Boondocking or is the informal term campers use to mean free camping areas without utility hookups. Australian campers sometimes say “free camping”. Dispersed camping is a formal term that refers specifically to primitive camping in National Forests but similar access is available in other areas.
“Dispersed camping is the term used for camping anywhere in the National Forest OUTSIDE of a designated campground. Dispersed camping means no services; such as trash removal, and little or no facilities; such as tables and fire pits, are provided.”2)
When talking to a park ranger or other officials say “dispersed camping” for best results. Camping without hookups in cities or other developed areas is called stealth camping.
While dispersed camping usually allows multiple night stays, it is not for squatting or building structures. You are expected to do your recreation then move on.
Since there is no water available, you will need to plan ahead.
When camping in areas that forbid firewood collection, park well away from fire rings. Nails may be present from the burning of wood pallets.
At some times the areas may be overrun by weekenders:
“During tourist season (Memorial Day to Labor Day), getting off paved roads usually gets me away from crowds. The exception to this is hunting and fishing openers. You might want to plan for some in city camping during these weekends.
” – Spaceman Spiff3)
It is common for national forest (NF) and national grassland (NG) boondocking to be limited to 14-16 days in one spot, after which one must move at least 5 miles away. Some areas have no stated length of time for return; others say days, one month, or one year. Some NFs like the Tonto National Forest require passes. The most important piece of information for boondockers is the MVUM (motor vehicle use map). These maps, available on paper at visitors centers or online, tell you where you can and cannot take your vehicle. A double row of dots indicates where dispersed camping is allowed. The dispersed camping symbols can be in an area or on either side of a roadway as shown here. Note: in some areas only stoves with on/off valves are allowed:
The use of commercially available portable lanterns, stoves, or heating equipment that utilize gas or pressurized liquid fuel is allowed. The stove must have an ON/OFF switch. No alcohol stoves. No hexamine or solid fuel cubes.4)
Boondocking at any given location is generally limited to 14 days on BLM lane. Because the land is more extensive it is common to require a move 25 miles away after the 14 days has elapsed. Note that some heavily used areas like Quartzsite require (free) permits to camp on the BLM land – if there is a camp host check in with them.5)
An exception to the limit on stays are the Long Term Visitors Areas (LTVA) in California and Arizona.
Animal grazing is common on BLM lands and fences may be put up. Unless posted otherwise you may open go through gates; remember to close them again after you pass. The general rule is to leave gates how you found them; leave open if they were open and close them after passing if they were closed.
Camping in National Parks (NP) is usually restricted to defined (and sometimes $$$) campgrounds. For this reason they are more common with tourists than boondockers. Some NPs have boondockable land quite near the park, so boondockers can camp for free then enter to see the park.
State trust lands have their own page, as they are often non free (low-cost permit required).
Reguges managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service may allow dispersed camping6). Some are day-use only or are accessible by foot only. There are often additional rules in place to protect wildlife. This example is from Kofa:
Campers may select their own campsites and are limited to camping 14 days in any 12 month period. Camping within one quarter of a mile of water is prohibited by Arizona state law. All vehicles must remain within 100 feet off of the road. Campfires are allowed but only dead, down, and detached wood may be used. Uprooting dead stumps, trees, and bushes is forbidden. In addition, dead wood may only be collected from areas on the refuge that are not designated as wilderness. Please consider bringing your own supply of wood as wood is very scarce.7)
Rules vary by specific area but these are common:
In some BLM areas (like those around Quartzsite) a free permit is required; it will show the date range you are allowed to stay. In other areas the length of stay may be on the honor system, spot-checked by rangers. Sometimes rangers drive by, noting vehicles or photographing plates. If they see the same vehicle after the allowed number of days they know that camper is violating the rules. If the ranger makes only one drive by he might ask questions about how long you've been there and when you intend to leave. You may want to have some supporting evidence for the duration of your stay: