children. So, check out our RV rental tool to find a great RV rental for your next trip!
TEGAN KELLY ROBINETT
Sunday 10th of October 2021
hi Jake, love your write ups! i would looove to hear about your super top secret dispersed camping spots in the Olympic National Park, either the east side or near the Hoh Rainforest. would you be willing to share? thanks for all you do. this resource is amazing ❤️
Monday 21st of June 2021
Would love your tips on dispersed camping spots near hurricane ridge or around the lake crescent and port angeles area! We are going mid august and will be searching around for a dispersed camp spot one of the nights we are there. Thank you for your page!! I love it.
Sunday 13th of June 2021
Thank you for this helpful article! I’m curious if you have any recommendations for dispersed camping in Southern Washington, within Gifford Pinchot or in that general area? Really hoping to know of a good spot near a lake/river of course 😉
Friday 18th of June 2021
Check out Council Lake near Babyshoe Pass. It's a free campground between Mount Adams and Mount Saint Helens. There's also a ton of dispersed camping nearby - a few sites have incredible views of Mount Adams. The roads are rough (even the paved ones), but any vehicle will make it. Just drive slow. Good luck!
Friday 11th of June 2021
Hi Jake! I love your site here… it’s a blessing, especially for a fellow Washington neighbor!
I just got a roof top tent and have it on my 4wd SUV, and looking to do some dispersed camping in the Olympic National Forest and/or anywhere West of Seattle. What favorite/hush spots might you be willing to share?
Thank you so much,
Friday 18th of June 2021
The National Forest roads near Hamma Hamma and Lake Cushman are a good bet as is the area near Lake Wynoochee. For the far side of the peninsula, look near Quinault Ridge Road as well as along Forest Road 29 near Forks. There are also 10 primitive DNR campgrounds on the peninsula (free with a Discover Pass). Good luck!
Sunday 9th of August 2020
Jake, thanks so much for your input. My boyfriend, Eliot, and I love camping. However, as we practice more bushcraft skills we are wanting to venture outside of the campgrounds and straight into the forests. We will be checking out Willamette and Umpqua National Forests in Oregon. Do you have any spots to recommend in those areas? Thanks in advance! Keep up the great work.
Tuesday 18th of August 2020
Hi Natalie - There's tons of free dispersed camping in both those national forests! You can camp pretty much anywhere outside of a developed campground, although it's best to choose an "existing" campsite where other people have camped before. These are easy to spot as they are generally flat, free of vegetation, and often have a hand built fire ring. Many are simple dirt pull-offs just off forest service roads. My suggestion is to just drive towards a small paid forest service campground (like Hemlock Meadows Campground in Umpqua National Forest as an example) and start looking for dispersed campsites on the way in. You'll be surprised at how many there are and how easy they are to find! There are seriously hundreds of places like this to camp in the national forests you'll be visiting. Some of these sites even have fantastic views or are located right next to a river/creek/lake. Good luck and sorry I can't give any exact GPS pin recommendations!