What is Dispersed Camping? (Hint: it’s free!)

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What is Dispersed Camping? It's free! - RV Pennywise

Dispersed camping is not for the faint of heart. But there are big benefits. For one thing, it’s cheap!  No fees, no permits. If you’re looking for alone time, dispersed camping is perfect. It’s first come-first serve with very few, if any, people nearby.

This style of camping provides the ultimate wilderness experience.  Enjoy the sights, sounds, and smells of nature day and night.

What Exactly is Dispersed Camping?

It’s an amazing adventure for folks who want to rough it in a National Forest outside of a designated campground. Dispersed camping provides no services, no facilities, no civilization, really, except for bears. Be prepared for bears … and maybe mountain lions, snakes, bats, bees, bugs, fox, coyote, squirrels, and the like depending on where you go.

Even though you’re in the middle of the woods, there are still rules you must follow:

U.S. Forest Service Dispersed Camping Regulations

  • Be self-contained. Bring everything you need for comfort and survival from water and shelter to trash bags and toilet paper.
  • Pack in – pack-out. Leave no trace.
  • Your campsite must be at least a 1-mile perimeter from established campgrounds and 100-200 feet away from a water source such as a stream or lake.
  • You can only stay a specific number of days, depending on the forest. Sometimes, you can’t return to the same campsite within a calendar year.
  • Drive on forest roads and find a spot at least 150 feet from the road to make camp. Do not drive through fields or wooded areas.
  • Camp on bare soil when possible to protect the grass and plants. Choose a level area with good drainage rather than digging or otherwise disrupting the ground to create a level surface.
  • Need to poo? Dig a hole at least 6-inches deep, do your business, then bury it thoroughly. Take your toilet paper with you to your trash receptacle.
  • Water from lakes and streams is not safe to consume. If you must use it, heat it to a rolling boil and treat it with purification tablets or a water purification filter.
  • Follow bear-related regulations regarding food, waste, and your personal safety.

About Campfires

Campfires are typically allowed without a wood permit. Find out if fire-restrictions apply before you go. Use an existing fire ring if available; otherwise, build a two-foot diameter ring of rocks. Use dead wood, not live tree branches, or bring your own firewood.

Prevent forest fires. Put your campfire out. The ashes should be stirred and completely cooled to the point you can put your hand in it without being burned.

Play it Safe

Before you select a site, check for ants, bees, poison ivy, and other hazards. Pay attention to the weather. And don’t get lost if you go hiking in the backwoods!

Bring a first-aid kit and emergency supplies like a map, compass, knife, flashlight, fire starter, whistle, insect repellant, warm clothing, biodegradable soap, clean water, bear spray (if your location allows it), and high-energy food.

Cell service is usually limited, so bring a camera, radio, and extra batteries.

Enjoy the Outdoors on the Cheap

You can check Amazon’s camping clearance section every so often to stock up on the items you need at discounted pricing.

Dispersed camping is often confused with boondocking, primitive camping, and dry camping. These alternatives describe camping anywhere (beyond National forests) that is legal, offers little to no services, and is free or low-cost.

Have you tried dispersed camping in a national forest? We’d love to hear your story and suggestions below!

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