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Dispersed Camping Colorado

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Dispersed camping is also often referred to as “free camping” – in this article you’ll learn what you need, what the rules are, where you should go, and how to do it right.

No reservations, permits, or fees!

What is dispersed camping?

Dispersed camping is NOT about having amenities such as a camp host, vault toilets, running water, power hookups, or a need for reservations. And when you get out and find a great dispersed camping spot, you’re probably not going to regularly see other campers (like you’d find in a packed campground).

Camping in Central Colorado
Camping in Central Colorado
Dispersed Camping off Manhattan Road
Dispersed Camping near Red Feather Lakes, Colorado

Dispersed camping allows you to camp without the need to find or schedule a designated camp site. This could mean driving up a forest access road, finding a spot where you can park, and setting up camp. Setup your RV, tent, and/or sleeping hammock, this is now your spot.

It’s also possible to find a spot with no need for reservations by backpacking into the mountains and grabbing a spot. This post does not focus on backpacking (that’s an entirely different method of camping).

Dispersed Camping Rules

Like anything related to public use, there are rules and this method of camping is no different.

Location

You’re not able to camp anywhere you want, there are criteria to finding an approved dispersed campsite in Colorado.

Dispersed Camping Rules

Dispersed camping is usually (almost always) forbidden near trailheads, by designated campgrounds, picnic (day use) spots, and popular, well trafficked areas.

You cannot camp on private land (unless of course you have the land owner’s permission). Yes, there is private land within the designated state or national forests. Maps are your friend, check out these map options to know where you can camp legally.

Dispersed camping near Crested Butte
Dispersed camping near Crested Butte
RMNP (no dispersed camping)
RMNP (no dispersed camping)

Rocky Mountain National Park, is considered public, federal land and does NOT allow dispersed camping. RMNP does have MANY wilderness camping sites that require a permit. These campsites require you to hike/backpack to them.

How long can you stay?

In most areas of Colorado you cannot stay in one location for longer than 14 days. You’re also not allowed to stay longer than 30 days within a 20 mile radius.

Camping Colorado

Can you have a campfire?

If you ever have a campfire in Colorado, please ensure the conditions are perfect. Idea campfire conditions include: recently wet ground, a large fire pit, no wind, and a small fire. However, even with those conditions, anything can happen.

This page indicates fire restrictions.

And here’s a page that shows ALL restrictions.

How do you find an approved dispersed campsite?

Some dispersed campsites (especially in heavily trafficked areas) will have numbers to indicate each campsite. However, this isn’t always the case. In fact, it’s sorta rare to find a campsite with a sign marked for camping. You’ll know a disbursed campsite because there’ll be a flat clearing, the ground will look worn, and there will most likely be a rock built fire-pit.

Dispersed Campsite near Red Feather Lakes
Dispersed Camping in Colorado

Again, in this post, we’re NOT referring to backpacking. So… your campsite will typically be along roads and larger “off road” trails that are accessible by your 4×4 vehicle.

It’s best practice to NEVER “make” or “create” a campsite. Meaning: you should never clear an area and setup a spot (even if you think it’s perfect). Overuse and poor use have closed down several disbursed camping areas in Colorado. Don’t be that guy.

Do I need a permit or reservations?

In the state of Colorado, you do NOT need a reservation or a permit to camp in designated areas open to dispersed camping.

Dispersed Camping Shelter Options

Dispersed Camping
Early Spring Dispersed Camping in Colorado

When you find a great dispersed campsite you’re able to setup any of the following:

  • Travel Trailer
  • Fifth Wheel
  • Truck Camper
  • Motorhome
  • Popup Camper
  • Bus
  • Van
  • Canvas Wall Tent
  • Standard Nylon Tent
  • Hammock Tent

Access is your limiting factor on what you’re able to lodge in. While dispersed camping it should be obvious… but you cannot build a permanent structure. And you should never drain your black water tank unless it’s at an authorized dump station.

Where can you poop when you’re disbursed camping?

It’s what you really wanted to know, right? Where are we supposed to go number 2? Nearly all dispersed camping sites throughout Colorado will NOT have a vault toilet near your site. If you don’t have a camper, vehicle, or trailer with a toilet, don’t worry, you have options.

Dig a Hole

Your first option is to find a discrete location and dig a hole 8 inches deep and squat like a caveman. You know, this method is actually much more natural than what we typically do. After you’re done, fill the hole up with dirt and pack it down. I will usually leave a little warning with sticks over the spot too. Get creative… I’ve never done it but it would be terrible to start digging your little hole only to pull up brown tp.

Use a Bucket

Grab a 5 gallon bucket and line it with 2 heavy duty bags. Throw a little dirt at the bottom and a little more after each use (like you’re burying it just a little). This layered dirt method will help keep the smell down a little. There are company’s that make seats that fit nicely on top of 5 gallon buckets. They’re more convenient but not mandatory to make this method work. Cover the bucket with the lid when not in use.

Find a nearby trailhead

If you can hold it you could always wait and find a nearby trailhead with a vault toilet.

Leave No Trace

Over the years of camping in Colorado I’ve come across really well kept sites and sites loaded with beer cans and evidence idiots had just been there. Don’t be an idiot. Just because you don’t have someone looking over your shoulder doesn’t mean you shouldn’t attempt to leave the campsite BETTER than you found it before.

Leave No Trace

This is a great opportunity for parents to teach their children respect.

  • Leave the campsite better than you found it
  • Don’t cut down trees for firewood
  • Use campsites that have a durable ground surface
  • Leave no garbage behind
  • Don’t pick flowers or take historical markers or relics
  • Ensure your fire pit is COLD and don’t leave partially burned wood behind
  • Try to make the campsite perfect for the next group right before you leave

Dispersed Camping Gear Checklist

Having the right gear makes camping enjoyable. If you’re in the high country in Colorado, you will be cold at some point. You may get wet. And you’ll definitely get hungry. Let’s review items you can bring to ensure that no matter the weather, you’ll have a great time.

Click on this link for a definitive list of Camping Essentials to help you organize your next trip.

Food & Dinning

Planning meals for each of the days you’ll be out is your best bet to get the right amount of food. Create a meal plan and itemize what you need to bring. It’s always nice to have a little more than needed than to run out early.

  • Cooler with Ice
  • Food & Snacks (you’re not backpacking, bring more than you need)
  • Drinking Water (2 Gallons per day per person)
  • Plates, Bowls, Frying Pan, Pot, and Utensils
  • Mugs and/or Cups
  • Cutting Board
  • Soap, sponge, towel, and wash bin or bucket for washing dishes
  • Camp Stove & Fuel Source
  • Compact Folding Table
  • Dutch Oven (if cooking over the fire)
  • Griddle
  • Matches and/or Lighter
  • Bottle Opener, Can Opener, Corkscrew
  • Garbage Bags

Shelter & Sleeping

My favorite dispersed camping option is a truck camper. If you’re near Fort Collins, you can rent this fully equipped truck camper for your next adventure.

Tundra Rogue Camp at Dowdy Lake

If you’re planning on taking a tent or a hammock (for sleeping) – it’s always a good idea to bring a tarp with 50ft of Paracord. A tarp helps with protecting your shelter or building a “kitchen” area to help you get out of the rain.

Waking up to frost dispersed camping

If you have the space and means, a canopy is incredible to have. I prefer canopies that have velcro walls that attach quickly and easily. If the wind or rain is coming from one direction you can position the canopy and walls to block the elements. Until you experience this (while tent camping) you just won’t fully understand how incredible it is to have a 10×10 foot 4 legged canopy.

  • Shelter (camper, vehicle, tent, etc)
  • 4 Leg Canopy with removable walls
  • Heavy Sleeping Bags for Cold Nights
  • Blankets & Pillows
  • Tarp & Paracord
  • Sleeping Pad (if tent camping)

Extra Clothing

  • Raincoat
  • Warm Hat
  • Heavy Sweatshirt or Jacket
  • Wool Socks
  • Change of Shoes
  • Flip Flops
  • Gloves and/or Mittens
  • Swimsuits
  • Water Shoes (for exploring creeks and rivers)

Good Idea to Have (& Other Options)

  • Knife
  • Hatchet/Axe
  • Firearm (if you’re trained to carry and use)
  • Firewood and firestarter
  • Camping Chairs
  • Toilet Paper & Small Shovel
  • 5 Gallon Poo Bucket (unless you plan to dig a hole – preferred)
  • Flashlight and Lantern
  • First Aid Kit
  • Bugspray
  • Mallet or Hammer
  • Clothesline & Clips
  • Camp Rug
  • Multitool
  • Duct Tape
  • Hand Sanitizer
  • Quick Dry Towel
  • Lip Balm
  • Baby Wipes
  • Portable Camp Shower

Fun (but not needed)

  • Hammock
  • Games
  • Solar Charger (for your gadgets)
  • Maps & Field Guides
  • Notebook & Pencil
  • Camera
  • Binoculars
  • Navigation Tools (or apps for your phone)

Complete Camping Gear List

This is a comprehensive list of items you could bring camping. You do not NEED all of these items, this list will provide you with a broad overview of options for camping. When car camping or dispersed camping, it’s best to bring more than you think you’ll need (if you have the space) especially if you’ll be out for an extended period of time.

  • Cooler with Ice
  • Food & Snacks (you’re not backpacking, bring more than you need)
  • Drinking Water (2 Gallons per day per person)
  • Plates, Bowls, Frying Pan, Pot, and Utensils
  • Mugs and/or Cups
  • Cutting Board
  • Soap, sponge, towel, and wash bin or bucket for washing dishes
  • Camp Stove & Fuel Source
  • Compact Folding Table
  • Dutch Oven (if cooking over the fire)
  • Cast Iron Griddle
  • Matches and/or Lighter, Flint & Steel
  • Bottle Opener, Can Opener, Corkscrew
  • Garbage Bags
  • Shelter (camper, vehicle, tent, etc)
  • Mallet or Hammer
  • Tent Spikes (if tent camping)
  • 4 Leg Canopy with removable walls
  • Heavy Sleeping Bags for Cold Nights
  • Blankets & Pillows
  • Tarp & Paracord
  • Sleeping Pad (if tent camping)
  • All regular day-to-day clothing
  • Raincoat
  • Warm Hat
  • Heavy Sweatshirt or Jacket
  • Wool Socks
  • Change of Shoes
  • Flip Flops
  • Gloves and/or Mittens
  • Swimsuits
  • Water Shoes (for exploring creeks and rivers)
  • Knife
  • Hatchet/Axe
  • Firearm (if you’re trained to carry and use)
  • Firewood and firestarter
  • Camping Chairs
  • Toilet Paper & Small Shovel
  • 5 Gallon Poo Bucket (unless you plan to dig a hole – preferred)
  • Flashlight and Lantern
  • Headlamp
  • First Aid Kit
  • Bugspray
  • Clothesline & Clips
  • Camp Rug
  • Multitool
  • Duct Tape
  • Hand Sanitizer
  • Quick Dry Towel
  • Lip Balm
  • Baby Wipes
  • Portable Camp Shower
  • Hammock
  • Games
  • Solar Charger (for your gadgets)
  • Maps & Field Guides
  • Notebook & Pencil
  • Camera
  • Binoculars
  • Navigation Tools (or apps for your phone)

Where to go Dispersed Camping

If you’re in northern Colorado there’s a lot of dispersed camping options. Let’s review…

Canyon Lakes Ranger District

About CLRD: Canyon Lakes Ranger District is mostly located in Larimer County (west of Fort Collins) and encompasses approximately 650K+ acres in the Roosevelt National Forest. This area is home to four Wilderness areas, three national recreation trails, two historic districts, and Colorado’s only Wild and Scenic River.

Hwy 14 Scenic Drive
Colorado’s only Wild and Scenic River

State Highways 34, 36 and 14 allow for easy access to hiking trails, campgrounds, four-wheel drive roads, lakes and streams, and dispersed camping opportunities.

When it comes to dispersed camp options, you can set up within 300 feet of most Forest Service roads and some Larimer County Roads as long as you are on National Forest System lands (not private property).

Dispersed Camping Table for Canyon Lakes Ranger District
Dispersed Camping Table for Canyon Lakes Ranger District
Buckhorn Camping Map
This is just a small section of roads and locations to camp.

Motor Vehicle Use Maps are free to the public at all forest offices

Motor Vehicle Use Maps Legend
Moody Hill Road
A very small section to illustrate the road and legend.

MORE COMING SOON

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How to Camp for FREE in Colorado