Dispersed Camping on Public Lands, It's Wild and It's Free

Where No Camping is Allowed

Of course you can't just camp in every old spot you find. There are a handful of camping restrictions in place to protect you, your wilderness neighbors, and mother nature.

In general, dispersed camping is not permitted

  • In or near developed recreation areas like campgrounds or picnic areas
  • Within 100 feet of water (creeks, rivers, lakes, springs)
  • Near water troughs used by wildlife and livestock
  • On private property or within city limits

Vehicle Use

Vehicles are not allowed to drive in meadows or off-road. And just because there's a road in a National Forest this doesn't mean it's legal to drive on it. The Forest Service has implemented a Motor Vehicle Use Plan designating which roads are open to motorized vehicles.

You must obtain a Motor Vehicle Use Map from the ranger station or online to know which roads are open. A bonus is that these maps often show which roads have dispersed campsites.

Dispersed Camping in Anza Borrego Desert State Park
A magnificent full rainbow while dispersed camping in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Southern California

How Long Can I Camp?

Limits on camping duration are there to keep people from homesteading and setting up residency on public lands. These limits also prevent the land from becoming overused.

The stay limit varies between National Forests and BLM areas. Typically you're allowed to camp for up to 14 days within a 28 day period before having to move to a different campsite.

This 28 day period begins when you first arrive at the campsite. During this period you may camp for 14 days straight, or on successive visits totaling no more than 14 days. After 14 days you must move a specified distance (usually a 25 mile radius) away from the campsite before you may camp again.

Campfires

Cozying up by the campfire and telling ghost stories is a tradition for some. While RVing I rarely have a campfire, though I occasionally light one for cooking. If you plan to have a campfire you must first ask yourself, is it legal?

Fire Restrictions

Federal land agencies impose fire restrictions when wildfires are a threat. When the danger is high, campfires are banned altogether. Camping stoves will usually be permitted though.

You can find out if any fire restrictions are in place by visiting the particular National Forest web page or by contacting the nearest ranger station.

When you're in a National Forest you'll probably be aware of any fire restrictions as there will be plenty of road signs to remind you.

Minimizing Impact

Every campfire will have some impact on the environment. Smaller campfires minimize this impact. There are a few other ways you can lay a gentle hand upon the land when dispersed camping.

  • Use established fire rings, make a mound fire, or build the campfire on a fire pan. The BLM recommends using a metal tray, such as an oil pan, to prevent blackening the soil. This is even required in some dispersed camping areas such as Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in Southern California.
  • Gather downed and dead wood only, if allowed. Don't cut standing trees.
  • Better yet, bring your own firewood. Just be sure to source it no greater than 50 miles away to prevent the spread of pests and diseases that can kill millions of trees.
  • Don't put garbage that doesn't burn into the campfire. Contrary to popular belief, aluminum cans, foil, and glass will not burn in a campfire.
  • If the wind's a blowing, use a good wind break, or better yet postpone the campfire until the wind dies down. Smokey the Bear will thank you.
Dispersed camping along a forest meadow
Backcountry camping along the edge of a forest meadow in Northern Arizona

Dead Out

It's an unfortunate fact that many forest fires are started each year from campers who head home without completely extinguishing their campfire.

The Forest Service requires that you have a shovel and water on hand for all campfires. The amount of water needed will depend on the size of the fire and how long it has been burning. 6 gallons is usually sufficient to extinguish a medium sized campfire that has been burning for a few hours.

Before extinguishing the fire, all wood should be burned down to ashes. Douse the fire with water then stir up the ashes a bit with your shovel. Feel the ground for any heat. If the ground is still warm, repeat the process until the ground is cool to the touch.

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