With RVing comes the image of camping in overcrowded, cramped, expensive RV parks. There’s nothing wrong with paying to camp at RV parks if that’s where you’re most comfortable, but there are other options available.
Which often raises the question, “If you’re not camping at an RV park or campground, then where are you camping?”
What is dispersed camping?
Dispersed camping, also known as primitive camping, is where we call “home” most often. Dispersed camping is a term used for camping anywhere outside of a campground in national forests, Bureau of Land Management land, public lands, national grasslands, etc.
There will be no hookups for an RV (electric, sewage, water), bathrooms (we are starting to see more vault toilets and some port-a-potties in some dispersed camping areas), treated water, fire grates/grills, picnic tables, or trash cans, so being in a self-contained vehicle will come in handy.
What you can expect to find at a dispersed campsite is a dirt, gravel, or even a grassy pull-off/spot and a fire ring—seems pretty minimal, right? This type of camping option is not meant to be luxurious, but don’t let that scare you away, dispersed camping is so much more than just a dirt pull-off.
If you’re unfamiliar with dispersed camping, you may still be wondering why we would knowingly choose to camp somewhere that seems to offer so little. I’d think for each camper there are different benefits and reasons for choosing dispersed camping, but we have a few benefits we often bring up in conversations about where and why we disperse camp.
For us, and many of the other travelers we’ve met on the road, the common benefit is the cost of camping. You really can’t beat a night of free camping under the stars!
A close second to cost, are the views and nature so many of these dispersed camping locations offer—you could be tucked within a forest, up in the mountains along a canyon, or in the desert surrounded by red rocks and cacti as your new backyard.
First come, first served
Some people may not find this as appealing as we do. Campsites that do not have reservations and online booking options open up the spontaneity of travel plans. We may not always know if we’ll snag a camping spot at every location, but it works out more often than not, especially when your travel plans can change at the drop of a hat. Nothing wrong with having to stay on your toes a bit!
There aren’t an abundance of rules to follow, and these rules may differ from state to state and/or park to park, so my best advice if you’re looking to disperse camp is to always research where you are planning to camp. This type of information can be found at fs.usda.gov, blm.gov, or just a quick Google search of the park or area you are headed to.
A few of the most common rules we have seen and abided by are:
- Dispersed camping areas will usually have posted signs with the number of days you are allowed to camp there. We’ve most commonly seen limits between 14 and 30 days in different areas, and after those days are up you must drive/travel anywhere from five to 30 miles before staying at your next spot. Again, this can vary from spot to spot.
- Leave no trace—pack it in, pack it out! Your campsite and the surrounding areas should not have an impact from you or other campers.
- Be aware of fire restrictions and warnings in the area you plan on camping. Check to see if there are any statewide restrictions for campfires, before starting one.
How to find dispersed camping?
We use several apps and websites to decide where we’ll stop for the night, and rely on other travelers’ reviews and notes about each camping spot, just like you would look up reviews for a hotel.
An app we found on Instagram under the account @campendium—they share a lot of free camping locations along with a few low-cost camping options in state parks, and of course some RV parks. Each location has a few different camper reviews, info on cell reception, how the roads were entering and exiting camping areas, and more helpful info along those lines.
This app and Campendium are similar, but we found it’s always worth it to check multiple camping apps and sites because each one may have one or two that aren’t listed on the other. You’ll also get more reviews to browse through. iOverlander seems to offer more filters in the way you can edit your searches for camping spots, and from what we’ve seen, a few more 4×4 camping locations listed from other users.
This is usually one of our last stops for checking for camping spots. Freecampsites.net has been helpful in the past but more for city parking, although they do post a lot of the coordinates for national forests dispersed camping spots, which can be helpful as you come into a national forest at night.
If our travels have taught us anything, it’s to always be patient. Finding that perfect campsite takes time. Now, get out there and go camping!