Primitive camping, also called dispersed camping on public lands, is one of the American West’s best-kept secrets. Are you interested in learning more about camping for free? This article will first discuss practicing environmental stewardship in the backcountry, what BLM is, the types of outdoor activities you can do on BLM land, what primitive or dispersed camping means, and how to camp for free! We’ll also share our favorite places to camp in Colorado and Utah, along with maps and camp gear we recommend.
Keep reading to get all the dirt on how to go primitive camping (dispersed camping) on BLM land.
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New to hiking, biking, camping, and recreating on public lands?
Before beginning an outdoor adventure in the backcountry and on public lands, it is essential to know the etiquette to protect the environment and yourself.
I learned a lot of this critical information we are about to share with you from friends and family growing up and in college majoring in Biology and Environmental Sustainability out West.
Keep reading – it is super important!
We thought it was imperative to provide backcountry information to our readers to share with their friends and family!
Especially with COVID, more and more people are learning about how to recreate outdoors.
Please share and spread the word!
Rules… who would have thought there are rules to the backcountry?!
Practice the seven principles from Leave No Trace on enjoying the outdoors without impacting the environment negatively.
Leave No Trace principles include:
In reality, we all have to use the bathroom. So, let’s read more about it!
Plan ahead! Know before you go… literally. Backpacker.com has down-to-earth information on their website discussing using the bathroom in the backcountry. There is no shame in being prepared!
To summarize, using the bathroom in the backcountry if there are no facilities:
We also keep wag bags (from Amazon or REI) in the car and our day packs when hiking or camping on public lands where it is required to pack out human waste.
For example, in Glen Canyon Recreation Area and places along the Colorado River or next to the water, you have to pack out human waste along with toilet paper. So always good to have a wag bag when duty calls…
Since everyone is free to use public lands, we all have to do our part to keep them pristine, clean, and unforgettable.
Hiking or Biking? Sweeeeeet! Check out this post from REI on Trail Etiquette and Who Has the Right of Way. It talks about who has the right of way when using the trail.
Have you seen signs or stickers that say don’t bust the crust? The signage and public outreach are because it takes tens to hundreds of years for the desert biological soil crust to grow.
That black crusty stuff all over the desert is alive and composed of microorganisms important to the desert ecosystem.
When recreating outdoors in the desert, it is crucial to stay on the trails or roads to protect the biological soil crust.
I did my undergraduate thesis on Biological Soil Crust and Its Importance to the Intermountain Plateau and am passionate about protecting and preserving it. Now you can be too.
BLM stands for Bureau of Land Management. It is a federal government agency under the U.S. Department of the Interior. The BLM manages over 245 million acres of public land in the U.S.
Uniquely, BLM land is public land meaning it is open to the public for recreational use.
For example, check out this map to explore public land in the U.S. managed by the government.
Public lands offer a mecca of outdoor recreation activities and adventure sports such as hiking, biking, climbing, canyoneering, mountaineering, off-roading, tent camping, dispersed camping, or RV-ing, just to name a few.
Primitive camping (dispersed camping) is camping without facilities in the backcountry mostly. It can also mean camping without camping in a formal campground area.
BLM calls this dispersed camping. The National Park Service calls this primitive camping.
In the same fashion, there is no water, electricity, trash receptacles, or bathrooms. With this in mind, there probably won’t even be cell phone reception (if you’re out West).
Moreover, you have to bring all your creature comforts with you, including food, water, shelter, batteries, first aid kit, etc.
Everything you are reading about is why it is super important to know the the backcountry rules before going primitive camping on BLM land.
Public land is full of incredible places to go primitive camping!
Check out the BLM Recreation Web Map to find BLM land near you! Plan your next adventure, locate destinations to camp, and find hiking and biking trails on public land.
Most of the primitive camping (dispersed camping) spots are established. Meaning, there won’t necessarily be a formal campground, but you can see that there is a camping spot. Sometimes there is a fire pit. Sometimes not.
To explain, you can access the camping locations off dirt or gravel roads and trails.
Another critical point, you only want to camp where it looks like it is safe to camp for yourself and the environment. For this reason, never disturbed undisturbed land to camp.
If it doesn’t look like someone else camped there, don’t make a new disturbance (going back to the backcountry rules earlier).
Therefore, find your spot and set up camp! Now you’re camping for free. That’s it. To emphasize, camping for free! Keep your wallet and hard-earned money in your pocket.
The caveat to this is that the BLM doesn’t want you staying for more than 14 days. So, don’t get too cozy… Haha
Some BLM places will have other timing restrictions and formal camping spots with bathrooms. But for the most part, primitive camping is just how it sounds. Primitive.
To explain more… bring your own everything!
Check out our post on 30 simple camp kitchen essentials you cannot miss for your next camping trip.
We lived in Western Colorado for a long time. It is near and dear to our hearts.
I spent time completing my undergraduate degree in Western Colorado and Southeast Utah. During my time at college, we studied the desert ecosystem, plants, animals, and biological soil crust. I had a unique opportunity to live off the grid for a summer in the backcountry doing field research for the National Park Service.
We wanted to share some of our favorite Colorado primitive camping areas with you. Our favorite places to camp on BLM land are listed below, with links to National Geographic Topographic Maps.
As an illustration, the topo maps below have all the trails, hiking, biking, designated camp areas, and bathrooms. All of this information is why we are obsessed with National Geographic Topo maps!
Our favorite areas for dispersed camping in Southeast Utah are near the San Rafael Swell on BLM land.
There are also places for primitive camping near Canyonlands National Park, the Needles District, and the Maze District. These areas are in or near the National Park.
Below are the links to National Geographic Topo maps to all of the best dispersed and primitive camping areas in Southeast Utah:
Check out How to Read a Topo Map by REI. The REI webpage is super informative. It is extremely important to know how to read a topo map, especially if you are going to explore the backcountry.
Sometimes you don’t want to be glued to your phone. It is more likely you won’t have cell phone reception to navigate. By the same token knowing how to read a topo map is a cool life skill.
Additionally, for safety, yours, and the environment, it is essential to know how to recreate responsibly, plan ahead, and know where you are going. Be sure to let someone else know where you are going too.
The best months to camp are definitely during the spring in April, May, and June. Fall is also spectacular during September and October. These months aren’t too hot.
If you like it super hot, you can get away with camping in the summer from mid-June through August as long as you have shade. In light of the heat, summer is a dry heat out West. Surely, you’ll be fine if you have shade and lots of water! Summer is a great time to camp by water like the Colorado River or Lake Powell.
“What draws us into the desert is the search for something intimate in the remote.”Edward Abbey, author of Desert Solitaire
Below are links to free resources offered by the BLM:
We love camping in the desert, hanging out, and going for hikes. In particular, it is one of our most cherished outdoor recreation weekend activities.
Equally important, below are camp gear essentials we recommend for primitive camping in the backcountry:
Thanks for reading. Happy camping!
Ashlee & Pablo
Check out our other posts with camping tips and tricks, along with some of our favorite Colorado and Utah outdoor adventures!
Do you have more questions about camping for free or primitive camping on BLM land?
Where are you planning to go primitive camping in Colorado or Utah?
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I’m a travel and outdoor recreation writer with dreams to inspire happiness through an outdoorsy lifestyle. I want to help people live their best life by sharing free adventure guides. The USA has been my backyard most of my life, and it’s the place where you’ll find most of our escapades! I’m married to an expat Argentine, chihuahua Mom, and am passionate about the environment. I hold a BS degree in Biology and MS in Environmental Policy & Sustainability. We camp in our Aliner often, love road trips, hiking, and SUP’ing!