According to The New York Times, the US federal government owns roughly 47% of all of the land in the American West. That compares with about 4% of land east of the Mississippi River. I was astonished to learn this as I travel throughout the West on my road trip to visit the National Parks.
As the US expanded across the West in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s it took territory by purchasing, or simply taking, all of the land. It proceeded to sell some land to private owners or to states, doing so quite easily across the Midwest, but running into complications in the West. The extreme geography and climates of the West weren’t attractive to farmers. The west is rife with mountains, canyons, deserts, and other geological features that make the land difficult to exploit. The few useable valleys where farming was feasible were settled and eventually became towns and cities. Federal law eventually eliminated homesteading and set up more formal systems for management of the remaining land; the vast majority of which is still owned by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
My campsite on BLM land outside Canyonlands National Park. How incredible is this view??
Being from New England, I had never heard of Bureau of Land Management Land. Now that I’ve been on the road for months, and have camped dozens of times, I can definitely recommend camping on BLM land over any other option. The average hotel or motel room on this road trip has cost me $150 a night. The average BLM campsite has cost me $0. The average hotel has been noisy, dirty (I have severe allergies and can barely stand to be inside a hotel room), and located really far away from the National Parks and wild places that I am photographing. The average BLM campsite has been dead-silent, stunningly beautiful, extremely fun to scout out, and perfectly located directly outside National Parks.
Camping on federal land is usually referred to as ‘dispersed camping’. This type of camping is the only type I would ever consider. There are no facilities. There are no tourists. There are no neighbors. There are no amenities at all; just you and the wilderness. You can camp pretty much anywhere you want on federal land and in every National Forest. You can also find plenty of free camping in Federal Wildlife Management Areas (WMA) and in State Forests!
Using websites to find dispersed campsites:
I recommend the following websites to find already-known campsites on BLM land, with the caveat that 90% of the available camping locations won’t actually ever be shown on these sites, as most people never bother to list them. Regardless, these website are helpful if you aren’t yet in the area and need helpful tips from other campers.
In my experience, the first two websites are very helpful in locating campsites a few days in advance, and I’ve had great luck with being the only person at the campsites that I’ve selected.
Scouting dispersed campsites in person:
Camping on BLM land takes advance research; either online, or preferably, in person. I typically scout locations in daylight, so that I know what the terrain looks like, and what the road conditions are (I’ve encountered more than my fair share of completely impassible BLM roads). Part of the fun of camping is the thrill of scouting remote campsites and finding locations with epic views. When I spent a week at Arches National Park I spent an entire day scouting locations to camp, and had a blast doing it! I often have as much fun scouting campsites as I do in the parks themselves.
Using Google Maps to find dispersed camping:
Along with the above websites & scouting in person, another way to find dispersed campsites online is to use Google Maps. When looking at the map in map view (not in satellite view), federal lands will be green on the map. Once you have an idea of where the borders of the federal land lie on the map, switch it to satellite view. You can then zoom in and find the roads and the potential epic campsites. I’ve found countless campsites this way. Before you arrive, contact the local BLM office if it’s BLM land. If it’s a National Forest, call the local ranger. Ask them about the specific rules that apply to the land that you want to camp on, as the rules differ from state to state, and federal agency to agency. The National Forest rangers and BLM rangers are always helpful and are always an amazing resource on how best to experience the area.
Important rules about camping on federal lands:
- There will be signs indicating that you are not allowed to camp outside designated campsites in many of the higher traffic locations. Never ignore these signs.
- In certain environments there will be signs about native plants and organisms that you must respect and protect. Examples are the bacterial mats in the deserts, and the alpine tundra plants in the mountains. Never ignore these signs.
- Never drive your vehicle off of designated roads. You can damage fragile ecosystems and ruin the environment for everyone else as well.
- Never have a campfire in areas where there is a risk of wildfire. If you do have a campfire, ensure that you put it out completely before you leave the campsite.
- Leave no trace. There should be NO TRACE that you EVER were there. If you are reading my blog, you should already be highly aware of responsible use of our wilderness areas, but if you need a refresher course, read the 7 Principles of Leave No Trace.
The Bureau of Land Management manages 247.3 million acres of public lands in the United States which constitutes one-eighth of the landmass of the country. You should have no problem finding an amazing place to camp on BLM land.
There are 155 National Forests containing almost 190 million acres (297,000 square miles) of land. These lands comprise 8.5% of the total land area of the United States, an area about the size of Texas. You should have no problem finding an epic campsite in a National Forest.
Half of the fun of dispersed camping is the adventure of scouting for a campsite. The other half is the feeling you get when you are completely alone, reliant only on yourself for survival, far from civilization. Get out there and enjoy our public lands, and remember to always treat them with the utmost respect; I’m sick of picking up trash!