Pelican Flyer •
November 16, 2020
Wanna get off the grid? Avid campers know that there’s one well-kept secret to doing so, even in the busiest and most popular natural regions of the world: dispersed camping. This underrated form of outdoor adventuring involves pitching a tent on areas of public land not designated as a campground. There are some major benefits to this type of exploration (more on that below) so it’s definitely something you want to keep in your ever-growing stash of camping hacks.
Typically, dispersed camping refers to camping away from a campground on public land, especially within a National Forest, the National Parks Service or lands operated by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The BLM defines dispersed camping as “camping on public lands away from developed recreation facilities.” Note that the National Parks Service refers to dispersed camping as “backcountry camping,” but it is essentially the same thing.
Simply put, dispersed camping is camping in spaces the designated parks service deems OK to camp on even though it’s not an established campground. These are natural areas that have none of the amenities associated with traditional camping. Generally, there are no bathroom facilities, access to running water, picnic tables, fire rings or concrete pads. While some may have parking areas, almost all dispersed camping is tent-only.
The entity that owns and operates the lands will always prioritize preserving natural resources, so dispersed camping within their systems may be limited to certain areas, so always check with them before unrolling your sleeping bag. For example, some organizations prohibit campers from setting up camp within 100 feet of an existing campground or within a certain distance from a waterway.
Within lands owned by the BLM, most areas are open to dispersed camping as long as they aren’t posted “closed to camping,” but you should always check with the entity that manages the land before you choose a spot to set up camp. Note that you may need a permit in order to legally take advantage of this perk. The National Park requires you to obtain a backcountry camping permit, which ranges from park to park but is usually less than $15.
Remember, you risk a fine if you’re caught camping in areas where it’s not permitted. However minimal, there’s a reason why dispersed camping is regulated, and it’s all about preserving our public lands and maintaining them for future generations. Follow the rules and don’t risk it!
Dispersed camping comes with a couple of trade-offs. Sure, there are no bathroom facilities, no running water access and no picnic tables, but that means there are also typically no crowds. Unspoiled views and quiet serenity trump these amenities any day! Oh, and let’s not forget the financial benefits. Dispersed camping is often free or very cheap compared with camping within a designated campground.
In most areas, dispersed camping is tent-only, so you’ll probably be limited to what you can bring in your backpack. Keeping it to the essentials is key. A rolling camping cooler is your best friend when you have to park and hoof it to your site. Of course, ultralight gear is never a bad idea, especially when it comes to essentials like your sleeping bag and cooking staples.
With that said, many dispersed campsites are on pull-offs on the side of the road, which means you’ll still have access to your car and your rooftop cargo carrier, so you may not be as limited in some places as you are in others. This is probably your best bet if you plan to spend more than a week off the grid.
One more thing to note before you head out into the wilderness is that many parks systems have limitations on how long you can stay in any given dispersed camping environment. For example, the National Parks will issue a permit for 14 days of backcountry camping, but they usually prohibit you from staying in the same spot for all 14 days. The BLM also prohibits dispersed camping for more than 14 days.
As you can see, dispersed camping is an incredible option for campers who want to see the world on their own terms. Still, you need to know how to do it safely, legally and respectfully so it remains an option for campers well into the future!
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