Dispersed camping with kids is becoming widely popular as families search for ways to get their family outside while maintaining distance from others.
Quite honestly, our family usually chooses dispersed camping over designated campsites most of the time. I love that the kids (and dog) and run wild and free, we are truly on our own and we don’t have to worry about bothering others.
By definition dispersed camping is camping outside of a designated campground. It’s our favorite way to forest camp, especially if it’s national forest camping. One of the other perks of dispersed camping with kids is that it’s free camping AND free RV camping….but that doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want.
There are some general guidelines to follow when dispersed camping with kids (and without kids!) for safety reasons and just common courtesy towards our national resources and future campers.
Looking for more family camping info? We’ve got you covered here with tips for your beginner campers, packing lists, and info on family backpacking too.
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How to Go Dispersed Camping with Kids
For dispersed camping, you can camp any way you want. Often people will sleep in tents or hammocks, but more often than not we have our camper and use it “dry” (no water or electricity plugged in.)
I swore I would never be a “camper family”, but it truly makes a WORLD of difference when camping with five young children. This also means that if we want to use our lights or pumps in the camper, we are limited by our battery capacity or have a solar option to charge them back up.
Be familiar with local rules and regulations
Every area really has it’s own regulations and it’s up to you to know them when you go dispersed camping with kids.
For example, here in Jackson, WY you can disperse camp on the national forest but NOT on Park Service land. Additionally, dispersed camping is a widely popular option for summer housing (which is crazy expensive here). Because of this, many dispersed camping areas are regulated to designated sites only just to cut down on damage.
You can search your local public land websites for information on your specific area.
Leave No Trace when Dispersed Camping with Kids
This is hands-down the most important guideline to remember. Bottom line? Your campsite should look like no one has been there when you leave. Let’s break it down a little.
Pack out your poop
I’m serious. In many places digging a “cat hole” is an acceptable practice….but as numbers of campers rise in many backcountry areas, it’s really better to pack it out. Too many cat holes turns into a bit of a land mine for future campers.
And we all know kids will spend a lot of time exploring while camping – we don’t want them discovering piles of poo. Learn more about how to manage poop when dispersed camping with kids below.
Consider your campfire
While there may not be a designated fire ring where you camp, there’s often one that someone else used in the past. Instead of building your own, use the one that’s already there when dispersed camping with kids.
Another great option is to use a fire pan like this one. It allows you to have a fire that is completely contained with no coals mess. Once the coals have cooled, you can just put them in a trash bag.
As always, make sure your fire is dead out. This means it’s cold to the touch. If needed, it needs to be drowned in water. You don’t want to be responsible for an accidental wildfire.
Stick to already established trails and roads when dispersed camping with kids
This is especially important if it’s wet out and natural resources are especially fragile. Stay on roads, stay on trails and encourage your kids to do the same.
If kids are tempted to stray off the trail, try a game of “jump over the root/crack/stick” as they go along.
How to Poop When Dispersed Camping
So…if you don’t have a camper, you really need to think about the whole bathroom situation seriously. Adults are usually just fine peeing in the woods or pooping in a bag, but not having a potty really throws some kids off. Here are some options:
1. Bring a kid potty
This one is nice because it is leak-proof….just in case they pick it up to show someone (which will happen).
2. Set up a Portable Camping Toilet
There are a lot of different ways to do this, but our favorite is a seat that attaches to the top of a 5 gallon bucket like this one.
Put a bag in the bucket with kitty litter in it. Just add a little kitty litter as you go to keep smells down and dump the bag when you get to a dumpster.
Think about potty privacy
If you are going to be dispersed camping on a beach or in the dessert, something like this privacy tent is really nice to have.
Plan on No Services
Personally we love that there are no services when dispersed camping….but, on the other hand, you have to plan on no services when dispersed camping. This means that you have to be sure to really think ahead.
Bring enough water
I know this should be a given, but it’s easy to forget water! We haul ours in a water jug with a spigot. It will last our family of seven 3+ days for drinking, cooking and washing water.
Think about how you’ll keep your food cold
Because of where we live, we choose to use a high-quality cooler with a bear-proof lock. Even if you don’t live in bear country, having a cooler that will keep your food cold for a long time is worth the investment.
Bring extra clothes
Particularly when we are dispersed camping, I bring even more extra clothes for the kids than I normally would (unless we are backpacking). This covers the potential poop explosion (yep, it happens), puke (we really hope it doesn’t happen), and that amazing mud slide they found. If I have extra clothes I don’t have to worry about trying to wash them in a creek or lake and let them wait until we get home.
No cell service
Unplug, unplug, unplug! Many dispersed camping areas will not have cell service. Embrace it, but be aware of it and plan accordingly. While leads to our next tip…..
Pack a first aid kit
Because you may be far away from medical help, definitely be sure to have a full first aid kit that will cover your entire family. We have a couple of these medical kits or these medical kids for our family and this one for the dog.
Electronic chargers for dispersed camping
If you do have service (or even if you don’t), you may still want to be able to charge your electronics. One option is this myCharge Adventure charger which is super rugged and holds a charge for a long time.
Solar chargers are even better (assuming you have sun) because you don’t have to find some way to charge the charger ever few days. We really love this one.
Practice Good Hygiene
Set up a hand-washing station
Set up a designated are where you will wash your hands and face away from a water source.
One option is to have someone pour water over your hands from a Nalgene while you scrub with biodegradable soap, away from a water source. Then switch roles.
I love this DIY hand-washing station set-up if you want something a little more established.
Need a shower while camping?
Not going to lie, our family usually chooses to go for a week without a shower. BUT, if you prefer to bathe more often or plan to be camping for a long time, there are options.
The privacy tent mentioned about is great for showering too. As far as water for the shower itself, a solar shower is the best way to shower while camping. This solar shower has a pump included so it’s easy to spray off.
This solar shower is much cheaper and uses a more gravity-fed design.
Wash your dishes correctly
When dispersed camping or camping in the backcountry, you need a 3-sink system. While any sort of tub will do, I love these collapsable sinks that pack easily.
The trick is to start cleaning with dishes that are as clean as possible. The “clean plate club” is super important. Wipe off any chunks before you start the washing process.
Let the kids join in the fun – it’s a good learning experience for them.
1. The wash sink:
Boil hot water and let it cool slightly. Washing using biodegradable soap. Scrub the dishes well.
2. The rinse sink:
Use warm water and dunk dishes in to remove any of the soap suds.
3. The sanitize sink:
This sink is particularly important if you’re prepping raw meat, but if we are just eating off them, we honestly skip this step. Use 2 teaspoons bleach or Sterimine tablet to 1 gallon of water.
When the dishes are done being cleaned, dry them with a hyper-absorbent towel. We like this camp towel.
The best way to dispose of graywater (all that dirty dish water) is to broadcast it over a large area. This minimizes its impact on any one spot and allows it rapidly integrate with the soil. Be sure to do this least 200 feet away from any water source. Again, a super fun job for the kids, though we recommend helping them the first few times.
While it isn’t totally necessary, a roll up table like this one is very helpful. The mesh pocket on the side is a great place to let dishes dry. You can also hang a mesh drying rack like this from a nearby tree to add more drying space.
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