No reservations needed, just a thirst for adventure, so head for the wilds where your new favorite campsite awaits.
What is dispersed camping?
Adventure through the West and you're bound to come across National Forest or BLM lands. Surrounding most National Parks, these areas offer a form of camping not found within the more controlled boarders of the Parks.
While National Parks such as Yosemite, Joshua Tree, and Grand Canyon tend to only offer camping within designated campgrounds, often with reservations required, dispersed camping allows for camping in areas that are all first-come first-serve. These spots are usually only distinguishable by the dirt track leading to them, as many are unmarked. But show up at one of the Parks in peak season with hopes of finding a campsite, and you'll be glad to have learned a little about dispersed camping.
Yosemite National Park has Sierra, Inyo, and Stanislaus National Forests, while Joshua Tree has San Bernardino, and Grand Canyon, Kaibab. All of these public, forest lands offer dispersed camping, which can save your road trip should you require a last minute place to camp, and may just change the way you think about camping from now on.
Why camp in a dispersed site?
Referred to as 'primitive' camping, most sites have no facilities or running water, but don't let that deter you, as the sense of seclusion and overall camping experience is unbeatable. Think backpacking with your car, and you have pretty good sense for what it's like to camp this way. And seeing that finding a reservable campsite in a National Park without planning six months ahead of time has gotten to be about as easy as finding tickets to a Beyoncé concert (so we hear), these campsites can be invaluable.
Yosemite, for example, has over 7 million annual visitors but only 1,500 campsites, so finding a last minute place to camp can be a nightmare. This trend is true all over the Western US, as park visitor-ship continues to soar. And while you can now book spots online, the ability to do so favors those with ample foresight and quick fingers, and believe it or not, has even been plagued by so called 'bots' which automatically snatch up spots once available (hence the Beyoncé reference). All of this has made the option to camp within the public lands that surround many National Parks an almost necessary alternative.
Aside from the utility of such sites, we just find this form of camping much more enjoyable. By ditching the amenities of a campground and the security of knowing exactly which well marked slot to back into, you gain not only a sense of exploration but also a felt connection to your surroundings. Most of us travel into nature to experience it directly, not to be coarsely stroked to sleep by the sounds of our neighbor's RV generator. We'll take the calls of a coyote or the wind through the trees over that any day!
How to find a good spot?
Finding your own secret oasis away from everything is the best part. As long as you're okay with a little adventure and some unknowns, you'll feel right at home even when your miles from it. Plus, with a little foresight and these tips you'll feel way more comfortable setting out to find one.
Start with a good map. Locate the green areas on Google Maps and you're halfway there. Green means 'public,' as in National Park, Forest, Monument, etc. These areas tend to offer camping and the National Forests and BLM lands are the ones with the most dispersed camping to be uncovered.
Paper maps never runout of batteries, and are often waterproof, two things most smartphones can't compete with. Pick up up-to-date maps before your trip or borrow ours. These can often be found at visitor's centers or ranger stations, so consider adding a stop there prior to setting out into the woods.
Nothing beats a good satellite image. So flick Google Maps over to 'Satellite' and start exploring (best done at work, when you're "very busy"). Here you can follow roads into the backcountry just as you would on the ground. Keep your eyes peeled for pullouts and dead-ends, as these are often the best spots.
Ask a local or a ranger. Above all else, local knowledge is a great resource no matter where you're traveling. Though many spots can be highly coveted secrets, it doesn't hurt to get first-hand info on current road conditions, things to look out for, and maybe even a whisper of a few hidden gems.
Forest roads are the ones to follow. Often marked "Forest Rte 5N55," or a similar combination of numbers and letters, these road are often graded dirt and provide your best access to the remote camping spot of your dreams.
Arrive early. Without light it is always more difficult not only to pitch camp but to find one in the first place. Allow plenty of time to explore before dark. Think of finding a nice spot as a part of your trip and not just the consequence of a day's end.
Getting to the site early all but guarantees a chance of finding a site unoccupied. No one likes a car's brights shining on their tent at 2 am, so this is a great way to respect your neighbors, if there are any, as well as find your own little slice of paradise.
Drive! Get out there and explore. You didn't head out into the backcounty to experience the predicable, which nature certainly is not. Surprise yourself! This is what adventure travel is all about.
What to bring?
Any trip out into the backcountry requires some forethought and of course a well prepared kit. While the list of things to bring along can grow long quickly, there are few essentials to grab before you hit the (dirt) road.
Carry some good navigation tools. Maps are an outdoors-person's best friend and never fail if you have a compass and know how to read them. National Geographic now offers free printable USGS quad maps, which is another great resource. Unfortunately, reading a map has become a bit of a lost art in our times, so the next best thing to a paper map...
GPS and offline navigation are crucial for use beyond the range of cell towers. Anyone who's spent a night far beyond the city lights on a new moon will see the occasional satellite streak across the night sky: They're out there and are providing uninterrupted location data to your smart phone even when the closest cell signal is miles away. This allows your phone to function like a GPS unit, so download a few map layers within apps like Google Maps, Gaia GPS, Pocket Earth, and Hema Maps, and you'll feel way more confident when you reach the next fork in the road.
Bring enough water, fuel, and food so that the only thing you're worrying about is whether the pasta is al dente. But in all seriousness, the car runs on gas, you run on food and water, so make sure to have plenty before heading to far afield.
Pick up a fire permit. A permit is essential if you plan on having an open flame in the backcountry and are required even if you only plan on using a gas stove to cook on. Stop by a ranger station or get one online. They're free and can save a forest from being lost to future generations of visitors. Quick note here, over 80% of "wild" fires are caused by humans, so take this very seriously.
When nature calls, be ready to answer. Carry enough personal hygiene products to manage your bodily needs in the bush and be prepared to 'pack it out' if required. That's right, not every location allows you to dig a cat-hole, so make sure to carry the appropriate waste management items. Cleanwaste toilet kits are a great option here, but when it comes time to dig make sure to minimize the chance of water pollution, the spread of disease, and the aesthetic impact, while maximizing the decomposition rate. No one wants to see toilet paper hanging from the bushes, and animals can and will search it out, so dig at least 6-8 inches down and at least 200 feet from camp spots and water sources.
Patience and sense of adventure are always a traveler's best friend. They pack down small and weigh nothing, so bring extra.
Leave no trace. So whatever it is you decide to bring with you out on the trial, make sure to bring it back. Furthermore, if you see some trash, pick it up. By leaving a place better than how you found it you ensure that we'll have access to these amazing campsites for generations to come.
Leave no trace & tread lightly.
Before we go, we've got to mention this one more time! Be a steward for the places you visit. Love them like they were your own, because they are. Don't just practice 'leave no trace' principles whenever you go outside, but help clean up after others as well.
Not only do food scraps, spat-out tooth paste, and trash leave marks, vehicles do too. Make sure that in your search for the perfect site you don't trample vegetation and damage the land. Adhere to all 'tread lightly' principles.
Be respectful & get involved.
Access to the wilds is not a given. It is something that has been fought for for generations and which is continually at risk. The best way to protect the places we love to visit is to 1. take good care of them when we're there, 2. respect the people and histories of the land we visit, 3. get involved to keep public land protected for years to come. Consider helping out in your community and adding your voice to the national discussion: Your Forests, Your Future, Outdoor Alliance, The Conservation Alliance, and Access Fund.
Get out there & enjoy the wilds!
Need help integrating some dispersed sites into your next trip? We're here to help! While we certainly haven't seen them all, we love helping folks discover what for some is a whole new side of camping and for others a homecoming. We hope that this article helps you get further and stay longer in the places that make overland travel and our public lands so special.