Backcountry vs Dispersed Camping

Backcountry and dispersed camping are popular ways to spend time outside in the wilderness with few other campers around. Whether you plan on going primitive or dispersing with the luxuries of your vehicle there are many free or low cost places that will get you away from the crowds and into nature.

Backcountry and dispersed camping are both done in remote locations and require you to bring all the equipment and food you’ll need for your stay. Backcountry camping refers to locations where there is no motorized vehicle access so your gear needs to be carried in. Dispersed camping can be done in the backcountry or with the luxuries of your van or RV from a roadside pull off.

There are many similarities and differences to each style of camping and each requires different skills and knowledge. We’ve compiled a breakdown of everything to make it easy to get the most out of your next camping trip.

ID 8583711 © Timothy Epp |

What is Dispersed Camping

To put it simply, dispersed camping is camping outside of a recognized campground. It has also been called wilderness camping or primitive camping, and it’s typically done in State and National Parks and Forests as well as Bureau of Land Management lands. 

Unlike a traditional campground, you don’t need a reservation to camp and you generally don’t need a permit. Having said that, some National Parks and Monuments will only let you disperse camp in certain areas and some do require an actual permit. 

In a campground you enjoy certain luxuries and services like toilets, garbage disposal, and clean water. When you’re dispersed camping, those services may or may not be available and generally are not. Some parks will put pit toilets, bear lockers, etc. in dispersed camping areas that are especially popular, but for the most part you leave those amenities behind when you venture beyond the campgrounds.

You may or may not be able to access dispersed camping areas from a road, and oftentimes if there is a road it’s a service or access road of sorts. If you can get to your dispersed camping spot by vehicle, then you are not limited in how much gear, equipment, etc. you can carry – unlike backcountry camping.

Wilderness Camping
ID 82261297 © Tyler Lillico |

What is Backcountry Camping

Backcountry camping is often called backpacking, and for good reason: everything you’re going to take with you has to be able to fit into your backpack. Backcountry campsites cannot be accessed with a motor vehicle and you tend to be much more secluded from your fellow campers.

Backpacking gets you much closer to nature than other camping methods simply because there are less people, cars, etc. to scare away the wildlife. Beware of any animals that seem too comfortable with humans, and always follow proper food storage guidelines.

You’re also going to need to find wood to get a fire started and get your meals made unless you bring a portable stove, and you won’t have any of the comforts or amenities of a traditional campground. This includes clean water, and you’ll need to make sure you bring a water purifier with you to avoid harmful microorganisms.

Some State and National Parks will have designated areas for backcountry camping just like they do with dispersed camping, and similarly you don’t usually need a permit but it’s always good to check. Some areas may also have a limit on how many people you can camp with per group, unless of course you prefer to camp solo.

When backpacking your goal is to make your pack as lightweight as you can so that you don’t have to carry as much on your back. Your food, your equipment, your clothes, and everything else has to be carried out to your campsite, so many products are designed for the purpose of backpacking to be as lightweight as possible. 

Since the gear is specialized, however, it does tend to be more expensive than regular camping materials and you are more reliant on your gear if anything goes wrong. That’s why it’s very important to have some basic nature survival skills and first aid knowledge so that you can stay safe. 

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What Do I Need For Dispersed Camping

The best answer to this question unfortunately is it depends. You may be camping 2- feet from a well-maintained access road, or you may have to travel a half mile away from your vehicle in order to find a suitable campsite. No matter where you end up, however, the basics tend to stay the same.

If you’re planning to do some backcountry camping it’s important to bring the gear you need without overloading your pack. For a comprehensive list of the gear you’ll need to make the get the most out of your trip check out our article on The Best Minimalist Camping Gear.

If your next camping adventure won’t stray too far from your vehicle, have a look at our recent article on What To Bring Camping in a Tent.

Guidelines For Dispersed Camping

Several State and National Parks and Forests alike have specific guidelines that need to be followed in order to keep the environment, your friends, and yourself safe during your camping trip. Most of the information can be found on the website for each park.

To start, as I mentioned there are oftentimes areas in each park that are designated for dispersed camping. This is done to protect the natural environment and resources, and whenever possible you should try to camp where it’s obvious someone else has camped before to lessen your overall footprint. 

Distance From Roads, Water and Trails

You have to be at least 150 feet from a roadway in order to minimize resource damage, and you have to be 100 feet from any streams to prevent contamination. You are not allowed to camp within 1 mile of a designated campground or trailhead.

Size of Group

There is no hard and fast limit on how many people you can go dispersed camping with at a time, but if you are planning on hosting a large party then you do need a special permit for more than 75 people. 

The larger the group you camp with the larger your environmental footprint is likely to be, so try to be conscious of how you’re affecting the land around you if you do find yourself in a large group.

Length of Stay

There is no rule about how many nights you can dispersed camp at a time as a whole, but there is a rule about how long you can camp in a single site. You can stay in the same campsite for 16 days before you have to move at least five linear miles from your current location. 

Once you have reached 16 days at a campsite you are no longer allowed to come back to it for a full year afterwards. This rule is predominantly for resource management; to make sure that one area isn’t impacted too heavily by camper presence.

Picking the Right Location

As I mentioned you should try to camp where others have camped previously, but if that’s not available then you should try to find a bare patch of dirt. Putting your tent here will make sure that you aren’t killing any grass and other plants.

Try to avoid the middles of meadows and clearings so that you aren’t as exposed to other campers, and last but not least try and pick somewhere that is relatively level.

Yellowstone Map
ID 88845296 © Jason Kolenda |

Where Can I Find Dispersed Camping

The easiest way to find dispersed camping areas is to look ahead of time before your trip. Most park websites have information about what areas are designated dispersed camping zones and it’ll save you a lot of trouble on the back end.

If you’re already on the road, stopping in at a regional tourist information center is a great way to get information. These offices and kiosks typically have a local representative familiar with the area who are happy to assist with finding a place to suit your needs as well as provide maps and booklets to get you there. 

If you do end up in need of a camping spot and you’re not sure where to go, you can try seeing what the local signage says to get an idea of the area. Official campgrounds will always be labeled in the parks and you are more likely to find a park ranger to ask around one of them.

Many local restaurants and businesses also carry brochure cases that advertise the local attractions, and these brochures often have lots of helpful information about camping areas. If you can visit the visitor center of the park you’re in (assuming it has one), then that would be your best bet.

Popular Locations

The following are some of the most popular places for dispersed camping, and each will have the same general rules and guidelines as the others while offering their own unique features. 

  • National Forests
  • National Grasslands
  • National, State, County and City Parks 
  • Bureau of Land Management (BLM)
  • Wildlife Management Areas (WMA)
  • Trailheads – depending on where they’re at

Apps and Websites For Camping Locations

We’re living in the age of technology, so why not take advantage of it in order to get the best camping experience? Each of these sites and apps will give you invaluable information about the best places to camp along or at your destination.

Tips For Dispersed and Backcountry Camping

When things go wrong in a campground setting, it tends to be more of an inconvenience than anything. When things go wrong in the backcountry, however, it tends to be more serious. That’s why being prepared is the best thing you can do to have a safe and fun trip, and hopefully these tips will help you out.

Be Comfortable with Your Gear

The last thing you want on your camping trip is to be trying to figure out how to use your gear and/or figure out why it’s not working. Make sure you test everything out ahead of time so that you don’t find yourself in a bad situation in the middle of nowhere.

Check the Weather

Know what temperatures and conditions to expect for your camping trip and pack accordingly, but also be prepared for the opposite. Even if your weekend is supposed to be sunny and 75 it still doesn’t hurt to have your rain fly and galoshes on hand just in case.

Don’t Travel Alone and Let Others Know Your Plan

You’re going to want to let your friends and family know where you’re going and how long you’re going to be there just in case something happens and you’re unable to call for help. Let them know what trails are nearby as well. You also don’t want to travel alone so that if anything serious happens you’ll have a buddy to help you out. Plus, camping is always more fun with a friend!

Respect Your Area

As I mentioned, you want to make as little of an impact on your surroundings as possible when you’re camping. Clean up after yourself, take only photographs, and leave only footprints when you go.

You also want to respect fire safety precautions and follow any fire guidelines the parks may have in place. Many wildfires have been started by backcountry and dispersed campers not keeping a close enough eye on their fires or ignoring dangerous conditions.

Closing Thoughts

Dispersed camping and backcountry camping are great ways to connect with nature and find some privacy in the scenic parts of the US. If you prepare ahead of time and follow all of the guidelines, you may have so much fun you never want to stay at an actual campground again.


Beau is an electrical engineer with a knack for DIY repair and construction. When he's not tinkering with his projects he's on the road travelling and enjoying an exciting lifestyle with his young family.

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