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

"Take me home, country roads" - John Denver

The term "dispersed camping" is used by the US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to describe camping outside of developed campgrounds. It's a rustic way of camping much like the way camping used to be before the invention of the "campground."

Backcountry camping in the wild might be intimating at first, especially for someone that is accustomed to city life. The rewards, however, are just too good to pass up. Don't let any fears you may have stop you from enjoying this beautiful country.

Dispersed Camping in Arizona
Dispersed Camping in Arizona

Any concerns you may have about camping in the wilderness will quickly melt away as soon as you try it. You'll find there is little to worry about and mother nature isn't out to get you.

As far as safety is concerned, I feel there is no safer place to be than on our public lands.

I should know. I've spent most of the last 10 years camping in the backcountry among our National Forests and BLM lands. I find camping in the wilderness outside of developed campgrounds to be the most enjoyable way to camp.

Leaving all the distractions behind lets me soak in the natural beauty that is all around. It provides a much deeper connection with nature. A connection that can be immensely beneficial to the body, mind, and soul. This may sound cliché, but I have no doubt it's true.

Now lets see what dispersed camping is all about. Today we'll learn:

  • Where we can camp and where we can't
  • How long we can stay
  • How to find a campsite
  • If campfires are allowed
  • How to handle bears, pets, and more

Camping on Public Lands

"This land is your land, this land is my land" - Woody Guthrie

Dispersed camping is wild and free yes, but with that freedom comes great responsibility. One must care for the land as if it was their own...because it is their own. These public lands are here for us all to enjoy.

By following a few simple rules, and using some good old common sense, we can keep our lands looking beautiful for the enrichment of all.

Rules vary between National Forests and BLM districts, but there are often similarities. Here's a summary of the basic rules that apply to most federal public lands.

Where Can I Camp?

A better question is "where can I not camp?" which we'll get to shortly. Because if you're in a National Forest or on BLM land you can camp almost anywhere. There are literally millions of acres of land open to dispersed camping.

And there are millions of established dispersed campsites. Many of these are in beautiful natural settings...at the edge of a forest meadow, along a trout filled creek, or in a clearing with a scenic mountain view.

It's always best to choose one of these established sites. This keeps our environmental impact to a minimum. A bonus is that these sites often come with a fire ring and sometimes furniture like seating cut from downed trees.

Dispersed Camping in Northern Arizona
Boondock camping in the Coconino National Forest, Northern Arizona

Take the Road Less Traveled

There are several ways you can go about finding these established dispersed campsites. One way is to simply explore the area.

The first thing to do is get off the pavement. Once you reach a dirt road that's "drivable" take it. You'll often find several dispersed campsites down these dirt roads.

In general, most sites will be closer to the main road. The further you stray from civilization, the fewer campsites you'll find.

Use caution as many dirt roads found in our National Forests and BLM lands aren't driveable without a Jeep or similar SUV, hence the name "jeep road." Even then, a Jeep is no guarantee you'll make it. Some roads have deteriorated to the point that they are no longer passable in any type of vehicle.

Meet the Rangers

A better method for finding dispersed camping areas is to stop by the nearest Forest Service or BLM ranger station. The staff will usually know of any dispersed camping opportunities in that area and they may even have a free map showing you where to camp.

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