This is the ultimate guide to what is dispersed camping, along with tips, rules, and the gear you'll need. You'll also get a peek into why my family loves this style of camping so much.
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, it's also known as dispersed camping.
The word camping may not always mean the same thing to everyone. Some people think of an RV, others a tent, others backpacking with 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.
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.
Table of Contents
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.
The official dispersed camping definition or meaning is that of camping away from any sort of designated 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.
It can mean finding campsites off a forest service road, camping on BLM land, backpacking and camping along the trail, etc. Camping dispersed is our kind of camping.
Why Do We Love Camping Dispersed?
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.
- Roadside camping on the Rita Blanca 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.
- In Colorado in the middle of Great Sand Dunes National Preserve with all the pesky mosquitoes.
- On the edge of a New Mexico meadow in the Carson National Forest with wildflowers, a herd of elk, and a place to rest your hammock between two trees.
- In the heart of the Gila National Forest, where wolves wake you up in the night with their howls.
The list could go on and on, from Kansas to Wyoming, Colorado, the deserts and forests of New Mexico, Texas, Arkansas, Missouri… Think of the places you can explore.
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.
Where Can You Find Dispersed Campsites?
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…
- National Forests – Here's a listing of National Forests across the country, listed by state.
- You can also find places to camp in wilderness areas.
- BLM lands are another great option.
- Occasionally, National Parks will have designated places for primitive camping or roadside camping. For example, Big Bend primitive camping is available in the desert backcountry of Big Bend National Park.
What are the Rules for Dispersed Camping?
Usually, there's no fee or permit required, meaning you will probably camp for free the entire time! You just have to check with each area you're planning to enter.
Rules are posted online, and you can usually find signs with specific 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.
Some of the Rules and Regulations You May Encounter
- 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. That way, 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 campfire, 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.
- 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.
How Do You Prepare for Dispersed Camping?
While you'll spend a fair amount of time packing all your gear, you won't have to worry about reservations, fees, or exact dates to be there and leave.
Most of your preparation will involve making sure you have a good road atlas for the journey, as well as packing up your gear and making sure you have something to actually stay in, like a tent.
When it comes to maps, we've used the DeLorme Atlas & Gazetteer for states we've visited, including the following:
Speaking of dispersed camping gear…
What to Bring and Camping Gear to Pack
Let's talk about just a few of the things you'll need to pack for your wild camping trip.
First Let's Talk Accommodations
For most people who love this style of roadside or backcountry 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 good tent really is an investment into your family's outdoor life.
A game changer for some people (I'm just not sure why, because the pros of wilderness 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 camping 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 (it was dark out on that open prairie).
As for the shower situation, I make up a batch of camping body wipes for every trip, and we use them to freshen up most days.
We also have a portable shower bag, which can come in quite handy. Chelsea from Someday I'll Learn told me about the perfect shower for camping, and we decided to purchase it. It's been very helpful, especially for washing hair while out in the middle of nowhere.
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.
Potable Drinking Water
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, as a part of our campfire cooking equipment, 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 portable water jugs with us at all times, replenishing at gas stations and campgrounds as needed.
Cleanup and Hygiene
Speaking of cleanup… 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 dry shampoo for the road.
More Miscellaneous Gear
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 on every trip.
And you need certain supplies, like headlamps, propane camping lanterns, rope or paracord, a knife, camping cooking gear, kitchen utensils, a camping stove, a baby carrier backpack for little ones, etc.
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.
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.
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. It's called leave no trace for a reason.
Dispose of trash properly by carrying it out with you. Don't try to burn it in the campfire, leaving behind pieces of cans and foil or worse, dirty diapers. This will help to keep the campfire ring clean for the next campers who stay there.
Dispose of any waste the right way, again by using a shovel and digging a hole at least 6 inches deep and far enough away (at least 100 feet) from any water source, like a stream or pond.
Keep the campfire, if allowed, inside the existing campfire ring, so you're not disturbing or harming other parts of the campsite.
Stay on existing roads or trails. Also, try to camp far enough away from others so they and you can get the full experience of what dispersed camping really is all about.
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!
A Closer Look at Our Own Rooftop Tent Setup
Camping Recipes for the Road
- How to make campfire coffee in a percolator
- Bacon, egg, and cheese camping breakfast burritos
- Campfire walking tacos
- Campfire peach cobbler
- Campfire bacon cheeseburger
I also have a collection of easy camping recipes, where you can find even more ideas for what to eat while camping.