• Pathloom

What to Bring on a Dispersed Camping Trip

Dispersed Camping: A Two-Part Series

Part 2: What to Bring on a Dispersed Camping Trip, and How to Choose a Campsite

Photo by: Bryan Donoghue


Dispersed camping is an incredibly rewarding experience, provided one is properly prepared with everything needed for the trip in advance. We’ve previously covered what preparations to make at home before even packing the car for the trip. If you haven’t already done so, click here to review that list to make sure you have everything in order prior to packing.


Photo by: Bryan Donoghue

When deciding what to bring on a dispersed camping trip, it’s important to consider how far you’ll have to hike from your car to your site. We’ve written this list with close proximity in mind - you can bring a lot more gear if you only have a 15 minute walk to get to your site versus backpacking for miles on end. With this in mind, redundancies are a very good idea - if you have the room for it, bring extra food, water, clothing, supplies, and anything else you can fit in your car!


We have also covered some non-essential items that aren’t 100% necessary for a dispersed trip, but are at least worth consideration to bring if you’ve got the room for them as they will make your experience much, much more pleasant.


Finally, we’ll wrap up this series by providing some guidelines on how to pick the right location for your dispersed campsite - what to look out for, how to observe proper safety requirements, and how to leave everything the way you found it so the next camper to stumble upon the site can enjoy it as much as you did!


Photo by: Bryan Donoghue



What to bring on a dispersed camping trip:

Shovel - perhaps the most essential dispersed camping tool.

  • Be fire safe! Bury your fire completely and entirely when you depart a site. Once you think it properly buried, put your hand over it. If it still feels warm, mix it around and bury it some more. Once it’s cool, go ahead and (carefully) put your hand directly into the ash and coals to check. If the coals can burn your hand, they can burn the forest down. Continue to mix & bury until the coals are completely cool to the touch.

  • Bury your poop. Relieving yourself in nature isn’t the most fun part about camping, but it is absolutely, positively, going to be a part of your trip - and you want to be sure to follow a few simple rules when doing so. Some people like to lean against a tree, some hang off a tree, some just have themselves a squat. Whatever your preferred method, make sure to choose a location at least 200 feet from a water source to avoid potential contamination. Make sure you’re far enough away from trails and any campsite as well, as the scent of waste can potentially attract wildlife to your presence. Use your shovel to dig a hole at least 6 inches deep (preferably deeper) to bury your waste in. Ideally you would take your used toilet paper with you after you go (bring a ziplock bag!), but at the very least make sure whatever you use is biodegradable, and buried deep, deep underground. Use that shovel one more time afterwards to thoroughly bury everything in the hole before heading back to your site.


Photo by: Bryan Donoghue


Toilet Paper - I don’t think we need to elaborate any further on this one. Bring plenty.


Lights! It gets awful dark at night when dispersed camping!

  • Flashlights - Keep one on you at all times, and keep a spare in your kit just in case. The ones with a string or lanyard attached can also serve as a lantern if you find something to hang it off of. Bring extra batteries.

  • Headlamps may look incredibly goofy, but they’re extremely useful when performing a task that requires both hands such as cooking, or relieving oneself.


Firestarters - pick up a few lighters at a convenience store. Using flint & tinder, or rubbing sticks together, is FAR easier said than done - to avoid extreme headaches just bring a lighter (and a second one as a backup). With most simple Bic lighters, even if they get waterlogged they’ll resume working once dried out - the same cannot be said for matches.

  • Be sure to clear out the area around your fire ring of all brush and flammable objects for at least 5 feet in every direction prior to lighting your fire!

  • If you plan to purchase firewood, make sure you do so locally to prevent the spread of invasive species - and buy extra, as you always go through more than you think you will!

Plastic Bags - plastic bags of all shapes and sizes always come in handy at the campsite, and take up such a small amount of space and weight in your kit. There really isn’t any reason not to bring plenty with you.

  • Trash bags are great for collecting your own waste, as well as anyone else’s that you might encounter along the trail. In a pinch, they can serve as great rain protection too - the high fashion of a Trash Bag Poncho, or a makeshift tarp overhead or under your tent to keep you dry. You can also use them to separate wet clothing from dry within your pack. Bring extras, just in case.

  • Ziplock bags are great for both keeping food fresh as well as storing leftovers for later. They’re also extremely effective for stashing and disposing of, shall we say, less fragrant waste items.

Photo by: Bryan Donoghue


Blades and Other Pointy Things - the classic camping tools. Different people swear by different equipment, here’s a few to consider bringing. Remember: deadwood only! Never chop anything still alive!

  • A pocketknife is the most important item to bring with you on any kind of camping trip. You never know what’s going to need cutting - but it’ll come in handy far more times than you’d think. Consider bringing two - one for normal knifely duties, and one for food - it’s much more sanitary to keep those separate.

  • A folding handsaw or a good hatchet is extremely effective to chop up deadwood logs for the fire. Most hatchets can also double as a hammer for your tent stakes if you flip it around.

Rope - never underestimate the value of a good rope! Nylon is best, they’re plenty durable and extremely lightweight.

  • When hiking, you can use the rope to tie off excess gear to your backpack.

  • At camp, you can use it to help make a shelter from the elements, as a clothesline, or to hang your food and trash high up in the trees to discourage wildlife from raiding your site while you sleep.

First Aid Kit - consider it a little insurance policy. If an accident occurs in the middle of the wilderness, chances are there won’t be anyone around to help. Having a few key items can provide welcome relief in the face of potential disaster

  • Make sure your kit includes a whistle and/or a signal mirror. In a worst-case scenario where you are unable to help yourself, these can be lifesaving additions.

Photo by: Bryan Donoghue


Water - unfortunately, it’s all but impossible to find clean, drinkable water out in nature in today’s day and age. Even if it looks clean, most natural water sources are infested with micro-organisms that can cause sickness and in extreme cases, death. The diarrhea and cramping associated with many of these water-borne illnesses aren’t fun to deal with at home, let alone out on the trail. Since there is no potable water available at a dispersed campsite, you’ll have to pack in everything you plan on utilizing - and then some!

  • Bringing your own water is certainly a safe option. Gallon jugs can be tied to your pack for easy transportation. If you freeze them the night before you head out, they can be used as icepacks to keep things cool as needed (just be sure to dump a little water out before freezing so the plastic doesn’t split)

  • There are a number of water treatment devices that are also viable options for dispersed camping, ranging from pumps, to filters, to tablets, to a good old fashioned pot to boil in.

  • In all honesty, it’s a good idea to have some redundancy with your water arrangements, as you’ll need plenty for drinking, cooking, and dousing your campfire. If you’re bringing jugs, also bring a Lifestraw, or some tablets, or another treatment solution that doesn’t take up too much space in your kit. You can never be too safe when it comes to the availability of drinking water - the closest potable source might be dozens of miles from your site.

Photo by: Bryan Donoghue


Food - food and cooking gear can (and eventually will) fill an entirely separate article. There is so much variance on what each camper prefers for their cooking kit. We’ve covered campfire cooking in the past and will certainly be doing so more in the future, so for now here are a few simple things to consider - in addition to what is on the menu.

  • Fork/knife/spoon/plate. A small, lightweight mess kit like this one should do the trick.

  • Salt, pepper, and olive oil make everything better. Well worth the room in your pack.

  • Coffee (OK, not food, but life-sustaining nonetheless). If you’re a coffee drinker, bring coffee, and do some homework in advance on a proper way to make it using what you have at your campsite.

  • Aluminum foil is incredibly useful. Meat, veggies, or just about anything else can be wrapped up in foil and thrown on/in the fire to cook up. Bring a roll with you in your kit.

  • Camping stoves are extremely useful for a variety of applications at dispersed campsites, and are generally compact enough for easy transportation. Be sure to bring an extra canister of fuel!

  • Cast iron skillets are certainly not recommended if you have a long way to hike, but if not they are probably the best and most versatile way to cook over a campfire.

Photo by: Bryan Donoghue



Non-Essential Amenities and Add-Ons for Dispersed Camping:

  • Bandanas - multi-use - head covering, works as a rag if needed, makeshift Covid mask if you encounter other campers - they have a million uses and take up no space.

  • Sunscreen - Even if it seems overcast, UV rays can still cut through clouds. You’re better off with proper protection, nothing ruins a hike like a backpack rubbing on sunburnt shoulders.

  • Bug Spray - for deep woods trips, don’t try to go the organic all-natural route. We’ve all tried it 100 times before, and nothing works the way DEET works. We don’t say this too often, but when it comes to bug spray - go for the chemicals.

  • Compass, GPS, and satellite communicator - much more important the deeper you go into the wilderness!

  • Inflatable pillow - cheap, weighs nothing, takes up no room in your pack. Yet infinitely more enjoyable to rest your head on than the hard ground!

  • Tarp - if the ground is wet, lay it out under your tent. If it’s overly sunny or rainy, string it up as a shelter.

  • Lantern - very nice way to light up your site at night.

  • Extra socks - always bring more than you think you’ll need.

  • Paper towels - folded up and off the roll so they take up less space, these are very nice to have as napkins, tissues, cleaning supplies, emergency TP, etc.

  • Camping chairs and/or table - there won’t be any sort of picnic bench at a dispersed site.

  • Brush/mat - these are vital for keeping the inside of your tent clean

  • Recreation! Books, music (at a respectable volume of course), playing cards, cameras, telescopes, kayaks, mountain bikes - it’s your trip, make it as luxurious and entertaining as you’d like!


Photo by: Bryan Donoghue


How to Choose a Campsite:

With dispersed camping, it’s even more important to follow Leave No Trace principles when out in nature. It is paramount to not disturb any of the natural beauty around you - you want to keep things clean and wild for the next campers to come through the area. Make every attempt to re-use existing sites - use pre-established fire rings rather than making your own, and set up your tent on bare soil wherever possible to allow grass and plants to continue to grow unimpeded.


Photo by: Bryan Donoghue

As dispersed sites tend to be far more overgrown and unkept than their ‘official’ counterparts, it becomes even more important to abide by fire regulations and practice fire safety - illegal campfires and campfires not extinguished properly at dispersed sites cause wildfires to break out every year. Make sure any brush or anything potentially flammable is cleared at least 5 feet away from your fire ring to avoid catastrophe.


If you are unable to locate any pre-existing campsites to utilize and must make your own, it’s a good thing you were so well prepared to do so! Make sure to set up at least 200 feet away from any water sources to avoid potential contamination or damage to fragile plantlife. Give a wide berth to any developed campgrounds, park areas, or trailheads, as camping near established recreational areas is typically prohibited.


Pick a site that isn’t right in the middle of a clearing, as you want to be inconspicuous and not mar the beauty of the area in any way. You don’t want to tarnish a beautiful meadow with a fire ring and a tent-sized patch of dead grass - go to the very edge whenever possible. That being said, if you are planning on any sort of fire (even a camping stove or fire pan!), make sure there are no low hanging branches overhead that could potentially ignite. Be smart, be safe, and be considerate towards those to come after you've gone.


Dispersed camping is simultaneously exhilarating and serene - exciting to get in touch with nature, experience the outdoors free of the trappings of modern society, and the ultimate way to detach from the ‘civilized’ world and get in touch with your roots, as well as your inner self. Prepare accordingly, pack inclusively, and get outdoors to experience it for yourself!


Photo by: Bryan Donoghue


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

How to Plan for a Dispersed Camping Trip

How to Recreate Safely During the Coronavirus Pandemic

Leave No Trace Principles

The Resilience of the Redwoods: Big Basin’s Rise from the Ashes

Types of Camping

5 Essentials For a Day Hike

8 Essentials For Backpacking


Sign up on our website for exclusive early access to the Pathloom app, and let us help you plan your next outdoor trip! As an early user, you will receive exclusive outdoor guides and information, created solely for you by Pathloom!

Sign up today and we will send you a list of our favorite dispersed camping places in California!

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.





Sign Up For Early Access

Copyright ©2020, Pathloom, Inc. - All rights reserved.