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Dispersed Camping 101 - An Overlander's Guide to Camping in the Backcountry

Updated: May 10

Whether you’re planning your very first camping trip into the bush, or perhaps you’re a seasoned camper from the East Coast who isn’t familiar with finding dispersed campsites out West, this is the guide you’ve been seeking!  The western United States is blessed with an abundance of public lands through agencies like the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), National Forest, National Park System and various other state and local land managers.  This guide will provide a soup to nuts overview of how to successfully plan and execute your first dispersed camping trip into the backcountry. 


Looking for your next epic campsite? Dispersed camping is the way to go! Photo courtesy of AdventureTaco
Researching Where to Go: Tools of the Trade

Before you begin researching your next trip, it’s a good idea to make a list of helpful tools/apps at your disposal for research and planning.  Here’s a shortlist of tools and how you can leverage them to find the information you’re seeking.  


Google

Yes, Google.  Use it!!  Most of the information you’re seeking can be found with a quick query such as “dispersed camping in and around Sedona”.  But rather than stopping your research after reviewing a single query, you’re going to want to dig a bit deeper to ensure your camping trip will go off without a hitch.  You may also use tools like Google Gemini (Bard) or ChatGPT, but always double check any recommendations they make! We’ve noticed the information provided isn’t always correct, especially when it comes to dispersed camping recommendations.


Facebook Groups & Online Forums/Communities

There are hundreds of off roading, overlanding, and camping focused groups on Facebook, and chances are there’s one in your state or region.  Same goes for online communities like Expedition Portal, ADVrider and others.  The vast knowledge that is held within these communities is incredible.  But before you go posting something like, “I’m looking for a nice river with a swimming hole in the mountains with nobody around to camp,” do some quick research first.  Try to provide a sense of where you’re looking to camp, maybe ask some more specific questions about a general area that you’re interested in, when the best season is to visit, and so on.   


Gaia GPS, OnX Off Road, Google Maps

All three of these mapping tools are fantastic for doing research in a given area.  Tools like Gaia GPS and OnX Off Road typically show who a land manager is at a specific location, show dirt roads and trails, known gate locations, and sometimes they even show dispersed campsites (but most times they don’t).  Google is fantastic to look at the terrain in satellite view and gives you a sense of what the scenery looks like.  Are you in a forest, or is your planned campsite in an open meadow with a view.  Google often contains photos and reviews for developed campgrounds, and while this may not fit the bill of dispersed camping, there are a number of National Forest and BLM campsites out west that feel like dispersed camping if nobody else is staying at the campground.  Both Gaia and OnX are fantastic tools for offline navigation (don’t expect to have internet access as you head into the bush) and can help guide you to your site. 


iOverlander App

We’ve had mixed results with the iOverlander app and generally prefer to use it when seeking a quick place to camp when burning pavement along the highway or interstate.  For dispersed camping deep in the forest, mountains or desert, take iOverlander’s data with a grain of salt.  While sometimes the app turns up an incredible site, oftentimes the sites have been trashed due to overuse and people who think Leave No Trace principles don’t apply to them. 


Overland Trail Guides Curated Overland Routes

Overland Trail Guides features over 90 curated overland routes across North America.  Every route guide comes with a detailed section dedicated to camping along with recommended locations and if dispersed camping is permitted.  The GPX files typically contain dozens of locations for dispersed camping as well.  

Get to Know the Land Managers Identifying who the local land manager(s) is a crucial piece of your planning and prep.  The two biggest land managers that typically (not always!) allow dispersed camping on their managed lands are BLM (Bureau of Land Management) and the National Forest system.  Still, this isn’t always the case and it’s important that you verify if dispersed camping is permitted where you’d like to camp.  To a lesser extent agencies like the National Park Service, State Parks and State Forests, and US Fish and Wildlife may also permit dispersed camping at select parks, districts and regions.  Just because dispersed camping is allowed in Death Valley National Park (with specific regulations), doesn’t mean it’s permitted in other national parks like Yosemite (where it’s definitely not permitted).  These land managers often have a dedicated webpage for camping guidelines and regulations, like Death Valley NP’s dedicated webpage for backcountry camping.  Even when camping may be permitted by a particular land manager, there may be guidelines as to where it is/is not permitted. For example, this webpage from Coconino National Forest that manages much of the land in and around Sedona has clear guidelines where dispersed camping is permitted, and where it’s not (most of the Red Rock ranger district, which happens to be the area closest to town).  And if you have questions about the information posted (or lack thereof), you can always pick up the phone and give the park a call.  


How to Find Dispersed Campsites

We’ve covered the tools at your disposal for research and planning, and discussed the importance of identifying the land manager and reviewing their camping regulations.  Now it’s time to put it all together and create a repeatable process that you can use for planning all of your future overlanding and camping trips.  Step 1 - Figure Out Where you Want to Go So you want to go somewhere, but where?  Don’t say something like Oregon– you’re going to need to narrow it down a bit!  Once you have a general idea of where you’d like to go, do some quick Googling to get a general feel about the area.  If your search happens to uncover any promising locations, save them in your desired mapping tool like Google My Maps (different from Google Maps), Gaia GPS or OnX Off Road. Step 2 - Identify the Land Managers Okay, so you’ve identified the general area you’d like to visit.  But is it accessible to the public?  Can you drive your vehicle there?  Is dispersed camping permitted?  You can typically find some of this information on the land manager’s website, but for questions such as accessibility, we recommend picking up the phone and giving them a ring.  And if you tell them what you’re seeking, they’ll often have recommendations of places to visit and camp.  Be sure to inquire about current conditions and any seasonal or temporary closures.  Step 3 - Tap into Online Communities Now that you’ve done some research, you can tap into local knowledge.  First, we always recommend using search to see what information may already be available.  Who knows, you may even find some more ideas of where to camp from your queries.  Next, seek out specific information.  Share a general idea of where you’re planning to camp, and any questions you might have.  You may find the road/trail you plan to take to camp is washed out or requires a heavily modified vehicle to traverse.  If you show you’ve done some research in advance, people will be much more inclined to help you out.  


Step 4 - Mapping Out Your Adventure

Now that you’ve identified the area you’d like to camp and confirmed that dispersed camping is permitted, it’s time to start identifying potential campsites and your route to these campsites.  And yes, we said campsites.  We recommend having at least a couple of backups in case your first location is taken by a fellow camper.    Use your desired mapping tool to begin saving locations of potential campsites and begin building a route to these locations.  You may need to revisit steps 2 and 3 to confirm your desired route is open to the public and suitable for your vehicle.  



Tips to Help you with Your planning

  • Identify who the local land manager is the local camping regulations and guidelines. 

  • Confirm the area is accessible (are the roads open and suitable for your vehicle, are there seasonal closures). 

  • Do some quick googling to see if other people have camped in the area– forums, blogs, etc. 

  • Identify who the land manager(s) is and research their website or any other online resources.

  • Are the roads open to where you want to go?  Check with the land manager or online communities. 

  • What’s your plan b and c if you can’t reach your desired area?

  • Always tell someone where you plan to go and when you plan to return home.  



Dispersed Camping Etiquette

There is a lot of unwritten etiquette to consider when it comes to camping, particularly dispersed camping. Below you'll find a short list of things to keep in mind. And with experience, many of these guidelines will become second nature.


  • If there is a tent, chair, or other camping gear is left at a campsite, it means the site is taken! 

  • People often choose dispersed camping to get away from other people.  If you’re not in a congested area, be sure to give your neighbors plenty of room whenever possible (100+ yards).

  • Never drive into someone’s camp.  If you need to communicate, park your vehicle 40 yards away, get out and approach in a friendly and non-threatening manner.  Never shine your headlights into someone’s camp!

  • When driving on dirt roads and passing another camp, keep your speed at <5mph. This helps to keep dust down and is also a safety precaution in case any dogs or children are running around.

  • Leave No Trace (always pack everything out).

  • Fully extinguish your fire before leaving camp.

Seeing it in Action

Now let’s apply this to a hypothetical scenario.  I’m interested in finding what sort of options exist in the coastal mountain ranges of northern California.  Step 1 – Let’s Ask Google Gemini (Bard)


I asked Gemini the following question:


Gemini’s Response Gemini recommended that I look into Redwood National and State Parks, Six Rivers National Forest, Mendocino National Forest, Muir Woods National Monument, and Point Reyes National Seashore.  Now we have a short list of parks to look into, but if you use Gemini or chatGPT be careful!  For example, I sent a few additiona queries to Bard, and it told me that dispersed camping is permitted along Redwood Creek in Redwood National park, which definitely isn’t true!  Step 2 – Identify the Land Manager(s)I’ve got 5 different parks to look into, and after some quick Googling and checking out photos, they all look very interesting!  But checking the park websites, I also discovered that dispersed camping is not permitted at Redwood National and State Parks, Muir Woods, or Point Reyes National Seashore!  Okay, looks like we’ve narrowed our search down to Mendocino and Six Rivers National Forests!  


Step 3 - Check Local FB Groups and Online CommunitiesTurns out there’s a Northern California Overland Facebook Group– perfect!  I did a quick search of the terms Mendocino and Six Rivers and a number of posts came up, including this amazing one about a trip to the Smith River National Recreation area within Six Rivers National Forest.


I found this post among several others on a local FB group.

I was absolutely blown away by some of the photos, and it seemed to check the boxes of what I was looking for: rugged mountains blanketed with pine forests, crystal clear rivers,


and dirt roads!  I did some additional Googling of the Smith River National Recreation Area and discovered there are numerous developed campgrounds, and tons of dirt roads that go through the area.  And in fact, Smith River NRA has the following Map & Guide, which even includes a number of scenic drives, many of which appear to be on dirt roads.

Next I created a new Google My Maps and started scouring the landscape in satellite mode.  I found a number of potential campsites next to dirt roads, including this one that appears to have a fantastic view of the Pacific Ocean. And if we reference the Scenic Drives data contained with the Smith River NRA and Map Guide, we even see that it references Low Divide Road on the North Fork scenic drive and that you can see the Ocean in the distance! 


You can't tell from the photo, but the Pacific Ocean is about 3 miles west of this mountaintop campsite!


It also looks like the North Fork scenic drive ends at the river.  Some quick Googling revealed another potential campsite, right next to the river!


This site along the river looks absolutely incredible! But I was warned it can get busy on weekends.

I ended up DMing the person who had created the post about the Smith River NRA and asked about some of the potential campsites I was eying.  And in fact, he was familiar with both my ocean view and north fork campsites, and said both were great sites, but that the North Fork could get busy on weekends, especially during the summer.  He also let me know that a stock 4x4 could easily make it to both sites no problem.    Awesome! 


Step 4 – Mapping it Out! 

Well, it seems like I’d stumbled across some really awesome campsites.  My contact from the Northern California Overland FB Group also indicated these roads were open to vehicles.  I called Smith River NRA just to double check, and they said that some roads close during the wet season, but since I wanted to visit in summer, all of the roads should be open and accessible.  They even recommended a lesser known dispersed camping area right along the banks of the Smith River. 


With all this newfound knowledge in-hand, I created a new map in Google My Maps for my first overlanding and dispersed camping adventure!


The map I created in Google My Maps. Who's ready for an action packed weekend of overlanding and camping?


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