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What's more exciting than exploring the unknown?
Most people who are in love with the outdoors can't wait to go camping. However, now that outdoor recreation has become so popular for so many, securing a camping space at designated campgrounds can be difficult. At more popular campgrounds, it could take weeks or months before you can secure a camping spot.
Fortunately, dispersed camping provides outdoor seekers an alternative to the traditional campground setting. Likewise, it adds more excitement and exploration to the trip. If you are unfamiliar with dispersed camping, we've got you covered.
Read on to learn the basics of dispersed camping; places where you can and cannot disperse camp; and how to do it legally. We've also added some useful tips to employ if you want to do it during the winter.
Dispersed camping is basically camping outside of a designated campground area - somewhere in the vast area of a National Park, or, for example, on National Forest ground.
What people love most about camping is the solitude and calmness that comes with it. Not to mention the ability to discover breathtaking views and beautiful natural elements that are impossible to find in urban and suburban settings.
For a staunch camping enthusiast, dispersed camping can add to the overall camping experience. It requires you to venture out into the wild and establish your own camping site.
If you decide to undertake a dispersed camping journey, there is plenty of beautiful areas off the beaten path you can discover and explore. You may find yourself in a lush open field full of sweet-smelling flowers. Or by a captivating waterfall, where the sound of the constant stream of water can soothe your mind. There's no telling what you will discover when you embark on this kind of adventure. Dispersed camping can add true excitement and curiosity to your camping trip.
However, this kind of freedom doesn't come without serious responsibilities.
Since these areas are not within established campgrounds, there are no campsite services. You will not find picnic tables, bathrooms, fire pits, water spouts - or other people. In other words, your overall experience boils down to your skills and experience in preparing for this kind of journey.
Also, as there are no trash cans or trash removal services, you must ensure that there's no trash left behind on forest land. You are responsible for packing all your food, water, and camping supplies.
The most important thing is to know how to pack and how to keep yourself safe in the great outdoors. Make sure you understand the challenges and risks associated with dispersed camping to ensure safety for everyone in your group. For example, always inform someone back home where you plan to go and when you plan to return. Make sure you know how to read a map and a compass in case you get lost. What if your phone has no service or your battery dies? What if the weather changes suddenly?
There is no doubt dispersed camping adds a degree of difficulty to the traditional camping experience. It requires additional responsibility and skills to be successful. However, it's these additional challenges and risks that hardline campers openly embrace. It's what makes dispersed camping such a rugged, authentic experience.
Dispersed camping is allowed in most National Forests in the United States. However, most forests only allow dispersed camping in specific areas and sometimes in specific periods.
Before you officially embark on your journey into the wild, contact the local ranger office in the area you wish to camp. They will tell you if there are any specific regulations, such as a fire ban (if the woods are particularly dry that time of year). You'll also have a chance to ask anything you'd like to know and find out what areas you can explore.
Check out these links to dispersed campsites at some of the major U.S. National Forests:
When searching for a camping spot, you can find places off main roads, or old dirt and gravel roads for more remote sites. You can park your vehicle and hike to remote spots away from main roads, campsites, recreational areas, and tourists. A general rule of thumb is to stay 100-200 feet away from any water source, road, or trail.
Finding a dispersed campsite is generally easy when you are in the developed areas. However, if you want to venture deeper into the woods, you can use different apps or even Google Earth's satellite view to find areas of interest.
Use the satellite view to follow old trails and look in the surrounding areas. There is a good chance you'll be able to spot small clearings in the forest. Small clearings generally point to a potential camping spot. Once you find your spot, mark it on your map of the area.
Since most dispersed campsites are in discrete locations, it may be difficult to find the spot, even after marking it on the map. However, another challenge adds even more excitement to the overall experience. Just make sure you leave yourself enough daylight before you try to find the marked location.
Since these campgrounds are off-site locations, you cannot reserve them in advance. If you find a nice spot but see that somebody else is already there, they have domain over the spot. Meaning, you have to go somewhere else.
Specific rules and guidelines may be slightly different depending on the location. That's why it is important to contact your local ranger station before heading off. Always ask the local ranger for rules and guidelines related to dispersed camping, as it's very area-specific. You can also look the guidelines up on the USDA website pages, such as this one for Deschutes National Forest.
Some general rules include no camping groups larger than 75 people. Some say that you can only disperse camp for a total of 16 days in a 30 day period. If you wish to disperse camp for longer than 16 days, you must move to another dispersed camping area.
It's also important to follow the Leave No Trace guidelines. These guidelines include disposing of waste in a six to eight-inch cathole, cleaning dishes away from water sources, and sticking to already established trails and campsites. Your campsite must be at least 200 feet away from any water source.
It's also important to note that these forests are natural wonders and we do not want to interfere with them. Preserve whatever you come across in the woods so everyone can admire it again. Also, minimize the impacts of the fires you produce, and always be respectful of the surrounding wildlife.
The best way to ensure a fun and safe disperses camping trip is thorough preparation, especially during the winter. You should know exactly which gear to bring along to prevent any trouble. Remember, since there are no provided amenities on dispersed campsites, you must be self-contained with your supplies.
For starters, you need water. Some recommend one gallon per person per day you plan to spend in the wilderness. It's also recommended to bring a water filter, especially if camping near a water source. The weather will be super cold, so keep your water bottle in a plastic bag close to your body to prevent it from freezing during the night.
The next essential item is food. Look up all the food options for winter camping in our detailed guide. Bring both meals and snacks.
Due to the cold, your body burns more calories to stay warm, which is why it is important to bring plenty of food and snacks to eat throughout the day. Plan in advance for the number of days you plan to stay, but always bring an extra few days' worth of food. If you plan to cook your food, you will need an external stove and a basic camping cooking set.
You can also cook your food over a fire. Since you're in the cold, you will need the right supplies for starting a fire. Don't forget a lighter or matches, lighter fluid, and a lightweight ax for cutting firewood. For firewood, only use deadwood. Never cut down living trees to help preserve the forest. As for cleaning any dishes or bowls, use biodegradable soap, and clean away from water sources. Bring insulated mugs if you want to make hot chocolate, tea, or coffee to keep you warm.
Now, for your winter campsite, you'll want an insulated tent, as well as a very smart sleeping system that excludes an air mattress laying on the bare ground. And don't forget to bring a first aid kit. Here is a first aid checklist to ensure you have all the necessary supplies.
And lastly, you will need the right dispersed camping clothing for your winter endeavor. These include strong, water-resistant pants like the KÜHL M's Klash™ Pant, a Merino wool base layer, an insulated jacket, hat, and gloves. Likewise, you will need wool socks and durable winter boots. Check out this thorough guide on what to wear for camping in the winter to know exactly what you're going to need.
Maybe you've been camping a thousand times, or maybe you're trying it for the first time, it doesn't really matter - dispersed camping is always new. As you can never know what you'll find out there, the excitement and thrill of a raw adventure will make you fall in love with dispersed camping.
All you need to do is to make a little room in your life to do something out-of-ordinary once in a while. Especially during these pandemic years, when we need something to keep us fresh and alive. What's more exciting and more relaxing than getting up close with genuine, beautiful nature?
By following safety precautions and planning everything in advance, you're ready to try out something new and different. So head up to one of our stores or reach us on the phone. We'll help you choose the top-quality outdoor wear you need to get out and have fun!
Featured Image - Squamish Valley on the edge of British Columbia by Scott Goodwill.
Check out our popular cold weather camping styles: