BLM Dispersed Camping: Camping For Free in the US

Getting outdoors, or rather getting out of our homes, has been on our minds a lot the past year. Camping is a great way to get outdoors, get out of your house, and have a backyard adventure. We want to help you explore the outdoors without breaking the bank.

To do that, let us introduce BLM dispersed camping. 

What is BLM?

BLM stands for the Bureau of Land Management. It is a Department of the Interior division that is responsible for overseeing more than 245 million acres of undeveloped public lands, including mountains, forests, rangelands, arctic tundra, and deserts.

You can find BLM land across the country but in a much higher concentration out west starting at the Rocky Mountains. The land managed by BLM is maintained using taxpayer money, making it available for public use, typically free of charge. 

All references to public lands in this post refer to BLM land.

Example of amenities available at a BLM designated campsite.

Developed Campgrounds vs Dispersed Camping

There are two types of camping available on BLM public lands.

Developed Campgrounds: These are maintained and often have amenities such as fire pits, picnic tables, and sometimes bathrooms. However, with amenities comes a price tag, which varies in cost depending on the site.

Dispersed Camping: This is something many are unfamiliar with. Dispersed camping is when you are camping on public land but not at a designated campsite. Other names for dispersed camping include boondocking, dry camping, or off-grid camping. 

Aside from the developed campgrounds, most public lands are open for dispersed camping unless otherwise noted. Unlike developed campgrounds, dispersed camping is entirely free. Keep an eye out for signage saying that you may not use the land for camping.

Podcast Episode: #Vanlife with Photographer Andy Austin

Typical no camping sign to look out for on public lands. © Jadon Kelly | Unsplash

What to Expect with BLM Dispersed Camping

So, what can you expect with dispersed camping?

Go in expecting none of the amenities that are typically available at campgrounds. There will be no bathrooms, trash disposal, tables, potable water, etc. You will also need to pack out any trash and waste you create following the Leave No Trace Seven Principles. This includes properly disposing of human waste as well.

If you don’t know the Leave No Trace Seven Principles, I suggest reading up on them even if you aren’t dispersed camping. Anyone recreating outdoors should have some familiarity with the principles, so we can keep our parks and public lands happy and healthy.

Lastly, expect undeveloped roads. Roads can be rough and are often infrequently trafficked, and some may even require a 4-wheel drive. Please do your research beforehand to ensure your car can make it.

Alabama Hills, CA, is owned by the BLM and offers lots of dispersed camping.

Rules and Etiquette of BLM Dispersed Camping

When camping on federally protected lands, it is vital to follow these rules and etiquette to preserve the ecosystem best and continue accessing the land for recreation. 

1. Be aware of protected areas. Keep an eye out for any signs that state camping is not allowed. There is always a reason why land may not be open for camping. For example, it could be a sensitive habitat for a particular type of plant or animal. Always be aware of the signage when getting ready to camp to do not harm the wildlife or natural resources in the area. 

2. Your site must be secluded. Another important rule of dispersed camping is that you may not camp within a one-mile radius of any developed areas such as picnic areas and trailheads. You must also camp at least 100 feet away from any water source and 150 feet away from any roadway.

3. Be careful where you set up your tent. It is preferred, when possible, to set up a camp where there is evidence that a camp has been set up before. Additionally, it is best to camp on bare soil to avoid damaging plant life and grass.

4. Limit how long you stay in one place. You can camp in one area for 14 days (consecutive or not) within a 28 consecutive day period. After 14 days, you must move to an area at least 25 miles away. You are allowed to return to an area you already camped for the maximum number of days after the 28 day period. 

5. Leave absolutely no trash or waste behind. It is very important to pack out your trash and waste and keep all waste away from any water source. 

Related: 10 Unique Road Trip Gifts and Packing Ideas

Benefits of BLM Camping

Aside from being free, there are several other benefits to camping on BLM land.

There are no reservations needed for dispersed camping. This means it is great for last-minute trips and trips that need flexibility. For example, getting a campsite inside Joshua Tree National Park can be very difficult with the park’s popularity. However, there is dispersed camping available outside the park that you can easily take advantage of. 

When camping on BLM lands, you will also get a unique experience of seclusion and solitude that you don’t get when camping at a traditional campground. You will have lots of space to yourself, and won’t have to worry about noisy neighbors.

Cell phone screenshot of the Alabama Hills Area on the iOverlander app.
Desktop screenshot Alabama Hills Area on FreeRoam.

How to Find Free Places to Camp

Here are four resources to help you find free camping on BLM land and other types of campsites, too.

  • BLM Website: On the BLM website you can search all areas owned by the BLM and which activities are allowed at each site.
  • This website has a great interactive map and lots of filter options for searching for free or paid campsites as well as places that need a permit.
  • iOverlander: This is a very popular app, especially among vanlifers, to find off-the-beaten-path dispersed camping sites. 
  • FreeRoam: FreeRoam has both an app and a website. This website gives you every filter you could think of when looking for campgrounds (including cell signal) broken down by service and amenities.

Related: Best Road Trip Apps For Your Next Adventure

Ready to Book Your Trip?

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