Somewhere in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado…
You turn off the paved street onto a dirt road barely wider than a hiking trail. A billowing cloud of dust rises behind you as your car bounces over ruts and protruding rocks. You swerve left and right to dodge the deep potholes, but you must be careful- there are no guardrails here. As you weave higher and higher up the winding switchbacks, the drop becomes ever more precipitous, and the cost of a slip inches ever closer to complete catastrophe.
After an hour of slow, bumpy, methodical ascent, you finally come to a small clearing. You glance at your phone. The 4G signal disappeared long ago, but the GPS confirms this is the spot you’ve been looking for- or close enough, anyway. There is a crude firepit made of stacked stones and space enough for a car and a tent. You pull off the road, stretch, and set up your tent to stake your claim. You turn, and your breath catches as your brain finally registers the magnificent natural splendor surrounding you.
Rolling mountains covered in endless emerald green forest, their peaks capped in snow, stretch out as far as you can see across the valley. A trail leads up a hill behind your camp, beckoning you to hike it towards wonders unknown. A breeze whispers through the trees, and as it graces your cheek you feel the stress of years fade away. There is no sign of human settlement within eye or earshot.
A thin lizard with a long blue tail scampers over your boot. An acorn tumbles down a nearby tree, knocked free by a pair of chittering grey squirrels chasing each other from branch to branch. Atop the tree a beautiful yellow bird with a vivid red hood chirps out a song unlike any you’ve heard before. A thumbnail-sized beetle lands on your arm, its freckled shell shimmering green and blue like a tropical sunlit sea.
Meet your new neighbors.
There is no cell connection here. No store down the road stocked with essentials you may have forgotten. No streetlights. No camp host selling pre-cut bundles of firewood for six bucks a cord. No running water. No bathrooms or facilities of any sort, and no other people for miles.
It’s just you, your gear, and a vast mountain wilderness (with all its joys and terrors) all to yourself.
Madness, you say? No.
Camping for Free in the Wilds of America
This style of wilderness camping is known as dispersed camping (or boondocking if you’re rocking an RV). Staying at traditional campgrounds can be great fun, but many state and National Park campgrounds can get pricey- anywhere from $25 to $75 a night just to pitch a tent, to say nothing of noisy neighbors and overcrowding during the busy season. If you really want to get into the heart of the Wild for a week or two without breaking the bank, then dispersed camping is where it’s at. Thanks to the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, America is replete with incredible and wild places to camp- and it’s completely free. If you can get there and have the gear and the moxie to rough it, you’re in for a camping experience like no other.
In this series of articles I’ll go over all you need to know to have a wilderness camping adventure of your own: how to find good places to camp in the National Forests, essential gear specific to wilderness camping, and tips to set up a comfortable camp for weeks at a time far from the conveniences of the city. This article will focus on finding a spot; subscribe to my newsletter at the bottom of the page to be notified when the next article is up!
Before We Start…
As you prepare for your trip into the woods, remember that YOU are the steward of these wild places. Some unscrupulous folk take advantage of these remote slices of heaven and leave behind trash, plastic bottles, and improperly buried human waste. Do not be one of those folk. Be scrupulous! Bring extra trash bags and always leave your camp cleaner than you found it. A forthcoming article will describe in detail dispersed camping best practices. Until then try to keep in mind the Leave No Trace Seven Principles:
- Plan Ahead and Prepare
- Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
- Dispose of Waste Properly
- Leave What You Find
- Minimize Campfire Impacts
- Respect Wildlife
- Be Considerate of Other Visitors
© 1999 by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics: www.LNT.org
Finding A Place to Camp
A search on Google or your state park service’s website will bring up a bevy of traditional paid campground options near you, but tracking down a good spot in the wilderness to dispersed camp in for two weeks is a bit trickier, especially if this is your first time. Fortunately, there are several resources available online to help.
The basic workflow for finding areas where dispersed camping is permitted is as follows:
- Choose a National Forest
- Choose a district within that forest
- Check the Motor Vehicle Use Map (MVUM) for your chosen district
- Call your chosen district’s ranger office to confirm road conditions and regulations
- Stop at the ranger office on the way to pick up a free physical MVUM and more detailed information on the area
I’ll take you through each step. Feel free to open a new window or tab and follow along.
Step 1: Choose a Forest
First, have a look at the federal maps of Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands for your state (or the state you’d like to camp in). You can find these maps here: https://nationalmap.gov/small_scale/printable/fedlands.html#list
As an example, let’s say you live in Durango, CO and are looking for a bit of wilderness adventure. Here’s the surrounding area from Colorado’s map, found at the above link:
As you can see, the San Juan National Forest is right around the corner! Great! Let’s investigate that area further.
Step 2: Choose a District
Due to their large size, most National Forests are divided into sections called “districts.” Each district has its own separate map and ranger offices, so you’ll need to figure out which one you’ll be headed to.
Head to https://www.fs.usda.gov, select your state and the National Forest you’re researching, and hit “Go”.
This will bring you to the web portal for that particular forest. Click on “Maps and Publications” in the left sidebar, and look for the Overview Map:
The resolution on the overview maps can be poor, but you should be able to identify the different districts, separated by dotted white lines:
We can see here that the San Juan National Forest is divided into three districts: Dolores in the west, Columbine in the middle, and Pagosa to the east. The Columbine district is just north of town and has a forest road coming right off the highway. Let’s get a closer look with the Motor Vehicle Use Map!
Step 3: Check the Motor Vehicle Use Map (MVUM)
Ah yes, the Motor Vehicle Use Map. These awesome, very large maps include every single road in a particular forest district and show where dispersed camping is permitted within the district! Score. Select the MVUM for your chosen district. (Warning: these maps are VERY high resolution, and almost impossible to use on a phone)
Welcome to the Motor Vehicle Use Map! Zoom in and read ALL of the text on the left side to learn how to use the map, and familiarize yourself with the regulations and legend.
You’ll notice that roads where dispersed camping are allowed have small dots on both sides of the route. Search the map for roads with these dots which are open to your type of vehicle. If a road is marked with “Special Vehicle Designation” or “Seasonal” be sure to check the tables and explanations for more details.
In the case of our example, Forest Road 682 (FR 682) and its spurs are marked with dispersed-camping-dots, and it’s not too far from the highway. Looks very promising:
Don’t hop in the car just yet, though. While FR 682 and its spurs are all marked as “open to all vehicles”, that does NOT mean they are necessarily suitable for all vehicles. For instance, I know from personal experience that FR 595 (the first spur on the right of FR 682) is an extremely rough road with a steep grade, tall and sharp rocks, and deep potholes. A high-clearance 4-wheel drive vehicle is necessary to reach the juicy campsites along that road.
So how do you determine if your vehicle can even make it to the spots you’re eyeing on the MVUM? That brings us to…
Step 4: Call the Rangers at the District Office
Under Related Links to the right of the page, select “Our Offices”:
From there, choose the office for the district you’d like to camp in and give them a call. Ask the rangers about ALL of the following:
- Road conditions
- Dispersed camping regulations
- Fire restrictions
- Recent bear or mountain lion activity
- Any plants to avoid (i.e. poison oak, poison ivy, or poison sumac)
- Anything else you are curious or concerned about
The rangers are there to help you have a safe, enjoyable, low-impact wilderness experience- so pick their brains, and be sure to thank them for protecting and providing these wild lands for the public to use!
Step 5: Stop at the District Office on your way into the forest
I can’t emphasize enough how important this step is- even though you’ve already called them, the district offices have valuable resources you can only pick up in person, and often serve as a visitor center for their associated forest district
Perhaps most importantly, you can grab a FREE physical Motor Vehicle Use Map from most offices- be sure to ask for one, because browsing those huge PDF files on a phone is an exercise in frustration.
You can also purchase full-color topographic maps and collect brochures and pamphlets with information on everything from recreation opportunities to local flora/fauna and important safety information.
Before you go, open up your new MVUM with the rangers and show them where you plan on camping, paying close attention to any advice they give. They may have important information about bear activity, or recommendations for a particularly choice spot! I’ve found some amazing places thanks to the advice of rangers. Remember, you’re unlikely to have cell service in many of these areas, so ask questions here while you can.
You now know how to track down a dispersed campsite in any National Forest in the United States!
Knowing where to go is only part of the battle when it comes to dispersed camping- without the proper gear and knowledge of camping best-practices, an isolated getaway can quickly become an uncomfortable slog.
In Part 2 of this Guide to Dispersed Camping in America, I’ll lay out all the gear you need to spend up to two weeks in the wilderness without visiting town- including a full list of the specific items I use to keep myself comfortable for months on the road at a time.
In Part 3, I’ll teach you the ins and outs of creating a proper dispersed camp: wood gathering and basic fire building, dealing with inclement weather, how to take a crap in the woods and other critical matters of wilderness etiquette and comfort.
Thanks so much for reading! Questions or suggestions? Leave me a comment! And don’t forget to subscribe to my newsletter below so you don’t miss Part 2!
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