The end of dispersed camping?

An increasing number of campers are trashing dispersed camping sites around the country
Dispersed camping in the Cocoino National Forest
Dispersed camping in the Cocoino National Forest (photo: USFS).

I love to camp. I love to camp almost as much as I love to fish. Being outside, far from city lights and city traffic, is soul-building. Dropping the jacks on my little camper overlooking a stretch of fishy water and spending a week away from computer screens, cell phone signals and the damn lawn mower is how I recharge.

And I don’t do campgrounds. Where I live, I’m fortunate — there are dozens upon dozens of public-land campgrounds on the national forests and BLM lands near my home. And a lot of folks use those campgrounds, which is a really good thing. But, if I have a choice, I almost always choose to go the “dispersed” route — a wide spot off a Forest Service road, or a hidden grotto connected to the road via a subtle two-track trail … that’s where I camp. It’s private. It’s rustic. It’s a great way to find solitude and, truth be told, better fishing.

In all honesty, I like to go where people aren’t.

But dispersed camping is becoming more and more popular. With that popularity, of course, comes the refuse that often remains after humans leave the woods — garbage, damage to the land and even piles of excrement. In Arizona’s iconic Oak Creek Canyon on the Coconino National Forest near Sedona, “campers” have trashed dispersed camping sites, carving their initials into tree trunks and crafting graffiti on rocks. On parts of the nearby Prescott National Forest, camping was banned for two years starting last summer after officials could no longer keep up with the trash and damage inflicted on public lands by dispersed campers.

Of course, the damage isn’t restricted to Arizona — public lands open to dispersed camping all over the West are being degraded as I write this. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has people searching for recreation away from crowds, and they’re finding things to do — good, wholesome outdoor activities — on lands that belong to all Americans. Unfortunately, they aren’t doing it right. And, as the saying goes, a few bad apples can spoil the entire barrel.

In time, if this misuse continues, forest managers will have no choice but to ban dispersed camping, close spur roads and restrict access to the public lands that give the West much of its appeal. Certainly, the pandemic can be blamed for an influx of inexperienced campers in need of some simple education when it comes to camping etiquette, but, honestly, the damage to public lands is nothing new.

For years, I’ve protected a couple of a “secret spots,” choosing to share them with a select few folks (mostly folks who don’t fish, mind you), under the assumption that special places are only special because they’re still largely intact and it’s easy to escape the crowds that might be gathered at the official campgrounds. When I visited one of my favorite locations a couple weeks ago, I discovered that what was once the “end of the road” was no longer. Instead, enthusiastic ORV riders had pioneered a circular “track” that bordered my once-sublime campsite — now, dirt bikers and ATV riders churn up dust and make camping on the bluff overlooking one my favorite public lands streams a lot less enjoyable. To make matters worse, presumably the same ORV folks have decided the short walk to stream isn’t short enough — they’ve created a completely new two-track trail across the meadow below my favorite campsite that goes directly to a popular swimming hole.

Just this past week, I ventured north, deep into the woods of Idaho’s panhandle, in search of west slope cutthroat trout and bull trout. I hauled my camper north through Montana, climbed a sketchy pass and dropped down into the headwaters of the St. Joe River. It’s stunningly beautiful country replete with tall firs and cedars that have come back in dense groves after the Great Burn in the early 1900s. The river itself is a sight to behold — cold, clear water cruising over scoured river rocks and through deep, green pools where trout eagerly await flies.

I was easily 100 miles from any notable population center, and I figured I would have my pick of any number of dispersed camping sites along the upper river. But when I arrived on a Tuesday afternoon, I realized that times are different. Every wide spot in the road was occupied, and I eventually settled for an out-of-the-way spot in a stock camp.

I’m not bemoaning the use of our public lands — it’s actually heartening to see people taking advantage of this uniquely American birthright. But as I drove out on Saturday morning, I was taken aback by the leavings of a few “campers” who decided that packing out what they packed in just wasn’t something they wanted to do. In the middle of the week, I was visited by a Panhandle National Forest employee who asked me if I knew anything about a stock picket being sawed down in a nearby campsite — I hadn’t noticed the damage until she pointed it out to me, but this bit of vandalism took some effort, a chainsaw and a general disregard for the next folks to come camping who might like to tie their horses up overnight.

This is the kind of behavior that will reduce our dispersed camping opportunities. If folks can’t be bothered to clean up after themselves and refrain from scrawling their initials in aspen trees, spray-painting a rock face, driving their ATVs across an untracked meadow or constructing some silly cairn made from displaced river rocks, they likely shouldn’t be camping in the first place. More damage will lead to more closures by land-management agencies, and rightly so.

I get that we’re in the midst of a global pandemic, and we’re seeing both the best and worst of humanity as our country deals with its most concerning cultural crisis since the 1960s. I also understand that “getting away from it all” is important for our emotional well-being — this is something I’ve grasped for decades. But if we can’t do it right, and keep our public lands clean and ready for the next folks who are trying to accomplish some responsible recreation during the time of COVID-19, perhaps we shouldn’t be doing it at all.

And if we’re not careful, those charged with managing our public lands will be forced to make some tough choices for us when it comes to dispersed camping. Let’s get our acts together and take care of the places we all love. The damage we inflict today cuts into our opportunities tomorrow.

Comments

The article I just read about dispersed camping becoming endangered rang so true to me. I just returned home from a month, living in my rooftop tent, traveling from the Pacific Northwest through Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and Oregon tending family business during the pandemic. I managed to stay distanced and healthy by doing the entire trip, touching nothing more risky than a gas pump handle and by utilizing the dispersed campsites. I realized what a huge blessing we have and also witnessed the abuse that threatens it. I drive a pickup so I am constantly cleaning up and hauling out all I can. The big question I have is: is there any more that WE can do as like-minded people who love our wild places to mitigate the threat of losing them? A few cleaning up after the many isn't going to be enough.

Humans don't deserve this planet. We were given a paradise and are turning it into a landfill. Signs say don't collect wood, harass or approach wildlife or drive off established trails. People chop down trees, go off in their ATVs on to delicate areas, drive into wetlands and and do figure 8s and leave ruts in the mud that take years to get back to normal if ever. Our national forests and BLM lands are to be cherished and used with care. How hard is it to pack out beer cans and whiskey bottles (which can be recycled) cigarette packs, paper plates, potato chip bags, paper cups and all that? I'd leave the area cleaner than I found it. After the Covid lockdown and Florida started to open up, I saw pictures of the beach trashed with all these things too including face masks. Not only is trash unsitely, it is hazardous to wildlife.

Stupid article. Obviously people trash dispersed sites. People have been doing it for ages. Theres a spot I go to that has a car from the 60s Barried in dirt. It's been going on for a long time. Everytime I'm out dispersed camping if I see any garbage i pick it up. But who cares. So close it off and then what. No one can go back there and enjoy the beauty. You act like these sites look like some gang ridden town in the dumps.

Ur a dumbass for disagreeing with the article

Your comment is what is STUPID. I suppose you would be the kind of a jack ass that pitches a fit about YOUR RIGHTS if agencies did close these lands to public use to PROTECT them. you're as bad as the shitty ppl that trash these places.

Exactly. Low effort places have always attracted riff raff, long before social media. This article is asking for more control, more rules. Just use your legs and find somewhere actually secluded and remote, instead of complaining about trash or graffiti on roadside 'gems'

I care. Just because it's been happening for years doesn't make it acceptable. You shouldn't have to pick up after other campers. It's disrespectful and dangerous. My husband and I were camping up near Cameron Peak in Colorado (which is burning up as we speak) and had some rude campers just up from us. They stayed one night. We left the same day they did but in order to get out of our spot we had to drive through their former spot. It's a good thing we did. As we drove by, I noticed these jerks left trash everywhere. I told my husband to stop so I could pick it up. Some of the trash was in their firepit. Well, when I picked up the trash, it was hot. They left and left their firepit still hot! It only takes one ember to flare up and start a fire. Needless to say, my husband and I grabbed water out of our car and completely cooled the pit down. This is a big deal and just goes to show how ignorant people can be.

Amen.
Enough with the "wreckcreationists."
Since March 2020, the number of people using dispersed sites in and around CO and WY has exploded. Places that saw little to no use are disfigured beyond recognition. In April, people were cutting fences along CO-14 to get to "camping" sites right on the Poudre River. Last week, I picked up 300 discarded .223 casing from another newly created dispersed site near Turkey Roost. The Cameron Peak fire was human-caused. It started near a place where dispersed camping has blown up.

It's not hard to connect the dots.

It’s idiots like you that make assholes like that think it’s ok to trash public lands .

Well yes it has been going on your right. But your not looking at the big picture. With more people out the more the impact. There are people who are simply clueless going out. Mindless to what he was explaining. Pick what you can but how do you get rid of spray on rocks. Can you imagine what we don’t see. Like what’s being put into the waters. Dumped out of site. Poaching and just simply disturbing nature’s life. Your comment was just narrow minded. Through down your anger. I applaud you that you clean up but so many out there that just care or get it. Be bigger in your thoughts that is fair to say.

Learn to spell also..if you pack it in...pack it out! That simple..

I live in the exact area that the author is writing about in this article. I see this activity all the time. On a recent camping trip with my family we only disperse camped and encountered the same scenario and worse at multiple places up the Joe and lands in Montana. I removed a large trash bag of garbage from one site alone that we only encountered by chance while driving to a local fire watch tower. There are people that just don't care and feel that they can do as they please. We've had "campers" cutting locks to private property, riding atv/utv/jeeps off designated trails all over the st Joe forest area. There are people going into the forest lands of Idaho and Montana and treating it like the wild west and doing what they please, other public land users be damned.

I used to pick up others people's trash, but in the age of COVID-19, I'm reluctant to do this, especially if I dont have running water to wash my hands.

I was fortunate to hike tour de mt blanc last summer. No dispersed camping. No dogs. If we don't start cleaning up after ourselves, it will come to this

Someone once told me " think of the solution, not the problem". So what is the solution? Here are some thoughts: require a camping permit for all campers and with that permit they receive a pamphlet stating camping "rules" or guidelines that all campers read.
Require all dispersed campers to have a notice on their camping spot or inside their rig so it is not affected by rain, that has the date of arrival and expected departure date so all can see it, including the Rangers. This can be handwritten. This is primarily because there is a 14 day limit in most areas and it lets the Rangers know that you know. It helps the Rangers so they don't have to get out and ask every camper that information.
Create very stiff penalties for those who do not abide by the rules.
If something isn't done then the RV Park coalition will win this battle and insist that dispersed camping be abolished so everyone HAS to stay in an RV Park. Don't underestimate this threat.

Thank you for writing this! I grew up in Utah, and camped all over the Rockies. Lived in Montana and Idaho as well. Now I call Oregon home. I am so saddened by exactly what you describe. Some of our recreation areas were closed for weeks just to clean out the piles of human excrement. Truckloads of garbage left in regular campsites in both BLM areas and state campgrounds as well. It literally boggles my mind. I don't understand how anyone would take the time to pack up and go to these beautiful areas and then trash them? Why don't they just stay home if the beauty and peacefulness isn't what they came for anyway?! It makes me so sad. I was raised to honor the land and NEVER leave anything behind! I raised my kids and grandkids that way as well. And sadly, it might not be long before the beauty of our forests is ruined forever.

It's a huge problem in the east . Especially the north east :(

It is true and a truth WE are challenged to face sooner than later. Respect for our lands is tied directly to our own identity. If we have a poor self-image, or if we have never been taught to respect our country overall, then it is Elementary will treat it accordingly. Conservation ought to be taught in every home - school - college as it was 35 years ago. America! I love it!

Excellent writing and I too agree with everything you said. Funny how people will go out of their way to riot for the dead but at the same time trash nature and the living. I've seen what you say from public lands upto Wal Mart Parking lots. Sad, so, so, sad.

This is absolutely correct. This has been going on for too many years and it's heartbreaking and aggravating to hear that it's just getting worse. I am a lover of camping "out in the middle of no where" in the beautiful forrests of Arizona, away from the sight of other campers or even the possibility of having someone simply drive by my chosen spot to camp for peace and tranquility. I am a proud American to say that when I find a place to camp out in the forrest if it is clean when I arrive it will damn sure be the same way when I pack up and leave, and if there happens to be trash already there then I will take that trash with me when I leave. No one should ever have to pick up someone else's trash thrown on the ground. Any person or people in this country that doesn't respect this beautiful land of ours by trashing, abusing, or destroying it does not deserve to live here.

In the days of Covid-19 there also seem to be many people with semipermanent sites tucked into the National Forests as well.

Criticism is on point. Hope it causes us to become more thoughtful users. Thanks

I don't agree w people trashing the campsites , leave no trace is the way to be. Regardless what the laws are, if dispersed camping is shut down, I'll still camp anywhere anytime I want.

From what my family and I have seen during our vacation travels in recent months, I found this article to be very accurate. I would like to highlight there are many of us off-road enthusiasts who respect the land and ride their machines on designated trails. I understand the article stated people may be uneducated on camping/ORV etiquette. However, I feel those who have decided to try camping in the "Covid" world, whether they offroad or not, are lazy and disrespectful of the land. It is common sense to not litter nature with trash like cigarette butts, beer cans, water bottles, and even baby diapers. In my opinion, these people have little regard for nature, wildlife, and other campers. I believe it is going to be up to those of us that do our best to respect the land to hold those who don't accountable.

That is indeed sad and disheartening. I still pickup trash whenever we go canoeing and camping. People have no respect.

Love this! It's not only campers that are bespoiling our outdoor areas. The hunters that don't pick up their spent shotgun shells and the fishers that can't seem to pack out the worm containers are just as bad. I hope that I taught my son to always take a grocery sack fishing with him to clean up after the guy that was there before him.

Great article that points out something I've struggled with for years! As an outdoor guide I love to introduce people to the great outdoors as I feel there are so many benefits. So when the pandemic hit and I noticed more and more people hitting the trials I was excited that they were now being exposed to my "church" but then I started to notice the garbage and destruction, now I want everyone to go back home! I agree that it may just be a lack of education, to some extent, but I think common sense would dictate that discarding a baby's diaper in the middle of the woods is probably not the smartest move. Unfortunately, I feel your article will not reach the target audience it should and we will be left shaking our heads.
Thank you for your insight

Because camping has become extremely popular now the agencies overseeing our public land should use billboards and perhaps a large social media campaign to point out how important it is to care for the land/resources when out there...like the smokey the bear campaign. Unfortunately people need this pointed out to them. And maybe atvs should be banned or restricted in certain areas

That's still on us, frankly. Our public lands management agencies are starved of funding, and maligned by the very part that does the starving. Sadly, that has translated into near-hatred of land-management agencies from the public, not realizing that there simply isn't money to maintain the places we visit to go fishing, hunting and camping. You want billboards and signage and education? Convince your state's federal delegation to better fund the U.S. Forest Service, the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Reclamation. Until, these are just unfunded solutions to very real problems.

A few thousand years ago somebody put grafiti up and we call those cave paintings. I get your point though most people don't get the pack in pack out concept. My grandpa always made us kids get in a line after packing up to "LEAVE it cleaner than we found it". Seemed crazy 40 years ago but I wish everyone did it.

Great read but in the State of GA, this has been going on for quite some time! 40 years ago you had great trout fishing and clean streams. Now you have a hard time trying to find any area without trash! Trout limit of 8 fish per day is a joke! They fish a hole till they catch every last one of the stocked fish there. When you tell them about catch and relese they look at you like you crazy! Needless to say I don’t trout fish that much anymore! I blame some of this on the GA DNR they have a Facebook sight and list where they stocked and what day they stocked the various streams and rivers!

Also we have know enforcement of the fish and game laws anymore it’s just a shame GA. This was started before Covid 19

With so much of the workforce shifting to remote work, this was bound to happen. You forgot to mention natural human waste (poop). How many catholes can a campsite handle before the ground looks like swiss cheese? Don't get me started to the tp blooms... Need to figure something out before starlink goes live and the digital nomads (myself included) are literally anywhere and everywhere. I fear we will be spreading like locusts.

Oh, I mentioned it ... "piles of excrement." I just figured "poop" probably wasn't appropriate ;)

I've pretty much lost hope of people doing the right thing,after seventy nine years of observing the human species, there are those who do not care and will ruin it for all no matter how much preaching they hear,

What's "elitist" about asking dispersed campers to clean up after themselves? Touched a nerve, huh?

Thanks for outing yourself as garbage!

I assume you do not s*#t in other people's yard. Is asking others to have consideration and to cleanup after themselves "elistist"? I always thought it was a reminder to take personal responsibility and not place a burden on others. I guarantee you would take afront to anyone degrading your land. Well guess what, I take afront to others degrading "our" public lands.

You said it best..ppl don't care cause it's not theirs mentality. I guarantee if u took a poo or grafittied anything that they worked hard for ( or mommy gave them) then all hell would break loose. I have a bag of bags in my tackle box just for taking out lazy ppls crap that they " forgot" .

Aren't you missing a virus-spreading MAGA rally somewhere?

Aren't you missing ah "peaceful riot" somewhere?

Doesnt sound like a bitch session to me. It sounds more like someone who is very passionate about the outdoors and keeping it pristine

This is not about being of the elite, in fact I don't have much so to pack up the '88 station wagon, hook up the 40 year old fishing boat and head north with my boys and the dog for a few days of peace and quite with them is great but I was taught if you can burn it burn it if you can't, put it in the trash bag. If it is on the ground and doesn't belong there pick it up and leave better then when you got there. I have been very disappointed in who my neighbors have been the last several years, the loony of the loony, Subaru driving, granola eating, kid hating slobs I have ever seen leave more of a mess. I was responsible, and picked up there trash on my way out. I have become a believer in if it belongs to everyone it belongs to no one. I am ready to ask the forest service to put in a pay box so at least you have some accountability for it. I don't think I shouldn't pay to camp but I have a big family and a dog so staying in a motel or a park becomes prohibitive.

Eventually people like the commenter Bill Bill (nice real name, coward) will turn vigilantes out of peaceful Subaru drivers. Hey, @$$hat, your "elitist" statement has the same immature contempt that 6th graders feel for teachers who rightfully tell them not to misbehave and disturb class for other students. You might as well have a backwards hat that says, "What, me worry?" You're selfish, you're ignorant, and I meet you in the woods, you're the only garbage that gets left behind. Does kicking your selfish fucking ass sound elitist to you, bitch?

Sounds like a idiot that thinks that ORV trails going off road creates fire breaks. Let's not forget about the dumb asses that take their old Tvs and computers out to the forest and shoot them up then leave what remains. Don't get me wrong I am a hunter, fisher, target shooter but I clean up after myself and when out riding my horse it sickens me to someone else's trash and ORV tracks scattered throughout the forest.

Sadly, it may have to come down to camping becoming a self-policing endeavor, with offenders being reported by the more responsible among us. With everyone having a cell phone these days, photographic evidence (including license plate numbers) shared with authorities is easy enough. If you see something, say something. I wouldn't recommend confronting offenders, because you never know about folks. But it's land that belongs to all of us, so it's up to all of us to protect it.

I agree that it would be nice for some kind of accountability. Mail ppl tickets if they have left a camp area trashed. More effective would be packing up the trash and delivering it to their yard, or onto their vehicle if they don’t have a yard. I know realistically that’s not going to happen, but I can daydream about a “do unto others as you’d have them do unto you” justice for the trashers. :-)

I completely agree with you here, thank you for this article, I hope it will reach the masses.

While I appreciate your article about the vandalism. It's your description of the places you go that are helping cause all of this. Use to, people would go on vacation trips and come back and tell they're friends and relatives about they're trip and that's as far as that info would go. Now they're all going on Youtube and telling the world where all these great places are. So now those places are filling up. Good luck on getting a scenic picture without an RV or a tent in the pic. in the future.

I think we're talking about two separate things. Dispersed camping isn't, in and of itself, the problem you're referencing. Rather, you're talking about social media promotion of the activity that features recognizable landmarks, hashtags with names in them and labeled photos that disclose "secret" locations. And we're agreed ... I'm much more reserved about sharing spots anymore, especially when I find them trashed on my next visit.

good point, however, are these "public lands" not for everyone, or just the people you feel important enough to visit them. I don't really enjoy camping with neighbors so close you can smell their farts, but these days with so many people forced to stay away from jobs, school, and crowded public places, camping is the next best option. Don't worry though, and mark my words, as covid and the election pass, so will the crowds in the woods. In the mean time, keep bringing the extra garbage bags as i do and be the good person you are.

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