Dispersed Camping

Enjoying the freedom of the outdoors on a budget.


A common problem faced by campers today is money. After you’ve spent your hard earned dollars on a nice sleeping bag, tent and the latest in backpacking stove technology (unless you’re cheap like me), you still have to pay fees for campgrounds, often at a nightly rate. Some of these campgrounds even offer running water, bathrooms and electrical outlets, which really drives up the cost. While that’s fine for very casual campers, those wishing to escape into the fullness of nature will find the artificiality of these campsites unfulfilling. If only there was a way to get away, for cheap…

Enter dispersed camping.

Dispersed camping is camping in a national forest outside of established campgrounds. There are a couple of rules for where you can set up camp, but generally they are pretty loose. While there is no clean water or bathrooms provided, experienced campers will find the freedom of dispersed camping very appealing. The best part: it’s 100 percent free.

Over spring break, my friend and I went backpacking in Mark Twain National Forest, utilizing the benefits of dispersed camping. Please note that you don’t have to go backpacking to enjoy dispersed camping. Our trek lasted three days and two nights, and we covered 18 rugged miles and summited the tallest point in Missouri (Which isn’t actually that tall at 1772 feet).

Our first day was short, because we started mid-afternoon. After crossing the Black River and covering a few miles, we set up camp off the trail. Following the rules of dispersed camping, we had to travel several hundred feet off the trail. We also had to respect the concept of “leave no trace,” meaning that all of our trash had to be bagged and carried out with us and that we didn’t cut down or harm living trees; all of our firewood was already dead and on the ground. A full list of rules for the area we were camping in can be found here.

Our second day was a long, full day of hiking (10 ½ miles). Around mile five, it started snowing. Taking shelter from the snowstorm under a tree, our group helped themselves to some lunch. There are many ways to bring food when dispersed camping, ranging from lightweight dehydrated foods and energy bars, to packing a cooler with sandwiches. Because we were backpacking, we had to carry all our food on our backs and the lightweight and calorie-rich dehydrated food (such as Mountain House) and bars (like Clif Bars) were the way to go.

On the morning of day three, we woke up to a light layer of frost covering our campsite. The cold froze most of our water so we had to let it thaw next to the fire we constructed. Unlike the last campsite, we set up in an existing site which was a clearing that included a fire ring. This allowed us to build a large fire, which felt really good on a below-freezing morning.

One thing to keep in mind when dispersed camping is that there is no clean water provided for you. You either need to bring all of your own water or be able to filter it from natural streams, creeks, rivers and springs. I used this cheap Sawyer filter I got on Amazon for my trek, which is great if you’re on a budget.

Even if you’re not an experienced camper, dispersed camping can be still be a lot of fun. Bring a cooler, grab some friends, and spend a night around a campfiretrust me, it’s worth it! Especially now that spring is upon us, get out there, and get camping.