Family camping hack: Dispersed camping tips

Have you ever been on a road trip, paid around $100 a night to stay at a basic motel, and thought to yourself that you’d rather pay less and see more nature along the way? Or have you ever camped in a campground amid loud neighbors and wished you could find a place to pitch your tent away from the masses? If either question has crossed your family’s minds while traveling, dispersed camping might be a good option for you. If dispersed camping sounds intimidating, we have dispersed camping tips ready for you.

What is dispersed camping?

Dispersed camping simply means camping anywhere in the National Forest outside of a designated campground. No services will be available. such as trash removal, and little or no facilities will be at your disposal, such as tables and fire pits, or bathrooms or showers. However, dispersed camping is free, and you can usually count on finding a campsite where you can be alone in the wilderness, via car instead of hike-in.

You’ll be responsible for packing out everything you pack in (follow Leave No Trace principles), and you’ll need to remember to bring basics you might not think about when camping in campgrounds, such as potable water, toilet paper (and a shovel), and portable chargers for phones, lanterns and the like. Store all your food items in your car or in a bear canister at night, as food storage lockers will not be present. Think of dispersed camping as backpacking, but with your car: you need to be completely self-contained.

So how do you find dispersed camping locations?

This is the tricky part. You can use any road map to locate National Forest Service land in the vicinity in which you want to camp, but the best way to find out what areas are open to dispersed camping is to contact the nearest Forest Service office to the area you wish to visit. Many people drive out on forest service roads into the woods and find a clearing or a spot near a stream or with a view of the mountains. Use maps to find water sources near your desired camp area (but remember it will not be potable).

Only drive on existing roads to prevent resource damage. Dispersed camping is allowed in a one-mile perimeter away from campgrounds and 100 feet from any stream. To prevent resource damage please keep your campsite within 150 feet from a roadway.

Sometimes, though, it’s hard to identify exactly what is forest service land and what is private land. When we’re unsure, we’ve found its sometimes worth spending a few dollars to use Hipcamp.

Hipcamp is a website that mimics AirBnb, but for campsites. Private owners (hosts) post their camping options, which families can search for by location and date. Essentially, Hipcamp sites are dispersed camping on private land with permission. We have paid about $20 per Hipcamp site, paid via the website much as you’d do for AirBnb. The host then contacts you with exact directions to the site. Like when using AirBnb, it’s important to read reviews before booking, to make sure the host will be a good communicator and offer solid directions. And just like when disperse camping on forest service land, it’s crucial to pack everything out and leave the site as nice as when you found it (or better).

Hipcamp is popular with young adults looking to camp in groups (think festival-goers) but is a great option for families as well. Look for options with plenty of space in which to find a private area to camp. On a recent road trip through Nevada, we found a completely isolated Hipcamp location, and enjoyed a night to ourselves amid antelope and a perfectly starry sky. We brought a small stove, potable water, headlamps, food and a tent, and were completely cozy and self-contained for $20 instead of the $100 we would have spent on a not-so-great hotel room in a nearby town.

Have you disperse camped or used Hipcamp? Let us know in the comments!

About the author

Amy Whitley AUTHOR: Amy Whitley is the founding editor of Pit Stops for Kids and content editor of Trekaroo. She writes on staff monthly as a family travel expert at Go Green Travel Green and Practical Travel Gear, and contributes to Outdoors NW as an outdoor adventure traveler. Find Amy at Google.




  1. HipCamp is a real GEM! Great for family camping

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