Camp For Free On Public BLM Land: ‘Dispersed Camping’ 101

blm free camping public land how to map disbursed campingWe’d driven down the dirt road under cover of darkness. It was bumpy, rutted and after a couple of miles we realized there was no shade, no water, no shelter. It was late, so we decided to stop and pitch our tent in the middle of what we guessed was a vast public lands plain.

It was the sound of distant mooing, and the rising sun that woke us at daybreak. By light we could see we had indeed ended up on a remote grassy plain. Well rested from our quiet open air sleep we rose and readied breakfast. As we cooked we saw a herd of cattle off in the distance. It was very pastoral… but it was about to get weird.

As we fried eggs and bacon, the herd drew ever closer until we were quite literally surrounded. A hundred soft brown eyes watched us pack up our tent and gear while they chewed cud. I strolled to the edge of the circle and clapped my hands to open enough space for us to drive our truck through. This is what it’s like to camp on public land, also known as BLM land.

BLM camping – The most unique free camping experiences

blm free camping public land how to map disbursed campingYou just never know what you’ll get when it comes to BLM camping, and that’s the charm. I’ve set up camp in the dark only to wake up and find myself beside a majestic blue lake, alongside a picturesque stream, or near the base of a huge mountain peak. And there’s not another soul in sight.

What’s the appeal of camping on more remote land? Booking regular campgrounds can be an exercise in frustration. You have to reserve early or risk disappointment, It’s costly, and once you arrive, popular campgrounds are often packed with people. BLM camping is a way to get away from it all and have a relaxing, unique camping experience — for free.

What’s BLM Land? 

blm free disbursed camping public land how to map what states have free camping

What states have free camping?

BLM stands for Bureau of Land Management. BLM is an agency within the US Department of the Interior that looks after more than 247 million acres of public land, with much of it in the US west.

By law, BLM lands have several potential uses, like conservation, recreation like hiking, biking, camping, and fishing. Usage is also set aside for energy development and the protection of natural, cultural and historical resources.

Because there’s that wide mandate for public use, BLM land is also available for camping. You can find primitive campsites that will be well marked, and others which are little more than clearings. Sometimes you’ll find fire rings, and even pit toilets. Most often these are first come first served sites. In other cases you’re making your own campsite anywhere you want to lay your head.

There’s also free camping in National Forests.

How do I find free camping – BLM Land?

The best way to access BLM land is to pick up an area BLM map from a local Tourist Information Centre. In some places you’ll also find BLM offices where you can ask a ranger to point you at these free camp sites. Since free or ‘dispersed camping’ is also available in National Forests, you can also stop at any Parks Service or Forest Service ranger station and get pointed in the right direction. You can also surf the BLM website here.

Disbursed Camping rules

free camping blm land public disbursedSome areas will be marked with no camping signs. Don’t ignore them; they’re there for a reason. In some cases there are rules about how close you can be to water, or to the base of a cliff (you know, for safety reasons), and you can’t stay in any one place longer than 14 days without a permit.

For a full list of disbursed or free camping rules see the National Forest Service’s page here.

What can I expect on BLM Land?

BLM land is in most cases completely unserviced. You’ll often find no toilets, no water and no garbage facilities. You must bring absolutely everything you’ll need with you. It goes without saying that you also need to take it all back out too. Pack extra things like water, and garbage or recycling bags.

These areas are also often quite remote and well outside cities and off main roads. Plan not to have smartphone coverage.

But it’s that remoteness and distance from people that makes these camping experiences so beautiful and memorable.

Need some ideas for where to head first? The Pacific Northwest is gorgeous, and while you’re out there, check out this roof-rack tent that can keep you safe and warm.

All photos courtesy BLM.gov