How to Break Free of the Campground

As the communications director for the National Forest Foundation, I talk with a lot of people about national forests. A few months ago, I was on the phone with an up-and-coming social media influencer about a sponsored road trip she was planning for the summer. Like most of us, she was familiar with camping in national parks, but I encouraged her to incorporate a national forest or two into her itinerary.

What You Need to Know About Dispersed Camping in National Forests

She was game to try, but had a question: “Where do I find the backcountry campsites?” she asked.

A little confused about her use of “backcountry,” I pointed her to an online visitor map the U.S. Forest Service has on their home page that details all the campgrounds in the system; she had scoured it, but still couldn’t find what she was looking for. I referenced a couple of other online resources that profile various national forest campgrounds. No, that wasn’t what she wanted either.

“When I’m looking at a national park map, there’s usually these little tent icons that show where the backcountry campsites are located,” she explained. “I don’t see those on national forest maps. How do I know where to spend the night if I’m not in a proper campground?”

With a chuckle, I realized what she meant.

“National forests don’t have many designated backcountry campsites,” I explained. “Except for a few places, you just camp where you want to.”

“Oh, wow. That’s really cool. I had no idea you could do that.”

Dispersed camping, as it’s called by the Forest Service, is really cool. Basically, as long as you’re 150 feet from water and as long as camping isn’t prohibited in the immediate area (at trailheads, in specially-designated zones, near critical wildlife habitat, or in heavily-regulated Wilderness Areas), you can throw your tent down and spend the night wherever you want.

It’s an attractive concept. But it’s not without its own challenges and perils.

What You Need to Know About Dispersed Camping in National Forests

What You Need to Know About Dispersed Camping in National Forests

1) Have the right motivations. Saving a few bucks is great. Sticking it to the man is fun too. But don’t disperse camp just to save $10 or because you think it will show the Forest Service whose boss. Do it because you crave solitude and adventure, because you’re doing an overnight trip that requires it, or because there’s a picturesque lake where you want to wake up on a beautiful summer morning.

2) Be prepared for the fact that there won’t be a toilet nearby. If you’re base-camping for a few days, or with a large group, this can become gross at best and downright dangerous at worst. Fortunately, for folks familiar with running rivers, using a groover or a wag-bag-bucket combo solves this problem. Otherwise, be sure to follow Leave No Trace principles and dig a cat hole eight inches deep, pack out your toilet paper, and don’t poop anywhere near water.

3) Dispersed camping can be tough on the land. This is especially acute at lakes and along rivers where everyone and their Instagram feed want to spend the night. No one wants to roll up to a beautiful riverside campsite and find litter, three different fire rings, half burnt logs, and a house-sized swath of dusty ground bereft of any vegetation. Realize that while your group may be the only one camping that night, there are 364 other nights of the year. Work extra hard to reduce your footprint:

  • Use existing fire rings and break up the extra ones you find.
  • Set your tents up closely and avoid the temptation to follow or create a web of social trails.
  • Only put logs that will burn completely on the fire and make sure the fire is dead out (douse, stir and feel) before you leave the campsite.
  • Don’t become a landscape architect because there’s no perfectly flat spot. Making due with the land as it exists is pretty much the whole point of dispersed camping.
  • Lastly, respect closures. The Forest Service will often close off an area that has been overused so it can recover. Let it.

What You Need to Know About Dispersed Camping in National Forests

4) Finally, be aware that dispersed camping turns the danger quotient up a few notches. Formal national forest campgrounds and designated backcountry sites are typically maintained and located in areas that reduce natural hazards. That spot where you exhaustedly drop your pack as it’s getting dark and cold after a long day on the river or trail is just that, a convenient spot. Look up to see if there are dead limbs or even trees that could crash down in the wind. Look around to see where rainwater might flow if a storm blows through. Be sure you’re out of the flood plain in case a dam release or rainstorm raises the water level. Don’t camp in the middle of a game trail or, for that matter, a trail at all (illegal and annoying). Be bear aware (and snake aware, deer aware, rodent aware, raccoon aware, bird aware…).

Fortunately, despite this list of finger-wagging admonishments, dispersed camping is truly special. The freedom to pitch your tent where you think it’s best is empowering. The lack of neighbors, generators and barking dogs is refreshing. It’s also pretty much essential if you’re going to be doing overnight trips in national forests, whether on trails or rivers. So get comfortable with dispersed camping and you’ll reap the rewards that come with breaking free of the campground.


Photos by Zach Betten, Austin Ban and Teddy Kelley on Unsplash.

You may also be interested in...