Those who like camping often enjoy researching a fun hike at a national park, making a reservation for a campground, looking forward to s’mores around the fire ring, dinner served on a picnic bench, and mentally preparing for what creepy bugs could be hiding in the campground bathrooms.
But for me personally, as soon as a school break starts, I’m in a fully packed car headed hours past the nearest streetlight, water spicket, or bathroom amenity.
To me, the real beauty of camping begins when no traces of human civilization are around. Nothing but me and my main squeeze, mother nature.
Some perks to “dispersed camping,” or camping outside of designated campgrounds, are having a vast array of truly natural places available for you to call home for a few days, not having plans be dependent on available campsites, being at the center of the natural action, and that fact that it’s free! However, there are a few additional considerations and challenges that arise when setting up camp in the middle of nowhere, but with a moderate amount of preparation, getting off the grid is easier and more accessible than you might think.
I’ll take you through how to find places where you can set up camp (in the United States), as well as the necessary things to know for once you’re out in the wild.
Where to stay: The Wonderful Privilege that is the BLM
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is a faction of the U.S. Department of the Interior set to federally manage almost 250 million acres of land across the United States with the aim of protecting the health and diversity of the land and rendering these areas (mostly) free for the public to access and use for outdoor recreation. In fact, about an eighth of the U.S.’s landmass is managed and made publicly accessible by the BLM!
On any BLM land, one can set up camp almost anywhere, although it would be diligent to do a little research before in order to determine if there’s any grazing or mining activities going on in the area that would hinder safe recreation. Although there will be no amenities, one can pitch camp on the side of a road (as I have done before), find some semblance of a parking lot and hike in a ways to a more scenic spot (I’ve also checked that one off my list), or sometimes more popular locations will have a series of unofficial sites apparent.
How do you find BLM land? Google is my go to.
Look up an area of interest with “BLM” alongside your search term, do a little blog and forum digging, and you can usually find out about some pretty neat places that you would have never found in the average guidebook (or Buzzfeed article for that fact). There’s also a Public Lands app that will display all publicly accessible land in an area.
The BLM often manages land in scenic places, around national parks and forests, in biologically and ecologically diverse areas, and in areas significant to Native American culture and history. Read: really beautiful places. Some of my personal favorite BLM lands to stay at are in Utah around the Arches National Park area, and more recently, the Carrizo Plains, where I stayed a couple feet off a dirt access road about 15 minutes driving past the main touristy area. Did I mention it was free?
Where to stay: National Forests
Most National Parks have a large expanse of National Forests surrounding them. Although many of them have established campsites with amenities, you usually have to pay for these sites, and lo and behold, you can camp for free if you’re willing to walk or drive a little! In National Forests, dispersed camping is permitted at least 1 mile away from established campgrounds and at least 100 feet away from any stream or river.
Here, a common thing frugal campers will do is to drive out on Forest Service roads and find scenic pullouts to park and camp. It’s good to note that in order to prevent road widening, the US Department of Agriculture recommends camping at least 150 feet away from a roadway. Again, research where you’re going before to see if construction, road closures, mating seasons, weather conditions, or other unexpected events could restrict access or hinder safety. Did I mention this is also free?
Being a conscious camper: How to Pick a Campsite
It’s really crucial to note that if you’re going to choose to camp outside of a campground, you need to be ready to take on the responsibility of doing so. People camp in the wild to do just that: enjoy the non-human impacted land. Some small actions, such as using the “restroom,” can have larger unintended consequences on the landscape and ecology than you might realize. Here’s some rules to follow when looking for a suitable place to settle down, as delineated by the US Department of Agriculture:
Picking a Place to Camp
If it’s an area visited frequently by campers, try to set up camp on previously used campsites. Every new campsite affects the plants, wildlife, and soil, so try to reduce the amount of new sites created. If an area already looks worn in by other campers, use that.
Camp where the soil is bare and durable, if you can. This reduces the destruction of plants. More durable surfaces to pitch tents on include established campsites and trails, gravel, rock, dry grass, or snow.
Don’t camp within 100 ft of water. Life next to water can be especially fragile.
Don’t camp where you can be easily seen, if possible. This means avoiding large flat expanses like meadows. This is to preserve the natural scene for animals and other possible visitors.
Making a Fire
You MUST look up to see if campfires are allowed in the area you are in, or if one must obtain a permit. Obtaining a permit is usually easy, but without one, you could be risking fines of several thousands of dollars. Some areas do not allow fires, and you must respect that because every action has countless impacts that you may not be considering, yet are hazardous to the wildlife you’re enjoying.
Use existing fire rings if available. Minimize your total impact.
Choose a place in not a meadow or clearing, next to a low-hanging tree, or within 100 ft of water.
Make a circular ring of rocks 2 ft wide. Keep all burning pieces of wood inside of it.
Choose wood that’s already dead and on the ground. If collecting firewood, never cutting it off of trees.
Before abandoning your fire, make sure that it’s thoroughly out. This is how almost all forest fires are started! You should stir your embers, making sure that all of them are put out. You should also be able to touch the embers with your hand without getting burned.
Being a conscious camper: Leave No Trace
When going to the natural and pristine areas that dispersed camping will take you, it’s especially crucial to be mindful of your waste. These beautiful land expanses are usually reserved for public recreation because of their diversity of animal, plant, and even bacterial life. These populations are very fragile, and even things like walking off trail can have more unintended consequences than you might think. The principles of Leave No Trace can provide some guidelines on how to minimize the environmental impact that you will have when in the wild. The following points are based off of Leave No Trace principles and you can find more information at www.lnt.org
Pack it In, Pack it Out: Everything you take into the wild you should be leave with as well. This means all wrappers and trash, used toilet paper, dishware, tampons and pads, food scraps, coffee grounds, etc. Even if it’s biodegradable, that can take years to happen in certain dry environments. It always pays off to research an area too because in some environments, such as the desert, bacterial crusts that form on the sand will be harmed from solid human waste, you you’ll have to pack that out too! Bringing reusable dishes and utensils will help reduce your waste.
Nature’s Bathroom: If you’re dispersed camping, it’s very likely you’ll be relieving yourself in the wild. It’s important you do it right, because human waste is waste too. Dig a hole 6-8 inches into the ground, relieve yourself, and completely cover it back up, making your work invisible. Bring a disposable resealable bag to put your used toilet paper in. Never go in or near a water source, as this can contaminate it for fish and animals. Research or read signs for an area to determine if burying your waste is allowed or if you’ll have to pack out your solid waste.
Visit in Smaller Groups: The bigger a group, the more worn into a camp area will become, thus increasing one’s natural impact. If in a bigger group, split up into smaller separated groups to set up tents and lounging areas to limit soil and plant destruction.
Repackage Your Food Before You Go: Unwrap things and put them in reusable containers or in reduced packaging to eliminate the amount of trash you have to pack out.
Leave What You Find: Don’t remove rocks, dirt, plants, or wildlife. Also, leave a place as you found it, don’t dig trenches or move lots of rocks or branches in order to make your site.
Respect Wildlife: Observe animals from a distance and do not attempt to approach or feed them. This socializes animals to humans and introduces unnatural behavior patterns, in addition to damaging their health.
Let Nature Provide the Music: Avoid playing loud music, yelling, and other excessive noise. This disrupts the natural experience for other campers as well as alters the scene for wildlife around.
This is not a Leave No Trace principle, but something I’ve found handy for those who menstruate. If it’s your time of the month, you’re going to have to pack out everything you use. My tips are bring a disposable resealable bag to put your goodies in, or try using a menstrual cup. They are reusable, so they create no waste to pack out, only requiring a rinse in between uses.
Sites to check out for more information:
campendium.com – site of free campsites and more by state
freecampsites.net – cool user-updated site of official and unofficial free campsites
publiclands.org – you can search for BLM land by state
lnt.org – the Leave No Trace website for tips on responsible camping
Dispersed camping will lead you to far more wonderful places for cheaper than staying in traditional campgrounds if you’re willing to let go of toilet and running water access. Never again must you plan your trips months in advance just to reserve a spot. You pay enough rent as it is, nature doesn’t want your money. With consideration, preparation, and practice, you’ll be an avid wilderness warrior in no time.
Jess Fauria is a KCPR staff member and Cal Poly graphic communications junior. She wrote this article.