The COVID-19 pandemic has rapidly pushed folks outdoors looking for safe and fun experiences. This has led to quite a spike in camping, which has made it exceedingly difficult to get a reservation at a developed campsite. Consequently, many folks have decided to forego the amenities of a developed campsite for more of an off-grid camping experience.
If you are looking to get away for a few days or weeks, you should consider off-grid camping, or what some people call dispersed camping or boondocking. We’ve put together a list of seven amazing places for your next off-grid camping adventure and everything you should know before setting off into the woods.
Depending on your desire to connect with nature, camping exists in multiple forms, namely backcountry and frontcountry camping. So what’s the difference between backcountry and frontcountry camping, and why pick one over the other? What gear should we consider for each type? Read our article to find out more.
Kolob Terrace Road BLM Camping
Zion National Park is truly a marvel. The way the light falls across the steep canyon sides is truly otherworldly. While it is true that off-grid or dispersed camping is not permitted in national parks, it is permitted on taxpayer land that “belongs” to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM for short). And thankfully, there is plenty of BLM space near Zion, so you can still get it all.
One popular BLM space for dispersed camping is the Kolob Terrace Road site. This spot is located less than two miles up Kolob Terrace Rd and provides a shady creekside camping spot that is less than 30 minutes from Zion’s main entrance. This particular site does seem to have risen in popularity in recent years, so depending on when you arrive, it could already be full.
To get to the Kolob Terrace Road site, travel north on Hwy 9 toward Zion’s main entrance. Then, turn left onto Kolob Terrace Road. There are several open areas along the dirt roads off to the side between the first and second mile.
Alabama Hills Dispersed Camping
Despite its name, this incredibly dispersed campsite is not located in Alabama. It is located in the Sierra Nevada mountains, near Mt. Whitney, in California. The Alabama Hills area is filled with gorgeous views and astounding rock formations. Best of all, the quasi totality area is BLM land, so you can set up your dispersed campsite just about anywhere you’d like.
If you’ve never been there, consider driving in from Lone Pine on Whitney Portal Rd, then turn right onto Movie Rd. Along Movie Rd. is a popular place for campers to get started, so you should be able to find a site that is remote enough, but maybe also near some other folks if you feel like being social.
You should keep a few things in mind before trekking off into Alabama Hills. First, there is no cell service. Although his won’t always be the case with dispersed camping, it definitely is there. Also, make sure to pack some brightly colored beacon that is easy to spot even in the dark. Otherwise, you might have a tough time finding your way back to your site.
Grand Canyon Dispersed Camping
As stated earlier, dispersed camping is not permitted in national parks. But when it comes to dispersed camping near the Grand Canyon, it is tough to assign specific names to some of the possible sites. Thus, many folks point to dispersed camping on Fire Rd 310 as a great place to start. This site is located roughly 12 miles east of the Grand Canyon’s visitor center.
Several hiking trails are easily accessible from this site, though it is a bit far from the main entrance to the Grand Canyon and the various surrounding village areas. Technically speaking, you are within the Kalabi National Forest — but barely. National forests are not to be confused with national parks, as dispersed camping is, as a matter of fact, allowed in national forests.
Most people have described decent cell service on this site, depending on your wireless carrier. You will be able to find the area on Google Maps so long as you search “Fire Rd. 310, Grand Canyon Village, AZ.” If that doesn’t work, then head east on Hwy 64, away from Grand Canyon’s Visitor Center. Drive for a few miles, then turn right onto Fire Rd. 310.
The heart of your campsite is your tent. No matter how comfortable your camp may be, if you do not have a good camping tent, your camping experience will not be as satisfactory as you want it to be. If you want to invest in a good tent, check out our article on the best tents for camping where we listed and reviewed the top tents available in the market today.
Schnebly Hill Vista
Sedona, Arizona, is a magical place surrounded by incredible red rock formations. However, there is no dispersed camping within the city limits. Several of the worst wildfires in the area’s history have been caused by reckless folks, which has led to extremely strict rules regarding dispersed camping in the area.
However, if you are willing to travel across an extremely bumpy, rough stretch of road northeast of Sedona, then you can experience one of the most beautiful, dispersed camping sites out there. The Schnebly Hill Vista is consistently regarded as one of the top places to catch the sunset. Just north of Schnebly Hill Vista and off Schnebly Hill Rd is a “camping permitted” sign.
But, this is not a trek for everyone. You’ll need a high clearance vehicle, ideally one with four-wheel drive, to access this site. Besides, there is no water source available there. So, while the view is incredible, make sure to prepare appropriately.
Outside Joshua Tree National Park
The developed campsites inside Joshua Tree National Park are some of the greatest campsites available in the U.S. They offer stunning proximity to gorgeous vistas and formations. However, the downside is that this is one of the most popular parks for campers, so it can be tough to secure your campsite reservation.
If you are unable to lock in a spot within the park, you can still get pretty close by camping on some BLM land outside the park — specifically, just north of Hwy 62, near the main park entrance. This is just off the main highway and only a 15-to-20-minute drive to the main park’s entrance.
What these sites lack in sweeping views and natural majesty, they make up for it with privacy, cell service, and proximity to towns. Inside Joshua Tree is a real dead zone for service and amenities. But, this is one of the rare cases where the off-grid campsite is perhaps more amenable than on-site ones.
White Mountain National Forest
Moving over to the eastern part of the United States, you should check out White Mountain National Forest, in New Hampshire. This forest provides a distinctly different experience than the various western experiences described above. White Mountain offers several developed campsites, but since it is a national forest, you can safely find off-grid sites as well.
Consider bringing some fishing gear and trying to catch your dinner in the waterways, or admire the peak of Mount Washington. While it may not compare to the peaks of the Rockies out west, if you are stuck on the east coast, it is better than nothing. The forest is breathtakingly beautiful in the early fall as the leaves change colors. Just make sure to pack plenty of blankets.
Flathead National Forest Near Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park in Montana is right up there on the border of the United States and Canada. While you can’t camp off-grid within the national park, you can find some dispersed campsites out west, in the Flathead National Forest.
There are plenty of options for dispersed camping in the national forest. If you are just getting started with off-grid camping, consider the Hungry Horse Reservoir Lot. It is located right off the Hungry Horse Reservoir and is one of the most popular off-grid sites near Glacier. There is plenty of space for an RV there if that’s how you like to ride.
If you are interested in different dispersed camping experiences near Glacier, then check out this list. These spots are all located west of the actual park in the Flathead National Forest. Any Canadian citizen may even be able to enjoy that side of the border and bounce back and forth easily.
Off-grid camping or primitive camping is one of the most popular forms of camping during which you can get away from your tiresome life and do some soul-searching. You camp in a remote area without any reservation nor nearby facilities, like a bathroom, water, or grocery store. This may not be ideal for everyone which is why it’s important to research what you need to know about primitive camping before you embark on your trip.
Things to Know about Dispersed Camping
Off-grid, dispersed camping, and boondocking all mean about the same thing. Whatever you want to call it, you need to be properly prepared for it. There are certain expectations for anyone going dispersed camping, and you don’t want to be the person to ruin this free way to get outdoors for everyone else.
Pick a Legal Area for Dispersed Camping
We’ve said it several times and we’ll say it again: dispersed camping is not permitted in national parks. Thus, be sure to lock in a spot where you can legally camp for free. Land that is cared for by the Bureau of Land Management is a great place to start. National forests are also excellent options. Here is a brief list of spots to look for where it is legal to camp for free:
- National forests
- Bureau of Land Management’s areas
- Wildlife Management’s areas
- National grasslands
- Certain county and city parks – Check the signs
- Some trailheads – Check the signs and notices
- Truck stops, Walmart parking lots
While the Walmart parking lot isn’t really “camping,” it is, in fact, an option for parking your RV overnight. Just don’t bust out the grill and throw a party there. Besides, Walmart stores in densely populated areas may not allow this, so be sure to check with the local manager and don’t overstay your welcome.
Rules and Expectations for Dispersed Camping
While there isn’t a firm set of rules and regulations about dispersed camping, there are plenty of expectations you should be prepared to follow. For any and all questions, you should always contact the local rangers or forest preserve authorities to confirm any details of your plans.
|Fire Safety||Many areas of the United States, particularly out west, experience devastating wildfires. Thus, be sure to call and check with local rangers about any current moratoriums on campfires.|
|Leave No Trace||Leave natural areas in better condition than you found them. Anything you brought needs to be brought back. Also, pick up any trash that you see lying around. Be a good land steward.|
|14-day Limit||Dispersed camping is permitted for 14 days at a time. Don’t overstay your welcome on public land. After two weeks, it is time to move on.|
|Bring Plenty of Water||Remember that you lack the “amenities” of a developed campsite, which means there won’t be any latrines, showers, or potable water on-site.
Plus, you need to bring water for drinking, but also for washing dishes, showering, cleaning clothes, etc. Or, be sure to bring something to treat local stream water if you are camping near a waterway.
|Bring a GPS||Some sites will have cell service, while others won’t. It is best to count on not having cell service while off-grid camping. Bring a separate GPS with you to ensure you can always find your way around, especially at night.|
|Be Emergency Ready||Have an emergency plan including first-aid supplies and knowing which way the nearest medical care center is. Accidents happen, and it is always better to be over-prepared than underprepared.|
|Be Smart||Use reasonable judgment. If you feel unsafe on a site, move elsewhere. Trust your instincts and keep yourself and your crew safe.
Be sure to tell someone back home the general area where you are going so as they can help find you if something happens.
Should You Go Off-grid Camping for Your Next Adventure?
Off-grid or dispersed camping is about as primitive as you can get in modern America. Sure, you will bring plenty of supplies and, hopefully, plan ahead, but it is still a real adventure, unlike anything else. It is a great way to disconnect from the insanity of your busy life and recharge.
That being said, off-grid camping is not for everyone. Plenty of people are not interested in the idea of digging a hole to use the bathroom or being alone in the forest for days at a time. Do an honest assessment of your group’s sense of adventure and consider how deep you want to go before committing to off-grid camping.
If you do decide to go for it, then any one of the seven spots we’ve listed are truly awesome places to explore. Of course, there are countless other options. Check out national forests in your state or visit the BLM website for more information about local options.