FREE DISPERSED CAMPING WITHIN PUBLIC LANDS The Complete Tutorial
One of the most frequent questions I get asked is how to save money while travelling. My immediate response is to take a look at where you’re sleeping. It’s easy to shell out a lot of money just for a place to lay down overnight.
If you’re used to staying in hotels, then maybe try a more modest motel. If you’re a motel user, then it might be time to try a campground. And for folks who are already using campgrounds, the final step to save money is to start dispersed camping.
Dispersed Camping... Boondocking... Wild Camping... What’s the Deal?
All three of these terms refer to the free camping available throughout our public lands outside of an established campground. This style of camping is different from your typical campground scene because it is remote and has little to no amenities.
Benefits of dispersed camping are:
It’s Free, which makes it a great way to travel on a tight budget.
No Crowds allows for a more solitary experience.
Frequently Close to Major Landmarks including many National Parks.
But dispersed camping isn’t for everyone:
No Bathrooms, which means you’ll either be pooping in the woods or using your RV facilities. Some more established dispersed camping areas might have pit toilets at best.
No Trash Pick Up, so you’ll have to make sure to pack everything out.
Limited Campsite Improvements such as picnic tables and fire rings. Some more established sites have these, but I wouldn’t count on them.
Rougher Access due to lower quality roads.
Where Can I Camp for Free?
As a general guideline, National Forests, National Grasslands, Bureau of Land Management, and Fish and Wildlife Management Areas (and even the occasional National Park such as Death Valley) are open to dispersed camping. But there are some exceptions and rules that are important to know about.
Since most of these agencies are located in the west, with some exceptions in Maine and the midwest, east-coasters are somewhat out-of-luck. Still, it’s a good option to be aware of for your next trip out west.
General Dispersed Camping Guidelines
Beyond the common Leave No Trace philosophy, here are some additional guidelines for dispersed camping:
Pack It In, Pack It Out - please don’t ruin these places by leaving trash/toilet paper.
Limited Stay - often 14 days within a 28 day period.
Camp Away From Water Sources - 100 feet at the minimum.
Do Not Camp on Private Lands - Look for posted signs.
Do Not Camp Near Developed Areas - Such as trailheads, picnic areas, day-use areas, or places signed ‘no camping’.
First-Come, First-Served - there is no way to reserve your spot ahead of time.
Properly Dispose of Waste - poop should be buried at least 6 inches deep and toilet paper should be packed out. If you bring your pet remember to clean up after them as well.
Vehicles Must Stay Within 100 - 300 Feet of Roads - this varies from place to place.
Don’t Block the Road - even if it seems rarely travelled, you should always pull off to the side.
Use Durable Surfaces - help keep your impacts down by targeting rocky or dirt areas. Try to use existing camping spots.
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While these general guidelines are a good place to start, it’s always smart to check in with the land agencies you’re planning on visiting. Some places have specific rules regarding how far you can camp from a road, where you can camp, if a permit is needed, or if camping is even allowed.
Head over to the agency specific website -- just Google “Superior National Forest Dispersed Camping,” or whatever location you’re interested in and check out what it says on their website. Alternatively, drop by their ranger station or give them a quick call.
A Note About Campfires
Most land agencies allow for you to build a campfire and use a stove while dispersed camping. You should always use established fire rings when available, and be mindful of current fire restrictions (especially in the west). Some agencies (like Inyo National Forest) require you to obtain a free stove permit before using campfires or stove. Make sure to check in about any specific restrictions.
Fireworks are never permitted and fires must be COMPLETELY OUT when unattended -- this is a big one. Many of the huge wildfires in recent years have been caused by people who have left a fire unattended. You should dose and disperse the fire, and it needs to be cool to the touch before moving on.
A stove is always the preferred option for cooking your food since they don’t have lasting impacts -- something to keep in mind.
How to Find a Free Dispersed Campsite
While you can just drive into a National Forest and try to find a good place to sleep, you’ll end up at a much better location with a little bit of prior research.
Head over to the Forest Service MVUM page, this lists all of the National Forests that are open to motor vehicles. Scroll down to find the National Forest you're looking for in order of states.
Step 2 - Locate the Correct MVUM Map
Most National Forests are further broken down into specific regions. In this case, I am interested in camping somewhere along the Kern River, so I will select the “Kern River MVOG Page 1.”
Step 3 - Review the Map for Important Details
Each MVUM is different. Some of them won’t have any information regarding camping while others, like this one, has a complete key. If your map doesn’t have camping information, try Googling the forest + “dispersed camping” for more specifics. Chance are good that it simply means you can camp anywhere.
Step 4 - Find Where You Want to Camp
Now is the fun part. Using the symbols provided, locate a spot that looks good on the map. I want to stay on the Kern, so I’m going to look upstream for dispersed campgrounds. Spring Hill has a dispersed camping icon, so that seems like a good spot that likely has some amenities provided.
Step 5 - Scope It Out on Google Maps
You can get a better idea of what the area looks like using Google Maps. Type in a nearby location (in this case Kernville, CA) and locate your campsite. Try turning on the Google Earth layout for even more details -- look for it on the bottom left.
This one looks like there is plenty of room, but also potential for other people (good to know!).
But What If I Don’t Want To Do All That Work?
No worries, you can always check out a user-curated database such as FreeCampsites.net or Boondocking.org. These sites make it easy to find a free camping spot and are fairly accurate, the only downside is that they only represent a small percentage of places you could camp, and those represented are more often busy.
Dispersed camping is my preferred method nowadays. I love the privacy that these out-of-the-way roads afford, and the costs savings as well. If you’re an RVer or campground goer, I’d encourage you to try dispersed camping and see if it’s a good fit.
Are you a seasoned dispersed camper? Let us know your tricks in the comments below!