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How to: Dispersed Camping on Public Lands

Dispersed camping offers good flexibility if you'd like to camp and don't mind roughing it. Here's what you need to know.

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Photo by Lloyd Smith. 

Are you willing to rough it? Would you like to save some money? Dispersed camping—camping on public lands outside of developed campsites—is ideal for both. It’s a mixture of the self-sufficiency of backpacking and the convenience of car camping. Before you try it, though, there are a few things to keep in mind to stay safe and preserve the natural habitat.

Where You Can Dispersed Camp

Dispersed camping is allowed in certain locations in national forests and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands. To find out where you can participate in dispersed camping, it is best to contact the land manager directly. In the case of national forest land, contact the nearest Forest Service office.

Do note that dispersed camping is not allowed in developed recreation areas, like trailheads or picnic areas. Use an existing camping site in places like this; don’t clear any vegetation to make a new site.

The best Leave No Trace practice is to camp at least 200 feet from a water source.

Where to go to the bathroom

This is where dispersed camping most resembles backpacking. A toilet or privy is unlikely to be available. Local ranger districts say that mismanaged human waste is a major problem with dispersed camping. 

Bring a shovel and bury your waste in a hole at least six inches deep and at least 200 feet from any water source or campsite. All toilet paper should be packed out, so bring along a couple extra plastic bags -- one for the TP, and one to keep the TP bag in.

Want to be a superhero? Pack out all your waste using a portable toilet or bags designed for that purpose. Rangers (and future campers) will thank you. 

CAMPFIREs

Before you head out to camp, check to ensure no burn bans are in place. Campfires can leave long-lasting scars in the backcountry—using a stove is a better choice.

If you have a campfire, use an existing fire ring. Make sure any fire rings you use are not near overhanging branches or too close to vegetation or a water source. Keep fires small and under control. Make certain your fire is out before you leave it unattended; it should be cool to the touch.

Firewood

If you bring your own firewood, it’s best to buy it near where you’ll burn it so you don’t risk introducing invasive insects. If you collect wood to burn, use dead wood on the ground that is small enough to be broken by hand. Never cut branches from a living tree. 

Water

Make sure you bring your own drinking water or treat your water if you collect it from a stream or lake.

Trash: Pack it out

Take all of your trash with you. Leave your campsite cleaner than you found it.

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Dogs like dispersed camping, too. Photo by Raechel Youngberg.