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How to Plan for a Dispersed Camping Trip

Dispersed Camping: A Two-Part Series

Part 1: How to Plan for a Dispersed Camping Trip

Photo by: Bryan Donoghue


As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact our communities, established campgrounds continue to be overwhelmed with the increase of traffic to their sites. You may have found that many of your go-to camping areas are now booked up for weeks or months in advance. You may be a newcomer that wanted to try out camping this season, but were discouraged when you were unable to find a proper site. Rather than letting these circumstances prevent you from a desperately needed outdoors escape, consider another option - dispersed camping.

Dispersed camping is known by many names, and comes in many different forms. Primitive camping, backcountry camping, overlanding, boondocking - all are variants of what is referred to as dispersed camping. The common thread throughout all these variations is that you are camping in an area with no designated campsite - no facilities, no potable water, no picnic table or grill, no ranger station to check into upon arrival - none of the things one is accustomed to seeing at a typical developed campground. The lack of these amenities can make for an incredibly exciting and rewarding experience, but only if one is properly prepared.

Photo by: Bryan Donoghue

In this two-part series, we will lay out how dispersed camping differs from typical car camping at a developed campground - in terms of what to plan for in advance and what to bring on the trip. These articles have been written with dispersed car camping in mind, rather than an extensive backpacking trip - meaning the weight of what you are bringing is not as impactful as it might be if you had to hike for miles before setting up camp.

In this article, we have covered how to properly plan for a dispersed camping trip - what you will need to do before leaving your house. In part two, to be released in just a few days, we will review the essentials you’ll need to pack your car up with, with an emphasis on what is needed in a dispersed situation in addition to what you’d bring on a ‘normal’ trip.

Photo by: Bryan Donoghue

What to do before a dispersed camping trip:


Call the rangers (ex. your destination’s local Forest Service or BLM offices):

  • Check to see if any dispersed camping permits are necessary in the area. Permitting is an important strategy utilized by rangers to ensure an area doesn’t become overcrowded, which can lead to damage or destruction of natural beauty.

Photo by: Bryan Donoghue

Check the local weather forecast, and plan accordingly. Bring a beanie and a heavy jacket if it’s going to be cold, rain gear if there’s a chance of precipitation, etc.

Check the local Air Quality Index (AQI). This is especially important on the west coast this year, where wildfires are having an immense impact on the breathability of the air even hundreds of miles from their active location!

Familiarize yourself with natural hazards and plan accordingly. Be able to spot poison ivy/oak/sumac - and stay far, far away from it. Know how to protect yourself (and your food!) from regional wildlife in the unlikely event you encounter any.

Photo by: Bryan Donoghue

Clean your boots. Dirt from previous trips can contain seeds that introduce invasive species into new areas, which can have disastrous effects on local plant-life.

Preparing food prior to your departure can make life much easier at the campsite. Here are a few articles on meal ideas.

Vehicle check - if you’re traveling off the beaten path, make sure your car is ready for the trip!

  • Ensure you’re equipped with a spare tire, portable jump starter, snow chains, etc. A bag of sand or kitty litter works wonders to get your car out of mud or snow.

  • Look into the road quality leading to your preferred camping area. Often you’ll find yourself on uneven dirt roads that not all vehicles can handle! Trust your instincts - if the road seems too rocky, or narrow, or otherwise harrowing - turn around when safe to do so and find a new location!

Plan your route in advance:

  • Pick a general area for your trip, and have a few backup ideas just in case your initial location is occupied. Identify several roads within that area that would be proper targets, look at satellite imagery online and perhaps consult the local rangers for ideal sites. For worst-case scenarios, have a developed site or hotel in mind as a backup plan in the event you can’t find a proper unoccupied dispersed site.

  • Have paper maps AND maps pre-downloaded on your phone. Paper maps are good insurance against your phone running out of battery while you’re out. Ensure everyone in your group also has their offline maps situated as well.

  • Remember that you can’t camp near campgrounds, picnic areas, or trailheads - make sure the campsite(s) you have in mind are far enough away from these landmarks to comply with local regulations. Explore the area after identifying a site to make sure you’re not on someone else’s campground, or a trail.

  • Plan to camp at least 100 feet from any stream or water source. The vegetation that grows near water tends to be far more fragile, meaning you could end up having a far more negative impact on the area than you intended.

  • Check local limits on the duration of stay in any particular area - many regions prohibit dispersed camping in a single area for more than 14 days at a time.

  • Understand that recreating during the Covid-19 pandemic can present additional challenges that need to be addressed - read our article on the subject to ensure you’re prepared!

Make sure everyone accompanying you on your trip is as well-prepared as you are for your dispersed camping experience!


The key to dispersed camping, as with so many other outdoor adventures, is proper preparation. Since nothing is provided to you at the site, you’ll need to put in the work in advance to ensure you’ll be able to enjoy and appreciate the experience. Do so, and your trip will be unforgettable. Don’t do so, and your trip may still be unforgettable, just not quite in the way you’d want it to be! Check back into Pathloom in a few days for part two of this series, covering everything you need to bring with you for an incredible dispersed camping experience!

Photo by: Bryan Donoghue



Check out these other articles by Pathloom which you may find helpful:

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Pathloom is a Bay Area-based technology startup on a mission to get more people outdoors, more often by reimagining the way people discover the outdoors.



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