Dispersed Camping Guidelines

What is Dispersed Camping?

Many people enjoy the solitude and primitive experience of camping away from developed campgrounds and other campers. Dispersed camping is the term used for camping anywhere in the National Forest OUTSIDE of a designated campground. Dispersed camping means no services; such as trash removal, and little or no facilities; such as tables and fire pits, are provided. Some popular dispersed camping areas may have toilets.

There are extra responsibilities and skills that are necessary for dispersed camping. It is your responsibility to know these before you try this new experience. Camping rules and regulations apply to make your experience safe, and to keep the natural resources scenic and unspoiled for other campers.

Visitors are primarily responsible for their own safety. Keep in mind, trails and roads may be open for use, but please recreate responsibly and follow public health guidelines regarding social distancing while you recreate in National Forests. Law enforcement and search and rescue operations may be limited due to COVID-19 issues. High risk activities such as rock climbing or motorized activities that increase your chance of injury or distress should be avoided. For the most current and accurate information about COVID-19, contact your local health officials or visit the CDC website at www.cdc.gov. Information from the U.S. Department of Agriculture is available at: www.usda.gov/coronavirus.

Rules for Dispersed Camping:

  • Groups of over 75 people who wish to use the forest, need to obtain a special use permit. Permits can be obtained at the nearest District Office. NOTE: Due to COVID-19, groups larger than 10 people are discouraged from congregating. 
  • There is privately owned land within the forest boundaries so be sure to not encroach on private land.
  • You need to be self-contained. No amenities are provided; such as water, restrooms or trash cans.
  • You may camp in a dispersed area for up to 30 days. After 30 days, you must move at least 5 road miles for camping in another dispersed area. Campers may not return to the same campsite within the calendar year.
  • Please place your campsite at least 100 feet from any stream or other water source. Showers can be locally heavy and occasionally have been known to produce 5 to 10 inches of rain in a few hours. Such storms will cause flooding in the rivers and tributaries within the forest. These same streams will usually be dry in the late summer and early fall. Carry water or a water filtration device with you.
  • Keep a Pack-In Pack-Out camp. Follow Leave No Trace guidelines.
  • Contact the local Forest Service office to see if any restrictions, especially fire restrictions are in place.
  • Be Bear Aware. There are bears on the National Forest, so camp accordingly.

Where Can I Disperse Camp?

Typically, dispersed camping is NOT allowed in the vicinity of developed recreation areas such as campgrounds, picnic areas, or trailheads. Many people drive out on Forest Service roads into the woods and find a clearing or a spot near a stream or with a view of the mountains. Do not drive on meadows to access your camping site. Drive on existing roads to prevent resource damage. Dispersed camping is allowed in a one-mile perimeter away from campgrounds and 100 feet from any stream. To prevent resource damage please keep your campsite within 150 feet from a roadway.

How to Pick a Campsite

If you are going to an area where others have camped before, pick a site that has been used before. Plants, soil and wildlife are impacted by new campsites so using existing ones will minimize your impact in the forest. If there is no existing campsite, then follow these Leave No Trace guidelines.

  • Camp on bare soil if possible, to avoid damage or killing plants and grass.
  • Do NOT camp within 100 feet of any water source, plants near water are especially fragile.
  • Do not camp in the middle of a clearing or meadow; try to make your campsite less visible so that other visitors will see a "wild" setting
  • Do not try to level or dig trenches in the ground at your campsite. Pick a tent site that is already level with good drainage.

Can I Have a Campfire?

Please use existing sites and fire rings. Wood permits are not needed for usage on the forest. The National Forest has wildfires each year. Many of these are caused by human activity, typically escaped campfires from dispersed campers. Campfires are allowed when you are dispersed camping unless there are fire restrictions in effect due to high fire danger conditions. It is your responsibility to know if fire restrictions are in effect before you go camping. You can learn about any fire restrictions by contacting the nearest Forest Service office.

Tips for Safe, Low Impact Campfires:

Use existing fire rings if they exist. Minimize the scarring of new rocks, soil, and plants by using existing fire rings.

Select a site that is not in a meadow or clearing, that is not next to a tree with low overhanging branches, that is at least 100 feet from any water source to protect fragile vegetation.

Clean an area and make a ring of rocks about two feet in diameter.

Collect only dead wood that is on the ground. You should not cut branches from live trees. 

Before you leave your campfire make sure is it completely out. You should be able to put your whole hand into the ashes without being burned, it should be cool to the touch. Stir the ashes to make sure all embers have cooled. This is very important! Many forest fires are caused by abandoned campfires that were not completely out.

Water and Using a Toilet in the Woods:

Water gets contaminated by visitors who do not take care of their human waste or their garbage and food properly.

Going to the Bathroom in the Woods:

Dispersed camping means no bathrooms and no outhouses. That means extra care has to be taken in disposing of human waste. To dispose of feces, dig a hole six (6) inches deep at least 100 feet away from any water source. When you are done, fill the hole with the dirt you dug up and take your toilet paper with you to dispose of in a proper waste container. Never defecate or leave toilet paper on top of the ground. It could easily get into the local water source and contaminate it.

Treating Your Water

We used to be able to take a cup and drink directly out of the sparkling creek, a rushing waterfall, or a clear, deep lake. There is NO safe water source anymore. With an increasing population and visitation to our National Forest, water sources have been contaminated with invisible micro-organisms that can make people very ill and even kill them in some cases. Giardia is a common contamination that has been spread through improper toileting and wild animals to many water sources. It will cause diarrhea, cramping, and other physical problems.

The only way to ensure that water from any undeveloped source is safe is to treat it. That means heating it until it comes to a rolling boil, using water purification tablets or a water purification filter. Water from faucets in developed recreation areas has been tested and treated and is safe to use without treating.

Have Fun!

If you follow these tips you can save a safe, low impact, primitive camping experience. Thank you for helping care for YOUR National Forest.





https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/ouachita/recreation/camping-cabins/?cid=fseprd727994