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Dispersed Camping on Public Lands

09.11.17

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Dispersed Camping on Public Lands

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Between the 193 million acres of public land managed by the US Forest Service (thanks Teddy) and the 247 million acres of public land managed by the BLM, the United States is full of endless forests, snow-capped peaks, crashing waterfalls, peaceful lakes and prime real estate for dispersed camping. Unless otherwise explicitly prohibited, dispersed camping, which is camping anywhere outside of a designated site, is permitted anywhere inside the U.S.’ 154 national forests and BLM-managed lands as long as you follow a few rules. Although dispersed campgrounds don’t come with the amenities you’ll find at designated sites, they are a valuable resource to know about when planning an adventure.

Why go Dispersed Camping?

  1. It’s free
  2. No reservations
    • All dispersed campgrounds are first-come, first-served, but don't worry about getting there first; there's more than enough for everyone.
  3. Solitude
    • If you want to escape the crowds often found at designated campsites, dispersed sites will almost always provide the privacy you're looking for. 
  4. It makes trips to national parks easy
    • Although visiting a national park is an incredible experience, camping in national parks isn’t always that easy. The park’s designated campsites can be expensive and usually require reservations weeks or even months in advanced. Luckily, national parks are almost always bordered by national forests, and the dispersed campgrounds that populate them. By camping in a nearby national forest, you can still enjoy the mind-boggling environments that national parks provide, and you won't have to worry about a camping fee or reservation.  

How to find a Dispersed Campsite

  1. Check freecampsites.net
    • This is a community run website where individuals post campsites, that tend not to be advertised online, where they’ve camped before.
  2. Stop at a ranger station or visitor center
    • No one knows these lands better than the people that work on these lands, and they’ll be able to point you toward the best dispersed campgrounds in the area.
  3. Look for service roads
    • Forest Service Roads, labeled as NF-## on maps, and BLM roads are often hubs for dispersed campsites and line major roads that run through public lands.

Rules to Follow While Dispersed Camping

  1. Camp 100 feet away from any water source
  2. Camp within 150 feet of a roadway
  3. Camp outside of a 1-mile radius of any designated campsite
  4. Don’t camp at a site for more than 16 days
    • After 16 days you must move to a dispersed site that is at least 5 miles away.
  5. Camp where others have camped before
    • It is easy to recognize land that has been camped on before; look for warn down dirt and rock clusters that have been formed to keep fires in check. 
  6. Pack it in, pack it out
    • Don’t leave behind trash or anything else you carry in with you. 
  7. Check beforehand for any other restrictions
    • Depending on the administering agency, what the weather has been like, and other various factors, there may be specific rules in place, most commonly restrictions on campfires.

Leave No Trace

These rules are in place for a reason. Bulldozing your way through the woods and setting up camp wherever you please, destroying plants and scaring away wildlife as you go has a significant impact on the environment. By being respectful and following these rules, you are protecting these public lands for future campers. If you want to learn more about the how’s and why’s of enjoying the outdoors without environmental consequences, read this blog by Outdoor Contributor Matthew Durrant about Leaving No Trace.

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