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What Is Dispersed Camping?

Campers sitting around a fire at a very remote campsite.
Johnny Adolphson/Shutterstock

Camping is shaping up to be the ultimate 2020 vacation. But what if the campsite you’ve set your sights on is sold out, or you want to maintain a very large social-distancing area? It might be time to try dispersed camping.

If you’re new to camping or just not outdoorsy, you might be unfamiliar with dispersed camping. It simply means camping somewhere other than a designated campground. Yes, it’s legal, and it’s also safe, as long as you take a few reasonable precautions.

What Dispersed Camping Really Means

To be clear, you can’t just show up anywhere in the country and camp. While dispersed camping is permitted on lots of public lands, certain sections, such as endangered species’ habitats, might be closed to camping.

The best part is that dispersed camping is typically free. You won’t have to compete for a spot in a packed campsite, nor will you have to pay anything for your space. Plus, no reservations are required—just show up and set up your camp.

Dispersed camping is ideal for hikers and backpackers, but it’s also suitable for those with a vehicle or small RV, since you can use forest access roads to find a site. However, you won’t have access to any resources, like bathrooms, running water, or RV hookups. You’ll need to bring everything you need with you, and, of course, pack it all up when you’re done.

Tips for Your First Dispersed Camping Trip

While you won’t need to make reservations or pay fees, dispersed camping does require a little extra planning ahead. These tips will ensure that you have a good time—especially if it’s your first dispersed camping trip.

Avoid Going Alone

Unless you’re an experienced camper, going dispersed camping alone is risky. If anything unexpected happens, you’ll be totally on your own, possibly without another person within earshot. Until you have wilderness skills, you’ll want to camp with at least one other person.

Also, it’s wise to tell someone back home where you’re headed, who you’re going with, and when you’ll be back. While it’s unlikely anything bad will happen on a routine camping trip, taking basic precautions never hurt.

Prepare for No Cell Service

Dispersed campsites aren’t as likely to have cell service. Send important messages or set up your vacation email response before you go, so you won’t be stressed about being out of touch. Also, bring along a hard copy map of the area in case you can’t access one on your phone.

Call Ahead

If you haven’t camped in a certain location before, call ahead to make sure it’s permitted. Contact the nearest ranger station or Forest Service office (a Google search like “ranger station near me” should turn up the contact info you need).

They’ll also inform you of any specific rules for the area, such as restrictions on campfires or pets. You can find out how long you’re allowed to camp there, too—dispersed camping in a single area is often permitted for about two weeks.

Set Out Before Dark

Silhouette of a woman sitting outside an illuminated tent by a remote lake.
Evgenii Ponomarev/Shutterstock

One of the best things about dispersed camping is you can plan it at the last minute. However, you don’t want to be searching for a place to put your tent after nightfall. Start planning early in the day so you have plenty of time to find your spot and get set up.

Avoid Developed Areas

As you search for the perfect spot, keep in mind that developed areas, like picnic areas along a hiking trail, don’t permit dispersed camping.

You’ll need to be farther off the beaten path to camp.

Use Cleared Space

Dispersed campers should disrupt the natural area as little as possible. For example, you don’t want to clear any vegetation to build your campsite. Look for a spot that’s mostly flat and clear already.

Sometimes, you’ll even find a site that’s been used previously, where you can set up and minimize any disruption of nature.

Camp Away from Water

Camping close to water can contaminate it, so be sure to leave enough space between your site and any water source. Staying at least 200 feet away is a good guideline.

Not only will this leave the water pristine, but it’s also a good way to avoid any surprise visitors. Animals, big and small, come to water sources, often at night. Enjoying a view of the lake from a nearby hill will cut down your midnight encounters with the local fauna.

Plan Your Bathroom

With no campsite bathrooms, you’ll need to be prepared. You can bring a portable toilet or really rough it with a shovel. Of course, don’t forget the toilet paper!

Follow these Forest Service guidelines for your camp bathroom to ensure you leave the natural area nice and clean.

Build Fires Responsibly

If campfires are allowed, keep yours small and properly contained. You can even get a backpack-friendly portable fire pit. Keep fires away from vegetation and branches that could catch, as well as water sources. Always put out your fire completely before you walk away.

You can either pack or find firewood. However, if you pack it, buy it as close to the campsite as possible. Otherwise, you could bring invasive insects to the area without realizing it. If you’re finding your own, make sure to use dead wood, rather than ripping branches from living trees.

Beware of Bears

If you’re in bear country, keep your food in bear canisters to avoid any unwanted encounters. Bears are fun to see from a distance, but not when they surprise you at your campsite!

Bring Enough Water

Either pack plenty of drinking water or bring what you need to safely treat natural water. Many campers and backpackers use a LifeStraw—it can filter up to 1,000 gallons without chemicals and has no moving parts.

Pack Responsibly

In addition to the obvious, like your tent, food, and water, pack everything else you’ll need for the location. This might include clothing you can layer, a knife, compass, flashlight, and more. Try to avoid relying on your cell phone to serve as a flashlight or anything else, since phones can easily be lost, broken, or run out of battery charge.

If you haven’t looked at camping lanterns recently, you should really check them out. Gone are the days of the bulky, dangerous kerosene lantern. Some LED lanterns can even run for hundreds of hours on one charge.

Leave No Trace

No one is checking and cleaning your campsite after you leave, so leave it in better shape than you found it. Plan to take everything with you when you leave, including trash. There won’t be any trash cans at your site except those you bring.

To be sure you really leave no trace, learn and follow The Seven Principles of Leave No Trace.

Have Fun!

This is the easiest tip of all. With a little bit of preparation and equipment, you can enjoy your time in unspoiled nature, away from the rowdiness of traditional campsites.

While there’s a bit of a learning curve, after a few dispersed camping trips, you’ll have the skills you need to relax and take it all in.

If you love camping and nature, you’ll really enjoy our writer’s true story about hiking to one of Alaska’s most infamous sites!

Elyse Hauser Elyse Hauser
Elyse Hauser is a freelance and creative writer from the Pacific Northwest, and an MFA student at the University of New Orleans Creative Writing Workshop. She specializes in lifestyle writing and creative nonfiction. Read Full Bio »
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