Where Can I Camp?

One of the best things about the co-op is the thriving community of gearheads, dirtbags, bird nerds, thru-hikers, peak-baggers, storytellers and more who work in our stores and headquarters, guide our trips and teach our classes. In this series, we’ll tap into that expert knowledge to answer some of your burning questions about terrain, gear, safety, etiquette—anything! The co-op has your back.

The question posed this time, What’s the difference between types of federal lands and how does that affect where I can camp?” was submitted by Bailey Leppek, REI member since 2011.

Who doesn’t love to camp in the great outdoors—to delight in the simple joys of nature? First, though, one faces the not-so-simple joy of figuring out where to go. To ensure you’re a camper, not a squatter, you need to know a thing or two about types of land and land-use rules. Luckily, we have someone who can help. Justin Inglis, an Outdoor School market coordinator in REI’s Flagstaff store, developed a class called “Where Can I Camp?” The focus is on Arizona, but the tactics are the same throughout the U.S.

According to Justin, your first consideration is, “What type of camping do you want to do?” Your two options are designated or dispersed.

overhead view of a designated campsite at sunset

Designated Site or Dispersed Camping?

Designated campgrounds come with amenities like toilets, tables and treated water. Some let you reserve sites; others are first-come, first-served. Most charge fees and are relatively easy to access. “Even if a designated campground is on a gravel forest-service road,” says Justin, “you should be able to drive [your average family car] in there without any problems—if you take it nice and slow.”

Dispersed camping is the better option if you love seclusion, spontaneity, selecting your own site and being self-sufficient. You’ll have to pack your own water: “Two gallons per person per day to handle drinking, cooking and washing chores,” says Justin. And you won’t have so much as a pit toilet. If you’re new to this type of camping, says Justin, “then the first thing I’d do is to print out the Leave No Trace principles. Then be sure you take them along and follow them faithfully.” It’s also worth reviewing campsite selection practices and tent setup basics:

Read: How to Set Up a Tent

So, “Where does one find all of these designated and dispersed camping spots?” you ask. You find them in a wide variety of land-management areas: national parks, state and local parks, national forests, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) areas, tribal lands and private property. “Know what type of land you’re stepping onto,” says Justin, “because camping rules and options vary with each one.”

a pitched tent along the beach at sunset

National Parks

National parks offer the most developed, most expensive, most booked-ahead-of-time designated campgrounds. But many also offer more primitive options that are available on a first-come, first-served basis. “11 a.m. is the checkout hour,” says Justin, “so you need to roll in then to have a chance of snagging a spot someone else is vacating.” And not all parks do things the same way, so visit a park’s website well ahead of time to get up to speed.

State and Local Parks

State and local parks can be hidden gems, with a few rivaling the grandeur of a national park. At a state park, though, it will be easier to book a designated site ahead of time, and easier to get a first-come, first-served site.

National Forests and BLM Lands

Dispersed camping is widely available in national forests and BLM lands, both of which will also have some designated campgrounds. “The general rule,” says Justin, “is that you can camp just about anywhere that’s not a designated site or specifically listed as off-limits for camping.” Check out the website of the forest or BLM unit you plan to visit to find out its special rules. Be sure to read the Alerts & Notices link on national forest websites; and, for info about vehicle accessibility, find the Motor Vehicle Use Map link (under the Maps & Publications).

What’s the difference between national forests and BLM lands? “Think logging vs. mining and grazing,” says Justin. “Forests will have trees and greenery, while BLM units will have rocky, windswept landscapes.”

Tribal Lands

If you’re headed for tribal lands, plan on extra preparation time. Tribes vary greatly in what they offer, whether you can find details online and how quickly they get back to you. “Management tends to be spotty,” says Justin, “so be prepared to call them 50 times, if that’s what it takes.”

Private Lands

Private land is also an option. While this can mean knocking on the door of a farmhouse and asking permission to pitch a tent, more often it’s a private commercial campground. In addition to national chains like KOA, you also find vast numbers of individually owned campgrounds (and RV parks). Many are near national and state parks, where campsite demand often exceeds park inventories.

Hipcamp is a great resource for finding and reserving private lands campsites nationwide (and worldwide).

Other Federal Lands

What about other federal lands, like wilderness areas, wildlife refuges, Army Corps of Engineers’ properties and more? Wilderness areas, which can be inside other types of land-management areas, are reserved for backpacking. A few of these other federal lands might offer camping, though it’s rare.

A Nationwide Reservation System for Federal Lands

For a national database of reservable sites on all sorts of federal lands (including national parks and national forests), check out Recreation.gov.

Justin also offers a number of other tips for would-be campers:

  • Call park rangers and other land managers. “They may be busy, but they’re happy to help. They’re also your best resource for details you won’t find anywhere else, like alternative sites near popular areas.”
  • Call or stop into your local REI. “In our store, each sales associate has secret spots, and we’ll probably fight over who gets to take your call.”
  • Fees are rarely round numbers at first-come, first-served sites. “So bring a wad of ones, unless you want to donate extra to land managers.”

Meet the Expert

Justin Inglis is a market coordinator for REI Outdoor School in Flagstaff, Ariz. His outdoor passions include snowshoeing, bikepacking and thru-hiking. Also an Arizona Trail Steward, Justin has set up base camps throughout the Grand Canyon State.