Memorial Day Weekend and the unofficial-official start to summer is upon us! Bring on the warm days in the sun, long nights spent around a campfire, and… closed campgrounds due to COVID-19. Fun!
Just because campgrounds are currently closed (at least in Southern California!) at the time that I write this blog due to the global pandemic, it does not mean that all camping is impossible. Now more than ever is the perfect time to try out dispersed camping!
So what is dispersed camping? Glad you asked! Pursuant to the US Forest Service, “Dispersed camping is the term used for camping anywhere in the National Forest OUTSIDE of a designated campground. Dispersed camping means no services; such as trash removal, and little or no facilities; such as tables and fire pits, are provided.” Dispersed camping is also allowed in National Grasslands and BLM land. Typically, dispersed camping spots are found down forest service roads. Just like backpacking, dispersed campers are encouraged to camp in existing established spots – places where it is clear that campers have camped before. Every National Forest has its own rules, but typically, dispersed camping is not allowed within one mile of a developed campground or day use area.
While there are many pros to dispersed camping (solitude, no need to fight over reservations, FREE), dispersed camping can definitely be a little intimidating – especially if it is your first time. Since there are no developed sites, it can get a bit nerve-wracking to think to yourself, “Okay, I’ll just drive down this random forest service road until I find a good spot” if it is your first time to the area. But let me tell you this, while I have had some close calls with dispersed camping (looking at you, Big Sky, Montana), I’ve never not found a dispersed camping spot when I was looking for one. And like most things, I almost always get better results when I’ve put in more time researching the area.
To help you learn how to prepare for dispersed camping, I’ve compiled the steps that I take to adequately prepare for a weekend of dispersed camping in an area that I am going to for the first time. Are there other things that you find helpful as you prepare for your camping trips? Leave them in the comments below!
Step 1: Forest Service Website
The first thing that I always check is the forest service website for the National Forest that I’m visiting. This is beneficial for a few reasons: to make sure that the areas that I’m looking at are indeed forest service or BLM land; that dispersed camping is allowed; and to check to see if there are any special rules and regulations that I should be aware of. Every National Forest/BLM area has its own rules – so no matter what, before you visit, make sure that you know those rules. These websites also have links to special permits that you might need to get (i.e. the California Campfire permit), and guidelines as to how long you can stay in one area or how far you have to be from a developed campground, etc. Often, these sites will also have free maps to download. Overall, a really great resource!
Step 2: Google
After I check out the Forest Service website to make sure that dispersed camping is allowed in the area that I’m looking at, I’ll usually google “free camping near ___” or “dispersed camping in ___.” There are a bunch of websites devoted to dispersed camping that have a lot of really great information on them! Try freecampsites.net or hipcamp.com. Personal blogs are also a great resource (shameless plug: try Dispersed Camping Near the Grand Canyon or Dispersed Camping Outside of Yellowstone). A lot of sites won’t give you the exact coordinates of the spots (kind of the whole point of dispersed camping – to disperse campers around a large area in an attempt to reduce the impact on the ecosystem), but most all of the sites will give you a great idea on where to start looking and tips and tricks on the area.
Step 3: Google Maps
By far, the most helpful thing to do before visiting an area with the intention of spending the night is to spend some time looking at the area via Satellite View on Google Maps. It is pretty insane how clear Google Maps can get when you zoom in. You can pick out forest service roads, established campsites, and sometimes even occupied campsites!
Most of all, I find it most helpful because it gives me a good idea of where forest service roads are, the names of each of the roads, and how long I need to travel down each forest service road to start finding sites. From experience, I can tell you that it isn’t super fun to drive down a dirt road late at night, not seeing anywhere to camp, and wondering how far the road goes and whether there will be room to turn around (looking at you again, Montana). Google Maps gives you a great visual of the area so that you are relatively familiar with the terrain once you actually get there.
Step 4: Social Media!
Hands down, one of my favorite things about social media is sifting through location tags and hashtags to find out current conditions on areas that I’m looking to travel to. While I do understand the arguments against location tagging, I personally find that they help much more than they hurt, and I will always support responsible location tagging. Most people who post pictures with location tags are super helpful and are eager to assist. If you feel comfortable reaching out, leave a message or a DM asking your specific questions about this location. But regardless, pictures themselves can often prove extremely helpful, for instance if you are looking at snow levels or conditions of roads/what kind of cars can make it down a certain road. Be sure to take some time researching on social media – it almost always proves fruitful.
Step 5: Reach out to others
For as much as you can learn about an area by researching it online, it is always extremely helpful to speak to someone about the area before you go. Try calling the ranger station to learn more about the area – the rangers are probably the most knowledgeable people that you can speak to about the rules, regulations, and where the best spots are! Also, try finding people who have been to the area before. I’ll often reach out to strangers on social media asking about conditions – most of the time, everyone is super helpful! If I can’t find any recent pictures on social media using location tags or hashtags, I’ll also post a request on my story asking for anyone who has been to that location to DM me. I’ve learned a lot from reaching out to others.
For what it’s worth, I’ve been dispersed camping in parts of California, Oregon, Montana, Wyoming, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado, and I’ve always had a great experience. If you are planning to try out dispersed camping in any of these states, drop a comment below or send me an email at email@example.com. I’d be more than happy to share general National Forest locations and forest service roads that I’ve camped at and had good luck with, along with tips and tricks specific to that area.
This concludes my five-step program for finding the ultimate dispersed camping spot. Dispersed camping is awesome for so many reasons – I hope that this step-by-step guide helps you get out to the most perfect spot!
If you have any other things that you do before dispersed camping that you find helpful, drop them in the comments below! And if you have any questions about your upcoming trip, please feel free to send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.