Dispersed Camping on Public Lands, It’s Wild and Free!

Camping in a foggy forest with 5th wheel travel trailer

The term “dispersed camping” is used by the US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to describe camping outside of developed campgrounds. It’s a rustic way of camping much like the way camping used to be before the invention of the “campground.”

“Take me home, country roads”

John Denver

Backcountry camping in the wild might be intimidating at first, especially for someone that is accustomed to city life. The rewards, however, are just too good to pass up in my opinion. Don’t let any fears you may have stop you from enjoying this beautiful country.

5th wheel travel trailer camped in the high desert with cactus and red rock
Dispersed camping near Sedona, Arizona

Any concerns you may have about camping in the wilderness will quickly melt away as soon as you try it. You’ll find there is little to worry about and mother nature isn’t out to get you.

As far as safety is concerned, I feel there is no safer place to be than on our public lands.

I should know. I’ve spent most of the last 14 years camping in the backcountry among our national forests and BLM lands. I find camping in the wilderness outside of developed campgrounds to be the most enjoyable way to camp.

Leaving all the distractions behind lets me soak in the natural beauty that is all around. It provides a much deeper connection with nature. A connection that can be immensely beneficial to the body, mind, and soul. This may sound cliché, but I have no doubt it’s true.

Now lets see what dispersed camping is all about. We’ll learn:

  • Where we can camp and where we can’t
  • How long we can stay
  • How to find a campsite
  • If campfires are allowed
  • What to do in bear country
  • How to keep pets safe

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Camping on Public Lands

Dispersed camping is wild and free, but with that freedom comes great responsibility. One must care for the land as if it was their own…because it is their own. These public lands are here for us all to enjoy and care for.

“This land is your land, this land is my land”

Woody Guthrie

By following a few simple rules, and using some good ole common sense, we can keep our lands looking beautiful for the enrichment of all.

Rules vary between National Forests and BLM districts, but there are often similarities. Here’s a summary of the basic rules that apply to most federal public lands.

Where Can I Camp?

A better question is “where can I not camp?” which we’ll get to shortly. Because if you’re in a National Forest or on BLM land, you can camp almost anywhere. There are literally millions of acres of land open to dispersed camping.

RV camping with 5th wheel travel trailer among tall ponderosa pines
Dispersed camping in the Coconino National Forest, northern Arizona

And there are millions of established dispersed campsites. Many of these are in beautiful natural settings…at the edge of a forest meadow, along a trout filled creek, or in a clearing with a scenic mountain view.

It’s always best to choose one of these established sites. This keeps our environmental impact to a minimum. A bonus is that these sites often come with a fire ring and sometimes furniture like seating cut from downed trees.

Take the Road Less Traveled

There are several ways you can go about finding these established dispersed campsites. One way is to simply explore the area.

The first thing to do is get off the pavement. Once you reach a dirt road that’s “drivable” take it. You’ll often find several dispersed campsites down these dirt roads.

In general, most sites will be closer to the main road. The further you stray from civilization, the fewer campsites you’ll find.


Use caution as many dirt roads found in our National Forests and BLM lands aren’t driveable without a Jeep or similar SUV, hence the name “jeep road.” Even then, a Jeep is no guarantee you’ll make it. Typically these roads receive little (if any) maintenance and some have deteriorated to the point that they are no longer passable in any type of vehicle. I always check a dirt road out in another vehicle, mountain bike, or on foot, before taking my RV on it.

Meet the Rangers

A better method for finding dispersed camping areas is to stop by the nearest Forest Service or BLM ranger station. The staff will usually know of any dispersed camping opportunities in that area and they may even have a free map showing you where to camp.

Where No Camping is Allowed

Of course you can’t just camp in every ole spot you find. There are a handful of camping restrictions in place to protect you, your wilderness neighbors, and mother nature.

In general, dispersed camping is not permitted

  • In or near developed recreation areas like campgrounds or picnic areas
  • Within 100 feet of water (creeks, rivers, lakes, springs)
  • Near water troughs used by wildlife and livestock
  • On private property or within city limits

Vehicle Use

Vehicles are not allowed to drive in meadows or off-road. And just because there’s a road in a National Forest this doesn’t mean it’s legal to drive on it. The Forest Service has implemented a Motor Vehicle Use Plan designating which roads are open to motorized vehicles.

You must obtain a Motor Vehicle Use Map from the ranger station or online to know which roads are open. A bonus is that these maps often show which roads have dispersed campsites.

Full rainbow in the desert
A magnificent full rainbow while dispersed camping in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, southern California

How Long Can I Camp?

Limits on camping duration are there to keep people from homesteading and setting up residency on public lands. These limits also prevent the land from being overused.

The stay limit varies between National Forests and BLM areas. Typically you’re allowed to camp for up to 14 days within a 28 day period before having to move to a different spot.

This 28 day period begins when you first arrive at the campsite. During this period you may camp for 14 days straight, or on successive visits totaling no more than 14 days. After 14 days you must move a specified distance (usually a 25 mile radius) away from the campsite before you may camp again.


Cozying up by the campfire and telling ghost stories is a tradition for some. While RVing I rarely have a campfire, though I occasionally light one for cooking. If you plan to have a campfire you must first ask, is it legal?

Fire Restrictions

Federal land agencies impose fire restrictions during times of high fire danger. When the danger is high, campfires are banned altogether. Camping stoves will usually be permitted though.

You can find out if any fire restrictions are in place by visiting the particular National Forest web page or by contacting the nearest ranger station.

When you’re in a National Forest you’ll probably be aware of any fire restrictions as there will be plenty of road signs to remind you.

Minimizing Impact

Every campfire will have some impact on the environment. Smaller campfires minimize this impact. There are a few other ways you can lay a gentle hand upon the land when dispersed camping.

  • Use established fire rings, make a mound fire, or build the campfire on a fire pan. The BLM recommends using a metal tray, such as an oil pan, to prevent blackening the soil. This is even required in some dispersed camping areas such as Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in Southern California.
  • Gather downed and dead wood only, if allowed. Don’t cut standing trees.
  • Better yet, bring your own firewood. Just be sure to source it no greater than 50 miles away to prevent the spread of pests and diseases that can kill millions of trees.
  • Don’t put garbage that doesn’t burn into the campfire. Contrary to popular belief, aluminum cans, foil, and glass will not burn in a campfire.
  • If the wind’s a blowing, use a good wind break, or better yet postpone the campfire until the wind dies down. Smokey the Bear will thank you.
5th wheel travel trailer at edge of forest meadow
Backcountry camping along the edge of a forest meadow in northern Arizona

Dead Out

It’s an unfortunate fact that many forest fires are started each year from campers who head home without completely extinguishing their campfire.

The Forest Service requires that you have a shovel and water on hand for all campfires. The amount of water needed will depend on the size of the fire and how long it has been burning. 6 gallons is usually sufficient to extinguish a medium sized campfire that has been burning for a few hours.

Before extinguishing the fire, all wood should be burned down to ashes. Douse the fire with water then stir up the ashes a bit with your shovel. Feel the ground for any heat. If the ground is still warm, repeat the process until the ground is cool to the touch.

Waste Management

The phrase “pack it in, pack it out” sums up the policy on garbage while dispersed camping. There are no trash cans in the wilderness.

Always leave a campsite as pretty or prettier than you found it.

RVers are no exception to the rule. That means no dumping of black water or gray water in the wild. Do the right thing and find a dump station instead.

For tent campers without a porta-potty, it’s advised to dig a 6 inch deep “cat hole” far away from creeks, lakes, or springs. Toilet paper should not be buried as wildlife will often dig it up later. Burning it could start a forest fire. It should be packed away in a plastic bag instead.

Camping in a foggy forest with 5th wheel travel trailer
Boondock camping in the Coconino National Forest, northern Arizona


It’s thrilling to see a bear in the forest while out hiking. Seeing one at your campsite is another story though. That can be down right terrifying…especially if that bear scarfs down all your hamburgers and hot dogs!

Joking aside, if there’s a bear at your camp it’s looking for one thing. Food! When camping in bear country it’s crucial to keep a clean camp.

Always store food and odorous items like toothpaste, soap, and toiletries in a bear proof container if possible.

At the very least, store food out of view and not in plain sight. Bears have learned to recognize food containers, coolers and water bottles so keep them out of view. Store these items inside your RV or in your car’s trunk.

Bears that learn to rely on food left out by careless campers often become “problem bears.” These bears lose their fear of humans and may become aggressive. The sad truth is that many of these problem bears are destroyed each year.


If you bring Fido along, don’t forget the leash. While camping in the Sonoran Desert on BLM land near Quartzsite, Arizona I met a man out looking for his dog. He’d been looking all day and the dog was nowhere to be found.

The Sonoran Desert is one heck of a place to lose a pet. It’s essentially a wilderness that stretches on for miles and miles. Most dispersed campsites are just as wild.

Like people, pets can become disorientated in unfamiliar surroundings. If you’re camping with four legged friends, keep an eye on them.

In some areas, pets must remain leashed at all times.

Enjoy the Silence

Camping on a flat-as-a-pancake dry lake bed with red hill and mountains in background
Boondocking on BLM land in the Eastern Sierra, California

I can tell you from experience that there’s a ton of beautiful scenery to behold in our big backyard. There’s plenty of soothing silence to rest your ears upon too. Isn’t it time you experienced our public lands for yourself?

I won’t waste any more of your time then. Enjoy. And have fun camping the way camping was meant to be. Wild and free.

Public Land Websites

Find public lands and learn more about dispersed camping by visiting these official government websites.

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