How to Camp for Free: A Dispersed Camping Guide

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We’ve all been there, stuck in a cramped campsite, so overpopulated that you can virtually feel the breath of your neighbours snores a tent over. 

What was meant to be a calm, relaxing weekend away has now turned into the opposite. The promise of idyllic and peaceful sunrises has been crushed by the sheer volume and often inconsiderate campers surrounding you, more interested in a party than to enjoy the outdoors. 

Ok, I have painted a somewhat extreme picture there. But, i think it’s safe to say we’ve all had a trip or two ruined by extortionate fees, paired with some rather undesirable fellow camp mates. 

For me, this is one of the main allures of dispersed camping. 

Just you and the outdoors, no one else. I’d also argue this is why dispersed camping is continuing to grow in popularity year after year. That paired with the fact that more resources and services are becoming available that allow us to find that magic camp ground we’ve all been looking for for years.

If you’re on the hunt for a stunning camp site, off the beat and track, where you can enjoy a peaceful night in the great outdoors, then you’re in luck. 

We’re going to cover everything you need to know on dispersed camping, from how to camp for free, to what you need to pack. With this in mind, by the end of this post, you’ll be equipped with the knowledge to enjoy the great outdoors in peace (and likely for free as well).

What is Dispersed Camping?

Firstly, it’s worth mentioning that dispersed camping goes by many different names and wears many hats. For example, dispersed camping is often called, primitive camping, free camping, boondocking, wild camping or dry camping. 

While each name may have slightly different meanings, they’re all essentially under the dispersed camping umbrella. 

Now, you’re probably wondering  “what does dispersed actually camping mean”? 

Dispersed camping is where you’re able to camp on certain public land, typically for free. Dispersed camping locations tend to be more isolated and less populated, however lack certain amenities you get from paid camp sites. 

What are the Benefits of Dispersed Camping? 

There’s definitely both pros and cons to dispersed camping, and it’s most likely not for everyone. That said, we’ll go over some of the benefits and drawbacks of dispersed camping, just so you know what you’re in for should you choose this method of camping.

Quieter/ Less People

One of the main reasons that dispersed camping is so desirable is the fact that the campgrounds tend to be empty. During busy season, regular campgrounds can get very cramped, however this isn’t necessarily the case with dispersed camping locations.

What’s more, due to the fact that dispersed camping locations are in more isolated areas, the camp grounds themselves tend to be far more peaceful and relaxing. 

Little to No Cost

If you’re on a budget and don’t fancy the idea of forking out cash on a nightly basis, dispersed camping is a brilliant option. 

The vast majority of these campsites tend to be completely free, making them ideal for road trips where every cent counts. Having said this, it’s worth checking beforehand with a ranger that no permit or payment is required, which there will likely not be.

Potential for Incredibly Scenic Campsites

Some of the most gorgeous campsites I’ve seen have been set up for dispersed camping. You really feel at one with nature and find incredibly idyllic and secluded spots to set up. 

If you turn up to one site you don’t necessarily like, you never know what’s waiting around the corner. This sense of adventure is hard to come by with regular camping these days, which is another reason I find dispersed camping particularly fantastic.

Ideal for Last Minute Getaways

I think most of us have had that last minute urge to pack up the car, and head off out into the wilderness for the weekend. With regular camping, this involves not only finding a campsite, but also making a reservation. If a camp site is full, well you’ll either need to find another or ditch the idea entirely. 

Fortunately with dispersed camping, hop in your car, get the map out and hit the open road. That said, beforehand, I’d recommend phoning a ranger or district office in the area you’re travelling to and confirm dispersed camping is allowed (more on that later).

More Freedom

Another awesome benefit of dispersed camping is the freedom it allows you in where you camp. You can jump from one site to another, without having to worry about your reservations, or having to be in a certain place on a certain date. 

As I mentioned earlier, dispersed camping can offer a fantastic sense of adventure, particularly ideal for the spontaneous adventurer. 

What are the Downsides to Dispersed Camping?

While the upside to dispersed camping is undeniably greater than the downside, there’s definitely some things to be aware of. 

Little to no Amenities

Firstly, there will be little to no amenities. When turning up to a dispersed camping location, you’ll probably notice a lack of showers, toilets, taps or pretty much anything. It’s just you and nature. While for some this may sound more than ideal, it’s safe to say this isn’t everyone’s idea of a dream weekend away

Not Very Regulated

I have heard of some horror stories of campers who’ve encountered some pretty terrible nights sleep whilst dispersed camping. Unfortunately, the lack of any staff on site and the secluded locations can sometimes attract some unwanted crowds. 

With that in mind, be aware that anyone can turn up and have just as much of a right to be there as you. Personally, this hasn’t really been an issue, however it can definitely happen. 

No Guarantee What State They’ll be in

Regular campsites tend to be kept in pretty good conditions, especially some of the more expensive ones. With dispersed camping however, there’s no guarantee what state it’ll be in when you turn up. For example the roads to these campsites tend to be pretty unmaintained and often a bit sketchy to drive on.

However, as I mentioned earlier, the beauty is you can head to another campsite if the one you’ve arrived at doesn’t take your fancy.

Unlikely to Have Phone Service

While this won’t be a huge issue for most campers, it is something to be aware of. The chances are, you’ll have little to no phone service when out in these isolated campsites. With that in mind. if you’re relying on Google Maps on your phone, you might have some issues. 

Similarly, if any kind of accident happens, there’s a chance you won’t be able to phone for help. Admittedly, the chances of this happening are slim, but it’s definitely worth being aware of.

where is dispersed camping allowed

Where is Dispersed Camping Allowed

When it comes to dispersed camping locations, there’s really two places that you can find a site; National Forests and land owned by the Bureau of Land Management. 

There’s a few other places you can technically camp for free, which I’ll cover, but they’re not necessarily what you’d think of as camping.

National Forests

First, and what tends to be the most popular is National Forests. This isn’t to be confused with National Parks, which outside for official campgrounds, free camping is most likely not allowed. 

National Forests tend to be easy to spot on services such as Google Maps or pretty much any map, due to the fact that the area will be filled with a light green color, and the name will likely include “National Forest” (see image below). 

Most of these areas will allow free dispersed camping, unless otherwise stated. 

Screnshot Taken From Google Maps

Beforehand, it’s always worth checking either on the National Forest Website, or by phoning a ranger station before you go. This way, you can confirm you’re ok to stay there and if there’s any restrictions, preventing any nasty surprises when you turn up.

In terms of what you need to know about dispersed camping in National Forest land, the following will typically apply. 

  • Your campsite must not be set up in a campground in which you must pay. Typically, there is a certain distance you must stay from developed campsites, however this isn’t really an issue due to the remoteness of National Forest lands and suitable free campsites,
  • Dispersed campsites will often have a time limit on how often you can stay, This can range from 14-30 days. 
  • Your camp shouldn’t be set up closer than 200ft away from a water source or stream. 

Bureau Of Land Management (BLM)

Another fantastic option for finding dispersed camping locations is the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). BLM is virtually the same thing as National Forests, however operated by a different body of the Government, and tends to occupy more desert based landscapes in the West US. 

BLM campsites also tend to be a little harder to find, due to the fact they’re not named in a way that allows you to know they’re a BLM location. Similarly, they’re not colored on maps like a National Forest, so a little bit more digging is required. 

Don’t worry though, I’ll cover some great ways you can discover dispersed camping locations shortly.

In terms of what to expect from these facilities, it’s very similar to National Forests:

  • Little in terms of amenities
  • Cannot camp in a developed campground
  • There will be a limit as to how long you can stay – this may vary and is worth checking with the field office 
  • Camp should be set up more than 200ft from a water source

Walmart

Walmart used to offer free overnight camping in all of its store car parks. 

Unfortunately, they’ve recently changed their policy, meaning that each individual store now has its own policy on staying overnight. While not really dispersed camping, you’re able to stay overnight in some Walmart car parks, which is worth remembering when on a road trip and need somewhere free to stay. 

Just pop in and speak to the branch manager, or call ahead to find out whether that particular store offers free overnight camping to self contained units. If not, you can always ask if there’s another Walmart nearby that does.

How To Find Dispersed Camping Locations

Ok, now that we’ve discussed some of the more popular places that offer free/ dispersed camping, let’s take a look at how you can find one of these campsites.

Websites & Apps

Google Maps – Google Maps is particularly ideal for finding National Forests. Simply enter the area in which you’d like to visit, and look for National Forests. As I mentioned earlier, these will be filled in a light green shade and will include the term “National Forest” in their name.

US National Forests – Another great option other than Google Maps is to use the US National Forests website. This interactive map is particularly ideal for finding developed campsites, however is brilliant at finding places suitable for dispersed camping

BLM Maps – Considering BLM locations are incredibly popular for dispersed camping, their online archive of area maps is an invaluable tool for finding dispersed camping locations.

FeeCampSites.Net – While a bit dated in terms of design, this campsite finder is brilliant for finding free of charge campsites. Previous campers can also leave reviews, so that you’re able to know what to expect from any given area.

The Dyrt/ The Dyrt Pro – Another great resource for finding free and paid campsites. Their Pro membership offers access to their offline maps, which is particularly ideal when heading into remote locations without cell phone service. 

Campendium – Lastly we’ve got Campedium, probably one of the most well known camping websites in the world. This website is fantastic at finding free camping spots in each state, Simply choose free camping, select the state you’d like to visit and you’ll be greeted with a number of different options, all of which are free.

Maps

There’s no school like the old school, and while technology is great, service isn’t always reliable in remote locations. 

With that in mind, it’s usually useful to have a paper copy of a map, especially if you’re visiting a new area. Below are some extremely useful maps that you can order online to help get you acquainted with the landscape.

how to find dispersed camping

Benchmark Road & Recreation Atlas

These state specific maps by Benchmark Maps offer a wide range of information integral to any road trip. From road conditions, to camp sites, these are packed with invaluable information to help find a suitable camping location.

how to find dispersed camping

National Geographic National Forest Maps

These maps offer a ton of information on specific National Forests located around the United States. These maps are particularly useful for establishing the borders of a national forest, as well as finding useful amenities such as drinking water located in the forest.

how to find dispersed camping

National Geographic Road Atlas

This is a particularly comprehensive map, covering all of the US States. Additional information includes top National Parks, contact information for tourist offices as well as America’s top 100 outdoor destinations.

Leave no Trace When Dispersed Camping

While there are a few rules to remember when dispersed camping, arguably the most important is to leave no trace. If possible, try to leave the site in a better condition than you found it. 

A hard task perhaps, but if there’s any trash left over from a previous occupier, it doesn’t hurt to clear it up. This way, we keep these lovely, free sites a nice place to stay for everyone.

So, how can you enjoy your stay without leaving a trace? 

There are 7 principles laid out by the Center for Outdoor Ethics that you can follow to camp correctly and respectfully. I’ll highlight each below, but for more information, head over to the Leave No Trace website here

Plan Ahead & Prepare

This is somewhat self explanatory, the better planned you are, the less chance you’ll have to cause any kind of accidental damage to the environment or yourself. 

From considering the weather to how many of you are heading out for a trip, try and be prepared as possible.

A few key aspects to take into consideration when planning:

  • Fire bans
  • Any required permits
  • Flash flood areas
  • Wild animals in the area – having a hangbag for bears for example
  • Terrain if you’re planning on hiking – you may aim to hike a certain distance a day only to find that the terrain is harsher than expected. This could mean you have to camp somewhere else, in which you haven’t planned for. 
  • Number of days & enough food and drink
  • Size of your group 
  • Type of camping – e.g. RV or Tent

Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces

When possible, it’s important to try and travel on premade trails. This will help to reduce damage caused by travelling unnecessarily off-trail, trampling and scarring the area. If heading off trail is required, consider the durability of the land, and the effect walking on it may have. 

Similarly, it’s best to camp on sites that will have the least impact on the environment. If possible, choose a site that shows signs of frequent use, as opposed to clearing out a new section of the land for your camp. 

As I’ve mentioned earlier, camping 200ft away from a water source is definitely the best practice. This way, you won’t hinder any animal’s ability to reach their water source. 

Essentially, aim to make as little impact on the environment as possible. 

Dispose of Waste Properly

No matter what you’re doing, it’s considered extremely inconsiderate to leave your trash behind. The same can be said for dispersed camping, where your waste can cause unnecessary and serious damage to the environment and wildlife. 

For human waste, the best practice is often to use a sanitary/waste trowel to dig a hole for human waste. While this may not be a particularly pleasant experience, it’s the best way to do your business whilst leaving minimal impact on the landscape.

In terms of trash, be sure to bring enough trash bags for the amount of time you’ll be at a campsite. Once finished at a campsite, check to make sure nothing has accidentally been left behind. 

It’s also important to bring any food with you when you leave a campsite. Leftover food can attract animals, which can both do them harm, and make the site unusable for future campers. 

Leave What You Find

This is another pretty straightforward and easy to follow principle. 

Essentially, leave the campsite and environment as you found it. For example, don’t cut down trees for firewood. If you must use a fire, use dead wood that is no larger than the diameter of your wrist. I’ll touch more on this in the next principle. 

Again, aim to have as little impact on the landscape as possible, as this will help to preserve the environment for the wildlife that live there and future occupiers.

Minimize Campfire Impacts

While there’s no doubt that sitting around a campfire in the evening is one of the highlights of a camping trip, there are certain precautions that should be taken. 

First off, is there a fire ban in the area, or is a fire permit needed? If so, make sure that you’re following the rules and meeting the area’s standards for creating a fire. 

If you are to create a fire, consider the impact that having a fire will leave on the environment. Where possible, try and use a fire ring that already exists. Personally, finding a campsite that has an existing fire ring is extremely important, as this will massively reduce the impact I leave there. 

When looking for firewood, don’t chop down any trees, or break down any branches. Look for fairly small, dead branches on the floor that are no larger than the width of your wrist. You should be able to break these using only your hands. 

Alternatively, use a camping stove that is designed to leave minimal impact on the environment.

Respect Wildlife

When outdoors, you’re stepping into other animals’ natural habitats. I don’t think any of us would like it if someone came into our house and started destroying our home. Respect their home and try to make as little impact on it as possible. 

In terms of interaction with wildlife, it’s best practice to watch from afar. Don’t try to touch or handle any wildlife, as this can have an adverse effect on their life, especially if they’re young. 

If you spot a sick or wounded animal, you should get in touch with the ranger office or game warden to notify them. 

Be Considerate of Other Visitors

Last up is being nice to fellow campers at the site. 

By all means have a good time, but keep the noise levels low and follow the prior 6 principles so that everyone can enjoy their experience equally. 

Again, I tried my best to summarize these principles, and I’d recommend checking the Leave No Trace website for a full breakdown of each. 

Other Dispersed Camping Rules

While I could list the various rules of dispersed camping, it’s probably best that they’re read unaltered from the United States Department of Agriculture. 

With that in mind, you can find the United States Department of Agriculte dispersed camping guidelines on their official site here. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s also worth checking with any ranger office or online for any specific rules for a particular area you wish to visit, as they may vary from location to location.

What To Pack For Dispersed Camping

So you know what dispersed camping is, how to find a campsite and how to leave no trace. With that in mind we should probably discuss what to pack for dispersed camping. 

The vast majority will remain the same as a regular camping trip, however with a few additions thanks to the lack of amenities at these locations, 

I’d also recommend checking out our free camping checklist, which you can download and use prior to leaving on your trip

what to pack for dispersed camping

Table

While not really a necessity, if you’re planning on eating and want to be a bit more comfortable, a portable camping table is a great option. This is especially true considering the fact that there won’t be able restaurants or picnic benches for you to use. 

what to bring dispersed camping

Chair

Again, the chances are you’re not going to have any benches or picnic tables to make use of when dispersed camping. Unless you want to spend the majority of your time in the tent, or sat on the floor, a portable camping chair can really enhcnace your comfort levels.

what to bring dispersed camping

Tent (If Tent Camping)

If you’re planning on camping in a tent, the chances are you’re going to want to bring a tent. If you haven’t already got one, we’ve got a whole plethora of tent related articles and reviews you can check out. Tent’s come in an array of sizes and are designed for different weather conditions. Before your trip, be sure to make sure your tent is suitable for the weather conditions you’re expecting and the climate you’ll be in.

what to bring dispersed camping - portable fire pit

Portable Fire Kit

As to avoid causing any damage to the ground, especially if there’s no pre-built fire ring, you can always make use of a portable fire kit. These things are incredibly useful, as they also save you from having to build your own fire, which can take some time, especially if you’ve not done it before. Again, make sure that fires are allowed before you set one up. 

Trowel

At the end of the day, we’ve all got to do our business. This gets a little bit difficult when dispersed camping, due to the lack of public toilets. As such, you’ll probably need to dig a hole in the ground, to use as a toilet (known as a cat hole). Be sure not to leave any toilet paper around though, as this is both pretty disgusting for other campers and can pollute the area. 

what to bring dispersed camping - water filter

Water Filtration System/ Purification Tablets

Dispersed campsites tend to be pretty isolated, and as such, you can find yourself kilometers away from the nearest shop. Although you should come prepared with enough water (first principle of Leave no Trace), you never know what can happen. As such, having a way to filter/ purify water is incredibly important.

what to bring dispersed camping - trash bag

Trash Bags

As we discussed earlier, no trash should be left behind at these camp sites. As such, bringing enough trash bags to last your trip should be a priority. This way, you’re not tempted to leave anything behind due to the fact that the trash bags are full.

Tips For Dispersed Camping

Below are a few tips you can follow to help make the process for dispersed camping a bit easier.
  • Find out who owns and operates the land you plan to camp on – this way you can get in touch with the correct authorities and enquire about camping there. 
  • Understand what type of camping is allowed, if permits are required and if fires are allowed – this will prevent any nasty surprises when turning up to your camp site. 
  • Keep your vehicle on road ways – don’t drive across any terrain other than a designated road to reach a camp site
  • Use Google Maps to your advantage – Google Maps Satellite Mode is incredibly useful in scoping out potential campsites before you even hit the road. This way, you can have a number of different options, even before you leave the house.
  • Be as safe as possible – due to the isolated environment you’ll be in, the chances are you’ll be a fair way from the nearest hospital or doctors. With that in mind, make a conscious effort to keep as safe as possible.
  • Bring along a paper map – admitedly, cell phone service has gotten better over the years, it’s still a good idea to bring along a paper map. This way, you’ve always got a map, should you lose service on your phone.
  • Bring enough water – there’s a good chance there won’t be a tap or any facilities nearby to get water. With that in mind, make sure to bring enough to last your stay. What’s more, some form of water purification system is definitely worth bringing.

Final Thoughts

Well there we have it folks, Hopefully by now you’ve got a pretty good grasp on the concept of dispersed camping. 

I hope that this article was useful to you, and if you’ve got any questions whatsoever, please feel free to get in touch via the comment section below.

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