This Is The Real Definition of Dispersed Camping

Kelly Headshot

By Kelly Beasley

Last Updated: September 21, 2022

When I hit the road on May 25th, 2015, with everything I owned stuffed into my trailer behind my truck, I didn't know what lay ahead of me as far as dispersed camping was concerned.

It was my first day of full-time RV life, and I knew I wanted to do some living off-grid and stay on public land. I didn't know how often or how much.

(Turns out I did it full-time.)

But how could you go camping alone? What IS dispersed camping? And how can you find it?

These are the questions and more that we answer here from our experience.

Grand Tetons boondocking

Dispersed camping at the Grand Tetons

First, there may be some confusion between the terms dispersed camping, dry camping, and boondocking. They are all very similar, so confusion is understandable.

Let's take a look at the actual definitions.

What Does Dispersed Camping Mean?

It means camping in the national forest OUTSIDE any improved camping or recreational area.

In most places we stayed, there is nothing more around to define a spot than maybe a campfire ring.

You will never have any camping sites with utilities to connect to, such as potable water and showers, as you are camping 'in the wild.'

You even may not have cell phone service.

Dispersed camping is camping in a national forest OUTSIDE of any improved campground or recreational area.
Kelly and Marshall's travel trailers boondocking Grand Canyon

National forest dispersed camping outside of the Grand Canyon

However, free camping in national forests doesn't mean you (or others) can go wild and do whatever you want. You must follow regulations when looking for and staying at a site.

Anyway, people often get this term mixed up with dry camping. (Heck, I did, too, and I learned the true meaning by doing this article, LOL!)

Dry camping is simply camping without being hooked up to any utilities.

You can use the term 'dispersed' camping when speaking of dry camping, but technically, it's remote camping in a US forest.

There you have it... now the question "What is dispersed camping?" should never come out of your mouth again.

Do National Forests Allow Dispersed Camping?

Most national forests allow you to camp outside their primitive designated sites. We've done so many times. However, you cannot park just anywhere.

It must be in a spot that has access and where you can tell people have parked before in a spot. Use websites and apps such as Campendium to locate areas before you go.

Dispersed camping Las Cienegas

Southern Arizona

What Is The Difference Between Boondocking And Dispersed Camping?

Boondocking is camping out in remote places, always without any utilities. But boondocking can be had almost anywhere, on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land and any other public lands.

Dispersed camping is camping (usually without utilities) in a national forest area. Most often, if you are camping in a national forest, you're also boondocking, UNLESS you're in a dispersed campground. If you're in one, you likely still don't have any utilities (you might), but you do have to park in a designated and numbered spot.

Where Can You Find This Type Of Camping?

The thought of finding this type of camping spot for the first time may be intimidating. It sure was for me!

But actually, it's easy to find free camping in US forests.

How to find dispersed camping? There are online resources to find public lands in national forests and at least one old-fashioned way.

Campendium logo
  1. Websites Campendium is a fantastic resource for knowing about a spot before arriving. They have it all: campgrounds, BLM land, forests, and more. There are a few other websites, but this one is the best. We mostly used this website (and the owners are good friends of ours).
  2. Nearest Ranger Station - Rangers at ranger stations can tell you where public lands are and where camping is allowed. They also may have a few secret spots you can check out. Maybe, just maybe, they'll have dispersed camping maps you can use.
  3. Google Maps - If you know you are going to camp in national forests but don't know where camp spots are, check out the satellite image on Google Maps. Often you can see clearings where the campsites are. Also, you may see RVs parked in the photo, usually a clear indicator of a camp spot.

Is Dispersed Camping Dangerous?

You know, anything in life is dangerous. Driving can 'be dangerous.' Walking can 'be dangerous.' Hiking can 'be dangerous.'

So sure, dispersed camping can 'be dangerous.' But if you take general precautions, follow the rules, and use your head, you should be OK with nothing to worry about.

Kelly RV Lake Creek Road Ketchum

Outside of Ketchum, Idaho

Bring a bear canister of bear spray if you're in bear country, and don't leave food out or in your car. Bring a flashlight. Stay on the dirt road, don't drive off of it.

Stay within cellular reception in case of emergency. Use common sense, and you likely won't die or get hurt.

Marshall and I camped in remote locations for 6 and 7 years and somehow we lived to tell the tale, lol!

RV Dispersed Camping Rules

Each national forest will have its own rules, and you'll have to inquire about each area you're interested in. But here's one rule you should stick to, as your life depends on it. DO NOT ARRIVE AFTER OR NEAR DARK.

I made this mistake once. Never have again. I learned my lesson very well!

Crowded dispersed camping Sedona

Me parked with strangers. I had to uncomfortably ask if I could camp by them overnight. 

I arrived late to a very popular area with ZERO spots left. Panicking, I pulled my trailer much faster down the washboard road than I should have, desperately trying to find an open site.

Finally, it was dark, and I had to ask a group if I could park with them for the night. They begrudgingly said yes.

It was so uncomfortable. Never arrive after or near dark! Pack up and leave early.

Dispersed Camping Areas: Better Than Campgrounds?

Pretty much ever since then, public lands have been my jam.

What makes me consistently choose to boondock on BLM land or camp in national forests?

Two dogs lying in front of travel trailer at Twin Lakes, Colorado

Twin Lakes, Colorado

That's so easy to answer:

  1. Price: It's almost always free. Usually, there's a stay limit. Often you must move at least every 16 days (sometimes 14). My camping locations are free and away from people.
  2. Beauty: Want a good view? Few campgrounds rival the beauty and nature you get camping without a campground. These places have trails, streams, woods, mountains, wildflowers, coyotes, and more. All without the crowds.
  3. Facilities: Well, what facilities? That's right. There ARE none most of the time. If you are self-sufficient, there's no need to pay for utilities. Become self-sufficient using your own resources and escape the nasty bathrooms, noisy neighbors, views of bear lockers and trash collection services, etc.
  4. Solitude: The peace and quiet of most remote sites are unrivaled by any RV park.
  5. Flexibility: No reservations necessary. Never full (kind of). Leave and arrive on YOUR schedule.

Is Dispersed Camping Legal In National Parks?

Because the dispersed camping definition means camping in national forests, this question doesn't apply to national parks.

If you are wondering if parking anywhere you choose in a national park is allowed, the answer is no. There are exceptions, and you must inquire at the national park you want to visit.

Sometimes backcountry primitive camping is permitted but usually only with a permit and when using a tent, not a vehicle.

Forest Service Rules To Follow

Don't worry; camping on public land doesn't mean you are in vigilante territory.

Visitors cannot park in national forests for any time length they choose.

Nor are they allowed to do disruptive things like having giant parties (well, they can't without permits).

There are guidelines and restrictions for protecting the land, which is one of our most incredible natural resources.

Sedona dispersed camping

National forest land outside of Sedona, AZ. Notice the existing fire pit.

Camping restrictions are in effect to prevent resource damage from human impact. Though in some places, the rules fall on deaf ears.

Visitors can't spread trash. Sometimes they can't start campfires, and they can't be a nuisance, etc.

There are camping restrictions made to prevent resource damage from human impact.

Here are some typical rules you must follow in any wilderness area.

  1. Trash: There are no garbage collection services next to your site. What you bring, you must take out in your waste cans. Or, if your local forest has trash cans, use them.
  2. Leave Your Campfire Cold: Make sure all embers are out at your fire pit. Pour water on it, stir the ashes, and make sure it is cool to the touch.
  3. Day limit: Every national forest has its number of days allowed limit. Adhere to the rules of the particular national forest you are in.
  4. Follow The Principles Of Leave No Trace: This doesn't just apply to trash. The impacts of humans on public land can be devastating. Only camp in previously used, established dispersed camping sites. Only use existing fire rings. If you make a pit toilet, dig a cathole six inches deep. Don't tear down existing vegetation. You are not allowed to drive on meadows to access a site. You can't set up camp in a field. Only camp on bare soil. These rules help keep it nice for everyone while protecting plants, dirt, and wildlife. Follow the principles of leave no trace.
  5. Distance from water: Catholes for human waste and camping sites must be at least 200 feet away from water sources.
Human waste cathole

Conclusion

Dispersed camping meaning is camping inside a national forest remotely or in what is a dispersed campsite.

Finding dispersed camping is easy when you use websites that we did, like Campendium.

And dispersed camping is usually near trailheads, with animals nearby, with no significant roadway in sight, and not a worry in the world. It is the BEST.

Ketchum Idaho dispersed camping

Group of our friends outside of Ketchum, Idaho

Is dispersed camping free? Almost always, yes.

You need to find a site where dispersed secluded camping is allowed.

It should be an obvious campsite, you must camp responsibly, make sure there is good cell phone reception if you need it, and you're good to go. Pack up and leave early to arrive well before dark.

Set up, put wood in your fire pit (as long as there are no fire bans or fire restrictions where you are), and start enjoying the sounds of nature and wildlife!

  • Like this information? Read other articles about the RVing lifestyle here on Camp Addict.
Kelly Headshot

Hello! I'm the co-founder of Camp Addict, which my biz partner and I launched in 2017. I frigging love the RVing lifestyle but in December of 2020, we both converted to part-time RV life. Heck, I lived in my travel trailer for over 5.5 years, STRICTLY boondocking. I learned a lot about the RV life and lifestyle during those years. Now we share what we know with you here at Camp Addict.

After that many years of wonderful full-time travel, it was time for something new. These days, I'm often found working from my new Az home, and sometimes plotting and scheming whether or not to start collecting farm animals (or plotting my next RV trip!).

  • Great stuff and really appreciate the information and the ease at which you provide it. One question for you, when in remote areas like that have you had to deal with dangerous wildlife, thinking rattlesnakes, and what did you do?

    • Hi Tim,

      I was for sure pretty concerned about this before I hit the road. I asked the same question. Turns out, I RARELY ever came across anything that was a threat. And I full-time boondocked. In almost 6 years of full-time, I came across a snake MAYBE 7-10 times? And a couple of those times I wasn’t camping, I was driving and saw a snake go across the road.

      One time my friends and I were parked in a ‘snake pit’ outside of Alamosa, Co. It was so bad we left early. It must have been breeding season or they just all came out for their first sun. Mostly rattlers. Other than that I don’t recall seeing a rattler. Not saying they aren’t there, they are, but they mostly try to avoid you as much as you try to avoid them. They should warn if you get too close.

      No problems, ever, with critters like snakes while I was on the road. Oh, I had a mouse once. That’s about the worst thing I had to deal with.

      I wouldn’t put it at the top of my ‘worry’ list! : )

  • Brenda and I have not tried “dispersed camping”. We have done a ton of boondocking on BLM or off-gridding on private land. These next few months we plan to do a quite a bit in the national forests.

    • It’s weird to me how they call some of them ‘national forests’ but there are no trees. So strange. Hope to run into you someday soon within the next 10 years. ???? HOW LONG HAS IT BEEN NOW?

      Sheesh. Too long.

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