Dispersed Camping 101
I am a big dispersed camping gal. If I am going to camp, I want to be out in the middle of nowhere- I'm talking spectacular views, a sky full of stars and peace + quiet. Sure, there's a time and a place for campgrounds (in national parks, areas you don't know at all, if you feel unsafe, or as a beginner camper), but for the most part, you can catch me dispersed camping all summer long. However, when I first started camping, I had no idea what dispersed camping meant or how to do it. So first of all - what is dispersed camping? It is camping on public lands without the need for a reservation or payment. Some spots, you'll still find a firepit ring (helping indicate that it's a legit site), but other than that, it's just you in the wilderness. No amenities such as restrooms, showers, or picnic areas will be accessible for such campers, but trust me, a few days without a shower really isn't so bad with baby wipes and little dry shampoo :) So if you're interested in checking out dispersed camping for the first time this summer, here are some tips for getting started planning your first trip!
1. Understand where you CAN and CANNOT dispersed camp
Where you cannot camp: There are a few designated areas where dispersed camping is simply off-limits. Places like National Parks and State Parks (some exclusions) are campground only. Meaning you can't just pitch a tent wherever you please in these protected parks. You will need to either reserve a campsite or try to snag a watch-up spot the morning of (risky but sometimes works!). So your other option when visiting a state or national park would be to find dispersed camping near the park if you'd prefer not book a campground site. And lastly, I think it goes without saying (almost), that you cannot camp on privately owned lands.
Where you can camp: National Forests, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), some county, state, city parks (check signs/online info), Wildlife Management Areas (WMA), National Grasslands, various trailheads (check signs/area info)
2. How to find dispersed camping sites
So you're planning a mountain weekend for your friend group to camp off the grid. However, the group wants to check out an area you've never camped in before. Where do you start in finding a primitive camping spot? A super helpful tool I use often is freecampsites.net. How it works: simply type in the region you're looking into and start reading reviews. Check out what people have been saying recently, photos, potential downfalls. Things to notice in reviews: if people had a hard time finding spots, if cell phone service is available there, if it's peaceful, how far from town (if you'll be out and about a lot this matters for convenience), if the spot requires a 4x4 vehicle to access, and if it's easy to find in general. If the reviews state that it's difficult to get a campsite, hard to find, etc you may want to keep looking.
Another fun (but way more risky) tactic I've used is asking locals! When you're in town nearby, ask your server, bartender, or local people eating nearby where they recommend. Some of my all time FAVORITE campsites have been found this way! However, if you have a large group you're planing on behalf of, this may not sit well with the planners of the group. Maybe try this out when it's just you and a few close friends :)
Things to know before you go
Is there a fire ban? This is crucial. Certain times of year, certain counties will have fire bans or regulations based on the likelihood of wild fires starting. You must check with the county you're traveling to in order to check on current fire bans. THIS is a great resource for you.
Will you have service? The reason this can be important is if your camping group is traveling in multiple vehicles or arriving at different times. After getting caught in many sticky situations where I had no way to communicate that plans changed due to campsites being full, I have learned my lesson. If you don't know that you'll have service, have a game plan! Make sure everyone has the exact coordinates of where you're planning to camp and have a meeting spot.
How close to a town will you be? Having this knowledge allows for you to plan ahead on things like getting gas, getting ice, how much food to bring, planning for travel time back and forth, etc. Also, in the rare case of a medical issue or emergency, you want to know how far you'll have to travel to receive medical care.
What are the weather conditions going to be? Never set out for a camping trip without first checking the weather you'll be sleeping in. Check temps for day time and night time. Sometimes they can differ drastically. You'll want to pack accordingly. Layers layers layers (even in the summer!)
What is the wildlife like where you're going? Always do a little research about the most common animals in the county you're camping in. *Plan to put your food, trash and cooler back in your car every night before you sleep to avoid unwanted visitors in the night*
What to pack for dispersed camping
Here is a general packing list for camping that I live by:
Tent, ground pad, sleeping bag, pillow, extra blanket, rain fly for your tent, footprint for your tent, tent stakes
Cooler, lots of snacks/food, PLENTY of water, reusable plates/utensils
Paper towels, trash bags, reusable water jug, reusable water bottle, camping mug, reusable + portable wine glass (duh)
Lighter, headlamp, firewood (unless you want to gather wood upon arrival) *check that fires are permitted*, some sort of lantern
Depending on what your cooking, things like a cast-iron skillet, cast-iron pot, grill to go over the fire, and skewers for roasting over the fire, a jet-boil to heat water, and a aero-press for coffee are good to bring. Basically just make sure you plan ahead on your meals and communicate who is bringing what so all your bases are covered!
First aid kit and bear spray
Wipes, toilet paper, dry shampoo, sunscreen, bug spray
Shoes to wear around the campsite, hiking shoes, backpack for hiking
Foldable chairs for around the fire
Plenty of layers for at night. Hat, gloves, warm socks, warm jacket. Just in case no matter what time of year!
I hope this helps you be a little less overwhelmed about trying dispersed camping or planning your first trip! I promise it's worth the planning + packing!!! There is just so much to talk about when it comes to camping! Now I have a lot of ideas spinning around my head about more blog topics!!! So please let me know if you want to hear about topics like: my favorite dispersed camping areas in Colorado, favorite camping meals, or a camping gear blog!