Click here to read “Is Dispersed Camping Better Than Developed Camping?

Dispersed camping requires a total sense of independence, basic survival skills, and a true desire to “rough it.” It may not be for everyone. If you’ve never been camping before, I suggest staying in some developed campgrounds first, to see if you enjoy it. If you’re a more experienced camper, who often has the desire to get away from it all, you may want to try dispersed camping. It’s similar to backcountry camping and backpacking, except you don’t have to pack everything with you on your back.

The process can vary depending on whether you’re in a national forest, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) area, state park, national park, etc. Personally, the best places I’ve found for dispersed camping have been in national forests, due to their size and abundance throughout the nation. Although this article is mainly geared towards camping in national forests, many of the same principles apply to other places.

          Enjoying a quiet morning in Willamette National Forest, Oregon

Step 1: When dispersed camping, the only thing provided is the ground you’re going to be sleeping on. You must bring EVERYTHING else you need to live comfortably with you. This includes whatever camping gear you normally bring, plus some extras. The list includes:

  • a cooler
  • foods items for breakfast, lunch, and dinner
  • camp stove
  • matches, lighter, or other fire starting supplies
  • cooking supplies
  • clean-up supplies
  • tent, sleeping bags, pillows, air mattress, sleeping pad, etc.
  • clothes and shoes (make sure you check temperature, weather, and elevation to determine what to bring)
  • hygiene products
  • solar shower (Check out “How To Shower Outdoors“)
  • camp chairs
  • fold out table, or something else that can double as a table
  • lanterns and/or flashlights, headlamps
  • personal protection device
  • first-aid kit
  • some pre-cut wood or tools to cut firewood
  • WATER, and lots of it
  • portable toilet, toilet paper, wet wipes  (We all have to go, no matter where we are. Here’s a couple articles from our archive on the topic: “Women’s Instructional DVD for peeing in the woods” and “Doing #2 Outdoors“)

Step 2: Most forests allow visitors the opportunity for dispersed camping. Figure out which forest you’d like to visit, and then contact the ranger station of that district for verification. When you arrive in the area, you’ll want to stop by the station before heading into the forest. Rangers will be able to give you all kinds of valuable information such as good roads to take, areas to avoid, current fire conditions, and any restrictions for that particular forest. If you run into any locals along the way, they can provide a wealth of knowledge, too.

                                        Image taken from http://fs.usda.gov/mendocino

Step 3: Get a map! Successfully navigating a new forest is essential. It can mean the difference between finding a spot quickly and easily before dark, or pitching a tent and eating dinner by flashlight. You can get a free basic motor vehicle map at most ranger stations, or spend a little extra on a more detailed one with additional features. If you can’t get to a ranger station, check the website for an online forest map, at the very least. Only take roads that you can locate on a map.

              Image taken from http://fs.usda.gov

Step 4: Now go scout out your perfect camping spot! You have a whole forest full of nothing but nature, so be sure to start looking for camp at least 2 or 3 hours before sundown. This will give you enough time to pick a spot, set up, eat dinner, and even shower before darkness falls. First, check your motor vehicle map for any roads where dispersed camping is prohibited. Then, be wary of specific forest regulations like: “Keep your campsite within 150 ft of a roadway.” For more tips on choosing a good site, click here to read “How To Choose a Tent Site.”

                  Some specific rules for Fish Lake National Forest in Utah

Step 5:. Once you’ve found a safe, comfortable spot, all you have to do next is make yourself at home, relax, and enjoy! Break out those comfy camp chairs, get the fire roaring, and get started on those campfire s’mores. Feel free to let loose and really enjoy the peacefulness of the outdoors and the solitude of dispersed camping. There won’t be anyone around to judge you (expect whoever you’re traveling with), so just have fun!

Things to keep in mind:

  • There’s a good chance that you won’t have cell phone reception. Talk to whomever you need to beforehand, and make sure you let someone know where you will be and when you’re expecting to be home.
  • Make sure you have enough water to drink, cook with, and clean up with, for the amount of time you’ll be staying. Minimum of a gallon per person, per day.
  • A spot near a creek or other water source is always a plus. It’s very relaxing to watch and listen to. Plus, you can use nature’s water for washing dishes or bathing. You can even drink it as long as you make it safe by boiling first.
  • Always be prepared for any looming weather conditions. You may need to sleep inside your vehicle if severe threats arise.
  • Be aware of any threatening animals that may be in the area. You’re basically sleeping in their home, and they may want to pay you a visit. Always be on the lookout and carry protection, especially at night.
  • NEVER leave ANY food or anything used for cooking unattended. You’ll be welcoming animals to your campsite if you do.
  • Being in a forest means you’re not easily accessible for rescue if something life-threatening happens. Be careful with everything you do, and don’t go off hiking alone.
  • Always have a basic first-aid kit with you.
  • Always leave your campsite exactly the way you found it, or better. No one should ever be able to tell that you were there.
Having a pancake breakfast in Arapaho National Forest on July 4th
To sum it all up, dispersed camping is an excellent alternative to staying in an already developed campground. However, it does take a good amount of preparedness, forethought, and mental adjustment to have a good time. But once you have all the kinks worked out, dispersed camping can make for a genuinely unique experience.

Learning how to be totally self-sufficient can give you a sense of satisfaction like no other. You’ll feel differently sleeping out in the middle of nowhere with no one else around. It adds a whole new dimension to camping.

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