Guide To Camping on BLM Land + How to Camp for Free

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Are you interested in learning more about camping for free on BLM land?

This article will first discuss practicing environmental stewardship in the backcountry, what BLM land is, the types of outdoor activities you can do on BLM land, what primitive or dispersed camping means, and how to camp for free.

Dispersed camping, also called primitive camping, on public lands is one of the American West’s best-kept secrets.

We’ll also share our favorite places to camp in Colorado and Utah, along with maps and camping gear we recommend.

New To Recreating on BLM Public Lands?

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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 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.

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Views of Henry Mountains from San Rafael Swell BLM Land.

Practicing Environmental Stewardship on Public Lands

We thought it was important to provide backcountry information to our readers to share with their friends and family. Please share and spread the word.

Backcountry Dispersed Camping (Primitive Camping) Etiquette

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:

  • Disposing of waste and trash properly
  • Respecting wildlife
  • Being super careful of campfires as well as local fire restrictions
  • Being considerate of other people recreating in the area
  • Leaving your campsite better than you found it

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Utah BLM Land.

Have To Use the Bathroom?

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 use the bathroom in the backcountry if there are no facilities:

  • Dig a hole and bury your human waste
  • Pack out toilet paper and feminine products
  • Plan ahead and pack a ziplock with toilet paper and wipes to pack out

We also keep wag bags (link to Amazon) in the car and in 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 (Lake Powell) 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.

Trail Use Etiquette

Hiking in the San Rafael Swell Utah.

Hiking or biking? Check out this article 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.

Don’t Bust the Desert Crust

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’s 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.

What Is BLM Land?

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Hiking along an old mining road in San Rafael Swell Utah.

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.

BLM land is public land, meaning it is open to the public for recreational use.

BLM Land Map

For example, check out this map to explore public land in the U.S. managed by the government.

What Outdoor Activities Can I Do on BLM Land?

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.

What Does Primitive Camping Mean? What is Dispersed Camping?

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Primitive camping view from inside the tent.

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.

There is no water, electricity, trash receptacles, or bathrooms. There probably won’t even be cell phone reception (if you’re out West).

You have to bring all your creature comforts with you, including food, water, shelter, batteries, a first aid kit, etc.

Everything you are reading about is why it is super important to know the backcountry rules before going camping on BLM land. You really get into the wild (just how we like it).

How to Camp for Free on BLM Land

Public land is full of incredible places to go camping.

Check out the BLM Recreation Web Map to find public lands near you.

Plan your next adventure, locate destinations to camp, and find hiking and biking trails.

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Dispersed camping campsite in SE Utah.

BLM Camping Rules

OK, so you might be asking yourself, “What is dispersed camping campsite?”

Most of the dispersed camping spots are established. This means 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.

You can access the camping locations off dirt or gravel roads and trails.

You only want to camp where it looks like it is safe to camp for yourself and the environment. 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).

Find your spot and set up camp. Now you’re camping for free. That’s it. 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.

Some BLM places will have other timing restrictions and formal camping spots with bathrooms. But for the most part, dispersed camping is just how it sounds. Primitive. BYO everything.

BLM Camping Safety Tips

Here are a few safety tips when dispersed camping:

  1. Plan not to have cell phone reception – know how to get to your destination and back.
  2. Have a topo map and know how to read it.
  3. Bring one gallon of water per person per day while camping in the desert.
  4. Plan enough food for your trip.
  5. Practice good hygiene and think about where you’re going to use the bathroom. Do you need a wag bag? Do you need a backcountry shovel to bury human waste? Is there a restroom facility close by?
  6. Let someone close to you know where you are going and when you plan to come home.
  7. Pack a first aid kit, just in case.
  8. Bring appropriate clothes and layering to stay warm and dry.
  9. Don’t forget a light source (headlamp) and batteries.
  10. We always pack pepper spray for personal protection.
  11. Also, we always pack a hatchet.
  12. Do you need firewood and an ignition source?
  13. Know how to set up your camp gear ahead of time.
  14. Check the weather before you go.
  15. Avoid camping in drainages/washes in the desert in case of flash flooding.

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Dispersed camping on BLM in Utah.

Not sure what to pack for your camping trip? Check out our article on how to make a DIY camp kitchen with 30 items or less.

Best Dispersed Camping in Colorado

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BLM land in Southeast Utah.

We lived in Grand Junction, 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 BLM camping areas with you. Our favorite places to camp on BLM Land are listed below, with links to National Geographic Topographic Maps (you can buy them on Amazon). Because, we can tell you right now, cell phone reception can be limited or nonexistent.

BLM Land Colorado Maps

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.

Keep in mind that just because there isn’t a designated camping area icon on the map doesn’t mean you cannot camp there.

Best Dispersed Camping in Utah

Our favorite areas for BLM camping in Southeast Utah are near the San Rafael Swell.

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Stay on designated roads – like old mining roads.

BLM Land Map Utah

Below are the links to National Geographic Topo maps of all of the best dispersed (BLM) and primitive camping (National Park Service) areas in Southeast Utah:

Keep in mind that if you’re camping in the backcountry within the National Park Service, permits may be required. Research your adventure ahead of time.

New To Reading Topo Maps?

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. Knowing how to read a topo map is a cool life skill.

Additionally, for your safety 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.

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Hiking on BLM Land in Utah.

Best Time of Year for Dispersed Camping in the Desert

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. Summer is a dry heat out West. You’ll be fine if you have shade and lots of water.

“What draws us into the desert is the search for something intimate in the remote.”

Edward Abbey, author of Desert Solitaire
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Driving on BLM land to find a campsite in Utah.

Free BLM Resources Online

Below are links to free resources offered by the BLM:

Camping Gear

We love camping in the desert, hanging out, and going for hikes. It is one of our most cherished activities.

It is important to be prepared to camp in the backcountry. Below are camp gear essentials we recommend:

Final Thoughts on Dispersed Camping on BLM Land

Our best advice is to know what you are doing while camping in the middle of nowhere.

Plan ahead. Plan to have all of your food and water with you. Have a bathroom plan. Be sure to tell loved ones where you are going and when you plan to return.

It is essential to know how to read a map because you might not have cell phone reception.

Most importantly, respect the land for future generations to come and have fun.

Happy camping.

Ashlee & Pablo


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camping on BLM land in Colorado and Utah

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Ashlee Fechino

Ashlee Fechino is an outdoor recreation and travel writer sharing the best-kept secrets that aren’t in your typical guidebook. Her goal is to inspire people to travel with a sense of adventure by sharing hidden gems across the U.S. and beyond. She is married to an expat Argentine, Pablo. They camp in their Aliner often and love wandering the world. Follow their latest adventures on Instagram @thehappinessfxn.

26 Comments

  1. Yukti Agrawal on December 7, 2020 at 7:58 am

    Primitive camping looks great and that too for free. Thanks for sharing some offbeat location for camping. I live at desert place and so can understand the desert ecosystem.

    • Ashlee Fechino on December 7, 2020 at 8:53 am

      Hi Yukti – thanks for commenting! I read your recent post about camping in UAE and thought it was cool!

  2. Vanessa Shields on December 6, 2020 at 1:20 pm

    So many awesome tips for camping on BLM land! I’ve done a ton of camping but not much on BLM areas. If I hadn’t been singles this whole year I’d love to do some camping. It’s so fun to unplug in nature and do lots of hiking. It looks like I’d need to get some more gear too but look forward to trying this next year!

  3. Andi on December 6, 2020 at 10:22 am

    My hubby and I love to drive through and camp on BLM land – it is SO underrated and always worth the extra effort. I have done BLM camping in Utah and Arizona, but not Colorado, will have to keep that in mind next road trip through there!

  4. Krista on December 6, 2020 at 6:03 am

    This looks like an incredible place to go camping! Very secluded which is nice.

    • Ashlee Fechino on December 6, 2020 at 10:15 am

      Hi Krista – thanks for stopping by and reading. Totally secluded. We miss it!

  5. WB Randall (William) on December 6, 2020 at 12:41 am

    I didn’t know about camping outdoors until I read these posts. HAVE FUN !!

    • Ashlee Fechino on December 6, 2020 at 10:13 am

      Hi Uncle Burt! Thanks for reading our blog. We miss you and love you 😀 <3

  6. William Randall on December 6, 2020 at 12:39 am

    I didn’t know about camping outdoors until I read these posts. HAVE FUN !!

  7. Hannah on December 5, 2020 at 1:54 pm

    This is an awesome guide! I’ve always been put off primitive camping because I never felt particularly confident about what the rules are but this is such a clear and concise guide! Thanks so much!

    • Ashlee Fechino on December 6, 2020 at 10:17 am

      Hi Hannah – thanks for reading. Is there public land to camp where you live?

  8. Joanna on December 5, 2020 at 12:40 pm

    Living in a country in which most of the land is private, it was really interesting to read your article. It must be so amazing to camp in such remote places, especially around Colorado where the scenery is so surreal. I bet nights out there in the wild are spectacular and you can do some pretty amazing stargazing as well.

    • Ashlee Fechino on December 6, 2020 at 10:18 am

      Hi Joanna – thanks for reading and commenting. Where are you located? The UK? So interesting to hear about public land in other countries.

  9. Sydney on December 3, 2020 at 8:53 am

    Such beautiful photography! 🙂

    • Ashlee Fechino on December 3, 2020 at 10:55 am

      Hi Sydney – thanks for reading and commenting!

  10. One Second Journal on December 3, 2020 at 2:40 am

    Really interesting article, I didn’t know about this place and liked the important information you gave about wild camping and sustainability.

  11. Liz on December 2, 2020 at 6:55 pm

    This is such a thoroughly guide and the pictures are stunning!!

  12. Tal on December 2, 2020 at 10:32 am

    Sounds like quite an adventure, thanks for the detailed guide! Love those super sunny photos 🙂

    • Ashlee Fechino on December 2, 2020 at 4:08 pm

      Hi Tal – thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  13. Ally Travels on December 2, 2020 at 9:59 am

    This was a fascinating read, I had no idea primitive camping was a thing. It sounds like it’s for the camping pros!

  14. Cristina Sala on December 1, 2020 at 3:56 pm

    Queridisimaa Ashlee. Muy buena la publicacion sobre campamentos. Lugares increibles. Y cuanta enseñanza sobre la naturaleza. felicitaciones y abrazos para vos y Pablo. Estan tan lindos.

    • Ashlee Fechino on December 2, 2020 at 8:46 am

      ¡Hola Cristina! ¡Gracias por leer nuestro blog! ¡Te extrañamos!

      Hi Cristina! Thank you for reading our blog! We miss you!

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