Rules of Thumb for Car Camping on U.S. Public Land

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The allure of wide-open spaces draws all of us to explore through camping and overlanding. If you live in or are visiting the US, dispersed camping is a form these adventures are likely to take. That’s because of the abundance of public land. Public land in the US serves as a sort of choose-your-own-adventure sandbox where dispersed camping is largely permitted.

Dispersed camping, for those who don’t know, is the practice of setting up a campsite outside of designated campgrounds or established facilities. Unlike traditional campgrounds that offer amenities like restrooms, picnic tables, and fire rings, dispersed camping involves finding an undeveloped spot in natural areas such as national forests, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands, or other public lands. Campers must bring their own supplies, including water, food, and shelter, and are responsible for practicing Leave No Trace principles to minimize their impact on the environment. It's a liberating, self-reliant form of adventure. 

So, you’re itching to choose your own dispersed camping adventure? Do you know how to effectively plan and prepare for such a journey?


Your Dispersed Camping Cheat Sheet

It's totally fine if you've got it all figured out or have your own unique approach. After all, the spirit of adventure thrives on individuality. However, whether you're a novice, a curious wanderer, or an experienced overlanding enthusiast seeking fresh insights, rest assured—we have your back!

In this blog, we provide a cheat sheet for dispersed camping and overlanding on public land in the US. Below are 5 essential rules of thumb that you must follow if you want to master the art of car camping or overlanding on public lands. From scouting out the perfect destination to leaving nothing but footprints, we'll guide you through the key principles that ensure a thrilling, sustainable, and well organized adventure.

Let’s get to it! 


#1: Scout Out Your Destination 

Before embarking on your overlanding adventure, it's crucial to scout out your destination thoroughly. This (hopefully) involves selecting an awe-inspiring location. It also (crucially) involves understanding the logistics that will impact your journey. Public lands have unique regulations designed to protect both the environment and visitors. Before embarking on your overlanding adventure, research the specific guidelines and rules established by the land management agency responsible for the area. These regulations may include camping permit requirements, designated camping areas, fire restrictions, and vehicle use guidelines. Ignoring these rules not only puts you at risk of fines but also threatens the delicate balance of the ecosystem and the accessibility of these lands for future generations. Here are the top three things to look out for when scouting our your destination:

  1. Check for Public Land: Ensure that your destination region has accessible public lands for overlanding and camping. These lands, managed by government agencies like the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in the U.S., often provide free or low-cost camping options. Apps like iOverlander and websites like BLM's official site can help you locate these lands.
    The best places to find more information on the lands is:

    BLM Land

    National Park Service

    National Forest Service

    Wildlife Refuge

    The DYRT Camping App

  2. Useful Apps and Maps: Leverage technology to your advantage. Apps like Gaia GPS and ONX, as well as offline maps, can help you find swaths of public land in any area with their public land overlay features. They can also help you navigate the terrain while staying informed about trails, road conditions, and potential hazards, even without service. Just make sure you download the map of the area to your phone before you leave service.

  3. Check Conditions: Stay updated about the current conditions of the area, including weather forecasts and fire restrictions. Speaking of fires, ensure you're well-versed in fire regulations for the area. This is essential for preserving the environment and ensuring safety. If you are worried about Wildfires and want to stay prepared, check out our blog: Heat Map of US Wildfire Frequency: A Guide for Smart Trip Planning.  

Overhead view of campsite.


    #2: Know the Rules 

    Each area of public land might have unique rules and regulations that you need to be aware of to ensure a smooth and respectful overlanding experience. This could be anything from campfire regulations to driving regulations. The more you know about where you’re going the better it will be—but also the less surprised you will be when you get there! There is nothing worse than packing your bag with firewood and s’more supplies, only to get there and realize there's a burn ban! So here are two good rules to always keep in mind:

    1. Check local regulations: Familiarize yourself with the specific rules of the public land you plan to visit. Some lands might have restrictions on camping duration, designated camping areas, and off-road driving. Being informed can prevent unnecessary fines and protect the environment. The best way to do this is by visiting the website of the agency that manages the land.

    2. Check Driving and Camping Legalities: Understand the legality of driving off-road and camping on public lands. Some lands might permit dispersed camping, where you can camp outside of designated campgrounds, while others might require you to stay within certain boundaries. Again, agency websites will be the most informative here, along with trip reports from recent visitors, which you can find via a quick Google search.


    #3 Pack Accordingly

    Proper preparation is the cornerstone of a successful overlanding and camping experience. Pack right and you'll have enough essentials to last you through your whole journey! But it doesn’t only need to be essentials—you also want to consider activities and entertainment! Here is our go-to list of essentials to always check off when packing:

    • Food: Ensure you have enough food to sustain you throughout your journey. Make a list, mental or physical for each meal, each day, and make sure you pack food for every one (plus some extra). Consider non-perishable items that require minimal refrigeration and have a good balance of nutritional value. If you have space in the back of your rig, consider getting a cooler—this not only will help keep your items fresh, but will also elevate your cooking experience in the wild. Want some simple camp meal ideas? Check out our blog from Drew Baker, on the best Un-Gourmet Camping Recipes: Camp Food for Real People.

    • Water: As we all know, water is life, and in remote areas, clean water sources might be scarce. Carry sufficient water for drinking, cooking, and cleaning. A great pro tip: always bring more water than you expect to use. It’s always better to have too much than too little! Additionally, invest in a reliable water filtration system to purify available water sources. These range from small portable filters to large filtration systems. This saves a ton of space and weight, and minimizes store-bought plastic cartons.  

    • Fuel: While out on public lands, running out of fuel can leave you in a tricky position. Adequate fuel is not only crucial for your vehicle but also for cooking and heating. Ensure you pack enough fuel for your vehicle and any camping equipment that requires it. This might mean an auxiliary gas canister and extra propane.

    • Hygiene Essentials: Maintaining proper hygiene is essential for both personal comfort and environmental responsibility. If you do decide to bring soap, make sure to pack biodegradable soap. There are loads of brands that carry multi-use soaps and wipes that are a great alternative! Also, consider using portable toilets to minimize your impact on the land. 

    • Entertainment and Games: While nature provides its own entertainment, it's a good idea to bring along some form of your own, such as books, games, or musical instruments. Disconnecting from technology and embracing the solitude of nature can greatly enhance your overlanding experience.

    Gear laydown with the COMBAR


    #4 Respect Your Neighbors (aka Don't Be an A**hole)

    While dispersed camping and overlanding offers an escape from the noise of urban life, it's essential to be considerate of fellow campers and visitors. Other’s have decided to come out into nature to enjoy the quiet and space from our busy fast-paced lives, too. Creating a harmonious atmosphere ensures that everyone can enjoy their experience in the great outdoors. Here are some great things to always consider when camping on public lands:

    • Observe Quiet Hours: Most camping areas have designated quiet hours during which noise should be minimized. Respect these hours to provide a peaceful environment for everyone. Also, just use common sense here. No 6AM Black Sabbath bangers.

    • Maintain Distance: Give other campers the space they need to enjoy their surroundings. Avoid setting up camp right next to others unless it's necessary.

    • Consider the Kids: Whether it's music or conversations, be mindful of youngsters who are nearby. If you're out there to get rowdy with adults, go a little further to ensure solitude.

    Overlanding Rig Parked by the Beach


    #5 Respect the Environment (aka Leave No Trace)

    Nature's splendor is fragile, and every footstep can leave an indelible mark. Leave No Trace is one of the most important and significant things you must know when you go outdoors, especially when camping on public lands. To minimize our impact and ensure the wilderness remains untouched, the Leave No Trace principles stand as a steadfast guide for responsible outdoor exploration. These principles encompass everything from pre-trip planning to post-trip cleanup:

    • Plan Ahead and Prepare: Thoroughly research the area you intend to explore. Understand the rules and regulations set forth by the land management agencies. This not only keeps you safe but also helps prevent unintentional damage to delicate ecosystems.

    • Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces: Stick to established roads and camping spots to prevent soil erosion and trampling of native vegetation. Avoid creating new paths, as these can cause irreversible harm to the environment.

    • Dispose of Waste Properly: Pack out everything you bring in. This includes not just trash, but also food scraps and personal waste. Use proper waste disposal techniques, such as burying human waste in designated catholes away from water sources.

    • Leave What You Find: Refrain from disturbing plants, rocks, or historical artifacts. Preserve the area's natural beauty and cultural heritage for others to enjoy.

    • Minimize Campfire Impact: Campfires can scar the landscape and leave lasting damage. If fires are permitted, use established fire rings or pans. Only use dead and downed wood and keep the fire small. Extinguish the fire completely before leaving.

    • Respect Wildlife: Observe animals from a safe distance. Never feed wildlife, as it can disrupt their natural behaviors and even be harmful to them.

    • Be Considerate of Other Visitors: Keep noise levels down, especially during quiet hours. Give fellow campers and explorers the space they need to enjoy their experience.


    Conclusion: Commit These Rules to Memory (or to Your Bookmarks Tab)

    Dispersed camping or overlanding on public lands offers a unique opportunity to reconnect with nature on a profound level. To make the most of this experience, it's imperative to approach it with responsibility and mindfulness. By scouting your destination, understanding the rules, packing thoughtfully, respecting your fellow adventurers, and leaving no trace, you can put together an EPIC trip. As you embark on your next adventure, carry these rules of thumb with you and share them within the overlanding community. See you out there!


    Are we missing a vital rule? Let us know on social media: @aclim8gear. And make sure to sign up for our email newsletter (sign up below) so you never miss a pro tip or trip report.

    Not sure where to go Overlanding? Check out A Family Overlanding Adventure from Baja to the Arctic Circle.

    Want to learn more about essential Overlanding Gear? Overlanding Pro Tips: How to Keep Your Multitool With You When Driving, At Camp, and On Foot.

    Looking to learn more about Overlanding? Check out On Mastering the Art of Overlanding.



    Overlanding Packing + Prep

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