Warm weather is around the corner for most of us here in the United States. That means it’s time to dust off your camping tent, pick up your hiking boots, pack your lightweight backpack and plan that next camping trip. Camping and RV’ing are more popular now than ever before so, no matter where you’re headed, you’re bound to have company. But, if you want to overnight in the great outdoors completely free with a patch of nature all to yourself, dispersed camping is the way to go. Roughly one-quarter of the entire United States is federally owned land. That means, provided you follow a few basic rules, you can camp on that land for free. Here’s everything you need to know about dispersed camping around the country.
“Dispersed camping” doesn’t mean dispersing your junk all over your campsite (camping like that usually gets you kicked out). No, dispersed camping is the act of camping — for free — on federal lands in the U.S. outside of a designated campsite or recreation facility. Almost every National Forest, Bureau of Land Management District, or Wildlife Management Area is fair game for free camping as long as you abide by a short list of rules.
There are no traditional “sites” involved in dispersed camping. That means most lack proper facilities like toilets, food storage, outdoor showers, or even running water, as most car camping sites do. But, what these sites lack in facilities they make up for in natural resources. Pristine areas some people only see on Instagram are easily accessible from dispersed camping locations. Most people don’t attempt this kind of camping so you’ll likely have the place to yourself, free from the crowds and noise of the National Parks and traditional campsites. Plus, did I mention they’re completely free?
OK, so this dispersed camping thing sounds pretty good. How do you do it? How do you know if you’re in the right place if there are no sites? How do you not get attacked by a bear?
Choosing a Destination
When choosing a destination, we need to be careful that we’re not traipsing onto private land. Conveniently, the U.S. Forest Service has provided an interactive map of all the National Forests. Pull this up, scroll around to the area you want to visit, and see exactly what land is National Forest or National Park — National Forest is the one we’re looking for. The interactive map can show trails, official campsites, and resources for all kinds of activities.
Online Maps to Dispersed Camping Sites
The Bureau of Land Management also has many similar maps online. While not interactive, they still show what land is open for dispersed camping.
Going off-grid often means going outside of cell service. Grocery stores and Ranger stations near where you want to camp will often have these “special” offline resources called paper maps you can take with you. They work without cell service or even power. When you’re in the middle of nowhere, paper will always work.
It’s always good to have a backup plan and be aware of available lodging nearby so be sure to check on Booking.com for nearby hotels, cabins, and more.
Finding a Dispersed Campsite
Once you’ve identified a destination you want to visit, you need a spot to pitch your tent. Obviously, cliffs, rivers, and dense woods don’t make great spots to camp, so you’ll need to find a spot that’s accessible.
It’s a good idea to try and use an existing site so won’t destroy any of the trees and plants in a new spot. Google Maps becomes a good friend in this step, as it does a pretty good job (though it’s not always 100% accurate) of identifying National Forest land. Find the area you want to go, turn on the satellite image layer, and zoom way in. Many campsites look like clearings or pullouts off the side of dirt roads.
Ranger Stations and Forest Service offices are happy to help you locate a spot. They can clarify what land is open and let you know what restrictions are in place. For example, areas may be closed to camping during the summer with a fire restriction or certain roads might be gated or impassible during the winter due to snow. For the most up-to-date information, it’s best to suss out the nearest ranger station and call them directly.
Lastly, be sure to leave enough light and time in the day to find where you are going. Existing dispersed camping sites rarely have any sort of signage to help you find them. New sites definitely won’t. Unless you want to pitch your tent in a random location in the dark and possibly have to move in the morning, get there early so you can see what you’re doing.
What to Bring
The only “facilities” dispersed camping will have are those provided by nature: Grass, trees, rivers, and mountains.
Some dispersed camping sites are not accessible by car so you’ll be carrying everything. A solid outdoor backpack and lightweight gear will be much easier to carry than a 10-person tent, a portable hibachi, and three beer-filled coolers.
Since you could be in bear and mountain lion country, you’ll also need some way to store your food safely. Lock up food in your car or in a bear canister, or hang it up properly in a tree.
How Not to Get Eaten by an Animal
With the remoteness and wide-open spaces of National Forests come the animals that live there. Any time we’re out in the woods, we need to be animal-aware. We’re in their home now. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has some great safety tips.
For bears, it suggests: “Never run from a bear. Bears can sprint at up to 40 mph — and, like dogs, will chase animals that run away. If you are approached or charged by a bear, stand your ground and use your bear deterrent (i.e. bear spray). Most charges by bears are defensive, not predatory.”
For brown bears specifically: “Be bear aware and look for signs of recent bear traffic. Leave when you see crushed plants, scat, or fresh tracks. Avoid surprising bears when you are out hiking by making noise: clap your hands, sing and talk. Travel in groups and make extra noise if you are in a brushy or loud area.”
For mountain lions, the U.S. FWS recommends: “Do all you can to appear larger. Raise your arms. If wearing a jacket, take it off and wave it around. Pick up small children. Wave arms slowly, speak firmly in a loud voice, throw rocks or other objects. Try to remain standing and face the attacking animal. Fight back if attacked.”
So, you’ve found your dispersed campsite and done your homework to prevent run-ins with the local animals. It’s almost time to kick back and enjoy the scenery — but that scenery is only pristine if we keep it that way. There won’t be much left if campers toss their cans and garbage into the woods.
Since the 1950s, the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, and Bureau of Land Management have been teaching the principles of Leave No Trace — a set of guidelines designed to keep our wilderness areas beautiful for generations to come.
Leave No Trace:
- Plan ahead and prepare
- Travel and camp on durable surfaces
- Dispose of waste properly
- Leave what you find
- Minimize campfire impacts
- Respect wildlife
- Be considerate of other visitors
Let’s dig into a few of these.
Planning is what you’re doing right now. Knowing ahead of time where you’re going, what you’re going to take, and how to stay safe while you’re there is half the battle. Leaving your plan with a friend or ranger isn’t a bad idea either.
Have a Fire
Fires are hard on the environment but, with a few tips, we can keep our dispersed camping area clean.
Use an existing fire pit and campsite when you can. If a site has already been trampled down and the ground burnt from a fire, using that one reduces damage to another area. Only collect dead and downed wood; rules for National Parks state there can’t be any cutting of new wood.
Another step to a great fire is bringing your own fire pan. These keep the fire off the ground, not scarring the rocks and plans there. Many fire pans have attachments for cooking and fold up small for travel.
No Toilets or Water
We’re taking all our garbage with us when we head out, but with no running water or bathrooms, how do we take care of our own waste?
Leave No Trace recommends digging a small hole, called a cathole, six inches deep. Do the deed in your hole, make like a cat, and cover it up using the dug-up dirt. Keep your catholes at least 100 feet from any water source so it doesn’t contaminate it. You might be drinking that!
For water, taps don’t just grow out of trees, so we’re going to have to bring our own or treat it. Treating water is easy with purification tablets, a filtration pump, or electronic water filters.
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