What Is Designated Dispersed Camping and Why It Matters to You

May 21, 2021 | Boondocking, Camping Tips, Conservation

What Is Designated Dispersed Camping and Why It Matters to You

By Sara Sheehy

In the past few years, some popular boondocking areas in the western United States have transitioned from dispersed camping to designated dispersed camping. While the terminology difference is subtle, the impact to campers can be significant.

With areas like Toppings Lake near Grand Teton and Crested Butte in Colorado switching to designated dispersed camping, we decided it was time to shed more light on this new trend. What is designated dispersed camping? Why are ranger districts implementing it? How does it affect campers? Let’s dig in and find out.

What is Designated Dispersed Camping?

To answer this question, let’s start with what dispersed camping is. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the United States Forest Service (USFS), who both welcome dispersed camping on some of their lands, define dispersed camping as “camping on public lands away from developed recreational facilities.” To simplify even further, it is vehicle-accessible camping, outside of a campground, on public land. Dispersed camping is most frequently found in the American West, though there are options elsewhere in the US, too.

Those who prefer to boondock, which is to camp without amenities, often seek out dispersed camping areas because they are free to use, usually are located in beautiful natural areas, and typically have generous stay limits (anywhere from three days up to a month or longer).

With that definition in hand, what are designated dispersed camping areas? Like dispersed areas, they are vehicle-accessible camping outside of a campground on public land, without amenities. The difference is that they have distinct and defined campsites that campers must use. Instead of camping anywhere in the area, campers must set up in a designated site, usually marked with a sign or placard.

Why Are Some Camping Areas Switching to Designated Dispersed?

Camping areas that are switching to designated dispersed are doing so for several reasons, but it is most often associated with the amount of use the area gets.

Bridger-Teton National Forest, for example, decided to implement designated dispersed camping in popular areas like Toppings Lake and Shadow Mountain. District ranger Todd Stiles shared that management challenges in these places included overcrowding, trash, natural resource damage, unattended campfires, and negative wildlife interactions. They switched over to mandatory designated dispersed campsites, reduced stay limits during peak months, and installed new signs to combat these issues.

Crested Butte, Colorado, has also seen an influx of visitors and some of the management issues that come with overuse. In addition to the same challenges the Forest Service faced in Bridger-Teton, the ranger district at Crested Butte reports that they struggled with campers setting up on too steep of slopes, on unstable soil, or too close to water sources. They are rolling out a new designated dispersed camping plan this summer, with full implementation planned in 2022.

Other areas that have recently moved to or proposed to move to designated dispersed camping include portions of the Sawtooth National Forest in Idaho and Deschutes National Forest in Oregon.

How Does It Impact Me?

When an area switches from dispersed camping to designated dispersed camping, it impacts those who use that space—especially people who were used to enjoying it before the changes were made.

The most obvious impact is that there will be fewer campsites available than there once were. With dispersed camping, you are free to camp anywhere that you can responsibly access, so long as you’re not harming the natural resources, respect all posted rules, and stay away from water sources. While this doesn’t equate to an unlimited number of places to camp, it does give flexibility to where you can set up, especially if you have a small camper.

There is a finite amount of campsites in an area with designated dispersed camping, and once they’re gone, they are gone. There’s no squeezing into a tiny spot that will just fit your rig; you have to move on and find somewhere else to spend the night.

On the plus side, designated campsites are usually well spaced out. They offer some privacy, meaning that unlike the wilder world of dispersed camping, you shouldn’t get unexpected or close neighbors. In many places, this leads to a quieter, more comfortable experience for however long you choose to stay.

Signs at Bridger Teton National Forest

Photo courtesy of Todd Stiles, Bridger-Teton National Forest.

Some ranger districts implement other rules at the same time as designated dispersed camping, including shorter stay limits (to give more people the opportunity to camp in the popular spots), check-ins with on-site camp hosts, and other restrictions to keep the area clean and easier to manage.

While some think that the switch to designated dispersed camping in their favorite areas is a bummer, we are happy to see ranger districts using tools and management strategies to help keep these popular camping areas open. We’d rather take our chances at finding a designated campsite than see an area get shut down completely, as we’ve seen happen in places like Nevada and Arizona.

Check Out These Designated Dispersed Camping Areas

Designated dispersed camping areas are popular for a reason—they are usually in gorgeous natural areas that people flock to for their beauty and proximity to recreation like hiking, biking, sightseeing, and fishing.

Sound pretty good? We think so! Here are a few designated dispersed camping areas worth checking out.

Field of sagebrush with mesa and rainbow in the background.

Hurricane Cliffs Campsites | Hurricane, UT – Photo by: OGGWild

Hurricane Cliffs, Utah: Located next to the well-loved JEM mountain bike trail network, Hurricane Cliffs dispersed camping offers easy trail access and views of nearby Zion National Park.

Toppings Lake, Wyoming: You’d be hard-pressed to find better free campsite views than the gorgeous designated dispersed camping at Toppings Lake, just outside of Teton National Park. Plus, you’ll be just minutes from all of the natural beauty on offer inside the park itself.

RVs surrounded by wildflowers.

Washington Gulch Designated Campsites | Crested Butte, CO – Photo by: Chris

Washington Gulch and Slate River, Colorado: Get that Rocky Mountain high at the designated dispersed camping areas of Washington Gulch and Slate River, just outside of the hamlet of Crested Butte, Colorado. Enjoy access to a seemingly endless trail network while surrounded by wildflowers and waterfalls.