Welcome to Part 3 of my Dispersed Camping Guide! If you haven’t yet, be sure to read Part 1 and Part 2 to learn how to find a wilderness camping spot and to discover all the gear you’ll need for a week in the forest.
In this article I’ll explain critical dispersed camping etiquette and share tips on how to set up a comfortable and successful camp miles from civilization.
Leave No Trace
The most important thing to keep in mind when dispersed camping is to Leave No Trace. This philosophy is key- these wild places are a gift from nature and easily spoiled, and we owe it to our children and fellow outdoor enthusiasts to preserve these places so that the next generation of campers can have an enjoyable experience in the same places we use today. Bring extra trash bags and leave your camp cleaner than when you found it!
At all times, follow 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
Know Local Rules and Regulations
Before you head out to the awesome wilderness camping area you found by reading Part 1 of my guide, call the ranger’s office for the forest district you’re targeting and learn the local rules and regulations for dispersed camping there. There may be road closures or fire restrictions in effect, and it is your responsibility to know this ahead of time to avoid a failed trip or costly fines.
How to Poop in the Woods
There are no toilets in the backcountry. Therefore, it is critical that you properly dispose of your biological waste so as to not contaminate local water sources or future visitors’ enjoyment. The way to do this is by burying it in a well-placed cat-hole: your very own thoughtfully-placed hand-dug backcountry toilet! So magical.
First, you must select an appropriate spot for your cat hole. Your cat-hole site should be:
• At least 200 feet away from any water sources or potential runoff areas
• At least 200 feet away from any camp or trail
• In an inconspicuous area unlikely to be casually stumbled upon
• If possible, in deep organic soil and/or in the sunlight- both of these conditions will speed the decomposition of your leavings
• If you are with a group or staying in the same area for a long time, spread out your cat holes as much as possible.
• Your cat hole should be at least 6 inches deep (about the length of a trowel blade) and about 6 inches wide in the forest. Dig it slightly shallower in the desert so that the sun can help with the bio-degradation process.
• If using normal toilet paper from home, double-bag it in resealable ziplock bags and bring it out of the woods with you with the rest of your camping trash.
• Fill the hole completely with soil and camouflage it with dirt, sticks, and leaves.
When placing your tent, follow these guidelines:
• Only place a tarp beneath your tent if no rain is expected. Otherwise water will collect on the tarp and soak up into your tent instead of the ground! If the weather is dry, then a tarp beneath your tent can reduce wear on the tent’s underside.
• Clear out any rocks and sticks from your tent’s footprint ahead of time.
• Rarely is the ground perfectly flat. Consider your desired sleeping orientation in relation to your tent’s entrance and place the tent so that your head is uphill.
• If camping in a rainy area, examine the lay of the land and nearby slopes. Determine where water will collect during rainfall- and don’t put your tent there!
Tent & Shelter Tips
• Extra towels make a great carpet for the inside of your tent!
• If expecting moderate to heavy rain, use your camping shovel to dig a small moat around your tent, with channels leading off of it to siphon water away. Also useful when camping in the snow to keep snowmelt away from your tent!
• Placing a large tarp over your tent is a great idea in either very wet or very sunny climates. Use bungee cords and tent stakes to stretch the edges of the tarp away from the tent to help direct water away. The tarp will also keep much of the light and heat of overly hot climates out of your tent! Great for keeping your tent cool when desert camping where trees are in short supply.
• With a large tarp and enough bungee cords, you can create a shelter almost anywhere! Be creative! For example, to create an attachment point for a tarp-sustaining-bungee on a tree which lacks branches at the right height, simply wrap another bungee completely around the tree at the desired height and hook it onto itself to create an adjustable tree-collar. You can now attach your tarp to the collar with another another bungee, no branches required!
Wood Gathering and Basic Fire Building
One of the many cool things about dispersed camping is that in most wooded areas you are free to gather dead wood from your environment, offsetting the high cost and excessive vehicle space necessary for store-bought firewood.
Keep the following in mind when gathering:
• Gathered wood is often much thinner (and faster burning) than store-bought bundles, so you’ll need to gather a lot of it- particularly for long stays. Be prepared for the labor!
• Gather a variety of sizes of wood. You’ll want thin spindly twigs for kindling, then slightly thicker sticks, and so on up until proper log size.
• Until you are familiar with how much wood is available in the area you’re camping in, it may be wise to bring a bundle or two from the store to supplement your gathered wood.
Now comes the part many people struggle with: actually making a self-sustaining fire. Follow my tried-and-true method below, however, and with a little practice you’ll never feel the de-masculinizing urge to squirt lighter fluid onto a fire again!
• Dig a hole nearby and fill it with the ashes left behind in your firepit by previous campers so you can get a clean and level start.
• Using the largest logs you have, construct a lincoln-log formation: first place two logs parallel to each other about a foot apart, then lay a second pair of logs parallel to each other across the first two logs. Then take one more log, a little smaller than your base logs, and place it across the top two logs of your little tower, in the center. What you have built will be the main structure of your fire- the “oven” as I like to call it.
• Place 4 big, thick sticks into your structure from each corner. They should each stretch from a bottom corner of your structure up to and out of the opposite upper corner. These sticks’ jobs are to catch the larger logs above and around them on fire. Let’s call these the “catchers”.
• Now comes the kindling. Fill the structure under and around the catchers with kindling, starting with paper refuse from around camp on the bottom and working your way up in size from pine needles and twigs up to thicker sticks. Do not pack in your kindling too tight- remember that airflow is necessary for a fire to burn!
• A successful fire is reliant on the proper progression from small, easy-burning kindling up the chain of thicker and thicker fuel until your structure’s main logs are burning. You can’t skip from spindly sticks to thick logs burning- don’t try to take shortcuts!
• Once your structure is packed full of kindling, take two more big, thick sticks- perhaps half as thick as your main logs- and tent them over each side of your structure perpendicular to and resting upon the top log of your structure. Your oven is now built, loaded, and ready to light!
• Using a long-nosed lighter, light the kindling in several places around the fire.
• Monitor your fire’s early growth carefully. If the kindling is almost gone before the catchers alight, then add more kindling before it goes out. Have lots of spare kindling pre-gathered and ready to go!
• Once the catchers start burning, upgrade the size of sticks you are adding to the inside of the structure.
• Continue adding thicker and thicker sticks until the main logs catch. Congratulations! You have made fire, and you are mighty!
• Once your big logs are burning, you’re in the clear so long as you keep adding fuel in the proper intervals. Don’t wait for the fire to be almost out before adding more logs- it takes time to heat them to the point of combustion, so you’ll want to add new logs while the fire is still burning hot.
Extinguishing Your Fire
Extinguishing your fire properly is an important step which, unfortunately, many folk tend to glaze over. In a developed campground with the flames contained in a tall metal fire ring it may seem safe to let the fire burn itself out while you sleep, but this behavior is highly inappropriate and dangerous when dispersed camping in the woods with simple stone firepits. The heat from your fire lasts long after the wood has burned, and a stiff breeze could kick up glowing embers hiding in the ash and start a forest fire around you while you sleep. Don’t let sloth lead you to risk your life and the life of an entire forest!
At the end of the night, before crawling into your tent to sleep, fill up your bucket and douse your embers, being careful of the hot steam cloud. Stir the fire and douse it again. Repeat until your fire’s remains are cool to the touch.
With these handy tips and all that you’ve learned from Part 1 and Part 2, you finally have all the knowledge you need to get out there and give dispersed camping a try! The most important thing is to just get out there and do it- don’t overstress and don’t overplan. Just do your best to be prepared and GO. You will forget things, and you will face unexpected challenges, but over time you’ll refine your methods, gear, and practices until you’re a wilderness camping pro. Your time and struggles in Great Nature will teach you everything else you need to learn.
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Thanks so much for reading and Happy Camping! Before you go, check out my latest incredible winter landscape photos from Zion, Grand Canyon, and Bryce Canyon National Parks!
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