Dispersed Camping in the Age of COVID-19

Title Text: Shelter in the Greatest Place laid over a photo of a pair of campers sitting by a river.

So you want to go camping, huh? America’s favorite pastime has returned in full force for the summer months. Luckily for you, the west coast abounds with public land waiting for you to safely explore, even while social distancing. Dispersed camping allows you to access more remote areas, which means fewer other humans.

Most recently I took a tour of desert hot springs, lush forests, and chilly rivers all within a few hours drive of the Bay. Here’s some things to keep in mind while you plan ahead and prepare:


Where to dispersed camp: BLM vs National Forest

BLM Land

BLM stands for Bureau of Land Management (in addition to Black Lives Matter, it’s confusing we know, but context is key). These are your very own public lands, yay! Some of it is developed into established campsites, and the rest is pretty much yours to explore at will under the conditions of Leave No Trace and, ya know, the law. 

Basically, the wild wild west still remains as largely untamed and unclassified land managed by BLM and is available for dispersed camping in certain areas.

Some rules about dispersed camping on BLM:

  1. Dispersed camping is allowed on public land for a period not to exceed 14 days within a 28 consecutive day period. You can thank climbers for that one.
  2. Campers must not leave any personal property unattended for more than 10 days. But, hint hint, you can set up camp and go day trekking from there!
  3. If possible, use existing sites to avoid creating new disturbances. Popular locations can be recognized by the telltale flat disturbed area that has been used as a campsite before. You’ll know a tent site when you see one; don’t crush the sage. 
  4. To further protect your public lands, campers must not dispose of any refuse, hazardous materials, sewage, or in any manner pollute the surrounding area.
    Always follow the principles of Leave No Trace, particularly to Pack it in, Pack it out. This includes poop and TP!! Doggie bags are multi-purpose, people. If you are in the desert, you unfortunately cannot resort to the typical 6 inch cathole solution because there is not enough life to decompose your waste in a timely fashion. In other words, your sh*t will stay there until the end of time.

If you have any questions, call the rangers! Figure out which BLM jurisdiction your desired campsite is in and give ‘em a call. They’re very knowledgeable, and would much rather give you the lowdown ahead of time than having to pull you out of there. Some areas remain closed due to COVID-19, but many are open.

National Forest Land

Not to be confused with National Parks which have their own set of rules and are governed by a separate department, National Forests are pretty similar to BLM land in terms of access.

Free, dispersed camping is allowed in all national forests, unless noted otherwise. Typically you can find places to camp on the side of main roads, or follow forest access roads (often gravel or dirt). Camp on durable surfaces at least 200 feet from the road and any bodies of water.

We picked up a physical road atlas before our trip which proved remarkably helpful. They’ve noted National Forests and other parks, as well as BLM land and campgrounds. It’s good to cross reference sources and call the rangers before showing up, particularly under current circumstances. Be honest that you’re dispersed camping (which is perfectly legal), and ask about any road closures or fire restrictions in the area, as well as if they have recommendations. Once again, it is literally their job to make sure you’re using the land properly and safely.

Photo of two tents set up in a dispersed camping area at a boat launch.

Finding a Dispersed Campsite

So how do you find camping spots? My top recommendations are:

  1. freecampsites.net
    They’ve served as my camp hosts on most trips, with a mix of free and paid sites. Just type in where you want to go and start investigating options. The green tents are free spots, red are paid, pretty straightforward. You can read reviews and check out photos from past visitors. We love a free, dispersed site off a lonely National Forest road, and the reviews will give you a good sense of what to expect in terms of what the spot looks like and how to get there. They also offer GPS coordinates so you can be sure of navigating.
  2. theDyrt.com
    I haven’t used them in the wild yet, but they seem to have a pretty comprehensive list of options. It’s always good to cross reference between sites and compare reviews; be conscious of how recently a site has been reviewed and call the rangers if you’re not sure.
  3. recreation.gov
    The parks services have been working to draw reservations under a single cohesive system, which is recreation.gov. If you’re trying to reserve a campsite in a State or National Park, you’ll most likely be redirected here. It’s a good place to either check about fees and regulations for established sites if you know a specific spot you want to stay, or to investigate some National Forest spots.


Accessing water

Okay, so the main issue you might run into is access to running water. The main ways to combat the spread of COVID-19 are to wear a mask and wash your hands, made difficult by activities like dispersed camping in the desert. Luckily, there’s lots of places you can get water. It’s handy to have a container to carry water in if you’ll be dispersed car camping.

Some of my favorite places to fill up on water:

  1. Paid water stations, which can be found at places like Safeway or gas stations
  2. Gas station or fast food spots (Carl’s Junior, drool) soda fountains. Gas stations are great places to brush your teeth, wash your hands, and fill your water bottle. If you’re opting for a fast food place, it’s nice to buy something and ham it up with the employees a little if you’re trying to fill your 6 gallon reservoir with a Nalgene.
  3. Filter from streams/rivers. Moving water is usually much cleaner than standing water, but still be sure to clean it by filtering, using purification tablets, and/or a UV pen light. Giardia is common in California, not so fun.
  4. RV and/or tent campgrounds. You might have to pay for these as well, but they will pretty much always have water especially at RV sites.

Where do you go when you need to go:

I’ve alluded to dealing with human waste above, but you might still be concerned. Depending on the environment you are in, you have some options for going to the bathroom. Unsurprisingly, there's a LOT to be said about this topic, so we split it into its own article for you to read here.

1 comment

  • Rob Jaworski says...

    The timing of this article is perfect. I’m simply jonesin’ to go Natl Forest -land dispersed camping, what do they call it, boondocking? In my sights is the Stanislaus Natl Forest; there are Forest Service roads FOR DAYS all through there. Go get lost on one of them, you’ll find water (to put through your filter) and no human-carried coronaviruses to be found! Now I just gotta talk the wife into it, and the kids. And the boss (yep, I’m lucky to be employed still, let me recognize that).

    Thanks for the links, too, author(s)!

    On July 14, 2020

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