Now that you have to hop online six months in advance to reserve a favorite spot, camping may seem more like moving from your crowded neighborhood to a crowded small town of tents, only with more bugs, screaming kids and smoky campfires.
Dispersed camping offers solutions to these problems, said Monica Stockbridge, author of the guidebook “Best Tent Camping Colorado.” Her book is geared toward established campgrounds, but she still sees the romantic side of throwing the tent in the car and finding a place to camp without any guarantee of finding something.
“Dispersed camping is a great way to get outdoors for those who prefer to go car camping outside established areas, or for backpackers who want to hike into a remote spot,” Stockbridge said. “It’s also a nice option for last-minute trips when you don’t have a reservation, or when you want something a little more rustic.”
That doesn’t mean you should plan to camp in your local park, however, or your neighbor’s backyard just because he has a hot tub. Even pitching a tent in a place with no rules requires, well, following rules.
Rocky Mountain National Park, for instance, doesn’t allow dispersed camping. It does, however, have more than 250 wilderness camping sites that require a permit and have the same atmosphere as dispersed camping, as you’ll backpack to them and they will be away from crowds.
Along with greater freedom comes greater responsibility, as you’ll have to take your own water as well as a way to pack out toilet paper and poop — or dig a hole 6 to 8 inches deep for your poop.
Camping isn’t allowed within 100 feet from any water source and is strongly encouraged within 150 feet of roadways (to prevent resource damage). You may find evidence of previous campers, such as a fire ring, and that usually indicates a good spot to pitch a tent.
“If you find a spot with an existing fire ring — such as a circle of rocks where a previous camper built a fire — then feel free to use this spot,” Stockbridge said. “This helps to minimize the impact to the surrounding natural area. Plus, it’s less work for you!”
In fact, officials would prefer it if you used a spot that others have used before, said Barbara Khan, spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service in Colorado. “Plants, soil and wildlife are impacted by new campsites, so using existing ones will minimize your impact in the forest,” Khan said.
There are other ways to minimize your impact, such as using existing roads to drive to sites (if no roads exist, that’s a sign that you need to backpack in), camping on bare soil to prevent killing plants and packing out all your waste (and yes, we do mean all of it).
Three suggested trips
Stockbridge suggests these camping locations:
Mount Zirkel Wilderness
This area, north of Steamboat Springs, occupies nearly 160,000 acres managed by the U.S. Forest Service. Dispersed camping is allowed on most of the Hahns Peak/Bears Ears Ranger District, with plenty of great hiking to entertain you during the day. Follow the Motor Vehicle Use Map to see all roads where dispersed camping is allowed along roadways.
Aspen-Sopris Ranger District
The Lincoln Creek dispersed camping area has 22 campsites for car camping along the Lincoln Creek road. Campers can access water and toilets at the first-come, first-served site near great trails. You’ll need a 4WD car with high clearance to access it.
Salida Ranger District
This is a good spot to camp for a shot at a 14er the next morning, as Harvard, Tabeguache, Shavano, Princeton, Yale, Columbia and Antero are all within reach. Look for campsites near Little Browns Creek trail not far from Buena Vista.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter, The Adventurist, to get outdoors news sent straight to your inbox.