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Is Dispersed Camping Safe? What You Need To Know Before You Go

Have you ever wanted to take your tent and go beyond the pay-per-night campgrounds that provide all the amenities that make you feel at home for a more natural experience? Dispersed camping might be what you’re looking for: roughing it under the stars in one of America’s beautiful national parks. But you might be wondering, is it safe?

So, is dispersed camping safe? Dispersed camping is safe if you know how to do it properly. As long as you do your research ahead of time, pack appropriately, and leave the campsite as you found it, you can have a safe and exciting adventure outdoors without any problems. 

There is quite a bit to plan for before you pack up your SUV or RV and leave, but it isn’t as daunting as it seems. Use this guide as a starting point to know how to plan your next adventure.

What Is Dispersed Camping?

Dispersed camping has other names: boondocking, dry camping, wild camping, or “roughing it.” Simply put, it’s camping on your own away from a campground with amenities. There are no toilets, showers, or trash cans provided for you. You have to bring along your own versions of these amenities or make do without them.

This type of camping requires a little more attention to detail during the planning stage of the trip because each national park has its own set of rules and regulations that need to be followed. 

Where to Camp

Finding a location for dispersed camping is fairly easy. You can go camping in almost every national park in the United States. The United States Forest Service allows you to search for national parks within each state and will lead you to a page with information about camping availability. 

If you already know which park you want to camp in, visit its website or the park itself to contact a park ranger for more information. You can find maps that will show which areas you can and cannot camp in. Using the satellite view in Google Maps can be a great way to scout out trails that might lead to campsites.

Each park has its own rules and regulations about camping. Research where you are and are not allowed to camp before you arrive at the park. You may find a place that looks perfect online, but upon arriving, you may realize that you can’t drive your vehicle on the only available trail. Visit ahead of time if you’re able to see what kind of areas are provided.

Many parks may not allow dispersed camping near campsites or walking trails, which is another reason that planning ahead is so important.

How to Camp

Camping is a different experience for everybody, so how you choose to prepare is ultimately up to you; however, there are a few essentials you will need:

  • Food
  • Water
  • Clothing
  • Shelter
  • Waste removal

When packing food, water, and clothing, you should pack more than you think you will need, especially when it comes to water. Not only will you need to have water to drink, but you will also need water to wash your body and cooking utensils. Should you injure yourself, you will need clean water to clean yourself with, as well. Purifying local water is an option, but it is best to bring as much filtered water as possible with you.

You should also bring plenty of food with you, especially if you plan to partake in physical activities like hiking or biking. You should bring small packaged snacks with you to take on hikes so you don’t find yourself without food.

For clothing, plan on wearing multiple layers as it may be cooler at night. Watch the forecast closely as you prepare for your camping trip so you can know how much clothing to bring. Plan on wearing clothes several times so you don’t have to bring multiple shirts for each day. Do consider the activities you’ll be doing so you can have backup clothing if your clothes get too dirty to wear again.

Besides food and water, your shelter might be the most important aspect of dispersed camping. How you choose to set up camp is up to you and your desired comfort level: bring a tent, your vehicle, an RV, or a camper. Make sure the national park doesn’t have any kind of restrictions before you arrive. Be aware of local wildlife when choosing your shelter. If you’re not confident in your ability to scare off a bear, you might want to choose an RV to sleep in instead of a tent. 

Finally, waste disposal is another necessary aspect of dispersed camping. A pay-per-night campground provides trash cans and toilet facilities, but these are not provided off the trail. You should use plastic bags that can seal for food and trash and a portable human waste disposal system. This will be discussed in further detail.

Why Dispersed Camping?

Many people prefer dispersed camping over a pay-per-night campground because it’s free. You do have to sacrifice amenities, of course, but saving money on location means being able to spend more money on supplies and activities. 

It’s also a chance to enjoy peace and quiet from society. If you can find a place to camp that is far away from other campers, you will only hear the sounds of nature and yourself. You can relax and recharge from all of life’s stressors under the stars. 

Is Dispersed Camping Safe?

Since quite a bit of preparation is required for dispersed camping, you might be wondering whether or not it’s safe. As mentioned before, it’s safe if you’re prepared. Preparing is not as daunting as it seems. Make sure you know the area well, the upcoming forecast, and potential risks you may encounter.

The following are common concerns that may deter people from dispersed camping. Each concern is valid, but every potential risk can be avoided through careful planning and preparation.

Water Supply 

Water is necessary for life, so it’s natural to worry about having enough, especially if there’s no known water supply near your campsite. It’s important to know how much water you should be drinking on a regular day so you can estimate how much to bring if you plan on being active. 

If you normally don’t drink much water and aren’t sure how much to bring with you, consider trying a water calculator to get an idea. You can also talk to your doctor if you have concerns.

Mel from Adventures of Mel says that her family brings along several five-gallon jugs and refills them at campsites and gas stations when they’re able to. Consider doing this or bringing along several cases of water bottles. Do not litter if you decide to use disposable water bottles. Return the bottles to the case once they are empty so you don’t end up littering, whether on purpose or by accident.

Purifying water is also a viable option if there is a source of running water near your campsite. Don’t drink the water unless you have been told that it is safe. Use one of these three purification methods before drinking the water:

  • Boiling
  • Chemical tablets
  • Filters

Each method has its benefits and drawbacks. Boiling water is the safest method to use, but it takes a while to boil a small amount. You will then need additional time to let the hot water cool down so you can drink it. If you choose this method, bring a pot or two to boil water, and then bring enough spare containers to store the purified water. The containers will need to be sturdy enough to hold hot water.

Chemical tablets typically use iodine to kill bacteria but are said to be ineffective against certain protozoa. They also may be ineffective if the water is too cold or has too much dirt and sand. The flavor of the water may be affected which could potentially cause you to not want to drink it. However, they work quickly, are affordable, and can easily be carried with you, making them a great option for taking on hikes. 

Filters remove bacteria and protozoa. Certain filters can also kill viruses, making them a great option. They typically cost $300 or less and the more expensive ones will be more efficient and durable. Depending on the type of filter you buy, it may not be as portable as chemical tablets or bottles of purified water.

It may be wise to bring at least one of these purification methods with you along with plenty of jugs of drinking water. You never know when you’ll need more water, so it’s better to bring too much rather than not enough.

RV Safety

Many people prefer to take their RV on their dispersed camping trips since they offer convenient amenities like a shower, toilet, and kitchen. It can be a great way to experience the great outdoors without having to give up too much comfort. Many people fear that RVs are unsafe and susceptible to theft.

There are many reasons to not fear burglaries while you’re camping out in the wild. The first thing to consider is location. Not many people are going to scout out national parks for an elaborate heist. If they do feel inclined to steal from campers, they will probably check the pay-per-night campsites that are more heavily populated so they can have a better opportunity to find something worth stealing.

People also know that RVs typically aren’t filled with expensive TVs and computers, making them less of a target. As an extra measure of precaution, don’t advertise that you live in the RV or are spending several months on the road. If you’re a full-time traveler or are planning a long cross-country trip, don’t use stickers or signs that indicate this. It’s better to appear that you’re only on a quick trip so people will assume you don’t have much worth stealing.

Install an alarm system or bring your dog along with you. If you hear someone, making noise should scare them off. You can also use the panic button on your keys; this should alert anyone nearby and will likely have the criminal running.

Know the local laws if you want to keep a weapon with you. Bear spray, pepper spray, or a baseball bat can be beneficial should you have to defend yourself. Make sure these items are allowed into the national parks before you pack them.

Waste Disposal

Disposing of waste, including human waste, might be a factor that deters many people from dispersed camping. It’s not difficult to dispose of this waste, however, although it may be unpleasant for first-time campers.

Food scraps, wrappers, and containers should all be contained in a sealable plastic bag. While food scraps can decompose, wild animals will likely get to them before they ever begin the decomposition process. Sealing garbage away in a bag will hide the smells from the animals and keep them away from your campsite. Another reason it’s important to seal away scraps is that if animals eat food scraps that aren’t a typical part of their diet, they could become sick and it could disrupt their ecosystem.

Cardboard and paper products can be burned in a campfire. This is a great way to keep your fire going and keep your trash under control. Always be cautious when starting a fire. Never leave a fire unattended.

When you have to urinate, be sure to go away from your campsite because the smell might attract wild animals. For other human waste, there are a couple of options. You can bury it at least six inches deep. You can also smear it in the dirt so it can be dried out by the sun. Both methods should be done away from the campsite and away from water sources.

If you would rather have the modern convenience of a toilet, there are portable options available that you can dump at a waste disposal site. Keep in mind that if you choose this method, you will have to pack up the waste and carry it with you until you are able to dump it at a waste disposal center. 

Never relieve yourself near or in a water source. Doing so will risk contaminating the water and attracting wild animals, both of which can cause serious health risks to you, other campers, and the local wildlife. 

Leave the Site the Way You Found It

While you’re camping, you need to think about your actions and how they will affect the campsite long after you have left. You should always leave the campsite looking the same way you found it. The activities you do at the campsite should not impact the local ecosystem in any way.

Always use deadwood for campfires. You should never break off limbs of trees and shrubs to fuel a fire. There will be plenty of deadwood lying around for you to use. Should you have concerns about deadwood availability, bring along firewood with you to use just in case. Remember that garbage such as paper and cardboard can be used to fuel the fire.

As you prepare meals and snacks, keep track of the waste you’re producing. All packaging and scraps should be discarded into a sealed bag that will be thrown away in a trash can or dumpster later. Keep this bag away from where you sleep in case animals do manage to detect its scent.

Do not leave behind any of your belongings. When packing up at the end of your trip, make sure you remember all your furniture, gear, toys, and tools. Although another camper may come to this site soon, they will not want to pick up after you. Also, animals could find your forgotten belongings before another person does and it could disrupt their ecosystem. 

Conclusion

Dispersed camping can be a great getaway for you and your friends and family. Find a national park you love and take some time getting familiar with it by camping outside of a typical campground.

Remember that any fears or reservations you may have about “roughing it” can be taken care of by diligent planning. Plan out your meals and snacks, how much water you should bring, the type of clothing you should wear, and how you will dispose of waste. 

Know the location and its rules ahead of time. Pay attention to signs and blocked roads, and be sure to obey any signs that show an area of the park is closed. Many parks block off certain roads due to damage or flooding, so failure to obey signage could be dangerous. 

It is always wise to plan for the worst-case scenario, even if it’s unlikely to happen. Having a plan for self-defense, a first-aid kit, and water purification methods can ease your fears and guarantee your safety.

Dispersed camping is a safe activity after careful preparation that can be relaxing or exhilarating, depending on what kind of activities you enjoy doing.