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Otherwise known as free camping, boondocking, and pirate camping, dispersed camping is a camping method for campers who are on a budget. Although you won’t be enjoying many of the benefits that come with paid camping, you’d be getting legally free space to camp, few neighbors, and a starry canopy in the form of the night sky. So, what is dispersed camping? How do you take advantage of it? Where can you find dispersed campsites? Who is dispersed camping for? All of these questions and more are what we’ll be answering in this article.
What Exactly IS Dispersed Camping?
As we noted earlier, dispersed camping is a camping method that allows you to camp for free. It’s basically camping in an area that isn’t designated as a campground. This can range from backpacking in the mountains and pitching your tent on a flat spot to driving up a forest access road where you park your camper van or small RV. It’s basically for those with no reservations, people looking to enjoy the wildlife and get in touch with nature, those who would like to rough it out, or people looking to escape campground fees.
Can You Just Camp Anywhere?
The answer is no. Dispersed camping may provide campers with flexibility, but that doesn’t mean you can set up camp anywhere. Always make sure you check in with a ranger station before deciding to go on a dispersed camping journey. Getting information from your ranger will make sure you don’t break any laws while camping for free.
While you may not be required to carry any special permit, you may need to be aware of special regulations related to the area where you want to set up camp. For instance, some wilderness areas may have open fire restrictions, while some public lands may need you to set up a simple registration at a trailhead. So always make sure you check in with a ranger before you select free campsites. With that said, some good areas where dispersed camping is allowed include:
- Bureau of Land Management (BLM)
- National Forests
- National Grasslands
- Wildlife Management Areas (WMA)
- Truck stops and parking lots that are closer to civilization
- Some trailheads
- Some city and county parks
For trailheads, city parks, and county parks, make sure you check for signs before camping. There are usually yellow and brown signs signaling the entrance to public lands. These signs will let you know that you’re in the right place.
Do You Have To Pay For Dispersed Camping?
The answer is no. Like we noted earlier, dispersed camping allows you to enjoy a natural and free camping experience. You may not have to pay for anything, but you need to be aware of the rules (if there are any) of the campsite you’re choosing. Also, note that you won’t be provided with reservations or basic amenities such as showers, toilets, restaurants, etc.
How Do You Pick A Campsite?
Many people love choosing campsites with a good view of the mountain, a cool spot in the woods, or a site near a stream. However, ensure that you drive on Forest Service roads or existing roads when driving to your campsite. Make sure you do not drive through the meadows so as to prevent resource damage. Below are some great tips that can help you choose the right campsite:
Talk to a ranger: Talking to a ranger before deciding to go dispersed camping will give you an inside track to choosing only the best campsites. Always keep an eye out for a visitor center or the Bureau of Land Management Ranger Station. You can also ask local rangers for their perspectives and opinions. Many of them are usually ready to help and you are going to be amazed at how much help they are willing to render.
Use Google Maps and Google Earth: Google Maps is another great resource for picking the right campsite. Check for areas colored in green as they signify public lands. You can also use Google Earth to determine the roads and landscapes of the area you’re choosing. You can also use a National Geographic Road Atlas to identify access roads, public land, etc. in case there’s no signal on your device.
Use Already Used Places: If you check out a campsite and there’s a spot that has already been used, make sure you use that spot. This is because creating a new site will have an impact on the soil, wildlife, and plants in the area. So, it’s recommended that you use existing ones as this will significantly minimize the impact.
Dispersed Camping In National Park Service Sites
While dispersed camping, in general, may have no restrictions, there are still rules in place to ensure that the environment isn’t endangered. National Park Service Sites have some restrictions in place in order to protect resources. While some national parks, monuments, and recreation areas may allow campers to choose a camping site in certain areas, you should ensure that you obtain the park’s permit before camping. Do not make assumptions.
Many national parks are close to the BLM or the U.S. Forest Service. These public lands are filled with dispersed camping opportunities. Dispersed camping is often allowed (except on rare occasions) on US Forest Service lands, including national forests and national grasslands. However, dispersed camping is prohibited within a mile of developed recreational areas like picnic areas, trailheads, and campgrounds.
Things To Bring When Dispersed Camping
As we noted earlier, you won’t be getting a lot of services when you’re dispersed camping. You may not even be able to find good water. Therefore, it’s essential that you pack everything you know you’ll be needing during your stay. You should also be prepared to clean the area as you must leave no trace of you being there. This simply means that you must bring your own trash along with you. Some important items to bring with you include:
- A printed map (just in case your phone dies and you can’t access Google or Apple Maps)
- Enough food to last your whole camping trip
- Enough water as you may not get clean water. Your water quantity should be up to a gallon per day per person. Also, ensure that you have a water filtration system.
- There are no trash cans on dispersed camping sites. So, it’s important that you bring a trash container along with you.
- Odor-proof bags to help you store your food. If you’ll be camping in a bear country with no access to bear lockers, ensure that bring bear canisters with you too.
- Sleeping bags, tents, and pads if you won’t be using an RV
- Security items, such as whistles, knives, compass, flashlight, etc.
- Extra layers to help keep you warm
- Any other thing you’ll need to be self-sufficient in the wild
The Leave No Trace Principles
Dispersed camping has been able to stay the way it is because of the leave no trace principles. These are a simple set of guidelines that help keep the wild and natural, wild and natural. With these principles, there will be less impact on wildlife, landscape, and resources. Below are the seven LNT principles that help dispersed campers retain the wild and natural experience that comes with dispersed camping:
Prepare and Plan Ahead
When you prepare and plan ahead, you would be familiar with the site where you are going to set up camp. You would have taken the time to educate yourself on the weather, regulations, potential risks, landscape, etc. of the region you’re going to. With all of these in mind, you’ll be able to make proper preparations before leaving home, which in turn, increases your chances of leaving the site without a trace. However, if you don’t plan or prepare ahead, and you find yourself in an uncomfortable or unexpected situation, you’re more likely to ignore the LNT rule.
Camp and Travel on Solid Surfaces
When you utilize the first principle, you’ll be better prepared for this one. Planning and preparation also means studying the landscape of the site where you’ll be camping. Always ensure that you camp and travel on solid surfaces, including rocks, gravel, snow, and dry grass. Do not take shortcuts through undeveloped forests as you are bound to damage resources. Always travel on trails and roads that have been created for traveling.
Proper Waste Disposal
Ensure that you dispose of every waste you create or bring to the campsite. This includes food wrappers, pets poop, cans, bottles, plastic ties, even your own human waste. You can use a dry sac as your garbage bin. They are quite good at hiding smells and they are also washable. If there are garbage services on the campgrounds, make use of them. And if there aren’t, take out your waste. Always try to bring as little waste as you can to the campgrounds. Drop packaging at home and carry only what you need to the campground. Also, ensure that you stay at least 100 feet away from the nearest water source so you don’t contaminate it.
Do Not Take What You Find
Picking rocks, pebbles, flowers, and leaves may seem like a good way to connect with nature or serve as a way to remember your camping trip. However, this innocent gesture is simply damaging wildlife. If everyone did the same thing, there will be nothing left for other campers to cherish. Simply take photos, create memories, and leave anything you find.
Reduce Campfire Impact
Ensure that you use only existing fire pit you find in camping areas. While campfires may be fun, they leave a mark on the environment. So, it’s recommended that you use existing fire spots whenever available in order to reduce impact. You can also decide not to build a fire every night so as to save fuel.
Respect Nature And Wildlife
Always remember that your designated campground is home to animals and plants. They are indirectly your host and you need to respect them when you’re in their territory. Always observe them from a distance. Ensure that you do not feed the animals. There are certain places, including BLM land and other public lands that may close down during nesting and mating periods. Others may simply want the animals to have enough space to raise their young. Ensure that you respect these closures.
Another thing you want to consider is the water source. It’s important to note that if the local water source is contaminated, every living thing around it will suffer. So always ensure that you get a few buckets away from the water source. Do not wash your plates in the water or use any kind of soap in it, even biodegradable ones. Always dump your dirty water far away from the water source. Stay at least 100 feet away from the stream or any other water source. Also, keep your food closed all the time. Doing this will save your food and reduce the chances of animals sneaking into your camp ground.
Be Respectful To Other Visitors
Many people engage in disperse camping in order to enjoy nature and wildlife. The sounds, sight, and smells are the thrill they love about the outside world. Ensure that you respect your neighbors if you have any. Do not play loud music or start a noisy campground party. Be sensitive to how your experience might affect your neighbors. Try to be courteous to everyone.
Recent Social Media Rule
There will always be the need to share your moments with your social media fans. However, a recent social media rule was added to the Leave No Trace guidelines in order to help dispersed campers keep the environment safe. Campers are encouraged to think about the negativity their social media posts can have on a place. Geotagging or adding the map of a specific location to a photo can cause more people to turn up to that location. Not every environment, landscape, or ecosystem has the capability to handle such traffic.
So, campers are urged to tag thoughtfully when geotagging. Instead of tagging a specific place, you can simply tag the entire region. Also, try to give back to the place you love. You can check to see if there are any volunteer openings dedicated to improving the place.