Camping for Free – What Exactly is Dispersed Camping?

For many of us, camping is a way to get away from it all and destress in nature. Some of you may be hunters looking to spend a few days tracking your prey, while others of you might just need some time to feel like you can breathe again. Whatever your reason, I’m sure there are few of us who actually enjoy being packed in the same space as several other campers who may or may not be loud and obnoxious. For me at least, being around other people (especially strangers) defeats the purpose of camping, and I’m sure many of you can resonate with that. If that’s the case, you’re on the right article, because you’ll want to find out what dispersed camping is and how to do it.

Dispersed Camping vs. Regular Camping

tent on a grassy plain next to mountains

If you’re new to the camping game (or even if you’ve been doing it for awhile), chances are you’ve rarely heard the term “dispersed camping.” It goes by a few names such as dry camping, boondocking, and wild camping, but when it’s all said and done, they mean the same thing. So what is dispersed camping, and how does it differ from traditional camping?

Dispersed camping is more well known for what it’s not, so we’ll start there in our comparison. While many campsites have facilities onsite (like restrooms and showers), dispersed camping does not. Regular campsites are usually very accessible, and will probably have stores and restaurants relatively close by. Dispersed camping does not. Campground have a few hurdles to get through before you can stay there, like checking for availability and making a reservation. Dispersed camping…you guessed it. The whole premise of dispersed camping is being able to camp anywhere you want (legally), which means you’ll probably be in an area where there aren’t any creature comforts or other people

Why Go for Dispersed Camping?

You may be thinking, “Gosh, dispersed camping sounds awful! No restrooms, facilities, creature comforts of any kind…” And it’s true that this style of camping isn’t for everyone, and can come with a wider variety of risks, especially for those who don’t know what they’re doing. It isn’t as comfortable, but let’s be honest…do we really go camping for the comfort? Probably not.

I’ll be honest with you and say that dispersed camping is the only form of camping that I’ve done in the last decade. Many of the reasons why I’ve chosen to do it this way will resonate with you, and others may not, since each person is motivated by different things.

I’m an introvert by nature – a melancholic, if any of you are familiar with temperament styles. I like having a couple close friends, but other than that, I’m perfectly content not interacting with very many people on a regular basis. It’s draining, and if I’m going to doing something fun like camping, I want to feel refreshed and not stressed out. This reason alone would be enough for me to say goodbye to pitching my tent in a campground. I love the feeling of aloneness that’s possible with dispersed camping, and I’m sure all my fellow introverts will know what I’m talking about.

I also enjoy the freedom that comes with this style of camping. There’s something about knowing you can camp anywhere you want without making a reservation, and move a few miles in any direction the next day if you wanted to.

Can I Go Dispersed Camping Anywhere?

man camping in the sunset

And the answer to that question is no. Private land is obviously off limits unless you have permission from the owner, making federal land the go-to option. Roughly 30 percent of the United States is available for dispersed camping, a good portion of that located in the west half of the country.

National forests are a favorite of many, but you can camp for free in any federally designated land, unless otherwise posted. Look for land run by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Wildlife Management Areas (WMA), or national grasslands to set up shop, in addition to national forests. You should have no trouble camping in any of these areas, though each location may have different rules that are worth checking out beforehand. It’s not a bad idea to chat with a local ranger to see what’s allowed and what isn’t.

Where to Find Dispersed Campsites

It’s fairly easy to find locations that will let you camp for free. As I just mentioned, you should check with the ranger station ahead of time to hear the officials policies, but in general, these sites will give you a good idea of where you can stay:

Once you know the boundaries you can camp within, it’s time to find an actual location to set up shop. When possible, it’s good practice to stay at a place where other campers have been before, to keep your impact on the environment at a minimum. Look for flat clearings or the remains of a firepit to discover the best location, otherwise the rangers will be more than happy to identify campsites you can sleep at along your route.

How to Prepare

In some ways, dispersed camping requires less preparation than regular camping. You don’t need to make a reservation, call to check on availability, or even know the exact dates that you want to go. You can just…go. On the other hand, there are a few things that you’ll need to think about that you might not have had to in the past. We’ll take a look at some of the big ones here.

Leave No Trace

the remains of a campfire

Camping is not something you want to do without prior preparation, and that’s even more true for dispersed camping. Because you won’t have access to any bathroom facilities, you’ll want to prepare yourself for doing your business out in the wild. It’s always good to follow the Leave No Trace (LNT) principles when it comes to stuff like this, so that you can leave it as close to the way you found it as possible. I suggest you bring a tiny shovel to dig yourself a hole for when you need to get rid of your solid waste – be sure your bury it once you’re done, so no one accidentally steps in it!

Be careful if you plan on building a campfire as well. In a location without a designated firepit, it can be easy for the flames to get out of hand if you aren’t careful. Make sure you take all the proper precautions before you light your match, including how you’re going to put it out and leave the area looking untouched when it’s time for you to move on.

Food

You’ll be away from a grocery store and restaurants for awhile, so you’ll have to bring your own food. I suggest packing as light as you can, so leave the giant camping stove at home, and bring a small propane burner to cook some ramen in. Or, something of that nature.

You’ll also need to take proper precautions when it comes to storing your food as well. The wilderness might be your home for the night, but it’s also the residence of a lot of hungry animals that would love to dig into the food you brought. If you’ll be taking your car or RV with you, lock your food in there when you aren’t using it. Otherwise, bring a bear canister or odor-proof bags to safely store your edibles.

Garbage

trash left at a campsite

There are no garbage cans in the wild (shocking, I know), so be prepared to manage your own trash. I know some people like bringing a bag to store their garbage, while I personally prefer to put it back in my backpack in the Ziploc bag I originally had it in. It comes down to your own preference, but make sure you take the time to think through how you want to do it.

Navigation

This one is important, but often overlooked by many people. It’s possible that you’ll end up camping in an area without a visible trail, or at the very least, far enough away from civilization where getting lost would be serious concern. Going into nature with nothing but your phone to guide you is a bad idea, and bound to get you in a predicament some day.

a compass on a map

Now, you might be thinking, “But my phone has Google Maps! That’s all I really need to tell me where I am and where I need to go.” And while it’s true that the GPS on your phone is very useful in day to day situations, it’s an unreliable resource at best, when you’re out in the middle of nowhere. Think about what your phone actually needs in order to tell you where you are and how to get to your destination: cell service and battery.

Maybe cell service won’t be an issue where you’re going, but do you really want to take that risk? If you still want to rely solely on your phone, you can certainly download some offline maps to look at if you have no connection, but then you’re stuck with the issue of battery life. There aren’t any electrical outlets naturally forming in the wilderness, so if you want to charge your phone, you’ll need to bring a portable power bank. Again, not a bad option, but do you really want to take the chance that even the power bank will run out of juice? Not to mention the possibility of breaking your phone, among countless other scenarios. Do yourself a favor by going with a compass and map, so you can sleep easier at night. Don’t know how to use them? Check out our guide here.

Additional Items

Still worried you might be missing something important? The 10 essentials is a great list to review before you head out to make sure you aren’t forgetting anything necessary for survival. You might be a little uncomfortable from time to time, but as long as you have the things on that list, you shouldn’t be in any significant danger.

Camping in Your Vehicle

old rv parked at a campsite

When it comes to dispersed camping, there are a lot of people who prefer to car camp in the truest sense of the term. Whether it’s in an RV or van, the same locations that are available to tent camp in for free are open to you as well, making it a great option if you’d like to keep some amenities. Many people who live in a mobile home, converted school bus, or sprinter van also take advantage of this cost effective way to park their home, often for weeks at a time. These principles apply to Walmart parking lots too, though you’ll have to get the okay from a manager, since each store has a different policy when it comes to allowing folks to spend the night there.

Final Thoughts

The word that best describes dispersed camping is “free.” It doesn’t cost anything, it’s typically free of people, there are no facilities, and you’re able to go wherever you want whenever you want. For the wanderer at heart, or the introvert, there’s no better escape than this.

However, it’s not an activity that’s meant for everyone, and those who do take part in it should always be cautious. Do you know what to do if you encounter a bear? Do you have a procedure in place if you get injured and need to call for help? Are you sure you’re bringing enough food and a way to filter water? The downside of being so free is that if anything goes wrong, it’s up to you to figure out what to do. For this reason, I wouldn’t recommend that any of you go camping like this if you’ve never spent a night in a tent before (or if it’s been a long time). Take some time to figure out what you’re doing and get some experience in a more controlled environment, and once you’ve figured out the basics of how to go camping, head off on your own when you feel ready.

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Spencer Yeomans

Spencer Yeomans

A lover of the outdoors, and especially the mountains, Spencer has always enjoyed pushing people to step outside their comfort zones. His mission is to help others get out of their homes to have fun and stay active in nature.

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