One of the best things about the co-op is the thriving community of gearheads, dirtbags, bird nerds, thru-hikers, peak-baggers, storytellers and more who work in our stores and headquarters, guide our trips and teach our classes. We’ll tap into that experienced expertise in this series to address some of your burning concerns regarding terrain, gear, safety, etiquette, and anything else! The cooperative has your back.
Who doesn’t like camping in the great outdoors, reveling in nature’s simple pleasures? But first, there’s the not-so-easy task of deciding where to travel. To guarantee you’re a camper and not a squatter, you need understand the different sorts of land and land-use regulations. Fortunately, we have someone who can assist us. Justin Inglis, an Outdoor School market organizer at REI’s Flagstaff store, created the “Where Can I Camp?” program. The emphasis is on Arizona, but the methods are the same throughout the country.
Designated Site or Dispersed Camping?
Toilets, tables, and purified water are provided at designated campsites. Some allow reservations, while others are first-come, first-served. Most require fees and are reasonably simple to use. “Even if a designated campground is on a gravel forest-service road,” says Justin, “you should be able to drive [your average family car] in there without any problems—if you take it nice and slow.”
Dispersed camping is the better option if you love seclusion, spontaneity, selecting your own site and being self-sufficient. You must bring your own water: “Two gallons per person every day for drinking, cooking, and washing,” Justin explains. And you won’t even have a pit toilet. If you’re new to this type of camping, says Justin, “then the first thing I’d do is to print out the Leave No Trace principles. Then make certain that you accompany them and sincerely follow them.”
“Where can I discover all of these designated and scattered camping spots?” you inquire. You find them in a wide variety of land-management areas: national parks, state and local parks, national forests, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) areas, tribal lands and private property. “Know what kind of property you’re on,” Justin advises, “since camping restrictions and alternatives differ from one to the next.”
National parks have the most established, most costly, and most often booked authorized campsites. But many also offer more primitive options that are available on a first-come, first-served basis. “11 a.m. is the checkout hour,” says Justin, “so you need to roll in then to have a chance of snagging a spot someone else is vacating.” Also, not all parks operate in the same manner, so consult a park’s website well in advance to get up to speed.
State and Local Parks
State and municipal parks may be hidden jewels, with a few rivaling national park magnificence. At a state park, though, it will be easier to book a designated site ahead of time, and easier to get a first-come, first-served site.
National Forests and BLM Lands
Dispersed camping is common in national forests and BLM properties, both of which will have some authorized campsites. “The general rule,” says Justin, “is that you can camp just about anywhere that’s not a designated site or specifically listed as off-limits for camping.” Visit the webpage of the forest or BLM unit you want to visit to learn about its unique restrictions. Be sure to read the Alerts & Notices link on national forest websites; and, for info about vehicle accessibility, find the Motor Vehicle Use Map link (under the Maps & Publications).
What is the distinction between national forests and Bureau of Land Management lands? “Think about logging vs mining and grazing,” Justin continues. “Forests will have trees and greenery, while BLM units will have rocky, windswept landscapes.”
Make additional preparation time if you’re going to tribal territories. Tribes differ widely in terms of what they provide, whether you can obtain information online, and how fast they respond. “Management is sporadic,” Justin continues, “so be prepared to phone them 50 times if that’s what it takes.”
Private property is another possibility. Although this might involve knocking on a farmhouse door and asking for permission to pitch a tent, it’s more typically a private business campsite. In addition to big chains like KOA, there are a large number of privately owned campsites (and RV parks). Many are near national and state parks, where demand for campsites often exceeds government supplies.
Hipcamp is an excellent website for locating and booking private lands campsites around the United States (and worldwide).
Other Federal Lands
What about other federal lands, such as wilderness areas, wildlife refuges, and Army Corps of Engineers sites, among others? Backpacking is restricted to wilderness areas, which may be found inside various sorts of land-management regions. Camping may be available on a handful of these additional federal areas, although it is uncommon.
A Nationwide Reservation System for Federal Lands
Recreation.gov is a nationwide database of reservable places on all types of federal property (including national parks and forests).
Justin also gives the following advice to would-be campers:
- Call park rangers and other land managers. “They may be busy, but they are eager to assist. They’re also your best resource for details you won’t find anywhere else, like alternative sites near popular areas.”
- Call or stop into your local REI. “Every sales assistant has a hidden area in our shop, and we’ll probably battle over who gets to answer your call.”
- Fees for first-come, first-served locations are seldom round figures. “Bring a wad of ones, unless you wish to make a donation to land management.”
Meet the Expert
In Flagstaff, Arizona, Justin Inglis works as a market coordinator for REI Outdoor School. Snowshoeing, bikepacking, and thru-hiking are among his outdoor interests. Justin, who is also an Arizona Trail Steward, has established base camps across the Grand Canyon State.