Dispersed Camping on Public Lands
What is Dispersed Camping?
Both the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the National Forest Service, the two largest stewards of publicly accessible federal lands, manage “developed” campgrounds on these lands. I put that word in quotes because it is the official term for any sort of preparation whatsoever — sometimes a “developed campground” is little more than an official sign, and maybe a fire ring or two. In other developed sites, there might be extensive facilities to include restrooms, running water, picnic tables, ramadas, dump stations, and sometimes even power hookups. Most such facilities are considered “US Fee Areas” and require a nightly payment for use, often collected on site in a secure drop box colloquially known as an “iron ranger.”
It is a perhaps little-known fact, however, that both the BLM and the Forest Service permit camping on virtually all land under their respective management, usually without fee. Both agencies call this “Dispersed Camping” in their official parlance. As with all federal programs, there are exceptions, and there are rules. Let’s start with the rules, since knowing them will help explain the overall process and why some of the exceptions exist.
First off, let me say that both of these organizations are hierarchical, and the management of any given piece of land falls under not only the respective agency, but also potentially a regional office, a state office, a district office, and finally the office in charge of the given forest or BLM area. In some cases, rules are set by the local office in charge that differ from other units in the district, state, or region. I will try to give some general guidelines here that are in widespread use, but you should always check the specific rules for the forest or BLM area you intend to visit for any deviation, special rules, or restrictions that may be in force (more on this later).
Generally speaking, dispersed camping is permitted anywhere on BLM or Forest Service land unless otherwise posted, usually with the following rules:
- In most locations, you must choose a site at least ¼ mile from the nearest paved road.
- You must not choose a site closer than ¼ mile to any “developed facility” such as a campground. (There are some exceptions – BLM often permits overnight stays in picnic areas, for example, whereas the Forest Service does not.)
- If you are going to an area where others have camped before, pick a site that’s been used before. Plants, soil and wildlife are impacted by new campsites, so using existing ones will minimize your impact.
- Camp on bare soil if possible, to avoid damaging or killing plants and grass.
- Do not camp within 100 feet of any water source such as a lake, stream, river, or spring.
- Do not camp in the middle of a clearing or meadow — try to make your campsite less visible so that other visitors will see a “wild” setting.
- Don’t try to level or dig trenches in the ground at your campsite. For tents, pick a site that’s already level with good drainage.
- Campers, trailers, and other units must remain mobile (i.e. wheels must remain on all wheeled vehicles). Pickup campers may be set on jacks manufactured for that purpose.
- Motorized vehicles must remain on existing roads, trails, and washes. Roads or trails commonly in public use cannot be blocked by parked vehicles or by any other means.
- Park your vehicle safely off the road, but do not drive further than necessary from the road.
- Quiet hours are from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m local time.
- Operation of audio devices or motorized equipment, including generators, in a manner that makes unreasonable noise, as determined by the authorized ranger or officer, is prohibited.
- The National Park Service noise limit standard of 60dBA at 50′ is a good guideline to follow for daytime generator use.
- Archaeological or historical properties including, but not limited to, petroglyphs, ruins, historic buildings, and artifacts that may occur on public lands cannot be disturbed.
- “Pack it In — Pack it Out”: do not leave any trash behind.
- Restore the site to its condition before you occupied it.
- Dispersed camping in any given location is allowed for no more than a period of 14 days within any period of 28 consecutive days.
- The 28-day period begins when a camper initially occupies a specific location on public lands.
- The 14 day limit may be reached either through a number of separate visits or through 14 days of continuous overnight occupation during the 28 day period.
- After the 14th day of occupation, the camper must move outside of a 25 mile radius of the previous location until the 29th day since the initial occupation.
- Campers must not leave any personal property unattended for more than a specified period, usually from 72 hours to 10 days.
Note that sometimes the rules above are at odds with themselves. For example, the admonishment to stick to well-used sites when possible may conflict with the rule about being 100′ from a water source, as such sites often can be found adjacent to streams or lakes. Use your best judgment in such circumstances — we usually use the existing site, but are careful that our activities do not present any further contamination to the water source. The rule not to drive off the road conflicts with the rule not to park on or block the road — again, use judgment: don’t break new ground; instead, choose a spot where vehicles have been before, or where the impact will be minimal.
One subject that deserves more than a bullet point is campfires. While many RV travelers do not indulge in this particular camping ritual, there is something about being in the rustic conditions common to dispersed camping that cries out for it. If you wish to have a campfire, be aware of the following:
- Collection of “down and dead” wood is allowed on most Forest Service and BLM land for personal, immediate use (as opposed to stocking up for your wood stove at home, which requires a permit and a fee), unless otherwise posted.
- Do not cut down any live trees or branches.
- Gather wood over a wide area away from camp. Use dry drift wood on rivers and sea shores.
- Many areas restrict open fires seasonally or when weather or other conditions dictate. Check the fire restrictions for the area you are in before deciding to build a fire. Camp stoves are generally allowed when open fires are prohibited, but there are times when even these are restricted. Appliances inside of RV’s are generally exempt. Charcoal grills and even smoking cigarettes outdoors are not permitted when fire restrictions are in force.
- Some districts require a campfire permit for fires outside of developed campgrounds. For example, all units in California and Nevada share a joint permit system — permits are free and available from any ranger or forest fire station, good for one year.
- If you choose a site that has been used before and already has an established “fire ring,” use that for your fire to minimize the additional impact on the site.
- If there is no obvious fire ring, make one yourself as follows:
- Clear an area at least six feet in diameter of all combustible material such as brush, pine needles, cones, “duff”, dead wood, etc.
- In the center of the cleared area dig a pit about 12-18″ diameter and 6-8″ deep. Surround the pit with the soil removed from it.
- If rocks are available in the area and wind dictates that you will need their protection, gather rocks from a variety of locations (try not to pick them all up from one spot) and arrange them around the pit. Use the loose soil to fix them in place.
- Build your campfire in the center of the pit. Use only as much wood as will burn down completely by the time you are finished with the fire.
- Make sure your fire is “dead out” before retiring.
- If you built your own fire ring, you need to remove it before you leave the site:
- Remove any large pieces of wood not fully burned, and pack them out with your trash. (Burn all remaining wood to white ash before putting your fire “dead out.”)
- Carefully return the rocks you used (if any) for the fire ring to the approximate places you originally found them.
- Use the soil you originally removed from the pit to bury the remaining ash in the fire pit, smoothing the surface to match the surrounding environment.
- Replace as much of the material you moved to clear the circle, such as pine needles, to restore the original appearance of the area.
You will note that you will need a shovel for some of these steps. It is generally required that you have a shovel on your site if you will have an open campfire. We use a small spade type that is only about 3′ long, with a D-handle. This is perfect for campfire use (and we’ve also used it to dig Odyssey out of the sand), yet stores easily in the bus. Stay away from the folding “camper” or “army” style shovels or “entrenching tools” — they’re OK for backpackers, but you’ll be more comfortable with a fixed model (trust me).
As with anything run by the government, it’s not all that simple. There are some important exceptions you should be aware of:
- Wilderness areas. Some parts of National Forest and BLM land are designated wilderness areas. While dispersed camping is generally allowed, travel by any sort of motorized vehicle is not. There are, therefore, no roads in wilderness areas. You’ll need to go in on foot or horseback, and camp under the stars or in a tent.
- Fee demonstration areas. There are several entire National Forests as well as some BLM lands that require a use fee for any recreational use at all, including dispersed camping. Generally, you can travel through these areas on the roads (paved or unpaved) for free, but stopping for any reason (e.g. hiking, camping, birdwatching) requires payment. These areas are often close to heavily populated areas — examples include the Los Padres and Angeles National Forests near Los Angeles. Day passes can be purchased at a variety of locations, including ranger stations, or an annual “Adventure Pass” can be purchased for a specific forest or area. The good news here is that holders of the “Interagency Annual Pass” (what used to be the “National Parks Pass” with “Golden Eagle” endorsement, or “Golden Eagle pass”) are already covered — display your card, expiration date side out, on the dashboard, or the ranger station will give you a plastic holder to hang it from your mirror.
- Seasonal closures. Many roads on federal lands are not cleared in the winter, or may have impassable washes in the spring. For that reason, roads are closed, usually with a locked iron gate, during these times. Check with the forest or BLM office for seasonal closure information.
- Environmental closures. Some areas that are otherwise normally open to vehicle travel and dispersed camping may be restricted due to soil erosion, floodwater damage, nesting or habitat destruction of protected species, etc.. It always pays to check the web site or call the ranger or superintendent’s office beforehand to find out if any areas are off-limits. Signs to this effect are sometimes posted on travel routes, but you can’t always count on them.
- Note that not all closed gates are locked or represent closures — sometimes, they are just there to keep the cattle inside (many federal lands have grazing leases). Open the gate, drive through, and close it behind you.
- The BLM operates several “Long Term Visitor Areas” (LTVAs) in the southwest. These areas require a fee and have a raft of rules of their own. There’s a nice write-up on LTVA’s and other BLM lands here, from www.rv-camping.org (note the official links to the BLM pages there — follow those for specific regulations).
So, great, you say — how do we find this stuff? I’m glad you asked. We use a wide variety of resources to ferret out good dispersed camping opportunities.
- There’s a app for that… our good friends over at Technomadia produce the US Public Lands app for iPhone and Android; read about it here.
- AAA maps, as well as DeLorme’s Street Atlas and Topo software, show the rough major outlines of most National Forests. None of these is accurate or detailed enough for you to know whether any particular spot is inside the forest boundary or not, but at least they will tell you a forest is close by your route, and give you the name so you can look it up elsewhere.
- BLM land is a bit tougher, as it is so ubiquitous that it is not shown on road maps. Most BLM land is in the west; this interactive map is a good starting point, but not detailed enough to be useful for specific sites.
- The Forest Service publishes detailed maps for every area under their management. You can purchase a map for a specific forest for a few dollars from any ranger station in that forest, from the forest’s headquarters, or from the superintendent’s office. Or you can follow links on this page to order maps. We knew before we started our full-timing journey that we would spend lots of time in the forests, so Louise painstakingly ordered the visitor map for every forest in the continental states ahead of time — hundreds of dollars worth that completely fill up a regular-sized file drawer. Now when we find ourselves crossing into Forest Service land, we just pull out the relevant map, and don’t need to worry about trying to find an open ranger station to know where the roads are in the forest, or which ones are paved and which ones dirt, or where the seasonal gates are.
- BLM lands (and sometimes state-owned public-use lands, where applicable) are often shown on the above-mentioned National Forest maps. These are usually only small patches of BLM land shown incidental to the primary purpose of showing the forest lands, but we’ve often made use of these areas.
- Some DeLorme state Gazetteers, such as Arizona, show BLM land in detail, while other state Gazetteers, such as Texas, do not. This is kind of hit-and-miss, and I don’t have a list for you of which do and which don’t. Generally, when we enter a state and find a store selling the Gazetteer, we’ll look to see if any BLM lands are shown. If not, we usually don’t buy that Gazetteer, as this is the main purpose for which we use them.
- The Forest Service has a web page for every forest (and “grassland,” what the Forest Service calls lands it manages that contain grasses rather than trees), and you can reach any page through the “Find a Forest” link. While detailed maps are not generally available electronically, they often have other maps (such as seasonal route closures, restricted areas, etc.) on-line. This is also where you can find out about campgrounds and other developed recreation areas in the forest, as well as closures and restrictions I talked about in “Exceptions” above. Often the dispersed camping rules for a specific forest will be found somewhere in the links on the forest’s page.
- To access on-line BLM resources, go to their home page and click the state you are interested in on the map. In addition to other useful information, a state “district” map will load, and you can click on a district to get contact information for that field office.
- Sometimes just Googling the name of the forest or recreation area you are interested in will turn up a wealth of information — but be careful, some of it may be out of date or just plain wrong, so double-check anything you find on a non-official site.
- Lastly, if you are a member of the Escapees (well worth it, I might add), their members-only “Days End” directory often lists good boondocking spots on BLM and Forest Service land that have been used by other Escapees in the past.
That concludes Our Odyssey’s “dispersed camping primer.” I’ve tried to be as complete and correct as possible, but please post a comment if I’ve made a mistake or omitted something important. I hope you’ve found some of this information useful; better still, I hope some readers will give dispersed camping on America’s public lands a try.