Play, Travel

Dispersed Camping: Why and How

August 25, 2015

Back when we lived in Kansas our camping options were pretty much limited to established campgrounds in state parks. What that meant for us, most of the time, was that our neighbors were either 1) college kids having a big party or 2) RVs with noisy generators that ran all night long. It was better than spending a night at home but it wasn’t what I would consider remote or relaxing.

Our first few camping trips after we moved to Colorado were pretty much the same thing. And while the scenery was a lot better, the level of privacy left much to be desired. I was explaining all of this to a friend several years ago when he looked at me and dropped a little morsel of truth that changed my camping life forever: In the National Forests, you can camp pretty much anywhere.

Wait, what?! You mean we can set up shop … anywhere?!

That was almost a decade ago and I’m pretty much convinced that I owe all of my continuing love of camping to that person. Remind me to thank him.

In the years since, we have discovered the pure awesomeness of camping in places that are quiet, free, and far from other people. This was a good thing when it was just us and the dogs but it became an even bigger bonus when the kid came along. Camping in a place where you don’t have to worry about your crying kid disrupting other people who are trying to enjoy some semblance of peace and quiet? It’s freaking fantastic.

Now when I hear people talking about camping in campgrounds I find myself wondering … why? Why would you pay money to camp in such close proximity to other people? Why would you want to listen to other people’s generators all night long? Why don’t you want to get out to where it’s actually quiet and you can change your clothes without having to hide in the tent?

People, there is a whole world out there that is well beyond the bounds of established campgrounds – and trust me when I say that life is way, way better there.

There are places where dispersed camping is hard to find and a couple spots where having neighbors is just plain fun (like 18 Road in Fruita or Kalalau) but for the most part, we avoid campgrounds like the plague. And sometimes I wonder how we ever did it any other way.

Want some tips on how to leave the campground behind and set up shop way far away from everyone else? I’m here to help!

How to find a spot: This may be easy or hard depending on where you’re located. For the folks in Colorado and the rest of the west, look for property owned by the USFS. We’ve had a lot of luck just picking random Forest Service Roads and driving around. To reduce your impact, look for places where others have already camped (fire rings made from rocks are a good indicator of this). The internet can be a great place to get suggestions on dispersed camping in unfamiliar areas but don’t be afraid to set off on your own! Before you set up the tent, be sure that there are no signs warning that camping is allowed only in designated campsites and you should be good to go. If you have any doubts or are out of ideas, consider calling the local ranger station for advice.

What to pack in: Remember that pretty much none of the creature comforts of established campgrounds will be available to you when you’re out in the woods. You’ll want to pack your own water, toilet paper, and whatever else you’ll need to get you through the night. Camp chairs are also a must and if you are going to be cooking you may also want to bring a small folding table (no picnic tables here, remember!). You should plan on bringing your own firewood because, while you may be surrounded by trees, chopping them down to make your campfire is no bueno.

What to pack out: Everything you brought with you! This probably goes without saying but it is very, very important to leave the place better than you found it (and no, building a log cabin or installing an outhouse at your off-the-beaten-path campsite is not considered an “improvement”!). Remember that no one is coming out to the middle of nowhere to clean up after you. Be a responsible user of our public lands and remember to Leave No Trace.

Be a good neighbor: While your neighbors are likely to be much farther away than they are in an actual campground, other people may still be able to hear your shenanigans. And while some noises are acceptable and somewhat unavoidable (see: crying baby), others are just really poor form. If you’re planning on throwing an enormous rave, a mostly deserted Forest Service road is probably not the place to do it (and yes, this happened to us!). You may be a half mile (or much more!) from your nearest neighbors but if you are being really loud, you might be bothering them anyway.

Be safe. The farther you are from other people, the more you’re on your own. While I fully support enjoying a nice bourbon or a few brews around a campfire, remember that when you’re off the grid you’re pretty far from any possible help. Any damage done to you or the environment (think wildfires …) could be far worse than if it occurred where help is nearby.


If you are a car camper who has never ventured outside the bounds of the campground, it’s time to up your game and give it a go! I promise you’ll thank me later!

Do you have additional advice for aspiring off-the-beaten-path campers? Want some suggestions on where to go in Colorado? Leave a message in the comments!

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  • Reply Erica August 25, 2015 at 10:46 pm

    Hi Jen,

    I love reading your posts! This one I actually have experience with–woohoo! We are firm devotees to our Gazetteer. If you don’t have one for your state, pick one up from the gas station. The maps are detailed and include most Forest roads and 4×4 roads. We plan ahead by choosing an area that has several Forest roads to choose from, so once we get there we can drive around until we find something. The times that were hard is when we had just ONE road in mind–when we got there all the good spots were taken! The Gazetteer helps us navigate, shows rough USFS boundaries, trailheads, distinguishes trails vs 4×4 roads, etc. It’s not perfect but it really helps the pre-planning and is essential to have with you when determining where to go once you get there. We rarely have cell service when we hike, usually we just turn the phones off.

    Other qualities of a good spot include–able to park completely off the 4×4 road (which can be hard in the woods!), no dead trees in falling distance from your site/tent/car (again, hard in the CO mtns due to mountain pine beetle), not too close to water (to lessen the impact, plus safety-wise, in case of flood), and in an area not frequented by ATVs (my own personal preference for additional solitude. those ATVs are everywhere!). Extra points if there are cool places to hike nearby (we like destinations like lakes, waterfalls, peaks, passes, etc).

    Be sure to bring plenty of water, trash bags and tarps. I have been wondering what families with potty-training toddlers do….small travel potty? Or encourage them to just go outside like you?

    Keep up the great blogging!

    • Reply jendz August 25, 2015 at 11:25 pm

      Hey Erica! Excellent suggestions about dead watching out for dead trees, water, etc.! And you are totally right about the Gazetteer! That thing is worth it’s weight in gold when it comes to finding places to camp, hike, ride, or do just about anything. I don’t know how I forgot to mention it!

      I was a little worried about what to do about camping with a potty-training toddler but it has been a total non-issue. He just goes outside like we do when we camp. Leave it to a little boy to think that doing his business outside is a LOT of fun! Hell, he does this half the time at home too. 😉 Being able to go outside is actually another benefit of not being in a campground because some of those pit toilets get NASTY!

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