This Is The Real Definition of Dispersed Camping

PublishedApril 7, 2020

Dispersed camping Las Cienegas

The day was May 25th, 2015. I slid behind the wheel of my truck. It was parked at my house for the very last time.

Anything and everything I owned was stuffed into my travel trailer, rolling behind my truck.

It was my first day of full-time RV life! I was off to the great 'Wild West,' destinations unknown.

I knew I wanted to do some dispersed camping and wanted to stay on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land. I didn't know how often or how much.

(Turns out I do it full-time.)

But how could I go camping by myself? How could I find dispersed camping? What IS dispersed camping?

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?

Grand Tetons reflections Schwabacher Landing

Dispersed camping = Camping in a National Forest OUTSIDE of any improved campground or recreational area. 

Often 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 off forest access roads will always be free RV camping.

Dispersed camping is camping in a National Forest OUTSIDE of any improved campground or recreational area.  

It's a great way to avoid campground fees.

However, dispersed camping in National Forests doesn't mean you (or others) can go wild and do whatever you want. There are regulations you must follow when looking for and staying at a site.

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

  • Dry camping is simply camping without being hooked up to any utilities.
  • Boondocking is camping in a remote location. It is always dry camping.

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.

Read on if you want to learn more about dispersed camping.

First Dispersed Camping Partial Fail

So, here's how NOT to do it, lol!

The first time I drove down an unknown road with my camper was in the extremely popular Coconino National Forest in Sedona, AZ.

Road conditions were horrible (muddy).

I arrived late, and it was already dusk.

There was no time to scout for campsites without my trailer.

I was panicking, trying to find an open pullout, not even knowing if I could turn around at the end of the road.

All spots were taken. Finally, I asked a group if I could park with them just overnight.

Thankfully, they agreed.

Crowded dispersed camping Sedona

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

Relief!

Arriving after dark in a camping area in a US Forest is never a good plan. Needing a flashlight or headlamp to set up is no good.

The following day I drove on the existing roads looking for an open flat spot. Thankfully I found a great site on another road in the area.

It had a gorgeous landscape of trees and grasslands with the Sedona rocks in the background.

Even though I eventually found a spot, lesson learned. Never arrive near or after dark!

Sedona dispersed camping

New, much better spot! National Forest land in Sedona, AZ.

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 go dispersed in National Forests?

That's so easy to answer:

  1. Price: It's almost always Free. If you like to move a lot, then maybe this camping experience is up your alley. 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? There are very few campgrounds that rival the beauty and nature you get with dispersed camping and boondocking. 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 no facilities 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 dispersed camping spots is unrivaled by any campground.
  5. Flexibility: No reservations necessary. Never full (kind of). Leave and arrive on YOUR schedule.

Rules To Follow

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

People are not allowed to do dispersed camping in National Forests for as long as they want to.

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

There are rules and restrictions in effect.

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

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

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

Here are some of the typical rules you must follow when you are on forest service lands:

  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 National 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 NF you are in.
  4. Leave No Trace principles: This doesn't just apply to trash. The impacts of humans on public land can be devastating. Only camp in previously used, established sites. Only use existing fire rings. If you make a pit toilet, be sure to 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, soil, and wildlife.
  5. Distance from water: Catholes for human waste and camping sites must be at least 100 feet away from any water sources.

Wait. What is a Cathole?

Oh. You don't know?

Alright, um, I'll touch on this and move on.

A cathole is something you need to make/do if you don't have an onboard toilet.

In such a case, you can't just ... go #2 outside and leave it there.

Dispose of your feces by burying it. Don't leave it out for a coyote to eat or for someone to step in.

Human waste cathole

There are rules around making catholes:

  1. Never make a cathole less than 100 feet away from a water source such as a stream.
  2. Make your cathole six inches deep.
  3. Do your thing.
  4. Put your toilet paper into it.
  5. When you're done, fill the hole.

Bummer for you if there are no outhouses or if the weather shows rain.

But hey, if not having a toilet is your thing, you have to go outside.

Please be responsible about it for the environment and for your fellow campers.

This makes National Forest dispersed camping nice for all of us.

Leave no trace. Especially not that kind. Eew. And please respect the 100 feet rule.

That's about it. Can we move on, please? LOL!

Finding Dispersed Camping

Campendium logo

The thought of finding dispersed camping for the first time may be intimidating.

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

There are a few online ways that are great for finding public lands in National Forests besides driving around looking for fire pits.

  1. Websites - Campendium is a fantastic resource for knowing all about a spot before you arrive. They have it all: campgrounds, BLM land, National Forests, and more. There are a few other websites, but this one is the best.
  2. 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.
  3. Google Maps - If you know you are dispersed camping 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 dispersed campsites are. Also, you may see RVs parked in the photo, often a clear indicator of a camp spot.

Conclusion

Dirt road in grasslands

If you ask me, camping outside of a designated campground is the best way to camp.

Being fully self-sufficient with your water supply, food storage, and power source means freedom.

And dispersed camping is usually near trailheads, with animals nearby, not a major roadway in sight, and not a worry in the world. It is the BEST.

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

It should be an obvious campsite, you need to camp responsibly, make sure there is good cell phone reception if you need it, and you're good to go.

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!

Kelly Headshot

He-llllo. 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, I converted to part-time RV life. Heck, I lived in my travel trailer for over 5.5 years, STRICTLY boondocking for pretty much all of it. Boondocking is a GREAT way to live, but it's not easy. Anyway, I'm passionate about animals, can't stand campgrounds, I hardly ever cook, and I love a good dance party. Currently, I can be found plotting and scheming whether or not to start collecting farm animals (or plotting my next RV trip!) at my beautiful new 'ranch' named 'Hotel Kellyfornia', in Southern Arizona. 

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  • 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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