Dispersed Camping in California

June 06, 2018

I decided to take up camping as a hobby last year, prompted by the need for camping gear that I had already started to collect when attending festivals such as Burning Man, Symbiosis, and the Oregon Eclipse festival in 2017.

Designated Campsites

In the past I’ve used Google Maps to find green areas occupied by National or State parks that include campsites. During the winter time it’s not too hard to make reservations for these sites, however they’re in high demand during other seasons, and you have to make reservations by Wednesday that week if you want to have a campsite available that weekend.

Taken from Wikipedia: Campsite

In the United States, many national and state parks have dedicated campsites and sometimes also allow impromptu backcountry camping by visitors.


Another option I found for camping is to reserve spaces on private land through Hipcamp or Glamping Hub. I have yet to do this because typically it seemed more expensive than I was willing to pay for. I’m fine with $30 per a night, but I’m not paying $80+ a night to rough it on someone’s land, unless they’re providing a Yurt or something to really make it worth the experience.

Dispersed Camping

It’s also possible to camp on public lands in what is called dispersed camping, wild camping, boondocking, or dry camping.

What’s great about this is that it’s free, with no reservations required, and usually provides you with the solitude you can’t find at parks.

This type of camping is available on land managed by agencies such as the:

  • USDA Forest Service
  • Bureau of Land Management (BLM)
  • Wildlife Management Areas (WMA)
  • National Grasslands
  • Some County Parks & City Parks (where posted)
  • Some trailheads (where posted)

Dispersed camping is the term used for camping anywhere in the National Forest OUTSIDE of a designated campground. Dispersed camping means no services; such as trash removal, and little or no facilities; such as tables and fire pits, are provided. Some popular dispersed camping areas may have toilets.

In most cases you can camp where ever you’d like, unless it’s posted otherwise. However its best check with the agency managing the land before you pack up and setup camp. Call ahead to find out the following:

  • Which areas are open to dispersed camping?
  • Which roads are open to access those areas?
  • How are the road conditions?
  • Are there seasonal restrictions?
  • Are there fire restrictions? Do you need a fire permit?

The following guidelines apply to dispersed camping for most sites, either as enforced rules or ettiquette:

  • Use existing roads to access public lands; avoid crossing private property without permissions to access public lands.
  • Leave No Trace - “Pack It In – Pack It Out”. Leave nothing behind, it should look like you were never there.
  • Camp on bare soil if possible, to avoid damage or killing plants and grass.
  • Try to camp where others have camped before
  • Do not camp in the middle of a clearing or meadow; try to make your campsite less visible so that other visitors will see a “wild” setting
  • Do NOT camp within 100 feet of any water source, plants near water are especially fragile.
  • Waste disposal - You can pee in the woods where you’d like, but you should use a shovel to bury your poo six inches under the soil, 200 feet from any water source.
  • Water

    • Bring water.
    • If you must drink water from a stream, heat it until it comes to a rolling boil, use water purification tablets or a filter designed for outdoor use.
  • Fires

  • Limits - You can only camp for 14-16 days within a 30 day period.
  • Expect that you will be required to setup camp a certain distance from other designated camping sites.
  • Lookout for signs posted prohibiting overnight stays or camping.

Motor Vehicles

Some agencies limit where you can camp if you’re parking a car, truck, or recreational vehicle (RV), and thus you may need to follow a Motor Vehicle Use Map (MVUM) when deciding where to setup camp.

Locating Sites

Look for forest service roads or BLM roads. Forest service roads are labelled using names such as “Forest Rte” (Forest Route) or “NF-###” (National Forests). BLM roads are often hubs for dispersed campsites and line major roads that run through public lands.

The brown road signs with yellow lettering usually suggest that you’re entering public land. You can look for the green areas that signify public lands on Google Maps.

The following links will help you find dispersed camping sites

Written by Jason Miller who lives and works in Denver, CO developing websites and focusing on personal development. He is also on Twitter

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