If you want to go camping, but hate the crowds, or can’t ever manage to get a campground reservation, dispersed camping might be for you! The U.S. Forest Service defines dispersed camping as “camping anywhere in the National Forest outside of a designated campground." This means you will can find yourself a spot to camp at the end of a dirt road, a pull out, or otherwise off the beaten trail. You’ll be camping somewhere without a fee, but you also won’t have access to amenities such as bathrooms and trash cans.
You don’t need reservations, or to pay fees when you go dispersed camping, so it takes less preparation in that sense. However, it's important to learn where you can camp! Pick a national forest or BLM (Bureau of Land Management) spot and make a call to the ranger station to get accurate information on where dispersed camping is allowed. While most forest service land is open to dispersed camping, certain areas may be closed for wildlife migration among other reasons. Different states also have different regulations, so be sure to check those out before you go!
Dispersed campsites are located along most secondary roads and won't be marked. You can usually find ideal spots where people have camped before though by the marking of a fire pit. There are resources like The Dryt that can help you find a spot. Be warned: many dispersed camping roads are bumpy and not well maintained. Make sure your vehicle has enough clearance, and if you approach a section of the road you feel you might get stuck on, simply turn around and head back the way you came.
Since you won't have amenities while dispersed camping, it's important to follow the Leave No Trace Principles like not camping on vegetation and more than 200 feet from water.
Here are a few of the things you’ll need to bring or know before you go dispersed camping.
Not all dispersed camp sites have a water source like a lake or stream, so bring enough water for everyone in the group, including the four-legged members.
Bring garbage bags for any trash your produce and pack it out.
Check with the local rangers to see if fires are allowed. If not, make sure you have a stove with you!
Have a poop trowel, and research proper backcountry protocol for relieving yourself.
Bring odor-proof containers to keep the bears and other wildlife away from your food.
Make you sure have a first aid kit, GPS, and a satellite phone. There is often no cell phone service at dispersed campsites. Be prepared with directions and an exit plan in the event your vehicle gets stuck and you're unable to make a call.
And there you have it! You’re now on your way to taking a dispersed camping trip. Know where you can go, what you can bring, and to not leave any traces you were there. Be safe and have fun!
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