Designated Dispersed Camping Explained

A growing number of dispersed camping areas are transitioning towards designated dispersed camping.

Although it’s still not very common, except in the most high-use locations, there’s a decent chance you’ve come across this practice on public land near you or at least heard about it somewhere online (including here on Campnado). 

To help you make sense of this new phenomenon, I break down what designated dispersed camping is and how it might affect you.

Please always follow the Leave No Trace principles when dispersed camping, especially packing out all of your trash, including human waste.

What Is Designated Dispersed Camping?

Road through Alabama Hills.

“Designated” and “dispersed” don’t typically go together when it comes to camping. 

As it’s traditionally been defined, dispersed camping is when you set up camp outside of a developed campground, usually in national forests or on BLM land.

You’re usually allowed to set up camp just about anywhere, with few restrictions, although you’re always encouraged to select previously-used campsites whenever possible. 

Designated dispersed camping is simply a new spin on the traditional form of dispersed camping where you must camp in designated campsites only.

Like regular dispersed camping, designated dispersed camping almost never comes with the amenities you’d expect to find at a developed campground. Don’t expect things like: picnic tables, trash bins, or restroom facilities.

Enforcement at designated dispersed campsites varies. However, the fact that this new practice is most common at very popular locations with very high-use means that enforcement is usually quite strict. 

TLDR: Designated dispersed camping is simply dispersed camping except you must camp in designated campsites only. 

Why Is Designated Dispersed Camping Becoming More Common?

View from back of vehicle looking towards Sedona.

The rise of designated dispersed camping parallels dispersed camping’s incredible boom in popularity over the past few years.

Although it was already growing previously, dispersed camping absolutely took off in the spring and summer of 2020, thanks largely to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Not only was outdoor recreation one of the “safer” activities during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, but many people had a lot more free time on their hands than usual – and, some, a little more money too.

Couple this increase in campers with actual campground closures (most campgrounds were closed for at least the first couple months of the Covid-19 lockdowns) and it’s easy to see why more people than ever before flocked to national forests, BLM land, and other public lands. 

This boom didn’t let up and, in fact, dispersed camping use almost doubled from 2020 into 2021. However, this growth has seemed to taper off somewhat into 2022 and now into 2023.

All of this is to say is that designated dispersed camping is directly correlated to this huge increase in public lands use. 

And, with this increase in use have come countless inexperienced or irresponsible campers unfamiliar with basic dispersed camping best practices and outdoor ethics, including the ever-so-important Leave No Trace principles

What does this irresponsible use look like? 

Think: leaving behind trash, improper disposal of human waste, overstaying maximum stay limits, camping in off-limits areas, camping too close to water sources, cutting down trees and other plants, feeding wildlife, improper food storage, illegal campfires (including during fire bans), and so much more.

In my personal experience, there was a huge increase in dispersed camping misbehavior from 2019 to 2020, especially in terms of left-behind trash and improperly disposed human waste. And this misbehavior hasn’t let up since.

Designated dispersed camping is an attempt to control overuse and limit this abuse in very popular or environmentally-sensitive areas, especially on public lands near national parks and other major attractions.

The goal is multi-faceted: reduce the impact on the land and wildlife, increase the enjoyment for all humans who use the land, and avoid future shutdowns or restrictions. 

In the past, some heavily used dispersed camping areas were shut down completely, so my hope is designated dispersed camping allows the most popular areas to stay open – albeit, in a somewhat restricted form.

Where Is Designated Dispersed Camping Now Required?

Tent in Alabama Hills.

* This is a running list we update regularly.

Here are some of the areas where designated dispersed camping is now required:

  • Arizona – Pumphouse Wash near Flagstaff has long required you camp in designated campsites. Loy Butte Road near Sedona recently switched to a designated approach.
  • California – You don’t have to camp in marked campsites, but you must now dispersed camp only in designated areas in the popular Alabama Hills. A free informational permit is also required. 
  • Colorado – Parts of the Gunnison National Forest near Crested Butte made the switch to designated dispersed camping in 2021, including Washington Gulch as well as Brush Creek, Cement Creek, Gothic Road, Kebler Pass, Lake Irwin, and Slate River.
  • Idaho – The Stanley Lake Complex of Sawtooth National Forest now requires you to camp in designated dispersed campsites only.
  • Wyoming – The most popular dispersed campsites in Bridger-Teton National Forest near Jackson and Grand Teton National Park are now designated, including Curtis Canyon, Pacific Creek, Shadow Mountain, Spread Creek, and Toppings Lake. The Vedauwoo Designated Dispersed Campsites in Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest are another example.

Please send us an email (to: jake@campnado.com) or leave a comment below if you know of any other designated dispersed campsites not included on our list. 

What Does This Mean for You?

View of mountains near Crested Butte.

The biggest impact of designated dispersed camping is that you aren’t guaranteed a campsite anymore.

Designated dispersed campsites are all first-come, first-served. And, if they’re full when you arrive, you’re out of luck and must camp somewhere else. 

This is why it’s important to arrive early, ideally by the late morning (and, better yet, on a weekday) if you plan to camp in a designated dispersed area, especially during the summer months, to ensure you nab a spot for the night. 

In very popular locations, like those near national parks, it’s important to have a handful of backup options in mind just in case every designated campsite is already full.

Many designated dispersed camping areas are also implementing additional rules, such as shorter stay limits (e.g. 3 nights or 5 nights instead of the usual 14 nights), and requiring free educational permits (found online, at a ranger station, or from a camp host) that outline area rules, fire restrictions, and Leave No Trace principles.  

Personally, I’ve enjoyed my time at the designated dispersed campsites I’ve visited. It’s a bummer you can’t set up camp anywhere anymore (especially if all the campsites are full), but it’s often much less crowded than previously – not to mention a whole lot cleaner. 

Plus, there’s often actually more privacy at designated dispersed campsites as the marked campsites are still quite spread out and no one is allowed to create a new campsite very close to you. 

There’s not much we can do to prevent these changes from continuing, aside from always following the area’s rules as well as abiding by the Leave No Trace principles – and encouraging others to do so too. 

Although I certainly hope designated dispersed camping doesn’t become the norm, I personally think it’s a move in the right direction for the most popular locations that experience the highest use.

Let Me Know What You Think

I’d love to hear about your experiences with designated dispersed camping if you’re willing to share.

Likewise, I’m happy to answer any additional questions you have about these new changes to the best of my ability. 

And, as mentioned above, please let me know if you discover a new designated dispersed camping area we haven’t included on our list above.

Just leave me a comment below!

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Post written by Jake Heller, the founder of Campnado. Read all Jake's posts. Or reach out to him directly: jake@campnado.com

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