Ultimate Guide to Dispersed Camping with Dogs

Planning to go dispersed camping with your dog?

It’s totally possible. But, it does require a little extra planning.

For starters, you need to verify dogs are even allowed at the campsite. You also need to bring the right gear to keep your dog safe and happy. And, of course, you need to use a little common sense to keep your four-legged friend out of dangerous situations.

Here’s what you need to know before camping at a dispersed campsite with your dog.

Are Dogs Allowed?

Yellow Tent With Dog on Mountain Top

Luckily, dogs are allowed at most dispersed camping areas – but not all.

Take a few minutes to check the rules and regulations for the area you’ll be visiting. In my experience, it’s only certain highly-sensitive environmentally-fragile areas that restrict dogs altogether.

Here’s the general lowdown on dog camping regulations on the most popular public lands:

  • National Forests – Every National Forest in the United States welcomes dogs, although there are some restrictions on where they can go. More importantly, most require dogs to be on a leash (usually six feet long or less). Some do allow off-leash dogs as long as they’re under verbal control.
  • Bureau of Land Management Land – Dogs are welcome on most BLM land. But some environmentally-sensitive areas do prohibit pets. Although your dog must be kept on leash on popular trails and in developed campgrounds, your pooch can usually run free (if under verbal control) in backcountry and dispersed camping areas. 
  • National Parks – Unfortunately, National Parks are much less pet-friendly than National Forests and BLM land. Although dogs are welcome in most National Parks, they’re almost always restricted to roads and parking lots. Some National Park campgrounds welcome pets but the vast majority of hiking trails and backcountry areas do not allow dogs at all.

Please remember to abide by all area rules and regulations (including leash laws and, of course, picking up all dog waste) when camping on public lands with your canine companion.

Bring the Right Dog Camping Gear

When you’re miles down a forest service road without any access to normal campground amenities, the necessity of arriving fully prepared (for both you and your pup) is a no-brainer.

Here’s the most important dog camping gear you need for dispersed camping:

  • Dog Bed – Keep your four-legged friend warm and comfortable with a dog bed.
  • Dog Blanket – Although a comfortable dog bed provides insulation from the ground, make sure your dog has an extra blanket in case it gets really cold. Some people like to share their sleeping bag with their dog for the shared body heat. Another alternative is a dog sleeping bag. Yes, they do exist!
  • Dog Bowls – Any old bowls will do, but collapsible dog bowls are all the rage for camping, especially when backpacking with dogs!
  • Leash & Harness – Don’t forget to pack your dog’s leash and harness. Most dispersed camping areas require you maintain control over your dog at all times.
  • Tether System – A dog tether system allows your dog to wander farther than a leash but it’s safer than letting them off leash. This is a must in areas with dangerous wildlife.
  • Safety Light – A safety beacon or, better yet, an LED dog collar will quickly help you locate your dog at night while camping.
  • First-Aid Kit – Anytime you head into the great outdoors with your doggo, it’s essential to pack a dog first-aid kit for any bumps and bruises that come up.
  • Dog Brush – Bring along your dog’s brush or comb to help keep them clean and tangle free during your camping trip.
  • Doggie Bags – Please don’t leave your dog’s poop behind! It’s a huge problem on many of our public lands. Bring doggie bags and always follow the leave no trace principles while dispersed camping.
  • Dog Jacket – Consider bringing a dog jacket if your dog is small or gets cold easy. A jacket is also smart for winter camping and camping in the rain.
  • Dog Life Jacket – My dog is a small breed. I always bring his life jacket if I expect to camp near a lake. He loves to swim but he needs a little help!
  • Dog Boots – Dog booties are hugely helpful for camping with a dog in winter. But they are also beneficial for long hikes or backpacking trips, especially over rough and rocky terrain.
  • Dog Toys – Don’t forget to bring a toy or two! Your dog will appreciate having something to play with while you’re hanging out around the campfire or lounging in the tent.

What About Dispersed Camping with Your Dog in Winter?

Winter camping with your dog (as well as winter hiking) is totally possible! But doing so safely depends on the following factors:

  • Breed – Certain dog breeds are better suited for winter camping than others. The best cold-weather dog breeds are typically larger breeds with dense coats and stout paws. That’s not to say other breeds can’t go winter camping. Just that certain breeds are better suited to snow and cold temperatures than others.
  • Weather – Check the forecast before heading out. Plan your trip around the expected weather. Postpone your trip if conditions become too serious for your dog to safely handle.
  • Equipment – Quality cold-weather camping gear is essential for winter camping. A four-season tent and cold-weather sleeping bag are essential. A tent heater can also help you stay warm. Not only do you need quality gear, but so does your dog. So pack a warm blanket, a winter dog jacket, and snow booties.
  • RV vs Tent – Winter tent camping with a dog is totally possible. It’s actually downright comfortable with a four-season tent and a heating device (a portable heater or a wood stove). But an RV, trailer, or camper van will give you a little extra edge against the elements and typically provides much better insulation.

Is It Safe to Go Dispersed Camping with Small Dogs?

Although camping at developed campgrounds still has it risks for small dogs, the risks are even greater when dispersed camping off the beaten path.

Does this mean you should avoid camping with your small-breed pooch altogether? Of course not! It just means that extra precautions are in order.

Here’s how to keep your small dog safe while dispersed camping:

  • Start Developed – Although dispersed camping is my favorite type of camping, I always recommend camping at a developed campground on your first camping trip with a small dog.
  • Keep Them Close – Small dogs are much easier to lose if they wander off than big dogs. Predators also pose a greater threat. Keep your small dog close with a leash, portable dog fence, or tether system.
  • Make Sure They’re Warm – Small dogs (especially small dogs with short thin coats) get cold easily. Always make sure your dog is warm while camping. Pack warm blankets, a dog jacket, and possibly even a portable heater.
  • Consider a Camper Van Rental – Some small dog breeds have a hard time with tent camping. If your dog just doesn’t like camping in a tent, consider a van rental or an RV rental. We like Outdoorsy – it’s sort of like the Airbnb of RV rentals.

Get Your Dog Ready for Their First Dispersed Camping Trip!

Brown Dog in the Snow While Hiking

Now that you know more about dispersed camping with dogs, it’s time to get ready for your first trip.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind before you head out the front door:

  • Start Small – Never been dog camping before? Start with a short trip. One night is a great start. This allows you to see how much your dog likes camping before committing to several days outside.
  • Health Checkup – Always bring a dog first-aid kit when camping. It’s also important to visit the vet before your dog’s first camping trip. Consider packing a copy of their current health records and writing down the phone number and address of the nearest emergency vet in case of an emergency.
  • ID Tag – Never bring your dog camping without an ID tag on their collar. A microchip is also extremely important.
  • Prepare for Hazards – Camping can be hazardous to dogs. Ensure you know how to avoid poisonous plants and bad water. Follow all wildlife safety best practices. Unfortunately, many campers don’t properly bury or pack out human waste at dispersed campsites. Understand this and take care your dog isn’t eating anything they shouldn’t be.  
  • Vehicle Temperature – According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, any outdoor temperature over 72° is too hot for a dog to be left inside a vehicle. Take this into account when RV boondocking and van camping as well as when running any camping-related errands before you arrive at your dispersed campsite.  
  • Double Check Gear – Whether you’re camping with a dog or camping alone, it’s always important to double check your camping gear before you head out!
  • Dress Rehearsal Still a little nervous? Then consider a trial run at home. Spend the night in your tent in the backyard (or your living room if you live in an apartment) to get your pooch used to your camp setup!

Woof, Woof, Woof!

I hope you have a blast dispersed camping with your dog.

Honestly, not much beats going on a camping trip with your best friend – especially when free camping at a remote, quiet, and beautiful dispersed campsite.

Just be sure to plan ahead so your dog has just as much fun as you!