Dispersed Camping on Public and Private Lands
A Guide to Primitive Camping Rules and Regulations
Dispersed camping—also known as primitive camping, boondocking, and dry camping—refers to camping outside of designated areas or campgrounds. A dirtbag’s dream, these legal, undeveloped camping destinations are usually free. And what they lack in amenities like power and running water, they more than make up for in solitude.
What Is Dispersed Camping?
Balancing the self-sufficiency of backpacking with the ease of car camping, dispersed camping is a great way to treat yourself to tranquility and avoid paying for crowded campgrounds. Primitive camping puts you squarely in the middle of the comfort spectrum, foregoing services found at designated campsites like pit toilets and bear boxes. Just remember, with no camp store, dumpster, or cleanup crew, you’ll need to pack in and out everything you need.
Primitive camping locations vary, but can be found across our public lands, including Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, National Forests, and National Parks, as well as public lands at the state and municipal level. Here are just a few examples of places where you might find dispersed camping:
- Amongst the hardwoods in New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest
- In Lander, Wyoming’s city park
- If you’re not picky about the scenery, a Walmart parking lot can serve as a primo campsite for travelers needing to grab a few hours of sleep on a road trip
Bureau of Land Management Camping
The BLM maintains 247 million acres of public land, primarily in the western U.S.—that means the BLM manages one in eight acres of American soil. While there’s an abundance of established BLM campgrounds, almost all other BLM land is open to dispersed camping if it doesn’t conflict with other uses or adversely affect wildlife or natural resources.
Most BLM primitive sites are found along secondary roads. While they’re likely unmarked, they’re recognizable by the telltale flat, disturbed area—or the remnants of a firepit. While you don’t have to stick to previously used sites, try to if possible to minimize your impact on the land. Because the intent of BLM land is for recreation, not habitation, you’re only allowed to camp on BLM land for a maximum of 14 days within a 28-day period. Get started planning your camping trip on BLM land by exploring the maps on their website.
National Forest Dispersed Camping
The Forest Service manages 193 million acres spread across 154 National Forests and 20 National Grasslands in 44 U.S. states and Puerto Rico. Maintaining these areas to meet the needs of current and future generations is the primary mission of the department, and recreation is a sector of particular focus. Primitive camping on Forest Service land is allowed almost anywhere, unless otherwise posted, making it one of the most reliable places to find dispersed camping. Forest Service campgrounds are easily discovered and researched using the interactive map on the Forest Service website.
And just because there may be no fee to sleep in a National Forest or Grassland, doesn’t mean there are no rules. In general, visitors should set up camp 100 to 200 feet away from any road, trail, or water source. Practice Leave No Trace principles, obey fire regulations, use firearms in accordance with regulations, and follow any posted pet rules. Check out this comprehensive list of National Forest camping rules.
National Park Dispersed Camping
National Parks are commonly busier, more regulated, and more expensive than other public lands. One reason for this is that the National Parks are overseen by the Department of the Interior, while National Forests are under the supervision of the Department of Agriculture. This leads to different management practices, including stricter camping regulations.
To primitive camp in a National Park, you’ll likely need to hike into your spot and obtain a permit. Luckily, many National Parks, especially those out west, are located within close proximity of BLM land and National Forests, both of which are more welcoming of dispersed camping.
Other Places to Find Primitive Camping
Camping on public land is typically the most reliable option. In addition to National Forests and BLM land, there are state parks, city parks, and Wilderness Management Areas that offer excellent opportunities for dispersed camping. Check out maps and research the specific rules before you arrive.
Sometimes primitive camping on public lands isn’t tenable, or you just need to put your head down for a few hours. While far from idyllic campsites, businesses like Walmart, Cracker Barrel, and Bass Pro Shops are generally friendly to RVers and van lifers who want to catch some shuteye in a corner of their parking lot. Just don’t plan on setting up camp—you’ll need to sleep in your car. Most of these businesses have no formal policy on overnight stays, so it’s wise to speak with the manager and hope they’re sympathetic to your plight.
From dispersed camping in Colorado’s picturesque mountains to crashing at Cracker Barrel, primitive camping is a blessing for travelers on a budget and those simply looking to beat the crowds and discover a simpler outdoor experience.
Tim Peck is a New Hampshire-based freelance writer. When it comes to camping, Tim is torn between his desire for a maintained campsite with a mountain view and the free-ninety-nine price tag of primitive camping.