FREE CAMPING ON PUBLIC LAND: DISPERSED CAMPING 101
I grew up in rural Pennsylvania and spent most of my time outdoors. As soon as I was old enough to go camping by myself I made a habit of meandering in any direction and picking a campsite at random. This predilection developed a taste and preference for dispersed camping that I’ve carried into the rest of my life.
Dispersed camping is a no-frills solution for those who want to rough it, or who are camping on a budget. It’s a practice for the adventurous and the incorrigible explorer who demands a more authentic experience.
We’re going to take a look at what dispersed camping is and the general guidelines and good practices that have allowed it to endure. Planning ahead is a key element for these trips. Knowing the rules and regulations of specific forests and parks is just as important as picking the right campsite.
Like good camping ninjas, we will ensure to leave no trace. The largest appeal of boondocking is the sense of solitude and unspoiled wilderness. Nothing ruins that experience like finding trash from other campers.
These key points will be reinforced and expanded on throughout this feature, but let’s take a look at them now:
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Campgrounds surrounded by fellow campers aren’t for me. The appeal of sleeping in the outdoors is immediately tarnished when I hear conversations, and especially when there’s a toilet. I mean, what’s the point of camping if you aren’t going to the bathroom in the woods?
Further Reading: If you are new to outdoors adventures then check out our beginners guide to camping and how spending time in nature can help your body & mind. If you're planning on taking the little ones then we've got some great camping ideas for kids.
Dispersed camping is the recreational use of free-access public lands for campers. Most of the time this camping is done out of your car. People drive to a forest road, safely park their vehicles on the side, and then camp. Simple as that.
This hybridized form of camping combines the conveniences of car camping with a genuine roughing-it experience free of amenities including toilets, showers, garbage cans, and any other basic service other campgrounds provide.
Public lands are there for public use, so most areas owned by National Forests, the Department of Natural Resources, and the Bureau of Land Management are open for boondocking. In general, unless there’s a specific rule against it you can freely camp in one of these locations.
The history of dispersed camping goes back to Theodore Roosevelt establishing forest land as a protected and reserved site for the nation. This was back in 1891, so the principle of free access to public land is a tradition dating back more than one-hundred years. Nowadays National Forests are found in 40 states (most is concentrated west of the Rockies), and they all offer places for you to settle in and stay awhile.
While boondocking isn’t for everyone, it’s an experience just about everybody can get something out of. At the very least it’s an outing folk should scratch off their list of “Been there, done that”. Even a bad experience can make a good story.
For the campers and hikers who are more inclined to jump into the roughing-it nature of dispersed camping, it’s an experience that many find addicting and compelling. Venturing into the outdoors and making camp far from established campgrounds is a relieving experience that satisfies our inner nomad.
Most National Forests are near National Parks, so dispersed camping is an excellent way to save on campground fees and to beat the reservation system.
That sense of adventure combined with the grit of such a hands-on jaunt into the woods is what it’s all about. For folks like myself, the cons are part of the appeal of dispersed camping! However, for individuals with a more refined taste might find this more primitive form of camping unsavory.
Because so much land available for dispersed camping is federally owned, there are some general rules and guidelines that everybody should follow while boondocking. States and local governments may also have additional rules.
Forest fires are a growing concern (especially out West) so diligent fire safety rules are a no-brainer. Ideally, the camper will use a camp stove, but if an open fire is your only option always build a campfire ring around it to contain the flames.
Maintain a distance of 200 feet from any source of water. This is to protect the water from contamination (think human waste & camping soap/gray water) but also keeps sensitive water plants and wildlife from harm’s way. Use only fallen wood for your fire.
Bury all human waste to a depth of six inches a minimum of 200 feet from a water source.
The easiest way to ensure you’re following these regulations? Find an established campsite. Dispersed camping isn’t about leaving your own mark in the wilderness, it’s about enjoying the outdoors responsibly and leaving as little evidence of your presence as possible.
If a roadway is blocked with a gate, don’t try to go around it; it’s locked and the road is off-limits for a reason.
Never leave trash, garbage, or supplies/gear behind at your campsite. Everything that you bring in must come back out with you.
Camping within site of trailheads is often prohibited. Your goal while dispersed camping is to be relatively unseen to preserve the wilderness for others, so that means no camping in meadows or clearings where others are likely to see you.
Each state may have different rules and regulations, and so will local jurisdictions. Always check with local authorities and Ranger station before heading into the forest all willy-nilly.
While dispersed camping is the spontaneous campers best friend, basic planning will only improve the trip.
At the very least it is wise to stay abreast of date-specific events like hunting seasons and burn bans. Some forests require you to have a camping permit before you can set up your tent. Major holidays and scheduled events or festivals can influence your experience as well.
Rather than just driving around blind hoping to stumble upon a suitable spot there are three ways that will help you find a suitable location ahead of your trip.
One of your best friends in the forest is a Ranger. These folks know the terrain, the roads, and the hazards of their jurisdiction. If you can’t find information elsewhere, consult a Ranger. These professionals will be familiar with where campsites are located and can point you to the best locations. Informing Rangers where you’re camping is a safety bonus too.
Since 2005, the forestry service introduced a rule that all areas must make maps of all roads open to motor vehicles available to the general public. This means there is an entire database of potential campsites available for you to search.
There are also several community run websites that have an extensive list of dispersed campsites across the country. Try one of the following:
Just because there’s a road doesn’t mean you can drive on it! Check out updated motor vehicle use maps and websites dedicated to camping in your selected areas. There are plenty of forest roads to adventure from, but they aren’t always open. Seasonal conditions can make these roads dangerous or impassable.
Having an up-to-date map is important if you’re in an area with limited or no phone reception. Check weather forecasts before heading out, too.
If you’re a fan of traveling with your dog, most forests and areas simply require that your dog is leashed and under control at all times, but specific areas may have more stringent rules. Diseases, animals, and parasites deadly to your pet and may be experiencing a population surge.
Picking the right destination for your trip is equally important as picking the right location for the campsite itself. The wrong option can be detrimental to the environment, and at worst could place you into a seriously precarious situation in the event of an emergency.
Keep your campsite at least 200 feet away from any water source. This is to prevent contaminating the water. Some forests will have additional rules about distances from roads and trailheads. Most dispersed camping requires you to be 1 mile away from permanent campground locations.
Set your fire away from nearby combustibles and ensure you have adequate overhead clearance. Firewood should always be sourced locally; if you need to collect wood from the local area, always choose wood that is already on the ground. Never break branches from standing trees, live or dead. Always ensure your fire is dead out and cold to the touch before you disperse the ashes around the campsite.
Alternatively, bring a camp stove.
Find a flat, level area to set up your site. Never alter the area by digging drainage ditches; this is why it’s so important to find an established and trusted campsite to minimize your impact on the ecosystem.
An excellent way to avoid leaving a heavy footprint from your tent is to camp in a hammock. It’s a lightweight, easily transported, and quick to assemble sleeping area. All it requires is a few trees or posts the right distance away to set up. Suspension straps will eliminate damage to trees.
When in the outdoors we value the untouched feeling of the wilderness around us. At most, we want an established campfire ring marking a location for a campsite. This feeling of the wild and separation from the mess and the noise of civilization requires that the hiker and the camper practice the art of leaving no trace of their presence.
If you bring something into the outdoors, it comes back out with you. That applies to trash of any sort, food items, your gear and supplies, and if you want to be really awesome, your waste and toilet paper.
Not sure what to do? Here are some specific tips for your trip!
Always ensure that you use locally sourced firewood (purchased or picked from the ground surrounding your campsite). Only burn inside a fire ring, and always look for an already established fire ring before making your own. Ensure the coals are cool to the touch before walking away from a fire and store your firewood a safe distance from the pit itself.
Ah, the art of pooping into a hole. It’s a lot more fun than it sounds, I promise. Just make sure to dig a hole at least six inches deep to deposit your waste, and that your toilet is at least 200 feet from any source of water. Consider using portable toilets and waste removal bags specifically designed for leaving no trace whatsoever.
Bring your own water that is clean to drink, or bring appropriate gear to purify and decontaminate any water sources you intend to drink from. If you do bring your own make sure to bring the containers out with you.
Any and all trash needs to come back out with you. This includes wrappers, containers, remnants of food… pretty much anything you’d ordinarily leave in a trash can at a campground.
While most of this public land for dispersed camping is found west of the Rockies, there are areas and regions for adventure from sea to shining sea. We’ve broken this down by generalized region and have a few ideas for each to get you started. For more ideas of campsites in your selected area check out the website Free Campsites.
Edgemere in Delaware National Forest is near Dingman’s Ferry in the Pennsylvania Poconos. It’s an excellent area to gain a good glimpse at what makes Pennsylvania an underappreciated area for backpacking and camping. Permits are required. Woodhull State Forest in upper New York state is an out-there but worth-it trip to see a large chunk of forestlands.
The Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest in Georgia offers some excellent camping in the southeast. South Carolina provides Sumter National Forest, a favorite camping destination of a close friend who swears by the location.
Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky is my favorite area of the state. While exploring the terrain, stop into their park offices to obtain a backcountry permit. Shawnee National Forest in Illinois has liberal dispersed camping rules; their big one is that all vehicles must be parked in designated overnight areas.
Outside of Boulder Colorado is Rainbow Lake. The long road has scattered pull-offs and invites campers to find a secluded area. Outside of Somerset Colorado is Keblar Pass. Watch out for private lands abutting the public ones and make efforts to stay at established campsites rather than building your own.
The Coconino National Forest in Arizona is a tie for my favorite place on earth (the second being Disneyland, of course). Although there are 12 sites for dispersed camping along the Snow Bowl Road, it’s one of the best freakin’ areas in the state. A few hours north is Utah; the Gooseberry Mesa is among the best trails in the Southwest. The access road is a long one and rainy conditions can make travel impossible, so plan ahead before visiting here.
It’s impossible to not find dispersed camping opportunities in the Northwest. My favorite area is the Hoh Rainforest on the Olympic Peninsula. It’s a wet place, but the hiking is topnotch and the views without equal. Deschutes National Forest outside of Bend Oregon is another spot worth checking out. This site is especially attentive to the Leave No Trace ethics we’ll read about later.
We’ve got a good look at what we can expect when dispersed camping, and have a grasp on the responsibilities involved. We’re also ready to contact local Ranger stations and reach out to the proper channels to learn about the conditions of tracts of the forest before we head blindly into the wilderness. I’d say that’s a good start.
Dispersed camping is a great adventure for the right people and a totally worthwhile experience for the people less inclined to roughing it. Now that you’ve got a good handle on it, the next step is to put that to use and plan your next trip.
I’ll see you out there.
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Matt was reared by the bear and the bobcat and the coyote of rural Pennsylvania. For the moment he lives in Philadelphia and is a gardener and freelance writer by trade. Matt's free time is devoted to traipsing through forests, angling in creeks, and hunting for rare plants and mushrooms. He's got a soft spot for reading Steinbeck while in the outdoors and is quickly becoming a die-hard hammock camper. Matt is fueled almost entirely by beer and hot sauce.