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Words of Wisdom: “The most important thing is to be careful, esp when you’re alone… If you can’t recognize danger when you see it, this is not the life for you.” – TrainChaser1)

boondocking / dispersed camping / free camping

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.

Dry camping might also refer to no-hookup camping outside the wilderness. ie, Wallydocking at walmart, or camping without utilities in a paid campsite.

practical issues

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.

Since there are no trash receptacles, you will need to manage your trash. There are typically no toilets.

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)

where to boondock

The most common place to boondock is on US Federal lands, which is surprisingly massive:


Not all land is available for boondocking but this gives an idea of where boondocking on federal land is easier or harder to find.

National Forests


It is common for national forest (NF) 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)

National Grasslands

National Grasslands (NG) are managed by the USFS and have similar rules and use.

As you can see in the map they are generally in the Western part of the U.S.

Bureau of Land Management areas

Boondocking at any given location is generally limited to 14 days on BLM land. 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 and Lake Havasu 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.

US Bureau of Reclamation

The USBR maintains some paid campgrounds. [note: secessus is currently researching the possibility of dispersed camping, but it doesn;t look promising.]

Their main site says:

There are some Reclamation project areas that do not have developed recreation facilities for public use; however, dispersed recreational opportunities such as hiking, photography, wildlife viewing, and fishing may be available in such areas.

National Parks

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.

Various passes are available for NPs. It may be worth skipping NPs on free admission days when they get deluged by casuals.

state trust lands

State trust lands have their own page, as they are often non free (low-cost permit required).

state forests

* Oregon Dept. of Forestry: “Dispersed camping is allowed in Oregon State Forests year round. There are no fee or permit requirements. Campers are required to adhere to ODF regulations regarding placement of campsites, campfires, sanitation, and stay limits. Campfires and charcoal barbeques are not allowed in dispersed campsites during the Regulated Use portion of fire season. There are no maps for dispersed campsites.​​”

wildlife refuges

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 for dispersed camping

Rules vary by specific area but these are common:

  • dispersed camping not allowed near (within miles) of any recreational improvement like “campgrounds, picnic areas, or trailheads.”8)
  • talk to local rangers / hosts to see if any special conditions exist
  • camping must be self-contained
  • practice leave no trace camping
  • camp no further than n-hundred feet from a road/trail allowing public motor vehicle use
  • camp (and use cat hole toilets) no closer than n-hundred feet from any water source
  • camp at the location no more than n days, after which move a minimum number of miles and not return to the site for a length of time. See below.
  • camp in previously-used spots to minimize additional damage
  • adhere to restrictions on fires and firewood

proving the length of your stay

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:

  • receipts from the last town you were at9)
  • email to district office when you arrive, including GPS coords and pic of your rig.
camping/dispersed.1621971642.txt.gz · Last modified: 2021/05/25 15:40 by frater_secessus