Imagine this: You’re pedaling a quiet dirt road through an endless pine forest as the afternoon sun sinks lower in the sky. You have no campground reservation or planned destination, but you’re not concerned. There are almost too many good camping options to choose from, but you’ll know the perfect one when you see it.
Just as your legs are feeling heavier and the air growing crisper, you spot it: an overgrown doubletrack leading off behind a small hill. You turn, follow, and there you are: a private clearing in the woods hidden from the road. You set up your shelter, cook dinner, and enjoy your home for the night, just you and the trees and a few small woodland critters. In the morning, you wake to the sound of birds, pack up your gear, and slip back to the dirt road to continue your journey.
This kind of camping is called dispersed camping, and if it sounds like a bike traveler’s idea of paradise, that’s because it is! Read on to learn where and how you can try dispersed camping on your next bike adventure.
In the U.S., “dispersed camping” means camping on federally managed public land away from developed recreation facilities. It’s most commonly allowed on land managed by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). USFS land is often forested, hence the name national forest, while BLM land is usually desert or wide-open plains. Together they add up to 438 million acres — nearly 20 percent of the total U.S. landmass!
If you’re bikepacking in the western U.S., there’s a very good chance your route includes the potential for dispersed camping. The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, for example, passes through more than a dozen national forests in its 2,700 miles. East of the Rockies, the options are more limited, but smaller patches of national forest can still be found. Dispersed camping works especially well for off-pavement bikepacking trips, but road tourers can find spots off main paved roads or a short distance down well-maintained gravel.
Enthusiastic bike travelers might be tempted to think this paradise exists mainly for us, but USFS and BLM land is managed for many uses including logging, mining, and cattle grazing. Even the outdoor recreation scene is diverse, and you’ll see far more car and RV campers, ATV riders, and hunters than cyclists out there. Though it’s not always a pristine wilderness, the sheer scale and accessibility of all this land makes for excellent bikepacking and dirt road touring.
Generally speaking, dispersed camping is permitted in national forests and on BLM land where not prohibited. There are a few details that differ from region to region, so if you’re unsure, check the website or call the land management agency for the specific region you’ll be traveling in.
To find out where public land is and who manages it, check the USFS interactive map or BLM data viewer, or a land ownership layer in a mapping app like Gaia GPS, Trailforks, OnX, or a camping app like FreeRoam.
Generally, dispersed camping on public land is prohibited in these cases:
Public land is often interspersed with private land, and it’s not always obvious where the boundaries are. You may find private ranchland alternating with BLM land in checkerboard parcels, or rural properties partly or even completely surrounded by national forest. Respect all fences and private property signs, even within an area you thought was public.
Though we sometimes refer to USFS and BLM land generally as “public land,” note that other types of public land don’t allow dispersed camping.
Finally, and significantly, remember that U.S. public land was home to Indigenous Peoples long before it came to belong to the U.S. government. Their past and current presence is an important part of the places we ride and camp. You can visit native-land.ca to learn about Indigenous territories corresponding to current public land boundaries. In some areas, you may encounter tribal land with its own rules and regulations, including some that apply to camping.
If you’re used to developed campgrounds, dispersed camping can be both liberating and a bit intimidating. Keep these points in mind as you weigh the options.
Advantages of dispersed camping:
Possible disadvantages of dispersed camping:
When dispersed camping, you can’t simply ride into a campground and pick a numbered spot; you’ll need to put some thought into site selection. Keep these guidelines in mind.
Avoid camping under or near dead branches or trees that could fall on your camp. Also avoid dry waterways, especially desert washes, which can flood quickly if it rains.
Choose a level campsite if you want a good night’s sleep. Avoid low points in the topography, like the bottoms of valleys or canyons, if you’re concerned about cold temperatures overnight. If wind is an issue, look for shelter on the leeward side of a ridge, hill, boulder, or bushes. Late afternoon and early morning sunlight are always nice.
Some dispersed campsites are simply pullouts beside a well-traveled road. Cyclists may want to skip these and seek out quieter sites down secondary roads or small tracks. It’s even okay to leave roads completely and head off into the woods or behind features in the terrain, as long as you can do so without disturbing fragile land and life (like cryptobiotic soil in the desert or fragile meadows in the alpine). If you do camp within sight of a road, the insides of curves and uphill are generally less noticeable than outsides and downhill.
A stealthy campsite may seem especially attractive during hunting season when public land is often busier, but it’s smart to make yourself visible when moving around off the road. “Blaze orange” is the traditional color for this purpose, but a high-vis cycling jacket should work too. As a ranger once advised, “Just don’t go running around in the woods acting like a deer and you’ll be fine.”
Spend a minute standing in the spot before committing. Does it feel right? You might not know you’re craving a lofty perch with a view or a cozy ring of trees until you take time to check in with yourself.
Without amenities like toilets and trash bins, it’s up to us as campers to minimize our impact on the land and wildlife. Here are the key ways to Leave No Trace while dispersed camping.
Choose previously used sites where possible, or at least camp on durable surfaces like bare dirt to avoid damaging plantlife. Avoid camping right next to water sources, which pollutes them and deters thirsty animals from coming to drink.
Pack it out, every last bit. That includes food wrappers and plastic bags, but also less obvious materials like apple cores, orange peels, and peanut shells. Though these may technically be biodegradable, they take a very long time to disappear and they attract animals in the meantime.
There’s a bit of an art to pooping in the woods. It starts with digging a good hole at least 8 inches deep, at least 100 yards from any water sources, and somewhere it won’t accidentally be discovered by other campers. When finished, fill the hole completely and stomp it down with your foot to ensure your business is well and truly buried. Used toilet paper should be packed out in a ziplock bag (double bagged if you’re feeling squeamish about it), not buried.
Proper food storage is essential when dispersed camping. Many national forests are in bear habitats, and rodents and other small mammals can be a major nuisance. Learn how to properly hang your food (it’s harder than you think) and/or carry an animal-resistant container like an Ursack. Keep a clean camp, pack out all food scraps (including those strained out of cooking and washing water) and cook at least 200 feet away from where you’ll sleep.
Water gives life to thirsty bikepackers and also to surrounding animals and plants. We can protect the entire ecosystem by never putting soap (even the “biodegradable” kind) or other chemicals directly in a water source. Carry wash water at least 200 feet from the source and do your washing and dumping there. This allows the wastewater to filter through the soil before rejoining the source, minimizing the impact of soap, sunscreen, bug spray, bike grease, food particles, or whatever else washed off your body, clothes, or dishes. Water and a good scrub work surprisingly well, but if you must use soap, make do with a small amount.
Several massively destructive wildfires have been caused in recent years by campers who lost control of their campfires. Especially when dispersed camping — where help and firefighting resources may be farther away — it’s critically important to be thoughtful about campfires and even camp stoves.
Follow these key guidelines:
Whether you’re looking to maximize peaceful time in nature or minimize your lodging budget, dispersed camping is a fantastic way to spend a few nights on your next bikepacking trip. The process of riding until you’re ready to stop, choosing the perfect spot, and taking responsibility for protecting the land adds a certain organic feel to a self-propelled journey. Explore, enjoy, and sleep well in your peaceful, private spot as you appreciate America’s vast public lands.