Skip to main content

Dispersed Camping Allows You to Stay in the Wilderness for Free

Dispersed Camping

There's nothing better than a free campsite! 

Everyone loves a good camping experience. There's not better way to explore the United States than through its beautiful National Parks and other natural areas.

The only thing we like better than camping on our nation's public lands is doing it on the cheap. Or even better, for free.

Yes, it's possible to go camping and not have it cost you a dime. It's called dispersed camping and here is how you can take advantage of it this season.

What is dispersed camping?

Dispersed camping or "boondocking" as it is sometimes referred as, is allowed on both National Forest land and areas managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). These are areas where campers can set up and stay completely free of charge. We're sure some of you are wondering: "What's the catch?" We can't blame you. It seems like you can't do anything without paying for it anymore. Free camping seems like a deal that's too good to be true.

There is a small catch to taking advantage of dispersed camping areas and that's a lack of facilities. Unlike a designated campground, you won't have access to showers or bathroom facilities. There are no full-service hookups for RVs like you'll find in the designated campgrounds. Usually, it's just a spot to park your RV or set up your tent and that's it. These campsites are as basic as it gets.

Most of these camping sites, especially on BLM land, don't have existing fire rings or picnic areas and some aren't even marked at all. Campers are expected to adhere to  leave no trace principles. That means packing out all your trash, toilet paper included. Human waste must be buried in accordance with each area's regulations. These sites usually do not have trash cans, so that means taking everything with you when you leave. 

Simply put, taking advantage of dispersed camping areas means you're going to be roughing it. There is no way around that. For those already well-versed in backpacking or car camping, it shouldn't be too big of an adjustment. While dispersed camping doesn't grant you any of the comforts of home, it makes up for it by giving you a chance to really surround yourself with nature. Because dispersed camping lacks facilities, not as many people take advantage of it, preferring instead the comforts of fire rings and picnic tables in the paid camping areas. In some remote areas, you may find yourself all alone with nature. Isn't that what we're all looking for in our outdoor experiences?

Also keep in mind that these sites are first come, first serve. If you pack up and leave for the day, there's not guarantee your spot won't be taken when you return in the evening. Just something to remember.

What are the rules for dispersed camping?

Dispersed Camping

We already went over some of the basics. Stuff like picking up your trash and leaving the areas better than you found it should be obvious for any recreation area. In some western states, especially places like California, you're going to want to pay attention to fire restrictions. Many dispersed camping areas don't have fire pits, especially those deep in the backcountry. You don't want to inadvertently start a bad brush or forest fire in a remote area.

Camping rules and regulations may also vary from area to area. You'll probably want to check in with the nearest ranger station to your chosen area, just to see if there are any other restrictions in place. For instance, there may be some areas where it's legal to park your RV overnight in a parking lot and areas where it is not. I've noticed most areas have restrictions like this within a mile of a paid, designated campground. There are also restrictions on how long you can stay, but they are usually generous. Both the U.S. Forest Service and BLM tend to limit stays in a dispersed camping area to 14 consecutive days. After that, you'll have to move anywhere from 10 to 25 miles to a new location. If you're planning an extended trip in the American west, it's usually not too difficult to find another spot like that.

For some areas, you are only allowed to camp in marked dispersed campsites. Again, it's helpful to call the management office or check their website ahead of time for their rules on primitive camping. Other areas may have special rules on free camping spots listed at trail heads or in parking areas along Forest Service roads.

How do I find dispersed camping near me?

Dispersed Camping

The quickest way is to hop on Google Maps and just start looking for green shaded areas that indicated National Forest lands. You do have to be careful with this technique because lots of other areas like county parks, state parks and National Parks will show up the same way. Usually, it's obvious what each area is once you click on it. At the very least this will get you started in your search.

To break things down even further, the U.S. Forest Service has extensive camping information maps for popular states like Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, California, Arizona and more. If you click on an area of state forest on these maps, it will take you to yet another page detailing all the places you can camp. It will also notify you of amenities like pit toilets and will give you stay limits.

With BLM land, it's a little more difficult to plan your trip ahead of time. Mostly because when you search for campsites on their website, it's going to give you everything. This includes all the paid camping areas. A second option is to go to BLM's online maps. It may take a little searching to find exactly what you're looking for. You can filter for camping areas on these maps. Again, it can be difficult to find campsites this way, but it will point you in the right direction. These maps will also tell you the office in charge of managing that area. Give them a call and ask for pointers on good locations to try.

Can you disperse camp in National Parks?

This is going to depend upon the park, and quite often, the season. In most cases, you will not be able to car camp in a National Park. It is just not going to happen. The chance of natural resource damage is too great, and most places simply do not allow anything outside established campgrounds. National Parks are also usually much busier, and the areas to set up are often extremely limited. If you want to disperse camp in a National Park, you will likely have to pack-in on a hiking trail to a remote area. Some of these areas may require additional permits too. In most instances, you will probably have an easier time finding a spot on BLM land, or any National Forests bordering it than the National Park itself.

Is there a certain type of vehicle needed for dispersed camping?

Because some dispersed camping sites can be far up mountains, or off the established roads, there is a misconception that you need a heavy-duty 4x4 or other vehicle capable of off-road travel to take advantage of these sites. While that may be true in some instances, there are usually sites that anyone can reach using any type of vehicle. Study the satellite maps carefully before you leave to determine if your intended site is along a paved road, or an old logging trail. If you have any doubts, a call to the nearest ranger station can usually clear up the types of vehicles able to access to the road. It is worth noting that we have seen and heard of people going dispersed camping in anything from high lifted Jeeps to a simple minivan. If it can hold your gear and get you to the site, you can go camping with it.

Other tips for the best dispersed camping experience

Some dispersed camping areas are specialty walk-in areas. Load up your favorite pack and go for a little hike in the wilderness. Sometimes you'll have these areas all to yourself, even in the busy season. Don't be afraid to get a mile or two off the main roads. You might just find it leads to the greatest camping trip you've ever had.

Prepare properly before you go and make sure you're ready for camping in primitive conditions. Don't forget to be a good steward of the natural resources you are out there to enjoy. Leave every campsite in better condition than you found it. If the area has unmarked sites, try to find areas that have obviously been used as campsites previously. They usually aren't hard to spot. This just helps to lessen the impact on the land.

One last final tip, stop in at the ranger station or visitor center when you enter an area to find out about wildfire dangers. Most will have specific rules on campfires in their dispersed camping areas. You might also want to inquire about the best place to get safe drinking water during your visit. It may be a natural water source, but some areas might let you fill up water jugs in the developed campgrounds to take back with you. Finally, ask for some tips on the best sights and trailheads to explore while you are there too. The rangers almost always know a secret hidden gem they are willing to share. 

Dispersed camping is a good way to get away from the crowds and to save some expensive camping fees this season. Give it a try!

Products featured on Wide Open Spaces are independently selected by our editors. However, when you buy something through our links, we may earn a commission.

For more outdoor content from Travis Smola, be sure to follow him on Twitter and check out his YouTube channel.




Dispersed Camping Allows You to Stay in the Wilderness for Free