What is Dispersed Camping?

River CrossingThere’s no doubt that maintained campsites are convenient. They typically provide you with some services or facilities (even that means a lone pit toilet and a trash can). If you get lucky you will find running water and firewood for sale. You get to drive right up to your picnic table or fire pit, pay a few dollars, and camp easy.

But sometimes a designated campground isn’t quite what you’re looking for. You may want to save your dollars and camp for free, or you’d like to hone your woodsman skills in a more primitive camp setting, or maybe you just want to escape the circus that is a KOA campground. If any of these apply to you, you’re looking for dispersed camping.

So, what is dispersed camping?

Dispersed camping is camping that takes place on National Forest land, not including designated campgrounds. Dispersed camping does not provide you with any type of services or facilities. It’s just you and the woods. Dispersed camping is is free of charge.

The short and sweet definition of dispersed camping is free camping in the National Forest, but it’s not quite as simple as driving up to the woods and pitching a tent. There’s a handful of rules and regulations that go along with dispersed camping. Here are a few examples of dispersed camping rules.

  • You must camp at least 200 feet from streams, lakes, rivers, and other bodies of water.
  • You must camp at least 300 feet from developed roads.
  • You must camp 300 feet from developed trails.
  • You may camp at the same location for no more than 14 consecutive days.
  • You may not camp near to established recreation areas (trailheads, maintained campgrounds, etc.)
  • You may not camp in meadows or clearings (you’re not wildlife, so stay out of sight!)

The exact regulations differ from area to area. Some forests allow you to camp within 100 feet of water, others require you to camp 300 feet away from water. Some forests allow you to camp in the same location for as many as 16 consecutive days. It’s important to do your research before heading out for a dispersed camping trip.

Here are a few more things to consider for dispersed camping.

  • Only collect fallen wood.
  • It’s important to research an area before you head there. Check for things like burn bans, what type of wildlife you might encounter, whether or not it’s hunting or mating season, what to do if you encounter wildlife, etc.
  • Pack it in, pack it out, and practice the Leave No Trace principles.
  • Make efforts to camp in locations that have been used before. Look for clearings or rock rings. This will help limit your impact on the environment.
  • Always treat your water; you can’t see cryptosporidium or giardia.
  • Never leave a campfire unattended.

Dispersed camping requires more responsibility than camping at a maintained campground. You have to be mindful about your actions and the how those actions affect the environment and the experiences of others. Use common sense. Don’t drive through meadows, don’t chop down trees, don’t throw your trash in the wind, and put out your fires.


  1. Rasooljan says:

    Hey Paul and et al;Just wanted to let you know that you’re now on the Allnorth cnpmaoy intranet. We’ll be following your trip. Good luck and have a great time!

  2. […] at Arkansas state parks, the campgrounds managed by the NPS along the Buffalo River, or enjoy dispersed camping for a more authentic camping […]

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