Ins and Outs of Dispersed Camping and Why We Love It

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Dispersed camping is our favorite way to enjoy the great outdoors together as a family. What it is, where to camp including free camping, rules and regulations, camping tips, and why we love it more than any other type of camping.

dispersed camping in a rooftop tent in mountains of New Mexico

When you say the word camping, it evokes an authentic mental image for each individual person.  For us, camping has meant something pretty special for a long time, and though we used to call it primitive camping, I now know the correct term is dispersed camping.

The word camping may not always mean the same thing to everyone. Some people think of an RV, others a tent, others a backpack and a sleeping bag under the stars.

For us, it means an escape away from civilization. And while the preparation, camping supplies, and all that may not be free, we like to think of it as free camping. Free in a money sense, but free in a ‘wild and free’ sense, as well.

Carson National Forest camping in New Mexico with family in a rooftop tent, best campsite ever

Dispersed camping allows our family to travel and experience everything this beautiful amazing country has to offer. Like kayaking, it gives us the opportunity to explore places we might only have dreamed of exploring otherwise.

What is Dispersed Camping?

According to the Forest Service, “Dispersed camping is the term used for camping anywhere in the National Forest OUTSIDE of a designated campground.” It’s National Forest camping at its best.

It’s camping away from any sort of campground, paved roads, or people (although others may camp in the vicinity), out in the wild and on your own. No facilities, no running water, no trash removal, etc.

Dispersed camping is our kind of camping.

best free camping on a dirt road in the Carson National Forest in New Mexico

Want to get a glimpse of what our setup looks like? Watch our video!

Why Do Dispersed Camping?

Well, do you ever feel the need to get away from the world? No cell service, no chatter, no other people around sometimes for miles.

Dispersed camping, primitive camping, free camping, whatever you want to call it… This type of camping allows a family to explore roads less traveled, to explore places and parks most people may never have the opportunity to see, to camp in places one can only dream of, like…

  • 10,000 feet up in a mountain pass close to an old mine and a crystal clear stream.
  • In the middle of a National Grassland where when you look up, you feel as though every star in the sky is shining down on you, the Milky Way in all its glory.
  • Closer to home, enjoying a bit of Ozark National Forest camping in the tree-filled mountains of Arkansas.
  • On the edge of a meadow with wildflowers, a herd of elk, and a place to rest your hammock between two trees.
  • Out in the desert backcountry of Big Bend National Park.
  • In the heart of a national forest where wolves wake you up in the night with their howls.
primitive camping in the cibola national forest in new mexico with camp trailer and CVT rooftop tent

No cars, besides the few vehicles that pass by looking for another campsite nearby, no voices, just complete and utter silence, save the crackling fire and the sounds of nature all around. It’s complete and utter relaxation at its very best, in its most beautiful state.

As the makers of our tent would say… Camp is where you park it. And it truly is.

boy on orange hammock in ouachita national forest

Where You Can Experience Free Camping

We’ve got all the details on how to find the best free camping in the USA, including maps we recommend, apps, and tools.

There are all sorts of places to camp. In fact, here’s a listing of National Forests across the country, listed by state. You can also find places to camp in wilderness areas and on BLM lands.

On a roadtrip to Colorado, we camped all over Colorado and New Mexico in various National Forests and Wilderness areas. We’ve also enjoyed camping in Arkansas.

camping tips for dispersed camping with family in ouachita national forest with a rooftop tent, hammock, and campfire

Rules for Dispersed Camping:

Usually, there is no fee or permit required, meaning you will probably camp for FREE the entire time! You just have to check with each area you are planning to enter.

Rules are posted online, and you can usually find signs with rules and updates for each area you’re visiting upon entering that particular area. We’ve also stopped at ranger stations to ask questions, get maps, and find out more information about the area we’re exploring.

boy with axe while primitive camping in the ouachita national forest

Some of the rules and regulations you may encounter are…

  • It’s important to stay on existing roads, whether paved or unpaved.
  • While some roads are 4-wheel drive only roads, there are roads that allow campers and RV’s. So, dispersed camping is possible for everyone.
  • Fire danger conditions are a very important factor. Check to make sure that it’s ok to have a fire, given the current conditions in that particular area.
  • Most sites have a fire ring, and it’s usually a rule that you don’t create new campsites. You’ll know a campsite by its existing fire ring.
  • It’s also important to carry enough water that you can drown your fire before going to bed and before leaving.
  • Speaking of campfires, only use dead wood when starting a fire. Please don’t ever chop a live tree to build your fire. There’s usually plenty of dead wood all ’round. And you can use this DIY fire starter to help you get your fire going.
  • Another rule we’ve encountered… Always camp at least 100 feet away from any stream or other source of water.
  • And finally, National Forest camping usually has a limit as to how long you can stay in the same site. Usually, it’s 14 days, and you can’t return to that exact campsite for 1 whole year. So if you find a good site, you may wanna stay and enjoy it for as long as possible.
fire ring in national forest camping site in Colorado amongst golden aspen trees

Camping Tips and Supplies We Recommend:

For most people who love dispersed camping, a tent is the way to go.

We decided to invest in a Mt. McKinley rooftop tent from Cascadia Vehicle Tents. It gives us the option to either have the tent on our vehicle or on top of a trailer that also holds all our camping supplies. Most of all, it gives us the option to camp just about anywhere we like.

We give the inside scoop on what it’s like camping with a roof top tent vs. ground tent because a tent really is an investment into your family’s outdoor life.

toddler looking out the window of rooftop tent while dispersed camping on a lake in Kansas

A game changer for some people (I’m just not sure why because the pros of dispersed camping are so worth it and there are options) is the lack of facilities. No toilets, no showers… But like I said, there are options.

You can choose to take a shovel and dig a hole for your waste (not my cup of tea either, but I’m not above it; been there done that), or you can actually buy a portable toilet and carry it with you, emptying it at RV stations, which you can find at some gas stations.

We have a really handy setup with a portable toilet inside its own little pop-up tent, giving us a chance to do our business in private. Though I will confess to having to go really super bad one night and setting it up without the tent, praying no one else was around to see my dairy air, as we camped on the open prairie in a National Grassland (it was dark out on that open prairie).

dispersed camping with a rooftop tent and camp trailer in the Carson National Forest of New Mexico

As for the shower situation, I make up a batch of body wipes for every trip, and we use them to freshen up most days. While we haven’t had to use ours yet, you can also get a portable shower bag, which can come in quite handy. Chelsea from Someday I’ll Learn told me about the perfect shower for camping we decided to purchase.

If you’re really desperate for a hot shower, you can usually find paid showers in nearby towns. But I’ll admit that just taking the time to freshen up and change clothes most mornings makes me feel like a whole new woman.

Water is the most important thing you’ll need to carry with you. We drink a lot of water when spending time outdoors. And it’s necessary for things like washing dishes, washing hands, putting out fires, our camping kitchen, and more.

You need to carry your own potable water OR treat the water that you drink, either by boiling or with water purification tablets or filter. We keep several 5-gallon jugs with us at all times, replenishing at gas stations and campgrounds.

camping tips and free camping in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico with a rooftop tent and camp trailer

Speaking of dishes… Campsuds. I can’t say enough about this stuff. When camping in the wild, you need a good, biodegradable cleanser to carry with you.

We carry Campsuds with us every single trip; and while we use it over and over again, we hardly make a dent in the bottle. It lasts forever, it cleanses and suds up really nicely, and most importantly, it’s biodegradable. You can use it for dishes, hair and body, and dirty clothes.

However, if you really don’t feel like getting your hair wet, dry shampoo is the bomb. Here’s my favorite.

beautiful dispersed camping in the Cibola National Forest desert in New Mexico

Of course, you have to carry the necessary supplies, but don’t go overboard. Sure, you need enough food for however long you’re planning to stay; and I also highly recommend carrying a first aid kit with you one very trip.

And you need certain supplies, like headlamps, lanterns, rope, a knife, cooking gear, kitchen utensils, a camp stove, a baby carrier backpack for little ones, etc. You may get even more ideas from our Camping Gear Gift Guide for the Outdoor Family.

But really think about what you need and pack accordingly. Pack enough clothes, but remember that most of the time when you’re in the mountains, you’ll be dressing in layers. You may not need as many clothes as you think because you may be able to re-wear certain things.

When thinking about what you’ll eat, also remember that bears are active in National Forests, and all food and trash will need to be locked up at night, either in a bear box, a hard-sided vehicle, or hanging from a tree out of reach.

You may find this Ultimate Camping Checklist helpful when figuring out what to pack. And if you have a camping enthusiast in your life, here are 12 ideas for awesomely useful camping gifts under $20.

Leave No Trace. Carry Out What You Carry In.

This should be a given, but we find trash at almost every campsite we visit. Leave no trace means leave nothing behind. Make it look as though you were never there.

dispersed camping in an aspen grove with a rooftop tent in Colorado

And here is where I go on just a tiny rant… We’ve seen so many aspen trees and pine trees marked up with names, initials, and axe marks from human beings who’ve felt the need to leave their mark. Or maybe they were just bored, who knows. It’s called leave no trace for a reason.

When I’m up on a mountain, I just don’t care if Donny loves Karen, I really don’t. Stop marking up live trees for your own selfish reasons! Show your love for your significant other in a meaningful, much more creative, original way that won’t leave these beautiful trees scarred for life and possibly on their way to an early demise. Our children would like to enjoy our forests too someday.

And that is all I have to say about that.

So, who’s ready for an adventure?! We’ve got a lot of exploring to do, and the fact of the matter is, I’m just ready to go camping!

Update Notes: This article was originally published in August 2015, but was re-published with bigger photos and more details in April 2018.

Ins and Outs of Dispersed Camping with a Family
Dispersed Camping as a Family in the mountains of New Mexico

37 thoughts on “Ins and Outs of Dispersed Camping and Why We Love It”

  1. Wow, it’s amazing how you can camp so many places for Free. We’ve experienced primitive camping but mostly in state parks. The dispersed camping experience has definitely peaked my interest. Your tent is awesome!

    • Michele, thank you! Yes, it is amazing the places you can camp, and it just makes so much sense for all the places we like to go. Just veer off to explore a dirt road in a National Forest, and you’ll likely find lots of places to camp. Some of the most beautiful places we’ve ever seen.

  2. So my husband and I recently rediscovered the joy of camping. We’ve camped more this summer than we have in the past 13 years! I didn’t expect to enjoy tent camping again but I love it! We’re thinking about camping again this weekend. I think we need to work our way up to dispersed camping- right now we’re still in campgrounds, but I’m game. Can I say that I have serious tent envy when I see your tent? Very cool.

    • Tonya, thank you! lol We started noticing the tent via another blogger friend, so we eventually decided to make the investment. It’s been worth it; it just makes sense for all the places we love to go. We’re all ready for more camping. I think it’s awesome that you and your husband are finding a renewed love for camping. I can’t wait to read about your adventures.

  3. Great post Mel!

    My fiance and I have camped on nearly every trip we’ve taken together. At first, I couldn’t fathom carrying everything I needed in my pack (we like to backcountry camp) but now I look forward to it. It’s a kind of relaxing that you can’t explain, you just have to experience.

    • Sarah, thank you! The relaxing… yes! It’s an experience. We’ve kinda got this bucket list together and backpacking parts of the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, etc., are on that list. I’m nervous about carrying everything too; I definitely have to get in better shape (working on it). But I love the solitude in the mountains. And by the way, I love following your adventures on Facebook.

  4. This is a great post. Thanks for sharing. I love dispersed camping – well except for having to carry so much water around. I love that feeling of elation when you find a beautiful spot that seems like it was meant just for you. It gives me goosebumps every time.

  5. As backpackers, the jump to dispersed camping wasn’t significant. We’ve shifted to this type of camping when we want to go ‘car camping’ because of the increased noise and partying we encounter in campgrounds way too often. Good point helping people learn about this type! The only thing I’ll add is, it’s sometimes hard to find the rules for each national forest online, in my experience.

    • True, Amy. That’s a good point. And we’ve encountered the same in campgrounds in the past. We started camping like this after we were first married; then we stopped camping for awhile but have really jumped back in the last few years. Can’t imagine camping any other way now.

  6. Hehe I love your little potty! I am waaaaay too lazy for that. Although I’ll admit there have been a few times in the desert where I really struggled to find a tree or a bush to squat behind. Awkward.

  7. Sarah

    It is a great post to read, I specifically liked the idea of small site potty, because most of the time whenever we go for outing, this is a major issue. I am a clean freak and I always stay worried about sanitary and hygiene issues.

    I liked your advice of carrying small portaloos with you, as waste can be disposed of easily.

    Thank you for sharing this information with us.

  8. Wow nice pics you did, very pleasure to saw that kind of photos. About the camping my daughter cannot wait till spring and is try to push me to do some camping in early spring where the weather is unstabel because she is talking to me that she cannot live for so many days in city and need to charge her battery :] In fact in reality we love to do camping :]

  9. Hey Mel,

    Looks like you are well kitted out for this style of camping. You have a great setup with your truck and rooftop tent. (On my list for this year).

    All the best and safe travels

    Gary

  10. Hi Mel! Long before we moved into our first trailer then our big fifth-wheel, we were campers and backpackers with Boy Scouts and on our own for vacations and fun. :) Love this article and that’s a really cool pop-up tent on top of your camper!!! We always promoted Leave No Trace, which is a big thing in Scouting and getting out in the wild is such a great way to teach your kids about keeping nature clean and about living life. <3 Thanks for sharing this article and I will some photos to my Glamping and Road Trip/Plane Trip boards for you.

    Have a wonderful weekend,
    Barb :)

  11. I felt like you snuck into our camp experiences and shared them! We love to disperse camp and camp very similar to you. We have been all over Nevada, Utah and Idaho. Nothing better than unplugging and getting back to nature. Thank you for sharing your stories!

    • Thank you, Lindsay! We always love connecting with fellow camping enthusiasts. I agree, there is nothing like unplugging and getting out into nature. It’s wonderful.

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