Dispersed Camping 101: Free Camping On Public Land

Unsure about how, where, and when you can go dispersed camping? Learn all the ins and outs and logistics of free camping in this simple, straight-talking guide.

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The Lowdown On Backcountry Camping & Primitive Campsites

Looking For The Best Guide To Primitive Camping?

You’re in the right place! In this guide, we will be covering the following:

    • What is dispersed camping?
    • Where is free camping is allowed?
    • What are the national forest rules?
    • Can you camp anywhere in national forest land?
    • How to find the best free camp locations near you
    • A few trip suggestions for boondocking around the country

Dispersed camping is a no-frills solution for those who want to rough it, or who plan to camp on a budget. It’s a practice for the adventurous and the incorrigible explorer who demands a more authentic outdoors experience.

We take a look at what dispersed camping is and the general guidelines and good practices that have allowed it to endure. Planning ahead is a key element for these trips. Knowing the rules and regulations of specific forests, BLM land, and national or state parks is as important as picking the right camping site.

Like all good camping ninjas, we must ensure to follow the Leave No Trace principles. The largest appeal of boondocking is the sense of solitude and unspoiled wilderness. Nothing ruins that experience more than finding trash from other campers.

Do

  • Check for up to date information with local parks, U.S Forest Service, and ranger stations before making your trip
  • Practice backcountry ethics while boondocking, from fire safety to waste disposal to smart site selection
  • Let at least one person know where you’re going in case of emergency
  • Maintain that sense of wonder!
  • Know where to find free camping locations near you
  • Familiarize yourself with local restrictions, especially fire restrictions

Don’t

  • Use public lands for anything but safe, permitted recreational purposes!
  • Break or abuse lenient rules
  • Forget to Leave No Trace!
  • Camp outside of a designated area

Dispersed, Boondock, And Wild Camping = Free Camping

Developed recreation areas and campgrounds surrounded by fellow campers aren’t ideal for everyone. The appeal of sleeping in the great outdoors is immediately tarnished when we hear strangers’ conversations and a continually used toilet nearby. I mean, what’s the point of heading to the wilds if you aren’t going to the bathroom in the woods?

Further Reading

If you are new to outdoor adventures then you may want to check out our beginner’s guide to camping and also how spending time in nature can help your body and mind. If you’re planning on taking the little ones along too then we’ve got some great camping ideas for kids.

What Is Dispersed Camping?

Dispersed camping means the recreational use of free-access public lands for a more primitive camping experience. Most of the time this is done out of your car. People drive to a forest road, safely park their vehicles on the side, and then camp there for free. Simple as that.

SUV parked on side of forest road
Park on the side of the road and find your way to a dispersed campsite

This hybridized form of camping combines the conveniences of roadside or car camping with a genuine roughing-it experience free of amenities including toilets, showers, picnic areas, fire pits, trash cans, and any other basic service that developed campsites provide.

Where Can I Disperse Camp?

Public lands are there for public use, so most areas owned by National Forests, State Forests, the Department of Natural Resources, Wildlife Management Areas, and the Bureau of Land Management are open for boondocking. In general, unless there’s a specific rule against it dispersed camping is allowed at these locations.

The history of dispersed camping goes back to Theodore Roosevelt as he established swathes of forest land as protected and reserved sites for the nation. This was back in 1891, so the principle of free access to public land is a tradition dating back more than one hundred years. 

Nowadays National Forests are found in 40 states (most are concentrated west of the Rockies), and all offer opportunities to dispersed camp.

Why Go Wild Camping?

While boondocking isn’t for everyone, it’s an experience almost anyone can get something out of. At the very least it’s an outing folk should scratch off their list of “Been there, done that”. Even a bad experience can make a great story.

For the campers and hikers who are more inclined to jump into the roughing-it nature of primitive camping, it’s an experience they may find addictive and compelling. Venturing into the outdoors and making camp far from a designated campground is an experience that can satisfy our inner nomad.

Most National Forests are near National Parks, so dispersed campers save on campground fees and beat the reservation system. However, no facilities, including trash collection, are standard for boondocking

Pros

  • A sense of solitude and wilderness is standard for boondocking, ideal for folks who truly want to get away from it all
  • A simpler experience that requires a more critical thinking approach to prepare for
  • Freedom and sense of adventure
  • A free activity
  • Escape designated campgrounds!

Potential Cons

  • Absence of amenities: no toilets, no shower, no trash service, no picnic tables; this holds the camper to a higher degree of responsibility
  • The total lack of other people might irritate the anxieties and fears of some individuals
  • Dispersed camping requires a pack-it-in, pack-it-out approach, so campers are responsible for bringing their own belongings in and out of the outdoors; this includes toilet paper!
  • If unprepared with items such as potable water and firewood (more on this later), an otherwise enjoyable experience could quickly turn into a bad time

That sense of adventure, combined with the grit of such a hands-on jaunt into the woods, is what it’s all about. For folks like myself, the cons are part of the appeal! However, individuals with a more refined taste might find this more primitive form of remote camping unsavory.

Free Camping Guidelines

Because most areas available for dispersed camping are on federally owned land, there are some general rules and guidelines that everybody should follow while boondocking. States and local governments may also have additional rules.

National Forest Wild Camping Regulations And Recommendations

Forest fires are a growing concern (especially out West) so diligent fire safety rules are a no-brainer. Ideally, the camper will use a camp stove, but if an open fire is your only option, always use existing fire rings from previous dispersed campers or build a campfire ring to contain the flames.

Forest fire
The consequences of an out of control campfire can be devastating

Maintain a distance of at least 100 feet from any source of water. This is to protect the water from contamination (think human waste & camping soap/gray water) and also keeps sensitive water plants and wildlife out of harm’s way. 

Bury all human waste to a depth of six inches and at a minimum of 200 feet away from a water source.

Backcountry camping is all about enjoying wilderness areas responsibly whilst leaving as little evidence of your presence as possible.

Prohibited Activities

If a roadway is blocked with a gate, don’t try to go around it; it’s locked and the road off-limits for a reason.

Never leave trash, garbage, or supplies/gear behind at your campsite. Everything that you bring to a dispersed camping area must come back home with you.

Setting up camp within sight of trailheads is often prohibited. Your goal while visiting dispersed camping sites is to be relatively unseen and to preserve the wilderness for other visitors. That means you can’t camp in meadows or clearings where others are likely to see you.

Sign pointing to coastal hiking trail
Ideally you don’t want your campsite to be visible from any hiking trails

Local Rules And Regulations

Each state may have different rules and regulations, and so will local jurisdictions. Always check with local authorities and the ranger station before heading into the forest searching willy-nilly for a suitable dispersed camping area.

Planning It Out

While dispersed camping is the spontaneous camper’s best friend, basic planning will only improve the trip.

At the very least it is wise to stay abreast of date-specific events like hunting seasons and burn bans. Some forests require you to have a permit before you can set up your tent. Major holidays and scheduled events or festivals can influence your experience as well.

Finding Dispersed Campsites

Rather than just driving around blind hoping to stumble upon a suitable dispersed spot here are three things to help you find the perfect campsite ahead of your trip.

Local or State Authorities

One of your best friends in the forest is a Ranger. These folks know the terrain, the roads, and the hazards of their ranger district. If you can’t find information elsewhere, consult a Ranger. These professionals will be familiar with where campsites are located and can point you to the best locations. Informing Rangers where you’re setting up camp is a safety bonus too.

Alternatively, contact the local or state Bureau of Land Management or Forestry Service office who should be able to provide you with the same information.

Motor Vehicle Use Map

Since 2005, the forestry service introduced a rule that all areas must make available to the general public maps of existing roads open to motor vehicles. This means there is an entire database of potential campsites available for you to search.

  1. Mosy on over to the Forest Service MVUM page and find the National Forest you are interested in.
Dispersed Camping MVUM list1
The Forest Service MVUM page lists all National Forests in the United States

2. Once you have found the forest, pick the area/map you think would be a good place to camp.

Dispersed Camping MVUM list2
There are plenty of options to choose from!

3. Check the legend for the dispersed camping symbol…

Dispersed Camping MVUM key
Find out what the dispersed camping symbol looks like

4. ..and find the perfect camping spot!

Dispersed Camping MVUM campsite map
Happy dispersed camping!

User Curated Websites

There are several community-run websites that have extensive lists of dispersed campsites across the country. Try one of the following:

Always Be Prepared

Just because there’s a road doesn’t mean you can drive on it! Check out updated motor vehicle use maps and websites dedicated to camping in your selected areas. There are plenty of forest service roads and dirt roads to adventure from, but they aren’t always open. Seasonal conditions can make these roads dangerous or impassable.

Having an up-to-date map (paper maps are best!) is important if you’re in an area with limited or no cell service for checking google maps! Check weather forecasts before heading out, too.

Woman reading a map in front of a forest
If you are truly remote then bring paper maps as a backup to any navigational tech you have with you

If you’re a fan of traveling with your dog, most forests and areas simply require that your dog is leashed and under control at all times, but specific areas may have more stringent rules for your dog’s own safety. Please follow these as there can be diseases, animals, and parasites that could be deadly to your K-9 pal.

And finally, be bear aware and always ensure you pack a bear spray if overnighting in bear country.

Selecting And Preparing Your Campsite

Picking the right destination for your trip is equally important as picking the right location for the campsite itself. The wrong option can be detrimental to the environment, and at worst could place you into a seriously precarious situation in the event of an emergency.

A Safe Distance

Keep your campsite at least 200 feet away from any water source. This is to prevent contaminating the water. Some forests will have additional rules about distances from roads and trailheads. Most dispersed camp areas require you to be 1 mile away from permanent campground locations.

Tent pitched beside a river
When in a dispersed camping area you can’t pitch closer than 200 feet away from any water source

Fire Safety And Flat Footing

Set your fire away from nearby combustibles and ensure you have adequate overhead clearance. Firewood should always be sourced locally; if you need to collect wood from the local area, always choose downed wood that is already on the ground. 

Never break branches from standing trees, live or dead. Always ensure your fire is dead out and cold to the touch before you disperse the ashes around the campsite.

Alternatively, bring a camp stove.

Find a flat, level area to set up your site. Never alter the area by digging drainage ditches; this is why it’s so important to find an established and trusted free dispersed campsite to minimize your impact on the ecosystem. 

Hanging Around

An excellent way to avoid leaving a heavy footprint from your tent is to camp in a hammock. It’s a lightweight, easily transported, and quick to assemble sleeping area. All it requires is a few trees or posts the right distance apart to set it up. Suspension straps will eliminate any potential damage to trees.

View of legs in a hammock strung up in a forest
Pitching a hammock, instead of a tent, is perfect for remote dispersed camping

Leave No Trace!

When in the outdoors we value the untouched feeling of the wilderness around us. At the very most, an established campfire ring marking a location for a campsite is as far developed as we want to experience when dispersed camping. This feeling of the wild and separation from the mess and noise of civilization requires any hiker or camper to practice the art of Leave-No-Trace.

If you bring something into the outdoors, it comes back out with you. That applies to any sort of trash generated, food items, your gear and supplies, and if you want to be really awesome, your waste and toilet paper.

Not sure what to do? Here are some specific tips for your trip!

Campfires

Always ensure that you use locally sourced firewood (purchased or picked from the ground surrounding your campsite). Only burn inside a fire ring, and always look for an already established fire ring before making your own. Ensure the coals are cool to the touch before walking away from a fire and store your firewood at a safe distance from the fire pit itself.

Campfire burning within the bounds of a campfire ring
A good campfire is within bounds of its ring

Toilets

Ah, the art of pooping into a hole. It’s a lot more fun than it sounds, I promise. Just make sure to dig a hole at least six inches deep to deposit your waste, and that your toilet is at least 200 feet from any source of water. Consider using portable toilets and waste removal bags specifically designed for leaving no trace whatsoever.

Water

Bring your own clean drinking water, or appropriate gear to purify and decontaminate any water sources you intend to drink from. If you do bring your own make sure to bring the empty containers back home with you.

Man filling water bottle from stream
If filling up your bottle from local water sources make sure you bring a means to purify your water

Trash

Trash removal is a must, no matter where you camp. This includes wrappers, containers, remnants of food…pretty much anything you’d ordinarily leave in a trash can at a regular campground.

Trip Suggestions

While most public federal lands that can be used for dispersed camping locations are found west of the Rockies, there are areas and regions for dispersed camping throughout the United States. We’ve broken this down by generalized region and have a few ideas for each to get you started. For more ideas of campsites in your selected area check out the website Free Campsites.

The Northeast

Edgemere in Delaware National Forest is near Dingman’s Ferry in the Pennsylvania Poconos. It’s an excellent area to gain a good glimpse at what makes Pennsylvania an underappreciated area for backpackers and campers. Permits are required. Woodhull State Forest in upper New York state is an out-there but worth-it trip to see a large chunk of forestlands.

Dingman’s Ferry in the Pennsylvania Poconos
Head to Edgemere and you could be camping near Dingman’s Ferry in the Pennsylvania Poconos

The Southeast

The Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest in Georgia offers some excellent wild-camp locations in the southeast. South Carolina provides Sumter National Forest, a favorite destination of many happy campers who return year after year.

The Midwest

Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky is my favorite area of the state. While exploring the terrain, stop into their park offices to obtain a backcountry permit. Shawnee National Forest in Illinois has liberal dispersed camping rules; their big one being that overnight parking of vehicles must be within designated overnight areas.

Shawnee National Forest, Illinois
Shawnee National Forest has designated areas for those free camping in vehicles

The Rockies

Outside of Boulder Colorado is Rainbow Lake. The long road has scattered pull-offs and invites campers to find a secluded area. Outside of Somerset Colorado is Keblar Pass. Watch out for private lands abutting the public ones and make efforts to stay at established dispersed campsites rather than building your own.

The Southwest

The Coconino National Forest in Arizona has plenty of great spots for dispersed campers. There are also 12 dispersed camping sites along the Snow Bowl Road, one of the best freakin’ areas in the state.

A few hours north is Utah; the Gooseberry Mesa is among the best trails in the Southwest. The access road is a long one and rainy conditions can make travel impossible, so plan ahead before visiting here.

Gooseberry Mesa Trail, Utah
The Gooseberry Mesa Trail is a great spot for some primitive camping

The Northwest

It’s impossible to not find wild camping opportunities in the Northwest. Our favorite area is the Hoh Rainforest on the Olympic Peninsula. It’s a wet place, but the hiking is topnotch and the views without equal. Deschutes National Forest outside of Bend Oregon is another spot worth checking out. This site is especially attentive to the Leave No Trace ethics.

Now Get Out There!

We’ve had a good look at what we can expect when primitive camping, and have a grasp on the responsibilities involved. We’re also ready to contact the local ranger station and reach out to the proper channels to learn about the conditions of tracts of forest before we head blindly into the wilderness. I’d say that’s a good start.

The dispersed camping experience is a great adventure for wilderness lovers or those who want a change from staying in developed campgrounds. Now that you’ve got a good handle on it, the next step is to put that to use and get planning your next trip!

Last update on 2022-08-16 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Matt was reared by the bear and the bobcat and the coyote of rural Pennsylvania. For the moment he lives in Philadelphia and is a gardener and freelance writer by trade.

Matt's free time is devoted to traipsing through forests, angling in creeks, and hunting for rare plants and mushrooms. He's got a soft spot for reading Steinbeck while in the outdoors and is quickly becoming a die-hard hammock camper.

Matt is fueled almost entirely by beer and hot sauce.

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