How to find dispersed campsites in national forests

RVers and normal people call camping without hookups boondocking, regardless of whether it is on the baking black asphalt in a Walmart parking lot or so far back an old forest service logging road even the coyotes can’t find it.

But you rarely see a magazine ad photo of that sparkling new 40-foot diesel pusher in a Walmart parking lot. So if what you see in the RV ad–a canopy of lofty pine trees on the edge of a wildflower strewn meadow with a gurgling mountain stream flowing through it–looks like the campsite you picture your RV in, then I have news for you. You’re going to have to discover it for yourself, because it won’t be in a Walmart parking lot and it won’t be in a campground either.

Those campsites are called “dispersed” by the Forest Service and BLM, which is a good word for them. They are scattered about, with no directional signs leading you to them, sometimes no room for more than one or two vehicles, not identified in any printed directions, nor located on official maps. They are the best kept secrets of boondockers that have taken the time and effort to find them. So how do you find them?

It is not usually efficient to find a one night free boondock stopover while enroute to a destination, but rather when you have a few days or longer to stay in one place, and are willing to take some extra time to find just the right campsite. One of these options below will work, depending on your and the area’s circumstances, and how much time you have to look.

* Ask at the ranger station or office for directions to any dispersed camping areas that they know of. If you are lucky you will find a patrolling ranger who knows. Buy a map of the forest that shows even the dirt back roads, as well as any photocopied maps they may have. Ask for them. They may not be out and visible.
* Ask other RVers who have been to the forest you are headed for if they know of any dispersed camping areas. If they’re nice–and you’re nice–they might even tell you.
* Head for a forest service designated campground for the first night, then the next day take your tow or toad and explore the side roads for campsites and then move to one.
* Drive slowly through the forest (don’t back up traffic, though) looking for dirt roads that look like logging trucks use (as against jeep trails).
* If you are driving a truck camper, just pull right in and look for a spot, but don’t go any deeper than what looks adequate for a turnaround. If you are adventurous, go for it, even though you may end up backing out if you can”t find a turnaround–which isn’t likely.
* Motorhome drivers, if you are towing, and can see wide spots or probable campsites ahead continue on. I usually unhitch and drive the toad in looking for campsites. When we find a suitable one, we return and pick up the MH and head for the site. As we search we check for low limbs, tight turns, and other obstructions to be sure the MH will fit. If we don’t find a campsite, my wife drives on ahead looking for more dirt roads and I follow in the motorhome. It may take a half hour or more, but eventually you will find a dispersed site.
* If you are towing a fiver or trailer, it is a bit more difficult. I suggest that instead of turning onto an unfamiliar dirt road and being confronted with a sudden narrowing or no place wide enough to turn around, you pull off to the side of the main road–providing there is shoulder enough to get off the road–and park. Then walk in a hundred yards or so and you should be able to tell what lies ahead, or even find a spot just off the road. Even if you find only a so-so spot, stay one night and explore the next day with your truck for a better one.

Over time you will find lots of dispersed campsites. Record them all on your GPS or in a camping log book complete with coordinates, directions, mileage markers, visual signs, and landmarks, so that you can find them again. Your favorite one might be taken, but with backups you can just choose another one. And, you also then have something to share, and can swap dispersed campsite information with other boondockers. And remember–leave your campsite cleaner than you found it.

Bob Difley

Healthy RV Lifestyle

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One thought on “How to find dispersed campsites in national forests

  1. I’m extremely pleased to discover this site. I wanted to thank you for ones time for this fantastic read!! I definitely savored every little bit of it and i also have you saved to fav to see new information on your web site.

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