Roadtripping across the US, visiting a national park, or just want to get away for the weekend without spending a boatload of money on a hotel or dedicated campground?
Dispersed camping, also often called boondocking, may be your answer. In this article, I want to dive into what dispersed camping means, the etiquette/safety aspects, and how to find your own spots.
What is dispersed camping?
To put it simply, dispersed camping is “the term given to camping in the United States on public land other than in designated campsites”.
This is just a fancy way of saying sleeping in the middle of nowhere for free, usually in national forest or BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land.
A large caveat to this is that dispersed campsites have no amenities. As you’re often boondocking solo out in the woods, don’t expect any hookups or even a dedicated bathroom.
You’re truly on your own.
How to Find Dispersed Campsites
Later on in the article I want to touch on suggested equipment along with safety/etiquette stuff, but let’s jump into the real reason you clicked on this post: how to find your own dispersed campsites.
Some are as easy as Googling, “where to camp in X”, but to get the real juicy spots, you’ll need to dig into and obsess over US Forest Service maps.
Consult the Internet
There’s plenty of resources for finding free campsites out there. TheDyrt is a nice app, featuring crowd-sourced locations and ratings for various locations. It does cost money, though.
Freecampsites.net, one of my favorites, is an ad-free, crowd-sourced website that functions much the same as TheDyrt. I’ve used it to find a lot of campsites in the past and it’s been excellent.
Otherwise, as stated prior, you can just Google, “where to camp in wherever” and you may get some results. That might even be how you ended up on this page!
Do note, however, that campsites you find readily listed on the internet will likely be overcrowded.
Check the US Forest Service Website
Some National Forests have dedicated spots for dispersed (free, primitive) camping.
Simply typing in, as an example, “Shoshone National Forest Dispersed Camping” should bring you to a page like this. Every National Forest website should have a section for dispersed camping.
A few locations will be listed where there are “established”, but still primitive campgrounds. These, however, do oftentimes suffer from overcrowding as they’re easily accessible.
How to Read a MVUM (USFS Motor Vehicle Use Map)
Digging into maps is where things start to get both complicated AND fun. The US Forest Service (USFS) creates something called “Motor Vehicle Use Maps“, or MVUM for short. These maps, although a bit complicated, provide a very thorough idea as to which roads are legal to camp on.
As a bonus, many of these spots are quite isolated and free of other campers. I’ve scored a few sites over the years where I’ve only seen a handful of other cars pass by.
It’s hard to explain every aspect of Motor Vehicle Use Maps, but I’ll do my best to sum it up relatively quickly. Here’s the steps you’ll follow to hunt down your own campsite on an MVUM.
I’d also like to note that there’s a few map services that make this a MUCH smoother process, such as the paid version of Gaia. (not a sponsor)
Step 1: find your National Forest.
First, determine which National Forest you’re actually camping in. Look around on Google Maps or, if you’re nearby, find the ranger station.
Some National Forests are huge and, although not continuous, have “territory” in multiple states. After you’ve figured out where you’re at, look up the list of maps.
For this example, I’ll be looking at Shoshone National Forest, so I’d look up “Shoshone National Forest MVUM” on Google. (link here for your convenience)
Step 2: find the appropriate map.
Oftentimes, the MVUM page will have a few maps listed. You’ll have to figure out which map is right for your area (or, in other words, the Ranger Station District).
Unless you already know the district, just open all the maps and look for landmarks (roads, towns, etc.) until you figure out which map you’re trying to find.
In my example, I’m trying to find the N Fork Hwy area outside of Yellowstone’s east gate. I found it on the “North Zone Side 2” map.
Step 3: look for dispersed camping areas.
Dispersed camping, again, is the term used for roads/areas that allow primitive camping, whether that be in a tent or in a car. On every USFS map, roads that allow dispersed camping are denoted by series of two dots surrounding the road (example below).
While some roads have “special rules” regarded dispersed camping, seeing those two surrounding dots is a great indicator 99% of the time that roadside camping is legal.
The maps are sometimes inaccurate though, so make sure to check out a satellite view of the area to see if there’s even a road there and if there’s any sort of pull-offs or dedicated parking areas.
Dispersed camping restrictions vary by National Forest. Generally, there’s some restrictions for car camping, and much less for tent camping.
Step 4: get to your campsite.
After you’ve located a spot, you have to try to get there. Many of these forest roads are unmaintained and virtually none are paved. While a lot of them require a beefier vehicle, I’ve seen plenty of sedans and other small cars way up in the woods. Use common sense and be careful (more on that later).
Oftentimes, Google Maps will show the road names (or numbers, in most cases), but don’t expect it to be perfectly accurate. I’ve had many situations where the map will say a road exists, but it’s been washed out and extremely sketchy to drive on.
Most roads will have small pull-offs (usually gravel or just cleared grass) that you can park on. Make sure to be careful with the natural environment and to not haphazardly off-road over flower beds and whatnot. During droughts, grass CAN start wildfires when exposed to hot car exhaust.
After you get your spot, you’re good to go! Set up camp, whether that be in your car or a tent. Cook, hang out, etc. but remember to be respectful of nature and other campers (if there even are any!).
Dispersed Camping Safety
Dispersed camping can often carry risk, as you’re driving and staying in very remote locations.
In all my time car-camping, I’ve rarely run into issues, but I wanted to share some of the safety tips I’ve implemented.
Know Your Limits
This applies to both your vehicle’s off-road capabilities and your own driving skill. Be brutally honest with yourself, as most of us aren’t nearly as good at driving as we say we are, especially when it comes to low-traction situations.
Mud Will Ruin Your Day
On one particularly rainy day, I almost slid my minivan down a cliff because I misjudged how muddy the trail was.
Luckily, I was able to recover inches from the edge, but that was a good (and scary) lesson in humility.
Always be extremely cautious with mud (or for that matter, small creeks and rivers). If it looks bad, turn around.
Know Your Ground Clearance
Take things slow, and don’t hesitate to get out of the car to check or clear the path.
I’ve made it down some pretty gnarly roads by getting out of my car to move large rocks out of the way and to measure the size of potholes.
I actually killed the van pictured below due to ignoring my own advice and proceeding down a brutal forest road. A rock blew out the bottom of the radiator and a minute later my engine overheated in the middle of nowhere.
Luckily we were able to limp it back to civilization but… don’t be like me.
You’ll be Isolated
When camping at spots you find on the internet, they’ll usually be other campers around.
When camping at areas you find through the MVUMs, however, there’s a good chance you’ll be alone and very isolated.
Know How to Get Unstuck
Getting stuck means oftentimes getting stuck without cell signal to call for help.
Always bring a bit of extra food, water, blankets, etc. just in case.
I’d also recommend a shovel and, if possible, some traction boards (although small logs can also be decently effective in a pinch, as I learned in a misadventure near Steamboat Springs…).
Animal Threats (and Humans)
Be careful if getting out of the car to use the bathroom at night, as there may be creatures lurking in the woods. While most wildlife won’t mess with you outright, running into a bear in the dark is NOT a good thing.
Some people swear by having a pee bottle inside. For myself, I’ll just risk going outside.
As for human interactions, I’d say 99.999% of fellow boondockers have no ill intentions, but there’s always that miniscule chance of ending up on a future unsolved mysteries episode.
There was only one instance ever where I trusted my gut and got the hell out of a location due to feeling unsafe. Looking back, there was likely no threat, but it doesn’t hurt to play it safe.
Dispersed Camping Etiquette
Although you’ll often be camping solo, there is some important etiquette to follow.
Use Existing Sites (and Fire Rings)
Try to avoid making new fire rings. They’re fairly disruptive to the environment and existing rings can often be found all over from previous campers.
Plus, using existing fire rings is just kind of neat. You never know who used them before you. Was it a $100000 decked out sprinter van, or was it a cowboy over a hundred years ago resting on a long journey?
Using existing fire rings (and sites) reduces environmental impact and is just frankly more convenient.
Be Smart with Fire
Speaking of fires, just be cautious. Every year, the western US suffers from extreme wildfires. While this is partially due to environmental factors along with poor historical fire management, it comes down to each of us to do our part. Around eighty-five percent of wildfires in the US are started by humans.
Don’t try to be sneaky and start fires when there’s a fire ban. Stomp it out completely and make sure its cold to touch before stepping away. Don’t leave fires burning when you head to bed.
I personally never use fires. I totally get the appeal, but I can also just chill inside my car.
Don’t Intrude on Personal Space
This one is subjective, but if you come across another camper, don’t just park right next to them.
For myself, I disappear into the woods to get some people and quiet and take in the serenity of nature. I like to be left alone and I think a lot of other boondockers share that sentiment.
Of course there’s exceptions to this, I’ve been invited to friendly campsites on a few occasions.
Leave No Trace
I’d assume since you’re on a website that covers travel and hiking that I don’t need to cover the Leave No Trace principles.
Pack it in, pack it out. Take only photos and leave nothing but footprints.
That about wraps up the article, hopefully it helped you navigate the confusing maze of information that surrounds dispersed camping/boondocking.
Thanks for reading. 🙂 – Chance
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