Beat the crowds (and fees) with scattered camping

Summer is coming to an end, which means the end of the hot, buggy days and nights here in Oklahoma, and the end of the inability to camp pleasantly in these areas.

It’s the start of the cool fall days and nights and the start of our favorite time of year to camp.

The problem is that it is also the favorite time of year to camp for thousands of other people.

When you try to book a campsite in advance for peak season weekends, you’ll likely find them all booked up. If you’ve just turned up at a campground and are hoping to find an opening, you can circle around endlessly, looking (perhaps unsuccessfully) for an available spot.

Even if you snag a campsite, your camping experience will likely be pretty poor. People blare their music, your tent basks in the warm glow of the toilet’s yellow halogen spotlight, and you fall asleep to the soothing sound of RV generators. How refreshing!

On top of that you had to pay for this poor experience when you paid your camping fees.

Car camping crap at campgrounds is why we previously swore it in favor of hiking instead. With hiking, you avoid the crowds and don’t have to pay a camping fee.

But I recently looked for another way to car camp that allows you to both escape the masses and camp for free.

It’s called scatter camping, and it’s one of America’s best-kept outdoor secrets.

What is scattered camping?

Almost all National Forests and Bureau of Land Management lands allow “scattered camping”.

Scattered camping is camping outside of designated campgrounds.

You can drive along a forest service access road near a national forest, find a spot you’d like to camp for the next few days, and pitch your tent there.

The advantage of scattered camping is that you increase your chances of getting away from the crowds and finding solitude in the great outdoors. It’s also something you can do on a whim, without planning or booking in advance (live your spontaneity!). And it’s free. As Jeff More wrote in an AoM article on how to plan an impromptu weekend road tripscattered camping is “really a win-win-win”.

There’s a catch: when you scatter camp, you sacrifice access to amenities like drinking water, picnic benches, barbecue grills, and restrooms. There’s no running to the ranger’s office in the morning to grab a coke from the soda machine. You must bring all your food and drink and pack all your trash.

You are entirely alone with the scattered campsite. It is a primitive experience. But for many people, it’s just another win.

How to find scattered camping areas

As mentioned above, scattered camping is available in almost all National Forests and BLM lands. While there may be designated “non-camping” areas, pretty much everything else is fair game.

But there are millions and millions of acres of land owned by the federal government. How do you find a good spot for scattered camping?

First, purchase and view some Forest Service maps that are available at National Forest district offices and online. through the USGS store. These maps will give you the general location of roads, trails and other recreational sites. Since water isn’t available from the tap when you’re scattered camping, you’ll ideally want to camp near a natural spring. And if you want to hike, be sure to pick a spot where you can easily pick up the trail again.

If you don’t even know where to start looking, Jeff suggests thinking about your favorite national park to visit; these parks” are often surrounded by national forest land, and I would recommend scouting the forest service roads outside the entrance to find a spot that suits your taste. Some of the side roads I found are my favorite spots in the American West – far more than the true main arteries of large, crowded parks.

You can also try calling the district office of a national forest to see if the ranger has any suggestions. Jeff notes that because the rangers have other duties besides handling the phone, you may have to wait for your call to be answered. But he found that “the US rangers I met were all very friendly” and some were able to recommend great “places to camp and plink for me and my friends.” Be specific and tell them you are looking for “scattered camping” locations; otherwise, they may think you’re calling to inquire about established campgrounds, as most visitors do. Scattered camping is generally permitted anywhere off the main road and away from civilization, but some places are topographically and geographically better suited than others – a place with a clearing large enough to view the Milky Way, a accessible creek and a berm to pull against is basically heaven for me.

Another resource for finding scattered camping areas is the website freecampsites.net. You can type anywhere in the United States and find scattered camping options nearby.

See also Dyrt. This is a premium service that allows you to locate campsites scattered across federal lands. It offers filtering features and allows you to search dispersed camping areas offline, so you can find a place to camp even when you have no service.

Finding good scattered campsites can take some scouting and trial and error. As Jeff notes, it “will take some work at first (and you’ll probably make a few mistakes along the way), but finding them is part of the adventure.”

Know the rules

Terms of Service. You have considerable freedom when scattered camping. But with that freedom comes responsibility. Agencies that manage federal lands depend on dispersed campers who follow the outdoors code to ensure they respect the wilderness and do not disturb the natural environment.

The US Forest Service offers a list of their scattered camping regulations here. A few are worth highlighting:

  • Scattered camping should not take place within 100 feet of water sources (rivers, streams, ponds, or wetlands) or within 100 feet of any road or trail in the system.
  • In areas closed to the use of vehicles off logging roads, where designated parking areas are not provided, and where not otherwise prohibited, direct access to a suitable parking lot unless 300 feet from the road is allowed.
  • Campsites cannot be occupied for more than 14 days, then the site must be moved at least 3 miles. Camping is also limited to a total of 28 days in a 60 day period.

The BLM has slightly different regulations for scattered camping. Rules may differ from office to office, so check with your local office for camping limitations.

Fires. Be aware of burning bans and other fire restrictions in the area where you plan to do scattered camping. Follow them. When starting a fire, practice good firefighting skills by not leaving fires unattended and making sure fires are completely extinguished before leaving the area.

Jeff adds that you may need to “obtain a fire permit (check your state regulations), which is as easy as going to a US Forest Service office (or going online) and getting signed a small slip; once you have that in hand, you’re good to go for the rest of the calendar year. USFS permits are good for all USFS land, so even if I pick up a permit in, say, Los Padres National Forest, I can use that if I’m also camping in Inyo National Forest.

Fire arms. In general, firearms are permitted in National Forests and on BLM lands, as is target shooting, as long as you follow some guidelines. Tragic accidents can happen when you click in a public placeso remember this maxim: “No safety net, no shot.”

Other restrictions on carrying firearms are dictated by state law and therefore may vary. Know the regulations applicable to your area.

Leave no traces. When possible, choose an area that appears to have been used for camping before and use an already established fire ring instead of creating a new one – no need to cause more impact on the terrain. Pick up your trash. Leave the area better than you found it.

Scattered Camping Tips

Provide water. Remember that when camping scattered, you are responsible for your water. There is no tap to fill your canteen. Pack your water and plan where you will get water when you run out. Have a plan for water purification.

Plan for human waste. You won’t have a toilet during scatter camping, so you will have to make a cathole. Bring the necessary supplies.

Put away your trash. You can burn paper, but wrap all your plastic wrappers, bottles, and so on.

Don’t get eaten by animals. Store your food in a tin can or bear bag. Be sure to include other smelly items like toothpaste, deodorant, and lotions. Bears are also attracted to this sort of thing.

Keep your distance from wild animals. Know what to do if you are attacked by wild animals like bear Where cougars.

If you’re looking to do some car camping but want to avoid the crowds and fees at traditional car camping sites, check out scattered camping. Also look at Jeff’s article for more tips on how you can use scatter camping to reach awesome destinations up to eight hours away, all within a weekend.

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