If you’re new to the outdoors but have a few camping trips under your belt you’ve likely heard the term “dispersed camping” mentioned by some of your more experienced friends.
In this post we’ll get into the details and answer the question, “what is dispersed camping?” and provide all the resources you need to plan your first trip. This includes details on how to prepare for a dispersed camping trip, what to pack, where to find the perfect campsite, and more.
Keep reading to learn more about our favorite way to camp and experience some of our incredible public lands.
- What is Dispersed Camping?
- How to Plan a Dispersed Camping Trip
- How to Find Dispersed Campsites
- Dispersed Camping Rules & Regulations
- What to Bring Dispersed Camping
Find Your Next Dispersed Campsite
Learn how to find the best campsite locations BEFORE you head out. No more showing up to crowded sites with all the good spots taken!
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Find free camping on public land
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What Is Dispersed Camping?
Dispersed camping is defined as camping outside of developed or established campgrounds. This is most likely to occur on US National Forest Land, Bureau of Land Management land, or on other public lands. One of the most important (and our favorite) features of dispersed camping is that it is free!
Dispersed campsites are generally located a short distance off a forest service or BLM road and can be accessed by car, although you’ll often need 4WD to access the best camping areas.
This means that the majority of the time when you are dispersed camping you won’t have access to any of the services that you’ll find a developed campgrounds such as bathrooms, picnic tables, trash services, or level tent-pads.
Read on to learn more about how to prepare for a dispersed camping trip, including what to bring, how to find your campsite, and the extra responsibility that comes with camping out on your own!
How to Plan a Dispersed Camping Trip
There are a few key elements to consider when planning a dispersed camping trip, all of which we’ll cover in this post. The most important considerations will be where you plan to camp, finding your campsite, making sure you’ve packed everything you’ll need, and leaving your campsite in better condition than you found it.
The first thing you’ll want to think about is where you plan to dispersed camp. Many states are full of exceptional public land, beautiful forests, and vast wilderness areas and much of this land is open to dispersed camping as long as you follow the rules and regulations in place.
The two largest land owners that permit dispersed camping are the United States Forest Services (USFS) as well as the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Both of these agencies oversee hundreds of thousands of acres of public land that is open to dispersed camping.
Dispersed Camping on US National Forest Service Lands
The most popular place to find dispersed campsites is within USFS National Forests. These federally protected lands are located throughout the country and span the breadth of ecosystems and landscapes. You’re almost always sure to find great dispersed campsites in any of these national forests.
Criss-crossing these national forests is a series of Forest Service Roads which provide the best chance at finding a great campsite. These roads are typically unpaved and vary greatly in their condition. Some are smooth and passable by all vehicles, while other are rugged and required 4WD to navigate. You’ll often find pullouts along these roads that make for an ideal place to pitch your tent and dispersed camp.
However, before setting up camp you’ll want be sure that camping is permitted. You can generally assume that camping is allowed in the national forest unless there are signs posted that specifically prohibit it. To be on the safe side we always recommend reaching out to the local USFS Ranger District with a general idea of where you’d like to camp. They’ll have the best intel on where it is permitted and the best sites for your circumstances.
Dispersed Camping on Bureau of Land Management Lands
In addition to the USFS, the other large federal land manager that permits dispersed camping is the Bureau of Land Management, often referred to as the BLM for short. The BLM manages land across many states, especially in the west, and has tons of excellent dispersed camping areas.
As with National Forests, it is safe to assume that dispersed camping is permitted on BLM land unless specifically prohibited. If looking for places to dispersed camp on BLM lands your best bet will be to look for smaller, secondary roads away from any developed areas. Many BLM lands are leased out to ranchers and oil/gas companies, so you’ll also want to verify that you aren’t interfering with those uses.
How to Find Dispersed Campsites
Finding a dispersed campsite is easier than you might think, especially given some of the tools available. With a little background information below you’ll have no trouble finding the perfect site for your next camping trip.
The first step to finding a dispersed campsite is to determine where you want to go and confirm that dispersed camping is permitted. The best place to start is by picking a national forest you’d like to camp in. US National Forests are the most popular destinations for dispersed camping, so we always recommend starting there.
Once we’ve picked a destination/National Forest, we like to use a combination of online apps/websites and USFS/BLM maps to find dispersed campsites. Our favorite online and app resources our outlined below:
- Freecampsites.net – Our go to resource for finding free camping.
- The Dyrt – An app that let’s you filter for free and dispersed campsites.
- Campendium – A website and app that allows you to see user reviews for campsites and campgrounds across the country.
While these apps and websites are a good starting place for finding dispersed camping, we always encourage would be campers to research and confirm camping availability with public agencies. Getting contact information for the USFS Ranger District you plan to camp in is relatively straightforward and can be accomplished with a simple Google search.
One of our favorite resources for finding dispersed campsites in National Forests is to make use of USFS Motor Vehicle Use Maps (MVUMs) for the national forests. These maps generally show which forest service roads permit dispersed camping, typically notated by two dots on either side of the road.
We often have a motor vehicle use map open in one tab and Google Maps satellite view in the other to help find dispersed campsites. You can cross reference the two and often see areas that have established campsites in Google Maps.
Find Your Next Dispersed Campsite
Our online video course will teach you everything you need to know to find your next free, dispersed campsite.
Learn how to find the best campsite locations BEFORE you head out. No more showing up to crowded sites with all the spots taken!
In this course, we’ll show you how to research free, public campsites, read USFS maps, locate public land, and plan your next dispersed camping trip.
- How to find areas that allow free, dispersed camping
- How to use public maps to narrow down your search
- How to use online apps to identify where camping is permitted and view the surrounding terrain
- How to view your exact location in relation to camping opportunities when you’re out looking for a site – even without cell phone service!
- Confidently plan your next camping trip
Dispersed Camping Rules & Regulations
One of our favorite things about dispersed camping is the lack of permits, reservations, and other requirements you’ll often find at developed campgrounds. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t important rules you should always following when dispersed camping.
It is best to check current regulations with the relevant USFS or BLM office, but you should plan on adhering to the following as outlined by the USFS:
- Do not camp in areas near trailheads, picnic areas, or developed campgrounds.
- Keep your campsite small.
- Use existing sites and fire rings when available.
- Pick a site where vegetation is absent.
- Do not camp within 200 feet of a water source.
- Dispersed camping is generally limited to 14 days within any continuous 30 day period.
- Only have a campfire if it is permitted, and always be sure it is completely extinguished.
- Practice Leave No Trace principles – more on that below!
Leave No Trace Principles for Dispersed Camping
As we’ve mentioned, dispersed campsites do not benefit from any of the services that are common at most developed campgrounds. This means no bathrooms, no trash pickup, and no campground host to ensure you campfire is completely out.
Given those facts, we think the most important consideration when dispersed camping is to follow Leave No Trace principles.
This will minimize your impact and ensure your campsite can be enjoyed by future visitors. Here are the seven principles of Leave No Trace camping:
- Plan Ahead & Prepare: Have an idea of where you’d like to camp and always be sure you are camping in an area that permits dispersed camping.
- Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces: Never camp on fragile ground or create a new campsite.
- Dispose of waste properly: Pack out all of your trash and bury human waste away from water sources. Ideally, carry out human waste or use a portable toilet.
- Leave what you find: Never take anything from your campsite. Other than trash of course!
- Minimize campfire impacts: Never create new fire rings and only have fires if permitted.
- Respect Wildlife: Properly store food at all times and be aware of the area’s wildlife.
- Be considerate of Other Visitors: Pack out your trash, don’t be loud, and leave your campsite in better condition than you found it.
Download Our FREE Dispersed Camping Cheat Sheet
Our free printable cheat sheet outlines how to find the perfect dispersed campsite for your next trip.
What to Bring Dispersed Camping
Packing for your dispersed camping trip means making sure you’re prepared to be self-sufficient since you won’t have the comforts of a developed campground to rely on. Top of mind when packing should be water storage, waste disposal, and a few items to increase your comfort and campsite cred.
Our dispersed camping checklist has everything you need.
Want to know the essentials for your next camping trip?
Our dispersed camping checklist has all the camping essentials plus specific items for dispersed camping.
1. Water Storage Container
Most dispersed campsites you’ll find don’t have a reliable water source. You may occasionally camp next to a river or stream that might allow you to filter the water, but we certainly wouldn’t rely on it. Given that, you’ll want to come prepared with enough water to last your entire trip. This includes enough to fully extinguish a campfire as well!
For this, we highly recommend a large, durable water container. Generally speaking, the bigger the better, but you’ll want at least 5 gallons to start. You can check out our top pick for a great water storage container below:
Our Top Pick
The Scepter Water Container holds 5 gallons of water and is incredibly durable. The cap makes it easy to pour into water bottles and it holds enough to last for most weekend camping trips.
2. Portable toilet
Properly disposing of human waste is a critical element of Leave No Trace camping and essential for minimizing your impact while dispersed camping. You won’t find any bathrooms out there, so having a plan before you arrive will make sure you’re camping responsibly and comfortably! At a minimum you’ll want a good trowel to dig a cat hole, but if you can avoid burying your waste that is even better.
A simple portable camp toilet will go a long ways to keep your campsite clean and avoid polluting any nearby waterways. Simple is better here, and we recommend the following option:
Our Top Pick
3. Camp Blanket
Ok, time for a little comfort. There is no denying that dispersed camping doesn’t have all the comforts of staying in a developed campground. One way to up the experience is to pack a cozy and durable blanket for around camp. This can keep you warm, make a nice picnic blanket, and is perfect for those nights when you can’t have a fire.
Our top pick for camp blankets is the stylish and functional Rumpl Puffy Blanket. It comes in a variety of sizes, but all share the same durability and are incredibly warm.
Our Top Pick
A good cooler is the workhorse of your dispersed camping set-up. It keeps your drinks cold, helps keep animals from getting into your food, and even makes a decent work surface for preparing meals. Most coolers will keep ice for a day or so before you’re left with a watery mess to deal with. If you want to avoid that, we can’t recommend a Yeti cooler enough.
Yes, they are expensive. But you will thank yourself over and over for making the upfront investment when you still have an ice cold cooler four days into your camping trip.
Our Top Pick
5. Map of the area
It is very important to have a good understanding of where you are when dispersed camping. You need to know whether the land your on is public or private, where that forest service road leads, and what trails are in the area. For this, we highly recommend a GPS app on your smartphone that allows you to download maps for offline use.
While there are plenty of these apps available, Gaia GPS is by far the best of the bunch. The premium membership gets you tons of base maps (our favorite is the National Geographic Trails Illustrated) and lets you download them so you’ll always know where you are even without cell service:
Our Top Pick
Gaia GPS is our go to app for offline navigation while camping, hiking, biking, and more. The map layers are detailed and offer tons of options that are sure to suit your needs. The ability to download maps for offline use makes it an essential tool for outdoor adventures.
Have a great trip!
You now know all the basics about dispersed camping and are ready to plan your perfect trip. If you’re looking for some specific destinations, be sure to check out our state specific guides below:
- Colorado Dispersed Camping
- Oregon Dispersed Camping
- Washington Dispersed Camping
- Arizona Dispersed Camping
- Utah Dispersed Camping
- Michigan Dispersed Camping
- California Dispersed Camping
Let us know in the comments below if you have any questions and be sure to tell us about your trip!