Dispersed Camping on BLM Land

BLM land is one of the best places to find free campsites in the United States.

Over 245 million acres (covering roughly one-tenth of the country) are administered by the Bureau of Land Management with much of that open to dispersed camping and boondocking.

In addition to dispersed camping, the BLM maintains dozens of free (or very cheap) primitive campgrounds for those who prefer a somewhat more traditional camping experience.

While most of these dispersed camping areas and free BLM campgrounds have a 14-day stay limit, several Long-Term Visitor Areas (LTVAs) in the Southwest welcome campers for up to 7 months at a time with an affordable (currently $180) permit.  

Today, I’m going to break down everything you need to know before dispersed camping on BLM land.

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

What Is BLM Land?

Car and teardrop trailer in desert.

BLM land is land managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

An agency within the Department of the Interior, the BLM is responsible for managing these federally-owned public lands for multiple uses.

In addition to camping and other outdoor recreation (like hiking, hunting, and rafting), other managed uses include cattle grazing, mining, timber harvesting, and energy development (both conventional and renewable).

The BLM also works to preserve Native American and other culturally-significant historical sites and artifacts, safeguard paleontological resources (e.g. dinosaur bones), protect wild horse and burro rangeland, and conserve habitat for wildlife, fish, and plants.

As you can see, the agency has a lot going on. For our purposes, we’re only going to focus on those lands open to outdoor recreation (i.e. dispersed camping) from now on.

Learn more about what’s managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

Where to Camp on BLM Land

Person bicycling on BLM land in California.

The Bureau of Land Management offers a mix of dispersed camping and developed campgrounds.

BLM Dispersed Camping 

Dispersed camping is allowed throughout most of BLM’s public lands.

Generally, these are the agency’s unnamed, and often unmarked, open lands. You can set up camp pretty much anywhere here as long as there are no signs restricting camping (such as “day use only”).

You must, for the most part, stick to previously-used campsites along marked roads. Aside from designated Off-Highway Vehicle Areas, you’re not allowed to drive your vehicle off of established roads.

The exception is driving just off a marked road to reach a dispersed campsite. Still, you must take care not to damage any natural habitats (e.g. no cutting down trees or removing bushes) to reach these campsites.

Most dispersed campsites on BLM land are located off of secondary roads. Except in very popular areas, these are never marked. Just look for flat, open areas (many have handmade rock fire rings).

Some named BLM lands (recreation sites/areas, wilderness areas, and conservation lands) also welcome dispersed campers, although the rules are usually slightly different.

I always recommend stopping at (or calling ahead to) the nearest BLM field office for specific dispersed camping info.

BLM Developed Campgrounds

The BLM also operates hundreds of developed campgrounds.

These range from very primitive campgrounds (little more than marked campsites) to full-blown developed campgrounds with restrooms, garbage cans, electrical hookups, and more.

Most, however, sit somewhere in the middle. In my experience, most BLM campgrounds have marked campsites with picnic tables and fire rings. They also usually have vault toilets.

Camping fees vary widely but most BLM campgrounds are quite affordable compared to nearby alternatives. A good portion are completely free.

Unfortunately, I’m not aware of an easy way to specifically search for free BLM campgrounds online.

How to Find BLM Land Near You

Screenshot from FreeRoam showing map of BLM land (shaded in brown) in the American West.

Actually finding BLM land, especially their so-called “public lands,” is somewhat tricky.

Although recreation sites and areas, wilderness areas, and conservation lands show up on most online maps, the unnamed public open lands home to the best dispersed campsites usually don’t.

For example, Google Maps shows some named BLM lands, like national monuments, but doesn’t show all the BLM land in an area.

Google Maps is also notorious for showing inaccurate public lands perimeters not to mention they fail to show most BLM and USFS inholdings.

FreeRoam is a far better option for finding accurate BLM maps. The tool allows you to turn on map overlays for both BLM land and USFS land to see their exact boundaries.

The image above is a screenshot from FreeRoam with BLM land boundaries (in brown) turned on.

Couple these public lands overlays with satellite view to scout out potential dispersed campsites – that you absolutely know are located on BLM land before arriving.

Although I prefer FreeRoam for pinpointing BLM boundaries, Gaia GPS has a public land layer that accomplishes much the same thing.

Avenza Maps is another useful app to find dispersed campsites on BLM. It allows you to download motor vehicle use maps (MVUMs) from the BLM for offline use.

MVUMs are also available straight from the Bureau of Land Management itself. You can view (and download/print) BLM maps for many areas here: https://www.blm.gov/maps

The BLM also offers their own interactive online maps, including this BLM recreational opportunities map and this BLM recreation web map.

Paper versions of MVUMs of nearby BLM lands are also available from most BLM field offices.

Related Post: The Best Apps to Find Dispersed Campsites Near You

BLM Dispersed Camping Rules and Regulations

Canyons on BLM land in New Mexico.

The rules for dispersed camping on BLM land depend on the type of BLM land in question, but a few key points remain true across the board.

BLM Dispersed Camping Stay Limits

You’re typically allowed to dispersed camp for up to 14 days on most BLM lands.

The full 14-day stay rule says that you can camp for a maximum of 14 days in a 28-day period within a 25-mile radius.

After those 14 days are up, you must move to a new campsite at least 25 miles away. At the end of the 28-day period, you’re allowed to camp in the same area again for another 14 days.

Certain BLM lands, especially named ones like recreation sites and wilderness areas, have slightly different rules regarding the 28-day period and the size of the radius.

Enforcement of BLM stay limits is somewhat lenient in my experience. Even in areas that are patrolled regularly, you’ll just be asked to move along if you accidentally overstay. Failure to move along after you’re asked is what will result in a fine.

Most BLM-managed campgrounds, including free ones, also maintain a 14-day stay limit.

Other BLM Dispersed Camping Rules

It’s always essential to follow the Leave No Trace principles when dispersed camping on BLM land.

For example, the Bureau of Land Management strongly encourages you to only camp in previously-used dispersed campsites.

Most areas are open for dispersed camping as long as you don’t have to damage or change the environment to get there. That means no cutting down trees, moving bushes, or pushing aside large rocks.

Please stay out of closed areas (marked with “no trespassing” signs or closed gates) as these are often either environmentally sensitive or potentially private property (BLM lands are often noncontiguous with private inholdings).

Also know that dispersed camping means no services or amenities. Plan to pack out all of your trash (including food waste) and to properly dispose of human waste.

Some BLM lands allow you to bury human waste in a cat hole, but planning to pack it out is always a safe bet. I personally like to use a portable camping toilet to take care of business when dispersed camping.

These basic dispersed camping rules apply to all public open lands (those that aren’t marked with signs or kiosks) managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

The rules and regulations vary slightly for many recreation sites, wilderness areas, and conservation lands. For example, a handful, such as some national monuments, require a free dispersed camping permit.

Also know that these rules don’t necessarily apply to developed BLM campgrounds which will have their own posted rules.

Contact your local BLM field office for more specific info on their dispersed camping rules and limitations.

What About Long-Term Visitor Areas?

The BLM also manages several Long-Term Visitor Areas (LTVAs).

You’re able to camp at these for up to 7 months with a $180 LTVA permit anytime between September 15th and April 15th.

Your 7-month LTVA permit is good at any BLM LTVAs. You don’t have to stay in one campsite the entire time. You’re free to move about as you please.

Other rules apply outside this 7-month period. Some LTVAs are free the other 5 months out of year with a normal 14-day stay limit. However, some of them do still require a small nightly fee.  

Although the Bureau of Land Management considers LTVAs developed campgrounds, it’s more like dispersed camping in a designated area.

There are no marked campsites. Instead, you just set up camp wherever there’s room. Because most LTVAs are in wide-open desert environments, there’s a lot of room to spread out but not a whole lot of privacy.

Although staying at a LTVA is similar to dispersed camping, you can expect shared amenities like toilets and garbage services. A few even offer fresh water and dump stations. At least one provides hot showers.

LTVAs are regularly patrolled by BLM rangers and have on-site LTVA hosts. Indeed, all LTVA permits are sold on a first-come, first-served basis which you usually buy from a host entrance station on your way into the LTVA.

Because LTVAs are frequented by snowbirds and full-time boondockers (the migration usually starts around Thanksgiving), expect them to be busy.

I’ve included a map of the seven current Long-Term Visitor Areas managed by the BLM above.

Out of the bunch, Imperial Dam LTVA is known for having the most amenities (dump stations, fresh water, and even hot showers!) while La Posa LTVA is arguably the most popular thanks to the Quartzsite RV Show (held annually in January).

Let Me Know If You Have Questions 

Still have questions about dispersed camping on BLM land?

I’m more than happy to answer them to the best of my abilities or direct you towards the relevant field office for more information.

Just leave a comment below!

Related Post: Dispersed Camping in National Forests

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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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