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Finding great campsites can be hard to do if you are trying to go camping on a budget. For campers who would rather not pay high camping fees, dispersed camping is the answer. This simple and easy way to camp for free is perfect for anyone who truly loves being in the woods.
We love to camp. Okay, specifically my husband Steve and I love to camp. Our girls, no so much.
What I do not enjoy whatsoever is paying high fees for campsites. Frankly, I think it is a bit ridiculous what some places charge just to pitch a tent on their property. Add in taxes and other fees and you can be looking at upwards of $50.00 per night.
Just to use the outdoors. For me, it just doesn’t seem like it is a great way to spend time outdoors.
This is where dispersed camping comes into the picture and becomes the best way to save money when you’re planning your family camping trip.
What is a Dispersed Campsite?
When you are dispersed camping, you are camping on public land in an area where there are no recreational facilities or it is not forbidden to camp on those lands. These campsites are not found in a designated campground or developed campground.
They do not have many amenities although if a site is popular, you may find sparse things such as fire pits or picnic tables. This is extremely rare though.
Dispersed camping is free of charge but you may have to pay any park admission fees that might apply.
While dispersed sites are free of charge to camp at, there are certain rules that apply when you look for dispersed campsites.
How to Find Dispersed Camping?
Dispersed campsites can be any site on publicly owned lands. This means you can technically use any public park for dispersed camping. However, as I said earlier, there are rules for how to find dispersed camping.
A dispersed campsite must be:
- At least 1 mile from marked recreation areas
- A minimum of 150 feet from a creek or stream
- A minimum of 150 feet from a road
- Not marked as “no camping allowed”
These rules for dispersed camping have been put into place to protect both you and others and to ensure the least damage to the land you will be free camping on.
A dispersed campsite is usually found alongside a forest service road on government-owned land. These are dirt roads that are not frequently traveled. The free campsites may or may not be marked.
You should be on the lookout for flat areas of land, but understand that not all flat areas are suitable for dispersed sites. Frequently, campsites will show signs of previous campers, so the BLM will ask campers to use these sites if possible.
It is often helpful to pick up a park map if you are not sure if your campsite is approved. Sites that have been approved usually appear in light green on park maps. This, however, is not always the case.
Lastly, you can always call the park ranger’s office to double-check if you are in the right place.
Where Can I Camp for Free?
There are many places you can camp for free, but most will be in parks. There are other places you may be able to find free camping sites near you. Between all of the choices though, I am sure you will be able to find a place to camp for free.
Below I discuss free camping in US National Parks and Dispersed camping on Bureau of Land Management Lands. They are by far the only options for free camping in the US, but they are the two largest options.
Free Camping in National Parks
If you’re wondering about dispersed camping in Yellowstone National Park or if you can camp anywhere in the Badlands or any other national forests, the answer is a solid yes-ish.
It is possible to find free camping in United States National Parks but your campsite must match the rules of what qualifies as a dispersed campsite above.
In addition, camping for free in National Parks will likely not be totally free. I know, that doesn’t make much sense does it?
National Parks often have entrance fees. Even if you are camping for free, you will still likely need to pay this fee. You can reduce the cost of these entrance fees by using the National Parks Annual Pass.
BLM Free Camping
The Bureau of Land Management is the federal government agency responsible for managing public lands in the United States. Lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management are mostly located in the west, in places like Oregon, Colorado, Wyoming, etc. Across the US, they manage over 240 million acres.
Bureau of Land Management lands cover a wide range of habitats, such as wildlife conservation areas and mineral estates. BLM camping areas, formerly described as “land nobody wanted,” are public lands you can visit. The best part is that you can camp on BLM land for free.
Dispersed Camping Rules for BLM Land and National Parks
When you are looking to camp for free on BLM land, you must not only apply the rules of dispersed camping, but also follow BLM rules for their land. These rules also apply when you are camping for free in state parks, national parks or any other public lands.
In a 28-day period, you are only allowed to camp in the same spot 14 times. In order to camp longer than the 14-days permitted, you must break camp on the 14th day and move at least 25 miles to your next campsite. The goal of this rule is to avoid disturbing the natural world around them and to prevent resources from being disturbed. If you need or prefer to, you can move back to your original site on day 29.
The BLM also prohibits RV and camper owners from disposing of fluids or human waste at its owned sites. The reason for this is that these wastes can often be harmful to the environment. For campers and RVs, it is best to determine the best place to empty tanks before you arrive at your destination.
Tips for Dispersed Camping
Camping at dispersed sites is also known as primitive camping meaning for campers, there are no amenities. However, there are times when a dispersed site is very popular. As I’ve already mentioned, he BLM may construct a toilet nearby or fire ring nearby, but otherwise, when you camp on dispersed lands, you shouldn’t expect any amenities to be available nearby and should bring any camping gear you view as necessary with you.
These items may include:
- Yeti Cooler that will keep food cold for 24+ hours
- Camp Potty
- Water in Portable Water Storage Containers or knowledge of a clean water source
- Solar Shower or Portable Camp Shower
- Canvas Tent if You Plan on Camping Longer than 14-days or are planning to live in your tent
- Portable Camp Stove with plenty of Fuel Canisters
- Camp Cot or Airbed
- Your Chosen Method of Camp Security
- Toilet Paper and a way to dispose of it
Not everyone will enjoy dispersed camping. It is unlikely that you will enjoy camping in this way if your family prefers glamping. Many dispersed camping sites are so primitive they will not even have a fire ring.
Make sure you can camp this way before you set off on your trip. You have two choices once you arrive at the campsite: tough it out or head back to town, and the latter would ruin your family camping trip.
Oh and one last thing, as you go about your dispersed camping trips, be sure to practice leave no trace principles. Doing so is the only way to ensure the land is not damaged and to protect the natural resources around it so they will be safe and usable the next time you want to go camping.
Now that you have all the info on dispersed camping and free camping, do you think you’ll use this option the next time your plan a family hiking trip or a family camping trip?