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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.
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. The most common rule for dispersed camping in an area is a 14 day stay, then relocate ≥25 miles away, and do not return for at least 28 days.
Use existing sites only; do not crush vegetion or other features to make a new site. A defined “two-track” path and a fire ring are good clues about where to camp.
Try to find a site appropriate for your camper. If there is a small site and a huge site leave the huge site open for a fellow camper with a big RV who might need the bigger space.
Assume there will be no water, trash, or toilet services. There may be no shade, or so much shade no solar harvest is possible. If you do find a free site with a pit toilet or trash cans use them appropriately and with consideration for others.
Open fires and firewood collection may be banned in some places/times. Have a camping stove for cooking in case you can't make a fire. 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 (recreational weekend campers):
“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)
To avoid competition from weekenders try to arrive at new sites mid-week. Arrive early enough in the day that you can see where you are driving and setting up camp.
If you need to run to town for reprovisioning or work, it is common to “save” your campsite by erecting a small tent or similar in the spot. Theft is rarely an issue but valuables should probably be left in your vehicle. Be sure to mark your campsite on the nav so you know how to get back to it!
Elevation can be an important part of the decision where to camp, as it affects ambient temperature. If the listing you are using does not show elevation you can find approximate elevation on a site like this.
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.
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 (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.
In this pic the lighter tan areas are BLM-managed land:
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.
National monuments are areas of federal land set aside by the Congress or most often by the president, under authority of the American Antiquities Act of June 8, 1906, to protect or enhance prominent or important features of the national landscape.6)
They are managed by BLM, USFS, NPS, Fish & Wildlife, etc.
Check the monument's website for dispersed camping opportunities.
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.
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).
* 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.”
Reguges managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service may allow dispersed camping7). 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.8)
Rules vary by specific area but these are common:
In some heavily-used BLM areas10) a free permit is mandatory; it will show the date range you are allowed to stay. To get the permit check in with the civilian “camp host”, usually positioned near a main entrance and flying a flag. If the flag is up you can come up and sign in; if they flag is down they are “off duty”.
In most areas the length of stay is on the honor system, perhaps 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. It is also common for rangers just to chat or share local regs and information so don't be anxious if they stop to talk to you.
It's not normally required or requested, but in areas with a great deal of lawless camping (or aggressive enforcement) you may want to have some supporting evidence for the duration of your stay: