Be a Free Camper: Try Dispersed Camping
When most people think of camping, they picture tidy rows of campsites, meals enjoyed around an old wooden picnic table, or buying firewood from a friendly camp host driving around in their golf cart. We sure do love this type of camping. But as campgrounds start to fill up and it becomes more of a challenge to find an open spot, we’ve been embracing another way to get out there. It’s called dispersed camping or free camping, and if you’ve never tried it, we highly recommend giving it a go.
What exactly is dispersed camping? It’s defined by the U.S. Forest Service as “camping anywhere in the National Forest OUTSIDE of a designated campground.” We like to think of it as choose-your-own-adventure camping!
This means you’re likely to find some truly amazing camp spots — but you’ll need to spend some time searching for them first. These unique sites also don’t usually have the amenities and services you may be used to like bathrooms, potable water, picnic tables, or trash removal. But don’t let that discourage you. For the price of a tank of gas, you’ll get to enjoy (practically) free camping in some of the most beautiful places in America. Check out our guide on how to get started, and make your dispersed camping experience a success.
Know where you can legally camp
One of the first questions beginner dispersed campers ask is, “Where can I camp!?” Luckily, there are lots of options. In most cases, it is completely legal to set up camp for up to 14 days in these areas:
• Designated National Forests (unless otherwise marked)
• BLM land (Bureau of Land Management)
• National Grasslands
• WMA lands (Wildlife Management Areas)
Where shouldn’t you camp?
• Many National Parks (Some National Parks do allow dispersed camping, but it’s usually for the purpose of backcountry trips and typically requires a $10 to $40 permit.)
• Privately owned land
• Within 100 feet (about 35 adult steps) from a stream or body of water or 150 feet from a roadway
One of the easiest ways to determine if you’re setting up camp in a legal area is to download an offline maps app that displays land boundaries. Using your phone GPS, apps like The Dyrt Pro or BaseMap can display your location so you know you’re located on public land. Throw a paper map in the car as well . . . just in case.
Since not all boundary areas are clearly marked, it’s a good idea to call and ask for advice from the Ranger District Office where you plan to go. They’ll also be able to tell you if you’ll need a wilderness pass or permit, and if there are any road closures to be aware of, or sensitive areas that could be closed to dispersed camping (like lands being restored or researched).
KEEN tip: When you do find a good camp spot, be sure to make a note of it! You can do this by saving the location in your maps app or writing the coordinates down in a notebook. We like to keep a “Camping Journal” in the glove box to write down campsite locations, directions, if there is water nearby, and lastly, what we loved about it.
Pack the right stuff
Since you’ll be pitching your tent, cooking your meals, and bathrooming outside of established campgrounds, you’ll need to pack a few extra things to be self-sufficient. We recommend adding these items to your standard car-camping checklist:
• Plenty of water. One gallon per person per day should be enough to cover drinking, cooking, and cleaning.
• Extra trash bags. Since you’ll be responsible for packing out all trash and recycling, it’s a good idea to have plenty of bags. KEEN tip: Throw in a trash grabber tool and clean up any other litter you see. Here at KEEN HQ, we were all given a folding one that's super handy for on-the-go trash cleanups.
• Equipment for outdoor bathrooming. There are a few options for how to handle human waste out in nature. Whether you plan to set up a portable toilet, opt for the dig-a-hole method, or use waste bags, you’ll need to bring gear and pack out all waste with you when you leave. Not sure what all you’ll need? Read through our tips for better outdoor bathrooming.
• The Ten Essentials. Originally developed as a gear list for hiking and mountaineering, The Ten Essentials are important to have on hand whenever you venture into the wilderness.
• Comfy shoes. Finding and setting up a dispersed campsite can be a bit more challenging than your standard camp spot. That’s why we always bring a pair of supportive (but super comfortable) KEEN shoes to keep those hardworking feet happy. Our Ridge Flex hiking boots for men, women, and kids are a camping favorite thanks to their built-in flex, durable upper, and grippy rubber outsole. And we love the flex when bending down to get those tent stakes in!
It’s important to protect your feet while you’re setting up camp. But when it’s time to kick back and relax, make sure you have an easy-to-wear pair for camping downtime (TLDR: pack Howser).
Get to know Leave No Trace
Before you head out into the wilderness on your first free camping adventure, make sure to read up on The Seven Principles of Leave No Trace. Even if you’re already familiar with the principles, it’s a great idea to refresh your memory so everyone in your party is aware of how to minimize human impact while enjoying the outdoors.
Not sure if you know all seven principles of Leave No Trace? Take the Online Awareness Course! This introductory workshop takes about 45 minutes to complete and teaches participants about the mission of Leave No Trace and what you can do to minimize your impact while enjoying nature.
Learn how to find a good camp spot
Scouting for a camp spot is both the best and possibly the worst part of dispersed camping. Some trips, you’ll eye a dirt road and instantly find the ideal clearing for your camp. Other times, you’ll drive in circles trying to spot just one bit of level land. Here’s what we’ve learned over the years about searching out spots:
• Ask a ranger: Remember when we mentioned that District Offices are great resources for helping you figure out where you can camp legally? Well guess who spends a lot of time outdoors and might just know of some really good camp spots? Rangers. Don’t hesitate to ask a ranger, intern, or Forest Service volunteer for suggestions.
• Ask friends for recommendations. You might be surprised who in your friend group has an offline map full of saved camp spots. Ask around or post on social media, and someone might just hand over the coordinates to their secret site.
• Scour Google maps in satellite view. Do this before you head out so you have a destination in mind. Look for small clearings in trees or brush that could indicate existing camp spots. You can also look near trailheads or established campgrounds to see if there are promising spots nearby.
KEEN tip: Check out freecampsites.net or the Camp Free book series by local Portland author Don Reichert for lists of already vetted dispersed camp spots. Since these locations have been made public, there is a chance that some may already be occupied when you arrive, but if you are lucky enough to snag one, you’re in for a treat. Some of the spots listed in these tools are epic.
Feeling ready to get out there and try free camping? One last tip to make your trip truly special — don’t forget to enjoy the stars.
Flex by day. Warm fuzzies by night.