Well, we are off to Lake Tahoe tomorrow. It will be a long driving day with an interesting drive between the desert floor and the 11 mountain passes to traverse along the way. Needless to say, I think we will drive separately. We have been at Great Basin NP for the last 3 days. What a different environment and scenery than where we came from in Colorado. The Great Basin stretches from the California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, through most of Nevada, to Utah’s Wasatch mountains. It is HUGE! The G...
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The Rise in Designated Dispersed Camping
There’s nothing quite like camping in the great outdoors. And while some campers prefer the amenities that can be found at a developed campground, which can range from flush toilets, showers and RV hookups to even swimming pools, playgrounds and other deluxe amenities, others prefer the freedom, solitude, adventure and spontaneity to be found in dispersed camping. In some cases it’s about necessity. With the increase in required reservations at state and national park campgrounds, sometimes dispersed camping is the only option available.
Dispersed camping, also known as primitive camping or boondocking, refers to camping outside of a developed campground on public land. There are no amenities or services available, but then there are also no fees. Dispersed campsites are usually first-come, first-serve, with no need for reservations. It used to be that you could camp just about anywhere dispersed camping was allowed on public lands, with a few limitations, like how far away from the road and how close to waterways (typically at least 200 feet) your campsite could be, along with limits on length of stay, noise and lighting, whether or not fires are allowed and an adherence to the Leave No Trace principles. With national forests spanning 192 million acres and BLM managing 245 million acres across the United States, or about 20% of the country, that’s a lot of land.
Prior to 2020, camping was already increasing in popularity, but the COVID-19 pandemic really drove people outdoors in unprecedented numbers, including to go camping, especially those who have never done so before. According to the Kampgrounds of America’s Annual North America Camping Report, the number of first time campers increased five-fold from 2019 to 2020. Dispersed camping also saw a big increase in popularity, with numbers doubling from 2020 to 2021, according to data from the BlueRibbon Coalition.
With the increased popularity of dispersed camping, particularly among first time campers who didn’t always know the rules or etiquette involved, came increased stresses on the land and resources (including staff working on public lands), and an increase in bad behavior. More and more people were driving, camping and starting fires where they were not supposed to, cutting down trees and not following other rules for dispersed camping. Trash, including human waste, were not being disposed of properly. In some areas, entire campsites and vehicles were being abandoned. It got so bad that some areas had to be closed to camping entirely, while other areas started implementing restrictions to dispersed camping.
I encountered these restrictions myself on a recent road trip through the Alabama Hills National Scenic Area, which covers 30,000 acres in Southern California near the Eastern Sierra and Lone Pine. Large sections of BLM land that had formerly been available for dispersed camping were now off limits to camping. Whereas dispersed camping used to be allowed in the popular Movie Flat area, camping is now no longer allowed in the areas to the west of Movie Road. Other areas within the Alabama Hills have also been marked with “No Camping” signs. Eventually, there will only be 12 areas where dispersed camping is allowed (as per this map) and an informational permit will also be required for dispersed camping at some point. The BLM is encouraging campers to use the BLM-managed Tuttle Creek Campground, the Inyo County-managed Portuguese Joe Campground and the Inyo National Forest-managed Lone Pine Campground, but those campgrounds combined only offer around 150 campsites in total.
Nor is Alabama Hills the only area that has moved to restrict dispersed camping. In the past few years, several national forests and other public lands across multiple states have moved to a system of designated dispersed camping, where campers must use designated sites, or have otherwise limited camping entirely in certain areas. Some of the popular dispersed camping areas affected include near Crested Butte in the Gunnison National Forest in Colorado, parts of the Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming, parts of the Sawtooth National Forest in Idaho and areas near Moab and Zion National Park.
For those who prefer dispersed camping, this means less available spots overall, at a time when competition for those spots is also increasing. Many established sites that had previously been used for dispersed camping, particularly popular ones, will continue to be available under designated dispersed camping. It’s the illegal and unsustainable sites, including ones on fragile soil and environments, steep slopes, ones that are too close to waterways or that have a negative impact on wildlife or cultural resources that will be closed to camping. According to the BLM, the majority of the impacts to soils, vegetation, wildlife and cultural sites occur from the initial use as a campsite, while additional campsite usage, even at high levels, at impacted and hardened sites usually had a fairly minimal additional impact.
According to the BLM, having more designated dispersed campsites would improve the access to such campsites, since campers would likely have “an easier time getting to sites and finding them because sites will be easily visible, dispersed logically over accessible areas, and located near vehicle access points.” This may cut down on inexperienced campers illegally camping in spots where they are not supposed to camp.
There is some logic to having some restrictions. According to the BLM (as reported by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance), one of the benefits would actually be to enhance the enjoyment of other recreationists out enjoying public lands, “Designated campsites would not be places within view of popular biking, hiking or 4x4 routes and would be placed far enough apart so that visitors do not feel crowded.” There may also be a reduction in how long campers can occupy a dispersed campsite. Where 14 to 16 days were fairly typical maximum stay periods in many dispersed camping areas previously, now some designated dispersed campsites are limited to as little as 5 days. In some cases, campers may also have to check in with on-site camp hosts, and there may be other restrictions to help manage the area and keep it clean. The benefit would be an opportunity to educate inexperienced campers on the rules and responsibilities of dispersed camping, and hopefully lead to a reduction in bad behavior.
Unfortunately, the trend to move to designated dispersed camping is unlikely to change anytime soon. Dispersed campers will need to be aware of such restrictions and make adjustments to their plans accordingly. If it cuts down on bad behavior and lessens the impact on the land, then overall, this could be a good thing, as it would preserve the land for future generations to use. It’s certainly better than having entire areas closed to camping entirely. Time will tell how the changes are implemented and the impact they will have. In some cases, the move to designated dispersed camping is still in proposal stages, which means that there’s an opportunity for dispersed campers to make their opinions known and to help shape and guide the future of dispersed camping going forward.
Areas where camping areas have been closed or have moved to dispersed camping (or are being proposed):
Coconino National Forest: designated dispersed camping in some areas.
Prescott National Forest: parts of the forest were closed to camping for 2 years from Jan 7, 2019 due to overuse, overcrowding and too much trash (more than 8,500 tons in a year).
Alabama Hills: No camping west of Movie Road; 12 areas open to dispersed camping (as per this map), and information permits to be required. Find the management plan here, and the latest information here.
Eastern Sierra: Find the camping map here, including areas that are not open to dispersed camping.
Gunnison National Forest: around 20,000 acres, including near Crested Butte, are now under designated camping rules, though over 1 million acres are still available for dispersed camping. Find more information here.
Sawtooth National Forest: dispersed camping in the Stanley Lake Complex is now designated and marked.
Hoosier National Forest: proposal to move to designated dispersed camping and closure of eight campsites along Hickory Ridge Road.
Deschutes & Ochoco National Forests: dispersed camping limited to existing, designated or defined sites, as per alternative 3.
Army Corp of Engineers Portland District: restrictions at The Dalles and John Day dams that include limits on primitive camping, 7- or 14-day limits within 30 consecutive days, and some primitive camping areas being turned to day use only.
Moab: designated dispersed camping in the Klondike Bluffs Mountain Bike Focus Area and nearly 160-acre parcel of land. Find the latest rules here (within the documents tab).
Hurricane Cliffs: Near Zion National Park and next to JEM mountain bike network has moved to designated dispersed camping.
Bridger-Teton National Forest: at least seven areas in Jackson District (including Shadow Mountain, Curtis Canyon, Toppings Lake, Spread Creek and Pacific Creek) are now designated dispersed camping, with a 5-day limit from May 1 to Labor Day.