New dispersed camping policies are slowly being implemented on federal lands that greatly limit the spots and times campers can boondock.
We've been reporting for months about the dispersed camping spots that are being closed to RVers. Just giving a listen to our regular podcast (now also in video format) will show you how serious this is at the moment.
But short of outright closing, federal officials in several places have been quietly implementing much stricter policies that end up greatly limiting boondocking opportunities in those lands.
They're calling it designated dispersed camping.
The word to note is “designated” in dispersed camping
It's not everywhere. Yet. But it is happening enough to raise lots of concern.
On public lands, dispersed camping policies allow camping pretty much everywhere on federal lands so authorized. There traditionally have only been a few stipulations, such as:
- How close to flowing water you may camp
- How far from roadways your campsite must be
- Where you are allowed to camp in the area
- Noise and lighting regulations
- How long you can camp there
But areas open to dispersed camping have largely allowed the camper to responsibly chose the spot, as long as they don't damage the environment and respect the posted rules.
Designated dispersed camping changes that, requiring that boondockers only camp in certain designated, clearly defined and marked areas.
How long can you camp in designated dispersed camping sites?
In regular dispersed camping areas in national forests, you can usually boondock for 16 days, though in some places rangers have the authority to impose shorter stays in high-use areas. But 16 days have been the norm. On Bureau of Land Management wilderness, the maximum stay is typically 14 days.
After that, you can find another dispersed site in the same wilderness area but it must be at least a mile or more from your initial campsite.
You can see the wisdom in that. Too long stays can really stress the land. It can lead to semi-permanent “camping settlements”, which have become a problem because of homeless people who move in for weeks and months at a time.
But with the designated dispersed camping policies, that the 16-day limit is almost always being reduced.
Designated Dispersed Camping rules are growing
The idea has been around for years and used before in areas of heavy use. But with the camping boom of 2020 and 2021 and unprecedented demand for dispersed camping spots, the use of designated dispersed camping spots is on the rise.
In the Bridger-Teton National Forest, for example, just south of Grand Teton National Park, at least seven areas in the Jackson District including places like Shadow Mountain, Curtis Canyon and Toppings Lake have been set aside for designated dispersed camping. Besides a limited number of designated spots and no more camping outside of that designated spot, the maximum stay is just five days from May 1- Labor Day.
In Colorado, large portions of the Gunnison National Forest including Crested Butte have been switched over this year to designated dispersed camping, with more areas being listed next year.
In Idaho, the Sawtooth National Forest is switching its dispersed camping locations to designated and marked sites. In Oregon, designated dispersed camping is reportedly in the works for parts of the Deschutes & Ochoco National Forests. And in Arizona, designated dispersed camping has been instituted for parts of the Coconino National Forest near Flagstaff.
Across the country, similar restrictions are being implemented or studied for next year because of continued camping pressure.
Designated Dispersed Camping Rules are not necessarily a Bad Thing
There is a reason for switching over to designated dispersed camping.
In almost every case, the reasons cited by forest service and Bureau of Land Management officials involve overuse, damage to natural resources, and bad camping behavior.
Human waste, trash, untended fires, pollution of water sources, and destruction of wildlife habitat are the usual reasons.
But closing federal lands traditionally open to dispersed camping in favor of designated camping is new.
Designated Dispersed Camping Seriously Affects Boondocking Choices
Reducing the amount of land open to dispersed camping limits the areas where campers can boondock. There's no getting around that.
The experience of true wilderness camping, far from main roads and away from other campers is for many of us, the main reason we have an RV.
Camping in a designated spot, no matter how nice it may be, with other campers in sight, just doesn't offer the same experience.
For now, Designated Dispersed Camping is the exception to the rule
While all indications are that we will see more federal wilderness areas closed to traditional dispersed camping in favor of designated dispersed camping, it appears – for now – that the restrictions are being applied only in the most popular sites.
And in many places, the designated site rule is only for peak times.
So for now, there remain lots of great unrestricted dispersed spots on federal land.
They're just going to be a little harder to find.
Confused about Boondocking?
In the RV lifestyle, boondocking is off-grid RV camping.
That definition can be divided into two groups: Concrete Jungle Campers (as some people call them) and Natural Boondocking.
The former describes those who choose to remain close to the amenities of modern life. They have fewer authoritative policies to follow but often move from one spot to another every day or two. This type of camping includes:
- Dry Camping in Campgrounds
- Walmart or Parking Lots
- Roadside Parking
Natural boondocking, the way we prefer, describes those who look for out-of-the-way campsites, further away from the lights and sounds of city life.
They often use BLM lands, National Forests, and State Parks as their campsites, preferring the natural setting and more relaxed atmosphere. If you want to learn how to find these places – we did a comprehensive post about it (bookmark this one).
This type of camper relies on publicly available land and uses off-grid camping strategies that allow them to be farther out of town and closer to nature’s bounty.
Primitive Camping – Boondocking in designated campgrounds
Another type of boondocking very closely related to designated dispersed camping is known as primitive camping.
Primitive or rustic campgrounds usually are in rough and remote country. Unlike designated dispersed camping sites, these are most definitely campgrounds, albeit “rustic,” or “primitive” with few amenities.
These are organized campgrounds with campsites that are laid out, usually numbered, and in clearly marked state or national forest areas. There are no hookups and to stay there, you are doing dry camping. There may also be a picnic table or fire ring and maybe even a vault toilet shared by everyone in the campground.
Most often there is a self-pay $10 to $15 fee to cover maintenance of the campground but primitive or rustic camping is most definitely, boondocking.
We have a detailed blog post and video we recently did on the RV Lifestyle YouTube Channel that offers 17 steps on how to set up at a regular campground. The principles are the same for dry camping but, obviously, you don't hook up for water or electricity when dry camping:
Positive Boondocking Behavior
The best way that you can protect the wilderness campsites – be they dispersed or designated – is to take a proactive approach to care for them.
You are already packing out your own trash, but go ahead and pack out a bag or two of other people’s trash when you leave as well.
Clean up after your pets.
Obey quiet times, stay limits, and other regulations.
Respect other campers and/or park visitors.
Keep your campsite tidy and organized.
By simply behaving in a responsible manner, you make it easier for the park workers to do their job and make our amazing public lands a treasure for everyone.
You probably chose the site because it appealed to you in one or more ways, and you owe it to those who come after you to maintain it while you are camping there.
In the end, dispersed camping policies are there to maximize your enjoyment and protect the location.
Some regulations are inconvenient, but the alternative would be closing vast areas off to all public access.
For that reason, obeying the regulations of your boondocking location benefits you, the area, and uncountable future generations.
We may not like having the places where we can boondock limited but during these times of unprecedented pressure on our public lands, patience is required.
Somebody’s future grandchildren will want to walk the same trails, fish in the same streams, and admire the same sprawling vistas, but only if we protect them today.
And that is a small price to pay to protect the millions of acres set aside for all of us to experience every ecological niche in the country.
Still new to Boondocking? We got you covered.
Want to learn how to boondock?
We created a PRINT version of our most popular guide to help you with the most common boondocking problems. We get a ton of questions from our subscribers about how to get started boondocking that range from where to go and wild animals to water conservation to what equipment to use and more.
Throw off the shackles of traditional RV Parks and campgrounds, stop paying high fees every night that you spend in your RV, and experience the boundless amounts of nature while boondocking!
You’re done with the noisy RV parks, the 3.5 feet of room you have squished in between two other RVs, and other people’s kids running through your campsite?
You’ve ditched the hookups, the concrete blocks and have replaced them with self-leveling and Navy showers?