Camping in the great outdoors! The peace. The quiet! And the hum of a growling generator coming from the RV adjacent to you... This is often the reality when you camp in designated campgrounds like KOAs. Unimaginably tight quarters, loud neighbors and barking dogs. Perhaps not the restful wilderness experience you were hoping for.
Enter dispersed camping!
Dispersed camping, also known as primitive camping, boondocking or backcountry camping, is defined by the bureau of land management as camping on federal lands, away from developed recreation facilities like toilets and electricity. It's a choose your own adventure kind of experience, and it typically insinuates that it's free.
Most public lands and national forests are available to dispersed camping at a limit of 14 days within a 28 day period, as long as it doesn't interfere with authorized uses, doesn't damage wildlife or isn't marked as "closed."
Dispersed camping is an excellent way to get outside and camp on a budget while experiencing the beauty and tranquility of the outdoors. But before I tell you how to find dispersed camping, I'm going to arm you with the information you need in order to have a safe and low impact experience.
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What to know before you go:
Leave No Trace Principles:
It's imperative to familiarize yourself with LNT and to take the time to educate those you plan on traveling with. Leaving no trace effectively means when we depart from our campsite, there's no evidence we were ever there. Here are the 7 guidelines to adhere to:
Plan Ahead and Prepare:
Contact the closest ranger station to the district you're traveling to. They can provide you with information regarding road or trail closures and conditions (including whether you need 4WD to access your destination), what weather to expect, and any fire restrictions you might be unaware of.
Identify the area you'd like to camp before you depart and leave plenty of daylight to get there in case you get lost or campsites are full. Always carry GPS and have a back-up plan when your first choice falls through.
Familiarize yourself with the area you're heading to, including private lands boundaries, terrain, allowed group size, bear activity and potential sensitive areas to be aware of.
Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces:
Make sure to drive, camp and hike on durable surfaces. The durability of a surface is determined by how well it can withstand foot, tent and road traffic over time with little impact.
Some of the most durable surfaces for hiking include hard rock, sand and gravel because they can easily tolerate trampling and scuffing.
Some surfaces to avoid camping, walking or driving on include: sensitive vegetation, cryptobiotic crust (tiny communities of organisms that appear as raised surfaces on the sand), desert puddles and mud holes.
When it comes to choosing a place to camp, look for places that have already been highly impacted and obviously camped in before. Often times this is indicated by a stone fire ring in an open gravel or dirt area with no vegetation. Large rocks and sandy areas also make acceptable campsites.
Do not drive over vegetation or sensitive soils to create your own campsite. Always stick to areas that have previously been camped in. If there are no open campsites, it's imperative that you move on to another area instead of feeling entitled to a specific location. Fatigue, bad weather, entitlement and late departure times are not acceptable excuses for choosing poor or fragile campsites. Driving over vegetation might seem like no big deal, right? Just one vehicle, one time? Sadly, once one person does it, more are much more likely to follow.
Always camp 200 ft from trails and water sources so wildlife can continue to access them.
Leave your campsite clean and tidy for future campers.
Evidence of a new campsite created by an individual driving over and trampling vegetation.
Dispose of Waste Properly:
"Pack it in, pack it out" and "leave it better than you found it" are great mantras to repeat when you head into the backcountry.
Bring plenty of garbage bags to pack out all of the garbage you and your party creates as well as any garbage you find that others may have left behind.
Don't plan to rely on burning your garbage or leaving it in a fire ring. Pack it all out, including toilet paper, glass bottles, aluminum cans and small items like twisty ties and fishing line. All items propose a threat to wildlife.
Minimize use of soaps, even if biodegradable, and always wash dishes and hands 200 ft away from water sources. Scatter water as opposed to dumping it all in once place. Use hand sanitizer as often as possible instead of soap to keep potential pollutants out of the soil.
Properly dispose of human waste.
The most environmentally friendly way to poop in the wild is by bringing your own commode. There are a multitude of ways people approach this:
A simple cassette toilet like the Thetford Porta Potti (what I use), that you can slide into the back of your vehicle and pull it out when it's time to "go."
Or even simpler yet, a 5 gallon bucket with a toilet seat like this Camco. Or make your own!
You can even add a nice privacy tent to enjoy that morning post-coffee poo in peace.
If porting your potty won't work for you, here are some instructions for disposing your waste in the wild, AKA digging a cat hole:
Select a location that's 200 ft (or 70 paces) from any water source, trail or campsite.
If camping in the same place more than one night or with a group of people, disperse cat holes over a large area. Do not concentrate them to one spot.
Choose an area with rich organic soil and maximum sunlight to aid in decomposition.
Find an elevated site that isn't prone to runoff during rainstorms.
Use a small garden trowel or shovel like this one:
Dig the hole 6-8 inches deep (about the length of the trowel blade) and 4-6 inches in diameter. In a hot desert, human waste does not biodegrade easily because there is little organic soil to help break it down. So in that situation, the cat hole should be only 4-6 inches deep. This will allow the heat and sun to speed up the decay process.
When finished, fill the hole back in with dirt and cover lightly with organic matter.
Pack out ALL of your toilet paper. Bring a small plastic bag to carry it out with you. Do not bury it. Toilet paper can take up to 3 years to decompose, so don't leave it out there for wild animals to dig up and dogs to roll in. It's unsightly to see and, frankly, it's just disgusting to encounter.
Leave What You Find:
Leave areas as you found them. Don't alter the landscape to make a campsite more comfortable for you. The best campsites are the ones that look like they haven't been disturbed.
Don't carve into or disturb trees, rock faces and plants. Don't cut down branches or trees for firewood.
Leave wildflowers alone for everyone to enjoy. You can take pictures, but do not pick them.
Leave natural objects. In many protected places it is illegal to remove or damage natural objects. They should be left for others to discover and appreciate.
Do not disturb or remove cultural artifacts or archeological sites. Do not carve into or damage these historically significant places.
Minimize Campfire Impacts:
Before building a fire, contact a local ranger station to check for any fire restrictions. It's absolutely essential you follow whatever guidelines are in place.
Camp in areas with an abundance of wood for fire building. Keep fires at a minimum in desert settings or high alpine environments.
Build your fire in an already existing fire ring whenever possible.
Keep fires small and burn them all the way to ash.
Put out fires with plenty of water.
Do not build fires under rock outcroppings that will scar and damage the rock surface.
Pack out all campfire litter. Do not leave trash in a fire ring for future campers to pack out.
Observe animals from afar. Do not approach or harass wildlife.
Be bear aware. If you're in bear country, store food properly and out of reach in your vehicle or bear box.
Keep garbage and food scraps away from animals.
Allow access for animals to water sources by camping 200 ft from any river, stream or lake.
Do not trample plants in order to get a closer look or get a photo.
Keep noises down so as to not disturb wildlife. Remember, we are visiting their home and we must be respectful.
Be Considerate of Other Visitors:
Consider the experience of others when spending time outdoors.
Keep music volumes and voices low when camping near others so those around you can enjoy the peace and quiet of nature.
Keep children and pets under control. Excessive noise, uncontrolled pets and children and damaged surroundings take away from the natural appeal of the outdoors.
Keep group sizes small and choose campsites where rocks or foliage screen it from view to enhance a feeling of privacy outdoors.
Pick up dog poop and keep pets on leash where mandatory.
What To Bring When You Go Boondocking
Not only do you need to be armed with Leave No Trace ethics when you head out on your first backcountry camping trip, but you need to have the right tools to have a safe and enjoyable experience. Since there are no amenities when you go backcountry camping, like toilets, showers and water, you need to come totally prepared with all the things you'll need.
My list of must-haves will differ significantly from someone else's. Whether you're interested in having a minimalistic camping experience, or you want to "glamp" it up with all the creature comforts, it's important that you test it out and find what's right for you.
Water: Make sure to bring more water than you think you'll need. That way you'll have plenty for drinking, putting out campfires, cleaning dishes or to offer friends in need. A 7 gallon BPA-free jug like this one is pretty standard, and if you know where to look, you can fill it up for free along the way. Check camping apps for water spigot locations.
It's handy to also have some form of water filtration at your disposal, in case you get stuck in a situation where your only option for drinking water comes from a natural source. Unless you want to risk a case of the runs, you do not want to drink directly from a creek or lake sans filter. There are so many options for water purification on the market, but the one I use most and find the easiest are the Aquamira Water Treatment Drops. They're inexpensive, effective, they work in a pinch, and I have yet to discern any off-putting chemical-y flavor.
Stove: I have two different stove types that I use in my van. One is electric and one is your standard single-burner camp stove, which I love. Camp stoves come in a variety of options, the most popular style being a 2 burner propane stove like this Eureka Ignite. But if you want to keep it simple or work with what you might already have, bringing a backpacking stove, although limiting in terms of what you can cook with it, will work just fine. The benefit of having 2 burners is undeniable, however. Cook your rice while also sautéing veggies. Sizzle some eggs while simultaneously heating up hash browns. Highly recommend.
Camp Table: I only carry a small side table for lounging because all my cooking is relegated to inside the van. But I've camped in groups with friends who've brought large camp tables and they are super convenient when you're in a group setting cooking for multiple people. A good camp table is light weight and folds down compact. My friends used the Mountain Summit Gear Roll Top Kitchen. The lower shelf allows for storage while the upper shelves are sturdy enough to cook and cut vegetables on.
Chairs: Having a chair to hang out and enjoy the views in is a MUST. But when it comes to butt comfort, we all have our own very specific criteria. And there's no shortage of options to choose from with prices ranging from $10 to $300. Your booty, your choice. You can even go the free route and opt for sitting on a log, large rock or your cooler. Personally, I prefer a chair that packs up small and is comfortable enough to sit by the fire for hours but not so comfortable I risk falling asleep (that's what hammocks are for). I have an REI Flexlite Camp Chair and I love it.
Shelter: Whether you're braving the pelting rain of the PNW or the scorching sun and shadeless deserts of the Southwest, having a shelter is a great way to make your weekend excursion more comfortable. Set up your chairs and table underneath the covering and stay dry playing board games. Or tie up your hammock and relax in the shade with a good book. This setup could be as simple as a tarp and some cord tied between two vehicles, or can get as fancy as a screened-in standing shelter, like this one from REI.
Floor Mat: A floor mat might seem like a luxury item, but it's such a valuable addition to your camp collection. Instead of tracking mud, dust or water into my van, I'm able to deposit my shoes on the mat outside my sliding door and keep the floors and bedding in the van clean for extended periods. It's also a great place to wipe my dog dry before heading inside for the night. They're stain resistant and dry quickly. I just roll mine up and throw it in the back of the van when I'm ready to leave.
Lighting: Whether you're cooking by candlelight or looking for some mood lighting for your evening game of solitaire, having lighting at night adds value to your camp hangs and can be necessary for finding those lost puzzle pieces. Every camper should come prepared with a headlamp for late night potty runs, but when you're chilling in chairs, you don't want to be blinding your besties with 100 lumens straight to the cornea.
My favorite table toppers are these solar powered outdoor lanterns. Charge them in the sun all day and you'll have at least 6 hours of workable light at night. When you're done, deflate and pack them away.
If you want something a little more fun, battery operated string lights are the way to go. Grab a couple strands and wrap them tightly around the corners of your shelter, string them between two vehicles, hang them inside your tent, or gently drape them from tree limbs. It creates a festive and cozy atmosphere that can simultaneously light a large area.
A short list of practical items you don't want to forget:
Paper maps, an atlas or GPS device. Don't rely solely on google maps or an app to get you to your destination. Have backups in case you get turned around or lost in the dark.
Garbage bags and plenty of them.
A cooler for storing all your chilled food items.
Plastic bin for dry food items.
Toilet paper, trowel and small plastic baggies for packing out your tp.
A short list of super luxury items to consider:
A hammock for those who want to take their relaxation game to the next level.
A movie projector for cinephiles who love to be outdoors. Just remember to keep the volume down in respect of nearby campers.
An Inflatable sofa that you can really sink your butt into.
Dometic CFX3 55IM Powered Cooler + Icemaker for the really serious off-grid enthusiast and ice cream lover.
Mobile fire pits like the solo stove are a great idea for keeping that campfire safely contained and this smokeless option is a glamping game changer.
A kindle to load your library of books onto. Relax all day digging into your favorite lit while chilling in your hammock, the breeze gently swinging you to and fro.
How to Find Your Next Dispersed Campsite:
Finally, we're getting into the meat of this blog post. Now that you know HOW and the WHAT, let's talk about the WHERE!
About 28% of the land in the US is federally owned and unless it's otherwise noted, you can usually car camp on it for free. So what does that include, exactly? Most typically, you will end up camping in one of these areas:
USFS Land (Forest Service)
Dispersed Camping is allowed on over 175 National Forests and Grasslands in the United States. You can click on an interactive map on the FS Website to find your next campsite here. Zoom in and you'll find campgrounds and trailheads across the US. The light green shaded areas within each state designate National Forests, where you can dispersed camp free of charge. You can find these areas on any standard paper map as well.
BLM Land (Bureau of Land Management)
BLM Land, mostly found in the West, usually allows camping up to 14 days. You can locate these areas (the land masses in yellow) on this map. Just keep your eyes peeled for any closure or "no camping" signs before you set up shop.
If you aren't into map reading, there are several phone apps that can help point you in the right direction as well. Although these apps can do most of the work for you, I recommend having a back up source in case you find yourself lost without cell service.
iOverlander is the app I use the most. It's a free, crowd-sourced app that you download to your phone. That means folks are frequently updating it with new information and descriptions regarding cell phone coverage, shade availability, pet friendliness, remoteness, typical campers to expect, what size rigs it's suited for, photos and other reviews. Most importantly, any changes to specific locations, like closures and road conditions are also included.
But iOverlander isn't only for locating cool campsites. Users can also tag locations for water resupply, propane stations, RV dumps, mechanics, grocery stores and restaurants. The maps often work offline, to a degree. You may not be able to pull the location up on google maps, but you'll be able to zoom out and see the campsites as well as your place on the iOverlander map, in case you get turned around.
All Stays was the first app I ever downloaded and used to find free camping. Even though the app isn't free (cost is $9.99), I felt like it deserved mentioning. This app allows you to filter locations with or without internet based on the type of campsite you're looking for, whether it's National Forest, BLM, State Park, KOA, or merely overnight parking at a rest stop or WalMart. And once you decide on a campsite, there's a link to google images of the site and a button that will send you to maps with google, apple or ways.
This is a more expensive option, coming in at $29.99 a year for a premium membership. OnX app has 500K recreation points such as campgrounds and dispersed campsites, parking areas, trailheads, boat launches, and more. Mountain bikers and overlanders seem to love this one. When you open the app, you can choose a satellite, topo, or hybrid view. As you zoom in on a state or area, onX will highlight trails (green means open, red means closed) in that area and overlay a blue border for featured maps. Tap any trail to see info.
When you find one you like, you can download the map to your phone. This app is for the serious off-roader, but it isn't just for 4 wheel drive. You can truly get off the grid and find some of the most secluded and beautiful places to camp, and rest assured you're doing it legally.
I don't personally use the Vanlife App, but I thought it deserved honorable mention because it's so community focused and life can get awfully lonely on the road. According to their website "We are the only app to connect you to community and resources! With free social features, you can connect with nearby community members through messaging and attend or even host your own gatherings!
Together, we’re creating the largest collection of campgrounds, overnight parking and outdoor resources in the world."
This is another app I haven't used yet, but that van lifers speak highly of. There's a free version, but when you sign up for a Pro account for $35.99 a year, you have access to all kinds of benefits. You can search for campsites offline (which is amazing if you happen to be out of cell service), there's a trip planning feature that allows you to export your trip to google maps, you can save your favorite campgrounds, add a map layer featuring all BLM, NFS and NP land for camping, and even get discounts and free gear. They already have 40,000+ campsites around the country, with reviews, tips, videos, and photos from other people who have stayed there, so you know what to expect when you arrive.
If you're interested in a more tailored experience and don't mind throwing down a few dollars, there are some other really fun options to consider.
Hipcamp is like Airbnb for van lifers. The website allows you to research by location, similar to Airbnb, and make a reservation for a campsite on someone's unique private property. Each listing shows amenities provided and reviews from previous campers. You can find some incredible and inexpensive places through Hipcamp. I highly recommend trying it at least once during your road trip.
Vanly is a free app that lets anybody with some extra space to spare list it on the site. Then any traveler can request to park there. Spaces range from driveways to open fields, and some include amenities like showers and toilets. All you have to do is locate the place you'd like to stay, request your dates and provide details of the vehicle you’re driving. Then the host either accepts or rejects the booking. All payment is done through the website and reviews can be left once the stay is over.
I have yet to try out Harvest Hosts, but I most definitely plan to! Although the membership is $99 a year, it gets you access to so much! Your membership allows you to camp overnight at a number of locations across the country, including 600 wineries, 268 breweries and distilleries, 567 farms and so much more. There are some restrictions in terms of what kinds of campers they allow and all vehicles must be fully self-contained, meaning there must be a toilet inside.
Some Final Tips:
Keep your expectations under wraps. Not every campsite is going to be epic and instagrammable. Sometimes, you'll be tucked in the trees with no view, in a large gravel lot with 10 other RV's or overnighting at a truck stop near the freeway. This is just a part of the reality of low budget winging it, and it's totally acceptable. Just remember it's only for one night.
You may not be able to camp for free every single night. There are plenty of beautiful Forest Service campgrounds under $10 per night. Occasionally that's the best available option. Just relax and enjoy access to a pit toilet and picnic table.
Winter adds an extra layer of difficulty because many campgrounds close in the off-season and roads in the mountains are inaccessible due to snow and ice. Just remember to remain flexible, give yourself plenty of time to find a campsite or make plans to travel to lower elevations and more arid climates.
If you're ever in doubt, call the nearest ranger station. They're usually very helpful and can give you the most updated information for your destination.