Dispersed Camping 101

More and more people like to be free from restriction, stress, and civilization. Van life, camping, and retreats are becoming increasingly and overwhelmingly popular, especially for those who crave a sense of adventure and escape. As these activities and lifestyles are popularized, one specific movement has received an uptick in attention: dispersed camping. Some people are intimidated by it because you’re more alone and self-sufficient than you are at almost any given time in your life, but that’s where the most adventure and excitement happen. If you’re up for the challenge and experience of dispersed camping, we’re here to help you get started and clear up any misconceptions about the practice so you’re fully prepared for your trip.

What is Dispersed Camping?

Dispersed camping isn’t as much of a unique and novel concept as the vaguely known name would make you believe. It’s actually quite common, and it’s what a lot of people think of when they hear the word “camping” in general. The idea of dispersed camping goes by a myriad of different names such as free camping, pirate camping, boondocking, or, put colloquially, “roughing it.” This version of camping is essentially low- or no-amenity camping, typically allowed in only certain areas of forest service land. It’s usually appreciated by those who like the idea of not being dependent on modern technology-assisted functions, and who enjoy the opportunity to truly disconnect from civilization. Not to mention it’s a dream for when you’re balling on a budget because you don’t have to pay for a campground or any of its services and amenities. You’re completely self-sufficient!

Where Can You Go Dispersed Camping?

Unfortunately, you can’t just settle down anywhere that suits you, set up your tent, and call it dispersed camping. While you don’t have the guidelines and assistance of an organized campground, there are some rules and regulations that loosely dictate where you can set up shop. The good news is there’s usually an opportunity for you to free camp almost anywhere you go, such as National Forests, lands owned by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Wildlife Management Areas (WMA), National Grasslands, and some trailheads and city parks. However, your best bet and the more fun avenues are National Forests and Management areas because there’s more to explore and experience, and you’re further away from civilization.

Within these bounds, however, you have to look at a map to know what spaces are off-limits for dispersed camping. You can tell what’s fair game by looking at a map of a national forest and finding the light-green shaded areas. These are expanses of land deemed safe by the governing body of that preserve or forest, and it’s in your own best interest to abide by these boundaries. Dispersed camping doesn’t mean you’ll be one hundred percent alone, though, as you’ll be required to stay within a mile of a campground and within one hundred feet from a stream or source of water.

What Will I Need to Bring?

Since dispersed camping entails limited resources available to you, you have to pay extra attention to your packing list to make sure you’re prepared for any situation caused by the weather, wildlife, or human error.

A shelter is your primary concern, and therefore probably the most obvious part of this list. Your options are typically a tent, a hammock (like an ENO), or a camper van, but the latter has been growing in popularity because of its convenience. People usually like to rent a van because it can serve as a shelter, as well as carry the myriad of supplies you will have to bring along with you.

The average camping necessities are of course still part of the program. You’ll need the usual hiking gear, rain jackets, fire starters, pocketknife, navigation instruments, etc. Just keep in mind you do not have access to the typical amenities and services you would at a normal campground, so you need to make up for that when you’re packing. Most importantly, bring water and/or a water purification system! Not all naturally occurring water is safe to drink, so clean and purify all water for your own protection.

How Do I Make This Happen?

The best part of dispersed camping is actually going out and experiencing it firsthand. To get started, contact the local Forest Service Office to learn the specific guidelines of that forest preserve because they’re different wherever you go, and some are more strict than others. Oftentimes, especially further west, campfires and stoves are not permitted at any time due to drought conditions and the danger they impose. You’ll also sometimes find that ground tents are not permitted on federal grounds, which is another reason people tend to live the van life for their dispersed camping excursions. Lastly, be aware of time limits. You’ll usually find that the rule is no longer than fourteen days at one site within a thirty-day timeframe. Again, most, if not all, of this information is learned by calling your local Forest Service Office, which is something you should do before every camping trip.

Always remember the “Leave No Trace” guideline set in place on every campground and preserve. Leave your site better than you found it by packing out everything you brought in, including trash and other disposables. This may seem like common sense, but the quality and well-being of wildlife in and around campgrounds are often damaged because people leave waste behind.

Plan Your Dispersed Camping Trip

Dispersed camping is a practice of accepting challenge, adventure, and self-sufficiency, and it allows you to truly escape from the stresses that come from day-to-day life. Go on a free camping trip, experience the simplicity of that life for even a few days, and you’ll be hooked. If you want to know how to optimize your camping experience by opting for the van life on your trip, check out the van and truck options available through Rugged Van Rentals and get out there to discover how dispersed camping can change your life.