Dispersed camping

When Not Camping at a Campground - Truly Roughing It

What is it? - How do I find a site? - What should I bring? - Campfires (Very Important!!) - Sanitation


For many people, especially our friends on the east side of the Mississippi River or from overseas, dispersed camping is a pretty foreign concept. As a result, we are asked "Can we really camp anywhere in Colorado?" by a lot of our visitors. And with the short answer being "Mostly, but not always" (like a politician would answer a question), we provide some guidance before they go off to the hinter land.

Recreationists go camping, backpacking, hiking, hunting, fishing, driving and horseback riding throughout the wilderness (National Forest, BLM, State Forest, SWA) in many areas where developed camping areas are not available. Finding a site to camp and enjoy these activities in remote areas away from developed campgrounds has become a popular form of camping: The Forest Service defines this as dispersed camping.

Dispersed camping is permitted in most areas, but the recreationists must pay attention to where they are at and any prevailing, posted rules. Unlike developed areas designed to protect the environment and keep people from harming the vegetation and soils, dispersed camping requires help and common sense from the camper in order to keep the natural setting in the condition in which it was found. A very important FEDERAL rule is this: Dispersed camps are restricted to a 14 day limit. Help preserve the natural condition of these remote areas by following these guidelines:

SITE SELECTION - Choose an area that is at least 100 feet away from any lake, stream, river, trail or road. Try to make use of any existing camp spots or do your best to camp on hard ground instead of meadow areas. This is also good camping sense: Soft ground retains moisture longer and does not hold tent stakes as well.

And if camping in Colorado, BE TREE AWARE! Colorado has been ravaged by the Pine Beetle and there are millions of dead pine trees (called 'snags') that can and do fall without warning, especially with any sort of breeze or wind. These are very dangerous, causing property damage, injury and even death. Do not camp where these trees are standing.

SITE ACCESS - Park along the road if possible or park just off the road if permitted. Do not drive further than 300 feet off of the road or existing trails. DO NOT DAMAGE THE EXISTING ENVIRONMENT!

WHAT SHOULD I BRING? - Dispersed camping is entirely different than camping at a developed campground. There is no "Camp Host", no well water, fire ring, no dumpster, no cell phone signal (typically) - not much of anything. You are entirely dependent upon yourself. As such, you must follow the Boy Scout motto of "Be Prepared". Think of it this way: "If my car doesn't start, how long will I be stuck here?"

Beyond the tent, sleeping gear, cooking and lighting gear that you may typically bring to a developed site, a good rule of thumb is to bring more than you think you need. The Mountain Side Gear Rental Complete Kits are crafted to provide what you would need, gear wise, for a dispersed site. Checkout our Camping Checklist for a complete list of gear you need to be taking with you.

WATER - Bring as much as you can for short trips. For anything over a weekend, have a plan to treat your water. Just because it appears crystal clear does not make it safe to drink. Water filet systems have come way down in price and are extremely effective, easy, and quick. If you do not have a water filter, try water treatment tablets/pills or in a liquid form like iodine. Unlike filter systems, these can have leave a medicinal taste in the water but are very effective. And the ol' standby is boiling your water. Extremely effective as much as it is slow. Boil water for at least 5 minutes unless you are at higher altitudes: Boil for 10 minutes if possible.

TRASH - Practice "Pack it in, Pack it out". Your goal is to leave the campsite cleaner than you found it. Keep trash at least 100 feet away from your camp and hang it from a tree if possible. Bears love this kind of treat.

CAMPFIRES - What is camping without a campfire? It's like Oates without Hall - just not the same. When camping in a dispersed site, many times you may be in a preexisting site where somebody already built a fire ring out of stones: Use this existing fire ring! This is best for the natural state of the area you are in. If you are building your own fire ring, ensure it is away from shrubs, dry grass and trees. Do not build a fire ring with wet rocks as they can explode - seriously. And never, never leave a campfire unattended. When done with the fire or leaving your site, always make sure the fire is COMPLETELY OUT. Place your hand over the coals and you should feel no heat. That is how you know it is out.

IF YOU ARE CAMPING IN COLORADO (or most other western states), please pay attention to local fire laws and fire bans. The local County Sheriff's Department has jurisdiction regardless if you are on federal or state land. It is not uncommon for one county to have a Fire Ban and the next county to allow campfires. This is for your safety and the safety of the people that live there.

SANITATION - Dig a hole a minimum of 100 feet from all water and your campsite. This small hole should be 6-8 inches deep and covered with the removed soil and then tamped down to make it look as close to normal. This is why our Complete Backpacking Kits come with a plastic trowel.

TRASH - See above, but worth mentioning again. Pack it in, pack it out.

WASHING - Use a bucket or wash pan and stay at least 100 feet away from water sources. Use biodegradable soap (again, in our complete kits). Do not dump water into the water! If washing dishes, collect the bits of food and put it in a trash bag.