Looking for places to camp for free? This post will walk you through camping in the Southwestern portion of the US with free dispersed camping tips and a camping checklist!
There are few things that are more breathtaking than the various rock formations that can be found from Southern Utah into Arizona. Combine those with the high desert, gorgeous vegetation and wildlife and it truly has beauty all its own.
If you are a true adventurer that really loves getting away from it all dispersed camping is the way to go. There are completely new experiences waiting to be had. The true appreciation for nature and all that it offers is life-changing.
If you are trying to decide whether to take the plunge and truly get away this post will provide you dispersed camping tips and camping checklist that will give you the confidence to experience nature like never before.
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What is Dispersed Camping?
Dispersed camping is often referred to as “dry” camping. Basically you are camping without the convenience of electric, running water hookups and bathrooms that you often find in campgrounds.
The U.S. Forest Service defines dispersed camping as “camping anywhere in the National Forest OUTSIDE of a designated campground.” Basically you drive, find a spot that is mostly flat and off the beaten trail.
There are so many options but keep in mind that dispersed camping happens different ways for everyone.
My husband and I enjoy taking our small travel trailer out and exploring new areas. We especially love taking our dog on trails, grilling delicious foods and generally just getting away from the business of life.
If you are a hiker, you may choose to pack in your tent and gear and camp under the stars as you go on a new adventure.
Basically, there are tons of ways to enjoy dispersed camping but your experience will be less enjoyable if you don’t keep some key things in mind.
In order to dry camp or camp dispersed you will need to be sure you have all the provisions necessary to be self-sufficient.
Regardless of the area of the country you are in, there are important things to keep in mind which we will walk you through here. You do not want to be caught off guard or without the things you need. Nature is beautiful, but she can be vicious if you don’t prepare well.
First and foremost, you have to have water, food, shelter, safety. Have a plan for how you long you will stay and bring enough provisions to last you longer than you plan to stay. You may be enjoying yourself so much you decide to extend. It’s important to prepare for the unexpected too. You never know when a flat tire, injury or weather could impact your adventure. The key is being prepared.
Be sure to bring no less than one gallon per day, per person for your trip. There are quite a few options for water storage which I have included below. The bottom line is you will need water for drinking, cleaning and dishes at the very least.
If you are in a camper be sure to get a showerhead that has the ability to turn it off. This allows you to get wet, turn off the water while you soap up and then turn it back on to rinse. This reduces our water consumption by 2/3 while we are camping.
Another option is to consider using baby wipes to clean up intermittently to avoid the need for bathing water every day. This is ideal when you are out for a longer period of time.
Shop Water Containers for Dispersed Camping
These are some options for water storage. There are collapsible ones too, but keep in mind if they puncture you could be in a bad way.
My husband and I really enjoy making meals while camping. There is something about camping in nature and enjoying good food that is.. just… right. However, cooking while camping can be complicated or a bit of a production. Especially if you are new to it.
There are several things you can do simplify this process.
If you are using canned food you will have quite a few cans. Consider using fresh or dried food that is prepped ahead of time. Prep your food by meal. Rather than having a large container that serves multiple meals portion out for each meal. An example of this would be:
Grilled Chicken: Clean, cut and store your chicken in a zip-lock bag. You could even add a marinade (double bag just in case). Freeze for the trip and your meat doubles as ice for your cooler.
Grilled Vegetables: Clean, cut and prep your veg in a zip-lock bag.
Mashed potatoes: Make ahead at home and bag your potatoes as well.
You will need a good cooler to keep your food if you are not relying on a fridge. Three options that work great are included below.
Shop Coolers for Camping Meal Planning
There are so many options. The one thing to keep in mind is that you need a cooler that will last, is durable and will keep your food cold. This is especially true if you are camping far away from any convenience store runs to get ice!
Bear proof and durable! Much lower cost and high quality.
Pelican is a trusted brand by outdoors lovers. Higher cost but very high quality!
Most trusted brand for coolers. Excellent quality that can’t be beat! More pricey but worth it.
IMPORTANT: Check the US National Forest Service’s website prior to heading to any area to see if there are fire restrictions in place. This will limit the options for cooking and may require you bring a propane grill. Just type in the state and forest you are planning to camp in.
There are several options for shelter. One of which is the most common, a tent. There are so many options here it can make your head hurt. The one thing you do not want to do is get a cheap tent and end up wet and miserable. There are several considerations when picking a tent.
Size: How many people will be in your tent? Will you plan to put anything other than you and your sleeping bag in your tent? Are you planning to use a cot? If so, how large is it? Pick one that will easily accommodate your needs. If you are going to use a tent find the one that works best for you.
Weight: If you are planning to hike with your tent you will need to pick one that is packable. There are tons of options for packable tents in many sizes. Just be cognizant of the size considerations listed above as well. Quality still matters, so pick wisely.
Doors: Do you have a need or desire for more than one door? Obviously this applies to larger tents. There are so many options when it comes to picking tents. Just be sure to pick one that is high quality and won’t leave you soggy.
Shop Tents of All Sizes
Be picky about your tent. Our family decided to go “cheap” many years ago and woke up to an air mattress floating on our own little pond … INSIDE the tent. It wasn’t pretty folks. This is where you get away from the weather and get the quality rest you need. Pick the right one. There are lots of options that won’t break the bank.
Perfect for two people to get away and have safe shelter from the elements!
High quality tent for four people with a small entry area. 4 Season tent for all types of weather.
Made by Coleman, this 10 person tent can house your family and even a small table for rainy days!
If you are looking for a tent there will be an endless list of options. Look at what you want, what you need, and read the read the reviews. You don’t want to find out that your tent is a dud on a camping trip!
No matter what else you do, be sure to have a good first aid kit with you. When camping in the southwest be sure your safety kit has a snakebite kit as well. While rare, it is absolutely possible to find yourself in a situation with a rattlesnake. Having spent the majority of our lives exploring the southwest we haven’t personally had a need for one, but we know folks who have.
Sunscreen, a hat or visor, bug spray and some antihistamine are great to have on hand as well.
Better to be prepared than to need it and not have it.
Leave No Trace: Pack it Out
When dispersed camping you need to plan to leave the site with no trash left behind. Pack it, pack it out is the requirement. Be sure you have a way to remove all of your trash.
Never forget to get your trash off the ground. There are scavengers and predators in every corner of the country that will want what is in there. Keep the animals and yourself safe by raising your trash in a tree with rope or 550 cord prior to going to sleep for the night.
Also, be sure to hang your trash away from your camp site. It could avoid an unwelcomed encounter with some of that amazing wildlife I mentioned earlier.
Sanitation While Camping
If you are tent camping have a plan for how you will take care of business. Yes, I mean peeing and pooping. If you are going au’ natural then be sure to dig a hole no less than 6″ deep and 4″ in diameter. Cover the waste after taking care of business. This means you will need a small shovel. If by chance you happen to have a snow situation and you can’t bury it, bring bags much like you would when you are walking your dog.
Another option while at camp for a less rugged option is to use a luggable loo. Basically this is a 5 gallon bucket with a toilet seat that snaps on. Use trash bags in the loo to collect the waste. When we used this option, prior to having our camper, we would ALWAYS double bag. I know it is less environmentally friendly but I wasn’t going to risk a really dirty situation, if you know what I mean. We never had an issue.
To take this even further you can bring a pop up shower enclosure and let it double as a bathroom when camping. This worked great for us. Just set the loo aside while showering or using baby wipes to clean off. Dispersed camping requires you to take care of business in an ethical way and be a little creative sometimes.
Shop Camping Sanitation Supplies
This outdoor shower has pockets, a line for your towel and a floor to keep the bugs and dirt off too. Reasonable price for a 5 star rating!
Easy to pack, easy to clean and a simple solution for the camper who does not enjoy “going” in nature. Very reasonable price for a peace of mind solution.
Download our FREE PDF Dispersed Camping Checklist and Tips here!
Picking Your Camp Site
When picking your dispersed camping site there are several things to keep in mind.
First, the southwest is known for flash floods. It isn’t anything to be afraid of but with a little planning you can avoid a really muddy situation.
Whenever you picking a campsite pick one that is mostly flat, especially if you are in a tent. Check the ground around your site. Does it look like animals have been bedded down there? If so, it may be best to pick another site to avoid displacing wildlife.
Also, check to see if there is mostly rock on the ground. You need to be able to stake down your tent if you are tent camping.
Another consideration would be making sure you are not in a wash. Look at the ground. Does it have ruts cut out and are there sweeping patterns in the silt or dirt? If so, move on. You do NOT want to pitch a tent or set a camper there. These patterns are left after water has flowed through that area.
Watch this video from GearJunkie captured in Joshua Tree in 2014. It gives you a better idea of what happens in a flash flood and why you DO NOT want to camp in a wash.
Those of us who live in the high desert are used to the dangers and affects of flash floods. Like I said, they are dangerous but like anything else, being informed keeps you safe.
Get Out and Enjoy Dispersed Camping
Nature is a breathtaking thing. There will always be dangers in everything. Driving our car is dangerous too, right! Yes, there is a lot to consider when planning a dispersed camping trip. The reality is, it is so worth it!
The bottom line is get informed and educate yourself on the area that you are planning to explore. Then, get out and enjoy all that the outdoors has to behold. Go for a hike, go fishing, drive around and see the sights or just relax at your campsite and enjoy the view and downtime.
Download our FREE PDF Dispersed Camping Checklist and Tips here! Stay organized and don’t forget the things you need while camping.
This post was all about dispersed camping tips and how to plan for a dispersed camping trip in a tent or in a travel trailer.