Dispersed Camping on BLM Land in Utah & Colorado: How to Camp for Free

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Dispersed camping, also called primitive camping on public lands, is one of the American West’s best-kept secrets. 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! 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 dispersed camping on BLM land in Colorado and Utah.

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BLM camping Utah

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New to Recreating on Public Lands (BLM Land)?

New to hiking, biking, camping, and recreating on public lands? Perfect! We have all the details here in this article just for you!

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!

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Views of Henry Mountains from San Rafael Swell BLM Land

Environmental Stewardship on Public Lands and the Backcountry

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!

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 property
  • 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 summarize, using 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 (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.

Trail Use Etiquette

Hiking in the San Rafael Swell Utah

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.

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 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.

Uniquely, 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 (primitive 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 backcountry camping on BLM land. You really get into the wild (just how we like it!).

How to Camp for Free on BLM Land – BLM Camping Map

Public land is full of incredible places to go 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.

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Dispersed camping campsite in SE Utah

BLM Camping Rules

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

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 or dispersed camping is just how it sounds. Primitive.

To explain more… bring your own 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 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 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

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!

Keep in mind, 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 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.

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Stay on designated roads – likely old mining roads

BLM Land Map Utah

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

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. 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.

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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. 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 at Lake Powell or along the Colorado River.

“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 campsite in Utah

Free BLM Resources Online

Below are links to free resources offered by the BLM:

Best Dispersed Camping Gear

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.

It is important to be prepared to camp in the backcountry. Below are camp gear essentials we recommend for dispersed camping on BLM land in the backcountry:

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!

Thanks for reading. Happy camping!

Ashlee & Pablo


You might also enjoy…

Check out our other posts with camping tips and tricks, along with some of our favorite Colorado and Utah outdoor adventures!

Save this article on Pinterest for later!

desert camping with canyon vista and camp fire at dawn and dusk

We want to hear from you!

Do you have more questions about camping for free or primitive camping on BLM land?

Where are you planning to go dispersed or primitive camping in Colorado or Utah?

Message us for our favorite campsites!

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Ashlee Fechino

Ashlee Fechino is an outdoor recreation and travel writer and founder of The Happiness Function. Her goal is to help inspire people to build a life they love by sharing how simple and fun it is to travel locally, connect with nature, and explore off-the-beaten-path. You don't have to spend a lot of money or use a ton of vacation time to explore close to home. Ashlee holds a BS degree in Biology and MS in Environmental Policy & Sustainability and is passionate about the outdoors. She is married to an expat Argentine, Pablo! They camp in their Aliner often and love road trips and hiking.

26 Comments

  1. 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!



  2. 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!



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

      Hi Ally – thanks for reading 😀



  3. 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!



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

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



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

      Hi Liz – thanks for reading!



  5. 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.



    • Ashlee Fechino on December 3, 2020 at 10:59 am

      Thank you for reading!



  6. 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!



  7. 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.



  8. 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?



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

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



  10. 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



  11. 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!



  12. 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!



    • Ashlee Fechino on December 6, 2020 at 10:31 am

      Hi Andi – Sweet! So fun!!



  13. 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!



  14. 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!