My family and I spent four solid years living in an RV full-time. You can actually read archived content from our time at FreedomInTow.com. I have to admit, we got pretty attached to our creature comforts. My wife even vowed to never tent camp again. We event went as far as selling nearly all our camping gear because we thought there was NO WAY we would ever be sleeping on the ground again.
Boy, did we eat our words. This past year, we sold the RV and moved into a tiny house in the country – and now, just like that, we are back to tent camping.
It’s been five years since we crammed our car full of camping accoutrement, but we decided to go for it. The experience was unlike any camping experience we had ever had before. It was dispersed camping to be exact, and we are hooked.
Rather than being parked in a campground full of people, we were all alone! It was secluded, and quiet. We didn’t even have to worry about our kids annoying neighbors or campgrounds hosts. It was amazing.
I would venture to say, we will never stay in another public campground, unless it’s absolutely necessary. And the best part of dispersed camping is it’s FREE. We kept looking around and wondering why everyone in the world wasn’t doing this.
Getting Started with Dispersed Camping
You may be wondering. How do I actually get into off-grid camping?
It’s honestly not that difficult at all. And if you have already been camping for some time, you likely already have all the gear you need. The main concern you will have is access to a bathroom (hello nature), and water.
First: Pick your off-grid campsite prior to leaving. I will cover this more later in the post, but the best way to find a spot is to get a Motor Vehicle Users Map of the area you want to visit.
Second: Bring your own water. We used a five gallon Igloo water jug and a five gallon portable water jug and re-filled these every other day at the closest National Forest Campground. If you have access to a stream and a portable water filter, even better.
Third: Take the necessary tools such as a portable composting toilet, shovel, trash bags, etc. in order to practice Leave no Trace Practices (I’ll cover this more later).
Fourth: Bring your family, friends, and the usual gear you bring when camping in a Sate Park.
How to Find Campsites
There are tons of free and paid apps out there that will help you discover amazing dispersed camping sites. You can also call the Ranger Station of the National Forest you are visiting and request what is called a Motor Vehicle Users Map. It will outline all the jeep roads and secluded locations that you are allowed to camp along.
Most of these roads will require a high clearance vehicle. But many are still maintained well enough so that a small SUV or car with some extra clearance can easily make it. We have been accessing sites in our Hyundai Santa Fe Sport, which isn’t exactly a large SUV.
Some Good Apps To Look Into
- Campendium – RV Focused, but often has listings that are great for tent and van camping as well. This app has a pretty established database of camping options. It’s’ one of my go-to resources.
- National Forest Explorer – Some National Forests have their own app you can download. It’s not very user friendly, but does provide you access to the Ranger’s stations so you can contact them with questions about your stay in the area. You can even access Motor Vehicle User Maps (if you can find them).
- Outly – I just discovered this app while researching for this article, and I’m so glad I found it. It’s a free app that allows you to view every type of map for a given area. Allowing you to easily discover hiking trails, off road trails, and dispersed camping sites. It even has cool features like cell phone coverage and water sources.
So far I have yet to find an app with comprehensive data. I usually have to use multiple apps and websites to get all the information I need. But when in doubt, you can always call the Ranger station or BLM Office of the area you are going to visit. They will be able to answer any questions you have about an area, and might even have some great suggestions of where to camp.
Top Reasons to Get Into Dispersed Camping
- It’s a great way to social distance during the COVID19 pandemic. Unlike many established campgrounds, dispersed camping gives you plenty of room between neighbors. Socially distanced campsites provide more solitude.
- It’s FREE. Most dispersed camping is free. There are some semi-established campgrounds with water and pit toilets. But if you are going down National Forest roads, chances are you will camp for free.
- Faster access to trails. Rather than being in an established campsite closer to town, dispersed camping puts you back in the mountains or forest, closer to trailheads. During our first dispersed camping experience there were two trail heads within walking distance of our site. You can’t beat that kind of access.
- It’s simply an enjoyable experience. Being WAY out in nature beats busy established campsites. It’s quieter, more peaceful, and just amazing. If you have not been yet, you should definitely get started.
The Cons of Dispersed Camping
Honestly there are not that many. But here are a few things you should consider before heading down a forest service road to camp.
- There is no trash service. You need to be prepared to pack it out, which might mean some trips into town to dispose of the trash if you don’t have enough room in your vehicle or trailer to store it. Wildlife is another concern, so be sure to store your trash at night.
- Unless you find a spot by a stream, you might have difficulty finding water. Try to camp close to an established campground or trail head with a water source do you can refill your water. Planning your water might be the most challenging part of dispersed camping.
- Where to poop. Come prepared to bring a homemade composting toilet. Which is pretty much just a paint bucket with a pool noodle pushed onto the top rim for comfort. Bring a lid for the bucket too so it doesn’t attract flies when you are away. You can also simply dig a hole! Check out this video on how to poop in the woods.
Practice Leave No Trace
When dispersed camping its super important to practice Leave No Trace practices. If you aren’t familiar with this, it would be good to familiarize yourself with these practices before venturing into the woods.
Leave no trace practices help ensure trails and natural areas remain undamaged, water sources remain unpolluted, that wildlife is not negatively impacted, and it also helps prevent wildfires and ensures that the next person gets to enjoy nature in the pristine way that you found it.
A general rule of thumb is to leave your campsite better than you found it. Aside from an established fire ring, it should appear that nobody was ever there. Essentially leave no trace ensures that lands stay vibrant and healthy for all to enjoy.
Taking the Leap Into Dispersed Camping
There is no better time than the present to get started. Really it’s not much different than camping in your local State Park, aside from not having access to running water or vault toilets.
If you still feel a bit uneasy about it. Take your first trip with friends to ease the burden, or find a campsite as close to a town as possible.
The biggest learning curve is figuring out how to have the water you need, and pooping in the woods. But the later isn’t much of an issue for anybody that has spent a few nights in the backcountry.
Your first trip probably won’t be perfect You will likely realize there are some other gadgets that you would have found useful. But just make a list and remember to pick up those items before your next trip.