How to Disperse Camp 101

There were many camper vans and RVs parked along the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada in Mammoth Lakes, California, during the summer of 2018. While the COVID-19 pandemic was raging, many people sought outdoor activities. Consequently, dispersed camping is a growing trend known as “pitching your tent outside of a designated campground” and occurring in many nearby parks as campgrounds are either full or closed. There was the problem of not knowing where they could camp legally.

According to Lara Kaylor, Mammoth Lakes Tourism’s communications director, people were parking anywhere. Many of them were first-timers who didn’t know what to do. The area was full of trash, as well as pet and human waste. Community members found it disturbing.”

There are no camping restrictions in the United States, as long as you’re staying on land managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). When permissible, Forest Service lands. However, finding those spots can be difficult. The majority of dispersed camping takes place on public lands in the west, but there are some on the east coast as well.

Many complaints have been received in Mammoth regarding noise, litter, dog waste, and campfire risks. In order to help people responsibly camp on public lands, a coalition of federal and land-management agencies, nonprofits, and tourism departments created the Eastern Sierra Dispersed Camping Collaborative last winter. The project added Porta-Potties and dumpsters near popular dispersed-camping zones, developed an online map of legal camping areas, and implemented better signage, volunteer opportunities for cleanups, and stricter fire regulations. They seem to be helping.

Kaylor says this summer hasn’t been filled with complaints as much. It is a public land, and we can explore it, but with responsibility. We won’t be lecturing. Essentially, it’s about preserving these beautiful spaces and avoiding environmental damage.”

Sleeping outdoors in a designated campground offers many enjoyments, such as solitude, quiet, and wild beauty. A state- or national-park campground doesn’t require you to make reservations, so finding available sites at the last minute is easier. Although these off-the-beaten-path spots may seem appealing, they do not include the amenities of a typical campground, such as water, toilets, picnic tables, bear boxes, and trash bins. The following is what you need to know if you’re interested in dispersed camping.

Research your topic

Dispersed-camping fees, regulations, infrastructure, and conditions vary widely, so check with your local jurisdiction before pitching your tent on some random dirt road. It is typical for BLM to let campers stay in one location for up to a month. If you are interested in dispersed camping in state or national parks, make sure you inquire beforehand.

If you need permits, or if there’s any infrastructure near you, or if you’ll be dispersed, call the visitor center or check online. “Nobody is looking out for you,” Kaylor says.

Be Clear About What You Want

Prior to selecting a campsite, determine what your needs are. It might be convenient to camp near a body of water-a lake or a creek-or you might need some shade from trees. If you need to get some work done or be available, you might need to be near a trailhead where you can hike or bike.

Athlete, strategist, and storyteller Dani Reyes-Acosta often spends months camping on public lands each year. “Some days I want to be off-grid, and other days I want to work,” she says. Knowing your goals – your recreation goals, your work goals, and your basic human needs as well, such as water and bathrooms – will help you find the perfect site to suit your needs.”

Camp in a designated area

The next step is to find a space that meets your needs. Maps of dispersed-camping sites can be viewed on websites such as Campendium, Dyrt, FreeCampsites, and iOverlander. Topographical maps can be found with Gaia GPS. (Gaia GPS Premium is now included with Outside+ memberships as it belongs to the same parent company as Outside.)

It is important that everyone has access to camping. These spots shouldn’t be secret,” says Dyrt cofounder Kevin Long, who’s in the middle of a yearlong van-camping trip. “Anyone can add a campground or dispersed spot and share it with everyone.”

If you lose cell service, download those maps ahead of time. A few of them allow the overlaying of your GPS location onto the map to verify that you are still in a legal zone. Camping should be at least 200 feet from any water source, and the same distance from any trails or roads.

When you reach the dirt road, be patient and look for an appropriate location. My love for dispersed camping has turned the search for it into a game,” Long says. The journey begins the moment you get in the car, so get in the mindset that it may take a while to find a parking spot.”

Respect the land by not touching it

Anywhere you camp, but especially on public lands where you’re dispersed, it’s important to follow Leave No Trace principles. Among other things, this means properly disposing of all waste, respecting the environment, following campfire regulations, and minimizing impact.

In dispersed camping, Reyes-Acosta explains, “let’s accept our place as stewards of the land.” It’s more about reconnecting with the outdoors than about escaping the world. Being responsible is the best way to accomplish this.”

Having trouble disposing of human waste? Think about packing wag bags or a portable toilet. (See Outside’s guide to pooping almost anywhere for even more tips.) Cleaned up afterwards is just as important for your dog.

Before lighting a fire, find out if it is permitted. During the dry summer months, many public lands have strict restrictions on campfires due to wildfire risk. You should follow guidelines for putting out a campfire correctly if you’re permitted to have one. If possible, avoid having to light a fire and instead use solar lights or lanterns.

The experience doesn’t have to be ruined by fire for me,” Reyes-Acosta says. In these beautiful, natural spaces, we are reminded why we are here and what we’re doing with our friends. There is something about being under the stars where you can see the stars better.

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