What is decentralized camping?Balancing the self-sufficiency of backpacking with the convenience of car camping, dispersed camping is a great way to treat yourself to some peace and quiet and avoid paying for crowded campsites. Primitive camping puts you right in the middle of comfort, forgoing the services found at designated campgrounds like pit toilets and bear boxes. Just remember, there are no campground stores, dumpsters or cleanup crews, and you'll need to pack up everything you need.
Primitive camping sites vary, but can be found on our public lands, including Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands, national forests and national parks, and public lands at the state and municipal level. Here are just a few examples of where you might find dispersed camping.
- In the hardwood forests of the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire
- In a city park in Lander, Wyoming
- If you're not picky about the scenery, the Walmart parking lot can serve as a prime campsite for travelers who need to catch up on sleep during their trip
Bureau of Land Management Camping
The BLM maintains 247 million acres of public lands, primarily in the western United States - which means the BLM manages one of eight acres of U.S. soil. While there are a large number of established BLM campgrounds, almost all other BLM lands are open to dispersed camping if it does not conflict with other uses or adversely affect wildlife or natural resources.
Most BLM primitive sites are found along secondary roads. Although they are likely unmarked, they are recognizable as telltale flat, disturbed areas or remnants of a fire pit. While you do not have to stick to previously used sites, if possible, minimize your impact on the land. Because the intent of BLM lands is recreational, not residential, you are only allowed to camp on BLM lands for up to 14 days in a 28-day period. Start planning your camping trip on BLM lands by exploring the maps on their website.
National Forest Decentralized Camp
The Forest Service manages 193 million acres spread over 154 national forests and 20 national grasslands in 44 U.S. states and Puerto Rico. Maintaining these areas to meet the needs of current and future generations is a major mission of the department, and recreation is a special concern. Primitive camping is available almost anywhere on Forest Service lands unless otherwise specified, making it one of the most reliable places to find dispersed camping. Forest Service campgrounds can be easily found and researched using the interactive map on the Forest Service website.
And just because there may be no charge for sleeping in a national forest or grassland doesn't mean there aren't rules. In general, visitors should camp 100 to 200 feet from any road, trail or water source. Practice Leave No Trace principles, follow fire prevention rules, use firearms as prescribed, and follow any posted pet rules. Check out this comprehensive list of national forest camping rules.
National Park Dispersed Camping
National parks are typically busier, more regulated, and more expensive than other public lands. One reason for this is that national parks are regulated by the Department of the Interior, while national forests are regulated by the Department of Agriculture. This leads to different management practices, including stricter camping regulations.
To do primitive camping in a national park, you'll likely need to hike into your site and get a permit. Fortunately, many national parks, especially those in the west, are located near BLM lands and national forests, both of which are more welcoming to dispersed camping.
Other Places to Find Primitive Camping
Camping on public lands is usually the most reliable option. In addition to national forests and BLM lands, there are state parks, city parks and wilderness management areas that provide excellent opportunities for dispersed camping. Before you arrive, check the map and study the specific rules.
Sometimes primitive camping on public lands is not feasible, or you just need to camp with your head down for a few hours. While far from rustic campgrounds, businesses like Walmart, Cracker Barrel and Bass Pro Shops are generally friendly to RVs and van lifers who want to grab a quickie in the corner of a parking lot. Just don't plan on camping - you'll need to sleep in your car. Most of these businesses don't have a formal policy regarding overnight stays, so it's wise to talk to a manager and hope they'll be sympathetic to your plight.
From dispersed camping in the picturesque mountains of Colorado to crashing at Cracker Barrel, primitive camping is a blessing for travelers on a budget and those who just want to beat the crowds and discover a simpler outdoor experience.
Tim Peck is a New Hampshire-based freelance writer. When it comes to camping, Tim is torn between his desire for a maintained campsite with a mountain view and the free-ninety-nine price tag of primitive camping.