Dispersed Camping Etiquette

Andrew Madsen, the PIO for the LPNF sent me a link to an excellent article which helps to convey the dilemma we face with managing our public lands. It is not pretty.

“After witnessing some of the damage inflicted on public lands — our shared national resource — by campers last year who were either ignorant of their responsibilities or purposely misbehaving, I’m wary that a continued influx of visitors will result in even more damage, and, frankly, the reduction of camping opportunity for those of us who have enjoyed the activity long before COVID-19 inspired a host of new participants to buy that first tent or that first travel trailer. 

“To be frank, if what I saw last summer is going to repeat itself this summer, our federal land-management agencies will be faced with some tough decisions, particularly when it comes to dispersed camping on public lands. 

Here in the West, on our vast swaths of Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management acreage, dispersed camping is allowed, and in most cases, it’s free and available on a first-come, first-served basis. Some camping locations are just wide spots in the road, and others are located off of spur roads and trails leading into more remote areas. For those of us who have been camping on public lands for years, there are unwritten rules to ensuring that we’ll be able to continue visiting these special places for years to come. And the rules don’t just have to do with how we treat the land, but also how we treat our fellow campers and others who use public land for recreation.

I think it’s time the unwritten rules earn some ink, and that advocates for public lands recreation speak up and earnestly help police their pastimes for fear of having them curtailed. And for those new to dispersed camping, consider the following before you hitch up the new RV and head for the hills:”

One can read the rest of this article and the unwritten rules here:


The post on Facebook about this article on the LPNF page had this comment: “The grossest place we ever saw was on the drive up to Prewitt Ridge. Ive never seen more trash, human waste and toilet paper than what i saw up there. Sad because its such a cool place and people just have to ruin it 😞 i dont even want to know what its been like up there since covid hit.” For those of you not familiar with it, Prewitt is the next ridge north from me and I can see and hear the all night amplified music parties for which it became known. She is right, it was not pretty and many of the very best dispersed camping spots in Big Sur were destroyed last summer. Some healing has gone on with the land since the roads were closed after the Dolan Fire, but it will take years to recover from just this one past summer.

6 thoughts on “Dispersed Camping Etiquette

  1. I know change is slow. I am somewhat surprised that with California facing extinction from fire and drought we can’t just get to the place of admitting that the best way to steward public lands is to protect these sacred lands from the public–preservation of public lands, protection of wild species and mother earth, is sadly and irrevocably at odds with public access. For all of us right now getting into gear for another season of evacuation brought on my rogue campfires or an errant match, I hope change can come sooner rather than later. Very soon none of us will be able to afford homeowner’s insurance as the corporate profit-first insurers place unfulfillable monetary demands on property owners. This movement has begun in earnest. Glad Kate offers safe haven to comment. Much appreciate you Kate.

  2. I don’t get it. Why come to a place like Big Sur and treat it like a nightclub and a toilet?! Yep, I’m from LA and I’ve been coming to Big Sur for over 50 years. Never in my life did I ever consider acting any way other than if I were in a temple or a church. This really pisses me off.

  3. I’m in favor of the path Yosemite took several years back, in closing, a number of the areas that had always been open, pay, or not, due to the damage that had been done to the lands. After all, we are truly fortunate, just to be able to drive through this glorous area!

  4. A good article however I feel there should be more information regarding firewood etiquette. The audience this article is directed towards may not (probably won’t) read much about “forest health” and bark bugs. “The best solution to finding firewood when you’re camping on public lands is to know and understand the rules put in place by the managing agency, and to follow them.” Instead they will remember the next line… “Whenever possible, bring firewood with you.” But from where? An explanation of the “Why” will not only benefit the area they are in today/now but also all future adventures. It could even open their eyes to how easy it is to disrupt the delicate balance of Nature, the part that they play in it and hopefully, get them to think beyond their nose. There was a time I didn’t know this and when first schooled/educated, I was like “omg, what have I done?” (brought firewood NOT EVER cut down trees or signs) So I “make amends” … I’m that complete stranger that will “tell you a story”, hopefully in a way that it sticks. (as opposed to telling somebody “do it this way!!!”) And to make this more than just a finger-pointing rant…. here’s a good link…some “fuel” for your future “stories”. https://www.dontmovefirewood.org/

  5. ONE way to benefit the land is to pick up dead wood–tinder, kindling, and SLIGHTLY bigger stuff and use a Dakota Hole. It takes away some of the wood that would otherwise be ember material in a fire is fuel efficient, burns hot, and is wind resistant. If the wind comes up, just dump the dirt you dug out into the fire-hole and cook underground. You can sleep on it too, in chilly weather, bury your breakfast at night, and dig it up in the mornin’ for an early start sampling what’s left of what was here before alien cultures started disrupting the SOCIAL order of things 400 years or so ago . . . You can bring a folding windshield sun reflector to use on the upwind side. The fire burns so hot there should be no smoke. When you leave camp, cover the holes completely and leave three rocks in a pile on them. This will tell others where you dug, and if it doesn’t, the rocks will become seed traps. Zero impact if you stay away from trees/heavy roots (bigger than a centimeter). YouTube has a lot of misguided videos–some folks think they know better than an old traditional invention that has stood the test of time. This is the only one I found on a search https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ffldYo4EVCg that was any good, and it’s not quite perfect . . . I dig ’em a little deeper and I use a roll-up/cable saw to cut the upper ends of the biggest dead sticks at 90 degrees to length so they can hold up the pot or skillet (have replacements handy to replace the ones that burn up. You can tamp the bottom of the hole level and even add rocks (they come in handy for cooking underground overnight. Edmund Yaeger carried two half-inch square rods just long enough to span the hole. Get a folding foxhole shovel that has a small pick to start the holes. NEVER build a fire on top of the ground!

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