You’ve got the rig, you’ve got the gear, and most importantly, you’ve got the sense of adventure. It’s relatively easy to find some backroads, offroad trails, or some other adventurous route for most overlanders, but the real challenge can be finding a place to spend the night. While it can be fun and adventurous to go in without a plan, that fun can quickly slide to the other end of the scale when it’s dark, you haven’t had dinner, and you’re searching the maps and apps for a campsite.
Camping on Public Lands
Regardless of other factors, most campsites will fall into either the public or private category. Furthermore, you can categorize public lands camping into campground options and dispersed camping.
Many State and National Forest feature organized campgrounds. These vary widely in size, privacy, and amenities. Some might only be a few flat spots tucked into the woodlands off the main forest road, while others are full campgrounds with bathhouses, electric hookups, and concrete pads. Some might have a reservation system in place, but many are first-come-first-serve and fill up quickly during peak seasons.
It’s also worth noting that State and National Parks often have campgrounds, but in our experience, they’re usually relatively tame and tightly packed. They’re fine in a pinch, but with a bit of research or willingness to explore, you can generally find better options.
For a truly wild camping experience, most overlanders will look for dispersed camping opportunities. Unless otherwise posted, dispersed camping is allowed on the majority of public lands. These “sites” are usually unimproved and offer a nice isolated spot for individuals or small groups. We say “sites” because that’s a bit of a misnomer, but we’ll tackle that topic later. Some of the best options for finding dispersed camping opportunities are at the end of spur roads on public lands and the central portions of large sections of public lands.
Private Land Camping
Not that long ago, private camping options in the US would have been limited to campgrounds in popular areas. Many of those are geared towards RVs and rarely offer a very adventurous experience. However, it seems we’re finally catching up to the rest of the world, and people that live in or near wilderness areas are offering up a spot for campers in exchange for a small fee. However, instead of a simple face-to-face interaction, the chosen platform for arranging these sites is usually a mobile application or website. We’ll discuss some of our favorite options for finding privately owned camping options in a bit.
We’re fortunate to have a number of online resources at our disposal. These are useful during the pre-trip planning, and they can save the day on the fly.
OnX Offroad is available as a mobile application and browser-based platform. It includes information for over 425,000 miles of off-road trails, including; length, governing body, seasonal closures, and trail width. You can study the maps of these trails in either topographic or satellite formats and often find campgrounds or promising areas for dispersed camping. OnX Off-road also has an ever-growing set of Featured Trails. In addition to the previous information, Featured Trails include short summaries, elevation charts, difficulty ratings, and photos. Most of the featured trails have mentions and photos of camping options if any are available. Our very own Trips & Trails series includes routes and trails curated from OnX Offroad Featured Trails.
If you’re looking for more information about camping on public lands, Reserve America and Recreation.gov can be valuable resources. Reserve America manages online reservations for most state and local government park campgrounds in the United States. However, while Reserve America can serve as a good database of sites, campsites on Federal land are only reservable through Recreation.gov. Nevertheless, when used together, these websites are an excellent resource.
Another great online resource is the Hipcamp website and accompanying mobile application. Hipcamp features options ranging from glamping in a luxury tent to tiny house rentals and our personal favorite, a spot in the woods with a fire ring. You can filter by the type of site you’re looking for, search as you move the map, or by specific days and a destination. We’ve found some gems using Hipcamp, particularly on holiday weekends, when dispersed sites are in high demand and campgrounds are jam-packed.
There are other options available, and when researching sites for a trip, why not use every tool in the box? With a model similar to Hipcamp, thedyrt.com allows you to browse campsites via a location search or by using their map. Most of the results seem to be park campgrounds and larger private campgrounds. Be warned, while exploring our local area on The Dyrt we found an incorrectly listed campsite that was shown to be half an hour away, when in reality it’s in a different part of the state. Other websites and applications such as iOverlander, Boondocking.com, and the USFS & BLM Campgrounds application are also helpful.
Leave No Trace
Regardless if you’re camping in a huge campground, in a secluded dispersed site on public lands, or a nice spot you found on Hipcamp, you should always practice Leave No Trace ethics. Outside of your own minimal impact practices, it’s always a great idea to leave it better than you found by cleaning up trash when you can. When exploring and camping on public lands, familiarize yourself with the rules and regulations of the area. Wildlife Management Areas, State Forest, National Forest, and other public lands can all have vastly different regulations on anything from required permits to bringing in firewood.
Get Out and Explore
While maps, apps, and other forms of research are great, you can’t beat time on the trail. This holds particularly true if there’s a certain area that you frequently visit. If you’re heading to a new destination, try to tag along with a local, or at the very least gather some insider information