Dispersed camping with families hacks – easy ways to stay comfortable in the wilderness
No fees. Lots of wilderness. Quiet hours that start when you go to bed. If you are willing to forgo a few amenities, dispersed camping can be comfortable, even luxurious, especially if you know what to pack.
What Is Dispersed Camping?
At its most basic, dispersed camping is camping without a traditional campground.
When dispersed camping, also called boondocking, campers skip the campground amenities, including toilets, electric lighting, showers, potable water, and camp store. Instead, they enjoy solitude, fresh air, and independence.
While there are no campground rules at a dispersed campsite, you should ALWAYS practice no-trace principles. (Read about No Trace Camping here.)
Here’s a quick reminder of some leave-no-trace family camping principles
Respect the land
If possible, use exisiting sites. Set up your camp on a durable surface, away from roads and water sources. Durable surfaces include pavement, gravel, and packed dirt. Don’t drive on any untouched land to find a place to camp.
Keep your campsites small to minimize your impact on the land.
Look for a tent site that is already level. Don’t landscape to create a perfectly smooth tent platform!
Avoid recreational areas, including already established campgrounds, playgrounds, and picnic areas. Usually, camping is not allowed in these areas.
Pack it in and pack it out
Pack out EVERYTHING you packed in (that includes trash and toilet paper). It’s easiest to bring several large trash bags for packing out food scraps, trash, and other items. You can find a dumpster to dispose of these items on your way into town.
In most areas, you may bury your poop in a hole six inches deep and 200 feet away from any water source. If that’s not allowed, pack your poop out, too. (If that disgusts you, one of our team members suggests using a toilet seat that attaches to a bucket lined with a bag. Fill the bag with kitty litter to absorb odors and liquids. For more information, check out this post.)
Use biodegradable soaps for washing yourself and your dishes. Any washing should be done 200 feet from a water source to prevent contamination. When you are done, scatter the dishwater so as not to lure wildlife to your site.
Leave the site as you found it
Don’t take any souvenirs from your site. Other visitors may wish to enjoy that interesting rock you found. Also, carrying natural items from site to site could spread invasive species and damage the ecosystem.
When you leave the site, remove any signs of your presence. Return any logs to the woods and scatter the ashes from your portable fires.
If there is a fire pit available, check with the local forest service to ensure that fires are allowed at that time. If there are no fire restrictions, then enjoy! But keep the fire small, smaller than you would at a traditional campground, to minimize its impact.
If you don’t find a fire pit, don’t make one. Instead use a portable fire pit or do without.
Respect the Wildlife
You are guests in the wilderness, treat the wildlife as your hosts. Don’t chase wild animals or approach them for photographs.
As tempting as it is, don’t feed the wildlife. By feeding wild animals, people have negatively impacted their health, exposed the animals to disease, and changed the animals’ natural behaviors.
Be bear smart! One of our team members encountered a bear while camping and wrote about her experience. To avoid these furry visitors, securely hang your food, toiletries, and trash from a tree. Make sure the tree is outside of your camp and hang your bear bag three feet from the trunk and 10 feet off the ground.
Where can I disperse camp?
Dispersed camping is allowed on most public lands usually free of charge. However, some places restrict dispersed camping, and many national parks forbid it. To ensure that your campsite is legal, call the local park ranger or authority before setting up your site.
The National Forests, in general, welcome dispersed campers. Some National Forests have different regulations for dispersed camping and you may be asked to avoid camping at recreational areas, including trailheads.
Wildlife Management Areas
A Wildlife Management Area is a parcel of land set aside for conservation and recreation. Because these are managed by individual states, rules regarding camping varies. Check the regulations for the state in which you intend to camp.
Founded in 1946, the BLM manages one in every 10 acres of land in the United States, and some BLM land can be found in every state. Since the BLM permits dispersed camping, there are a lot of potential campsites on this land.
State, County, and City Parks
The regulations for dispersed camping at these sites vary. Make sure you know what is expected before you set up your camp.
Always check regulations before you arrive. Many popular trailheads do not permit camping.
Private property with the owner’s permission
Some homeowners enjoy accommodating campers on their property. If you are invited to camp on someone’s property, be a good guest and follow their requests.
Finding Comfort Without the Campground
Now that you have found a spot to set up your site, it’s time to make it comfortable! Dispersed campers are expected to be completely self-sufficient. That means surviving without a bathhouse, picnic table, or electric lighting. Dispersed campers can thrive without these amenities with a little creativity.
Recreating the Bathhouse
How do you stay clean(ish) without a bathhouse, especially with kids? This post describes how to recreate the amenities you will find in the campground bathhouse – including a backwoods potty and shower!
Make sure you bring enough water for drinking, cooking, and washing. At minimum, pack one gallon of water per person per day. If you know that there will be a water source, pack a filter or purification tablets.
At campgrounds, a picnic table provides a stable place to prepare and eat your meals and a flat surface to play cards, draw, and write. Luckily, there are many ways to replace this amenity.
For food preparation, many dispersed campers use their RV kitchen. Those tenting may want to pack a folding or roll-up table. If you have the space for a folding table, this table from Target is probably an affordable option.
No folding table? Simply bring a large cutting board and find a flat-enough spot to use it. During shorter camping trips, I prefer to buy pre-chopped food or chop all my food in advance.
(A good meal can elevate your camping experience! Check out our Easy Camp Cookbook.)
Campers are allowed to build a small fire in an existing fire pit but don’t rely on finding one at your site. Either bring a portable fire pit or plan to cook your meals on a camp stove.
Dining while dispersed camping
When it’s time to eat, there is nothing wrong with sitting on the ground for a meal – we do it often backpacking. But one of the benefits of car camping, even if it’s dispersed camping, is that you can pack more luxury items, including tables and chairs.
To replacing the picnic table at your dispersed campsite, you have several options. First, consider if you want to sit down at a table for a family meal or have everyone eat in their camp chairs.
This traditional style dining is perfect for good conversation. If you packed a table for meal prep, it can double as a dining table, depending on how many people are camping with you. If you have a larger group, you may want to pack two tables.
Camp chairs can provide comfortable seating while dining at a table. (Need a camp chair? Check out our mega-list of favorite camp chairs.)
Individual Dining Tables
If you are lucky enough to find a site with a fire pit, then you’ll probably want to enjoy your meal in front of it. Individual dining tables or chairs with an attached tray are perfect for eating at the fire.
My new favorite camping chair, the Coleman Aluminum Deck Chair, provides a stable eating surface as well as space for a small game of cards or even a lightweight computer. (If you are looking for something different, here’s our mega-list of favorite camp chairs.)
Alternatively, a few small rolling or folding side tables could provide every camper with their personal eating surface. Flat rocks or stumps can also become side tables. But if you move anything, replace it when you leave your campsite.
Lighting for Dinner
Without a roaring fire to create a cozy atmosphere or a campground’s electric lights to illuminate the night, dispersed campers must find creative ways to light their site — and allow them to see their meals.
I highly recommend packing headlamps and flashlights. These camping necessities can help you navigate after dark or illuminate a work surface.
Beyond flashlights, there are many interesting and beautiful lighting options. Because the only lights at a dispersed campsite are either natural or brought by you, you have much more control over your lighting than you would at a traditional campground.
Fairy lights are a romantic way to light up your campsite, but they are time-intensive — especially if you are staying at your dispersed site for only a few days. If you choose to use fairy lights, make sure they are solar or battery-powered like these — there are no hook-ups in the wilderness.
I prefer the simplicity of the Ozark Trail Camping LED Lanterns. These small lanterns have several settings, bright, dim, and red. At less than $5 per lanterns, it’s easy to buy multiples. I love placing these on our table or hanging them in some trees to create an interesting ambiance.
A more sustainable option is the Goal Zero Crush Light Solar Powered Lantern. The colorful Goal Zero lanterns can be flattened for easy packing and are charged by solar power or through a USB cord.
Battery-powered tea lights can be a romantic addition to your camp table. They provide a glow reminiscent of candlelight.
Delighting in Dispersed Camping
Dispersed camping allows travelers to experience the wilderness intimately and enjoy moments of solitude and wonder. With the right preparation, dispersed camping can feel as luxurious — even more luxurious — than a stay at a campground.
- Our Definitive Packing List for Car Camping with the Kids
- Family Camping Meal Plan
- Best Tips for Dispersed Camping with Kids
Dispersed camping with families hacks – easy ways to stay comfortable in the wilderness
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