Watch a breathtaking sunset along a craggy ridge surrounded only by the sounds of nature. Savor your coffee at the edge of a lake shrouded in morning mist while listening to the birds sing their wake up song. Enjoy a walk along a trail less traveled and nurture your inner peacefulness. Chart thousands of twinkling stars while they light up the night sky.
Immersing yourself in the dispersed camping experience will create a bond with nature you will carry with you always.
Dispersed camping is defined as camping anywhere outside of a designated campground. Also referred to as boondocking or backcountry camping, you are essentially going off the grid. If you are looking for the ultimate place to unplug and unwind, dispersed camping might be just the thing for you.
We asked Brent Kinley, a wilderness guide, desert guide, and thru-hiker, for his insight on dispersed camping. In addition to thru-hiking the 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail and the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail, Kinley began dispersed camping when he moved to Utah in 2015. “I usually camp by myself and have 600-plus nights of dispersed camping experiences.”
What Is Dispersed Camping
Dispersed camping is camping on public lands where there is not a developed campground or recreation facility closeby. Typically there are little or no services provided. You are dry camping, self-reliant on your generator, your own water supply, and everything you need to survive.
“One of the most important rules of dispersed camping is to pack out everything but liquid; it takes leave no trace to an entirely different level,” Kinley noted.
The National Park Service lists seven leave-no-trace principles. These guidelines serve as a checklist of how to prepare, pack, camp, and enjoy your camping experience.
- Plan Ahead and Prepare
- Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
- Dispose of Waste Properly
- Leave What You Find
- Minimize Campfire Impacts
- Respect Wildlife
- Be Considerate of Other Visitors
Which Types Of Land Can You Camp On
The U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages 245 million acres of U.S. land, including forests, mountains, rangelands, arctic tundra, and deserts. More prominent in western states, BLM is the lead agency of public lands and resource management.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Forest Service oversees our National Forests and Grasslands for your recreation pleasure. They oversee our public forests, including trails, recreation sites, wilderness areas, and scenic rivers.
The National Park Service also offers opportunities for dispersed camping. Their wilderness and backcountry camping opportunities take you exploring across the country.
These wildlife organizations’ mission is to conserve our natural, historical, and cultural resources while making some of the land available for public use. Many of these public lands require a pass or permit for day and overnight use. Check with the managing agency to determine if a permit is required. The lead time can be significant if it is a highly desirable area.
How Do You Find Dispersed Camping Sites
Most dispersed camping sites are found along secondary and dirt roads. The areas are not marked. Sites that have been previously used can be ascertained by the flat, disturbed ground where others have set up camp.
The BLM website offers a Visit Us search page that allows you to select a location, activity, and keyword. When you select a specific state and camping as an activity, it will populate with all the BLM-managed lands in that state that allow camping. It also provides the local BLM office, which is your go-to source for local dispersed camping information.
The U.S. National Forest Service offers a Visit Destinations search page that allows you to search dispersed camping sites, trails, and other available activities.
The National Parks Service has an interactive camping map that highlights Camping Opportunities across the country. Each map point connects to an appropriate local park website for all the up-to-the-minute details for that particular park.
The National Geographic Road Atlas is a good source of information and can be very handy when you lose cell service. Google Maps is also a good resource to identify fields, clearings, and access roads to give you a sense of what may be available.
Finding a great dispersed camping site can be a good test of your adventurer’s spirit. Unless you are familiar with the area, finding a site is best accomplished in daylight. Wandering around an unfamiliar desert or forest in the dark is not advised.
What Are The Rules Around Dispersed Camping
Each location has unique regulations, and checking with the local BLM or National Forest or National Parks office is the best resource for their particular camping rules.
There are some general rules and regulations you need to consider to make your dispersed camping experience safe and protect our natural resources.
- Large groups may need to obtain a special use permit from the local district office.
- You must camp at least 100 feet from any water source.
- Follow the leave-no-trace principles for a pack-in, pack-out campsite.
- Depending on where you camp, you must either dig an 8-inch cathole for solid waste or take it with you when you leave.
- Some agencies require you to move your camping location every 14 days.
- Many agencies’ policies include restrictions on leaving any unattended personal property for an extended period of time.
What Should You Bring
The short answer is everything!
“Must-haves include food, water, seasonal clothes, a tarp for shade, firewood, a wag bag, and a paper map. You are going to be self-reliant; expect a more primitive experience than you may be accustomed to,” warned Kinley.
This is a list of basics you should pack, along with other required niceties include:
- A printed map of the area, cell service can be spotty at best
- A good rule of thumb is a gallon of water per person per day and a backup water filtration system
- Food and bear- and animal-proof containers
- A covered trash bin
- Miscellaneous items: flashlight, jackknife, compass, flares, car care kit, first aid kit
- A wag bag or shovel for a cathole (8-inch deep hole) for solid sewage disposal, determined by local regulations
- Firewood if burning is allowed
Dispersed camping requires planning. Whether you sleep in your car or pitch a small tent, you need to bring all your basic creature comforts with you.
Why You Should Try Dispersed Camping
To Literally Get Away From It All
No reservations, no problem. Getting away from it all takes on new meaning. Dispersed camping is an opportunity to enjoy the quiet beauty of Mother Nature, along with a high probability you won’t run into any other campers.
When asked about why he loves dispersed camping, Kinley said, “I love it because you have a wilderness experience; I’m allergic to campgrounds. You see the stars, not people.”
To Experience Unique Adventures
Start your day with an alfresco breakfast at sunrise, hike along a riverbed trail, enjoy a picnic lunch with a picture-perfect view, and dine at your campfire under a canopy of gorgeous stars. When you are out of the mainstream tourist areas, you have time to absorb the beauty around you without that herded-along feeling.
Kinley recounted, “One of my favorite camping trips was a night on the rim of the Grand Canyon. It was really a magical experience.“ Perched on a spot overlooking the canyon without crowds is a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
To Commune With Nature
When was the last time you got to stop and smell the roses? We are a nation of busy people, constantly on the go. When you are camping out in the wild, you have a chance to slow down and appreciate what is around you. Dispersed camping is an immersive experience. You are not just an onlooker; you are an active participant in nature.
“I find sometimes I roll over in bed, open my eyes, and I just say, ‘wow’ because of the gorgeous stars. The sounds of the wildlife are so interesting. I remember one trip when a nighthawk, which has a very unique cry, circled the sky. For several nights, I watched the same nighthawk fly the same pattern … the rhythm of nature is so interesting.” Kinley’s deep connection with nature is contagious.
To View The Most Spectacular Starlit Sky
Camping under the stars with no city lights for miles around creates a canvas that is sprinkled with twinkling diamonds. There are few places you can experience this spectacular private, light showcase performance.
Pro Tip: Not ready to get out all on your own? Try a Custom Multi-Day Desert Safari Tour from Dreamland Safari Tours. They also have amazing day tours, and you can find Kinley showing visitors around the gorgeous Utah landscape and beyond.