What To Know Before You Go
- There are no amenities. If you need a daily shower or a pit toilet, you will either need to look elsewhere for camping or bring your own solar shower and camp toilet setup. These areas do not usually offer the amenities typical of a reservable campground.
- Pack in and pack out. Dispersed camping offers an authentic off-grid experience, and that means you must absolutely pack out everything, including your trash and human waste if using a portable toilet. In all outdoor recreation, your best practice is to follow LNT ethics and leave everything as you found it.
- You can’t make reservations. Summer Fridays in National Forest areas can look a bit like Mad Max: Fury Road. Everyone is trying to find a dispersed camping spot and by nightfall, it’s slim pickins. If you do not have the flexibility to take your chances on competing for a dispersed camping spot on a busy night, try to come up a day or two earlier for better availability.
- Always check local restrictions. It’s best to be aware of fire bans, road closures, and camping limitations before you take your trip, so find out any relevant information by contacting local authorities or researching the dispersed camping area online.
- Cell service is minimal at best. You’ll be camping in areas with little to no cell service, so download your offline maps before packing up the car.
What Do You Need
Hands down, this is where first-time campers panic! What gear do you need? How warm of a sleeping bag do I need? Do I have to bring camp chairs?
There is a ton of gear that goes into the picture-perfect campsite, but you dont need to run out and buy everything immediately. Lets be real: camping gear is pricey and dropping thousands of dollars on a new activity does not a responsible decision make! But there are some essential items that you will need to ensure your first night under the stars is everything you hoped.
This post does contain affiliate links, which means I make a small commission if you purchase the items. As always, I appreciate your support!
You have to sleep somewhere, right?! A tent will easily be one of your most expensive purchases but its worth it. This is your home away from home, the nylon walls that will shield you from Mother Natures wrath.
In particular, tents are broken into two categories: three season and four season. If youre a beginner, there is a good chance you wont be camping through the winter so a three-season shelter is perfectly fine. Then, you have to consider space. How many people will be sleeping inside? Do you have a dog? How about kids?
Since you dont need to worry about carrying this sucker on your back, Id suggest erring on the large side. Extra space always gets filled with pillows and clothing and other odds and ends!
Er Frenzy In The Sawatch
The Sawatch Range is home to 15 14,000 foot peaks, including the tallest in Colorado, Mount Elbert. The Sawatch Range contains plenty of National Forest Land, which means there are a wide variety of areas with incredible dispersed, free camping in Colorado.
A quick 2 and a half-hour drive leads you to one of my personal favorite spots, Forest Road 399.
Drive two miles past the La Plata Peak Trailhead . After you make it through the private property, plenty of quiet, secluded dispersed campsites await you.
What I love about this area is its access to some of the best Colorados 14ers. Keep in mind this road is rough and gets rougher the further you go. High clearance recommended.
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Alta Lakes Near Telluride
Drive through a nearby ghost town to reach the famous Alta Lakes a well-known free camping spot in Colorado. Here youll find a few lakes where you can pitch your tent.
There are three separate lakes with several dispersed campsites. There are pit toilets nearby which is a rarity among dispersed camping in Colorado.
To reach Alta Lakes, head south on CO 145 toward Lizard Head Pass. Just before you reach the Ophir Pass turnoff, youll see a sign for Alta Lakes. Turn left here.
Eventually, youll reach a spooky ghost town that was abandoned after mining exploits in the area didnt pan out. Turn right at the town until you get to the loop road that makes it around the lakes.
High clearance vehicles are recommended to reach the lakes, although a hybrid SUV can go make it if you take it slow.
Local Tip: Keep in mind that this area sees HEAVY use and its not uncommon for spaces to be full well before the weekend.
Old Stage Road/gold Camp Road
This road was the original stagecoach route from Colorado Springs to the gold fields of Cripple Creek and is a great easy weekend getaway, close to the city but miles apart in terms of atmosphere. Camping is limited for the first several miles, as private property lines the road, but campsites abound as you get deeper into Pike National Forest. High-clearance-vehicle drivers will find lovely though heavily used campsites up Forest Road 379 in Frostys Park, which sits in a valley between Mount Rosa and Almagre Mountain.
While youre there: Hike up Almagre Mountain, which at 12,367 feet is topped only by Pikes Peak in the Colorado Springs skyline.
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Rules For Dispersed Camping In Colorado
The rules for dispersed camping are pretty similar for all National Forests in the US. This park system is managed by the United States Department of Agriculture .
The most important rules for dispersed camping are:
- Camp within 150 feet of roadways, if possible
- Always use existing fire rings when available
- No camping within 100 feet of a water source
- No camping at developed trailheads or picnic areas
- You must move your campsite every 14 days
- Do not leave personal property unattended for more than 10 days
- Minimize your environmental impact
14 Day Stay Limits
All National Forest and Bureau of Land Management Areas have a 14-day stay limit. This is to prevent excess damage to the environment. In Colorado, this means that you cant camp in the same spot for more than 14 days within a 28 day timeframe.
That includes both consecutive and non-consecutive visits.
After youve reached the 14 day maximum, you must move your campsite outside of a 25 mile radius.
Guanella Pass Georgetown Co
You may have driven this past on the way to Mt. Bierstadt, but you may not have known that it provides dozens of fantastic car camping spots. The drive is about an hour from Denver and it provides a great opportunity to stop in Georgetown for breakfast on the way in or out. Bighorn sheep are abundant, so keep you eyes on the hills!
*Note: Be aware of seasonal closings of Guanella Pass. CDOT closes the road in November and typically opens back up in late-May.
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Quick Tips For Free Camping In Colorado
There are a few things you should know before you go camping in Colorado. For starters, if you plan on going dispersed camping in Colorado, be prepared. Youll want to bring a trash bag for ALL of your trash, all of your water, and a proper backcountry bathroom kit.
Additionally, keep the following in mind when you go camping in Colorado:
Check for road closures and fire bans. Conditions change constantly in Colorado, so be sure to check before you head out.
Be prepared. If youre camping in the alpine, storms typically roll in every afternoon. Dont get caught and be prepared. Stay off of ridgelines or summits in a storm.
Acclimatize properly. Altitude adjustment can be a little rough so take your time if youre arriving from out of town.
Dont chop live trees. Its not only illegal, but it makes for a smoky mess. Instead, forage for fallen trees or branches you can snap. Bring your own firewood only if its been locally sourced to prevent the spread of plant disease.
Stay in designated spots only. Dont create a new campsite. Use whats already established to avoid trampling pristine nature.
Now youve got the inside scoop about dispersed camping in Colorado. This exclusive local guide gives you a complete look at some of the most amazing dispersed camping in Colorado. So pitch your tent and happy camping!
Backcountry Camping In Rocky Mountain National Park
There is dispersed camping in Rocky Mountain National Park as well as many of the other Colorado National Parks.
It is often called wilderness camping, or backcountry camping.
Wilderness camping in Rocky Mountain follows a different set of rules than National Forest campsites. For one, permits are required and there is a fee. You can pick up permits at one of the visitor centers or online.
- Beaver Meadows Visitor Center
- Kawuneeche Visitor Center
Pets are not allowed in the backcountry campsites at Rocky Mountain National Park, and you cannot stay at one camp area for more than three consecutive nights. You can find all of the dispersed camping rules here.
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Bill Moore Lake Empire Co
Just Google image search Bill Moore Lake, and youll get it. This is another spot that is known for great 4×4 action, and wed recommend having one for this drive. But if you have the vehicle clearance to make the trip, the camping is fantastic. The views are beautiful, and its likely youll see more Jeeps than youve seen in your life.
Trout Creek Recreation Area
Trout Creek Recreation Area is located about 14 miles northwest of Yampa. It lies along Trout Creek and Forest Road 925.
Trout Creek Recreation Area is mainly known for its recreational stream fishing opportunity. Other than this, it is also known for its four free dispersed camping sites.
The dispersed campsites in Trout Creek Recreation Area are seasonal due to winter weather conditions. However, during their open seasons, they operate on a first-come, first-served basis.
There is no drinking water or trash service at Trout Creek Recreation Area, but it offers a vault toilet.
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Potty Kit Or Wag Bags
Since most free camping areas dont have bathroom facilities, youll need to be prepared to properly dispose of your waste. Youll need a small trowel to dig a cathole, TP, and a trash bag to pack your TP out. In some sensitive and higher use areas, youll need to pack your waste out as well, usually by using a WAG bag. Check with the ranger or BLM office to find out about their specific policies.
Our friend Kristen of Bearfoot Theory wrote a great post about doing your business outdoors, which you can check out here.
How To Find Free Camping
Finding the best free camping near Denver takes a little bit of research and few nuggets of knowledge. In fact, you can learn the proven step-by-step method to learn how to find free camping virtually everywhere with my Find Free Camping Anywhere Mini-Course.
This course includes a video tutorial and worksheet designed to teach you how to find epically beautiful camp spots without paying a dime. Say goodbye to guesswork and hello to finding free camping near Denver like a total pro!
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Bill Moore Lake Empire
Bill Moore Lake is 45 miles away from Denver and located north of Empire. The U.S Forest Service operates in this area.
To access Bill Moore Lake, exit 232 US on Highway 40 from I-70 westbound. This will lead to Main Street on North Empire Road, where you will turn right and follow the County Road onto Forest Road 171.2.
The road to this area is rocky and steep, with the high elevation causing the roads to be packed with snow until late July. We recommend using a 4WD with high clearance for your journey.
Bill Moore Lake provides numerous dispersed campsites with great views of the mountains.
List Of The Best Colorado Dispersed Camping Areas
1. Red Feather Lakes Deadman Road
Located just an hour from Fort Collins, this area is a labyrinth of forest service roads that offer endless camping opportunities. Dispersed sites are abundant in this area. One of our favorite spots is located at the junction of Deadman Road and Forest Service Road 502.
How to Get There: The area is located up Deadman Road, northwest of Red Feather Lakes. To get there from Fort Collins, take US Hwy 287 north to Livermore, turn west onto County Road 74E towards Red Feather Lakes. Turn left on County Road 86 . There are spots all along Deadman Road, which runs about 15 miles.
Colorados Great Outdoors
2. Jones Pass
This area offers some great off-road driving and dispersed camping sites. Its located just an hour from Denver and provides quick access to the Continental Divide. Some of the campsites have amazing views perfect for staring down valley while roasting marshmallows over an open flame.
How to Get There: Drive west on I-70 from Denver. Take exit 232 from I-70 onto US Hwy 40, and head towards Empire/Winter Park. Continue on US-40 west past Empire. Take a left on Henderson Mine Road to Jones Pass Road.
3. Caribou Townsite
The Caribou Townsite has 11 designated camping spots that can fill up quickly especially on the weekend. This is an exceptional location, camping next to Colorados famed Indian Peaks Wilderness Area. Its just miles away from the funky mountain community of Nederland.
4. Guenella Pass
5. Montezuma Road
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Buena Vista And Cottonwood Pass
Cottonwood Pass has been a long-time favorite place of mine to find Boondocking in Colorado. The front half of the road is paved, while the road turns to dirt on the backside of the pass.
Along this scenic stretch of tarmac, youll find several first-come-first-serve free campgrounds. Alternatively, you can pull off on one of the many dirt roads to snag a hidden free campsite.
These roads stay closed for part of the year, so come with a sense of adventure if youre traveling between Labor Day and Memorial Day. Once the road turns to dirt, there are several options for camping along pullouts and other dirt roads.
Durango Free Dispersed Camping Spots
The rugged city of Durango, Colorado can be found within the southwestern part of the state. While you may think that you must travel to this destination during the summer months, you must understand that any time of the year is perfect for a visit. While you are in Durango, hiking from one spectacular area to the next, you will appreciate the sights you see within the San Juan National Forest, the La Plata Mountains, and the areas filled with aspens and towering pine trees. One of the best ways to experience nature in Durango is to camp at one of the many free dispersed campsites.
If youre ready to save some money on your next Microadventure, here are my personal favorite free dispersed camping sites and spots in and around Durango, Colorado:
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How Do I Pick A Good Campsite
Many people drive out on Forest Service roads into the woods and find a clearing or a spot near a stream or with a view of the mountains. Do not drive on meadows to access your camping site. Drive on existing roads to prevent resource damage. You can also follow these tips:
- Ask a ranger. For an inside track into the best places to stay, keep an eye out for any BLM Ranger Station or visitor center and ask the true locals for their suggestions. Weve never been led astray and youll be amazed at how much theyll go out of their way to help you out.
- Scour Google Maps. Again, look for the green areas that signify public lands. Use Google Earth to get an idea of roads and landscapes.
- Attempt to camp on a paved road. If not possible, camp on bare, well-packed gravel. Note that this is done at your own risk: if renting an Escape Campervan, you are NOT covered by insurance and are NOT covered in the Escape Roadside Assistance plan if you are OFF a paved road. Camping on a level area also makes sleeping more comfortable.
- If youre going to an area where others have camped before, pick a site that has been used before. Plants, soil, and wildlife are impacted by new campsites so using existing ones will minimize your impact on the forest. Always follow Leave No Trace principles.
- Check out these online resources and apps that make it easy to find places to camp:
What To Pack For Dispersed Camping Or Boondocking
When choosing a free camping site on public lands like BLM or National Forests, you have to remember that since these areas do not provide any services like bathrooms, potable water, or picnic tables, youll need to be completely self-sufficient.
Here is our list of camping essentials while camping outside of established campsites on public land :
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The Dyrt & The Dyrt Pro
The Dyrt is currently the top-rated camping app for Apple and Android and one of our favorite tools for finding campsites. It has listings of all kinds of different campgrounds including public and private ones as well as some free dispersed camping options. Their listings include reviews, photos, information on amenities, and more. You can also search by required amenities. Lets say you need Wifi to get some work done or need a location with showers or even a pet-friendly location, you can narrow your search down using all types of parameters.
There is a free version, as well as a Dyrt PRO membership upgrade for $35.99/year. The Dyrt PRO membership provides all kinds of additional benefits like:
- The ability to search for campsites and read reviews offline no cell service or wifi needed .
- Map layers that tell you where BLM, Forest Service, and National Park land are located
- A trip planning tool that allows you to build your trip before heading out and then exports it all to google maps
- You can save campgrounds youre interested into lists so you have them handy for when youre on the road.
- Up to 40% off camping reservations at 1,000s of campgrounds. Many of these campgrounds are in areas where free camping on public land isnt available, and the discount alone can pay for your annual membership.
- As a PRO member, youll also get discounts on outdoor gear from their brand partners.