I think of dispersed car camping as the happy medium between campgrounds and the back country. And since I can’t fathom carrying the gear required to take kids camping on my back, this will be the most rustic experience we can manage- until we buy that alpaca.
There are more dusty roads in the Colorado wilderness than a two year old can shake a stick at. And along these roads are dispersed sites that are a great way to get off the beaten path without hiking in. But as wonderful as it is, there are some things to consider, especially when camping with kiddos.
The best thing about dispersed camping is the seclusion and immersion in nature that you just can’t get in established campgrounds. Not as much as backpacking, but for car camping, it offers a more intimate experience. Some sites are close together, but many are all on their own, away from neighbors.
Although there are obviously “sites”, as previous campers have constructed fire rings and perhaps brought over perfect sitting logs, there is no fee. And who doesn’t love free!
Into the Wild (Sort of)
After exploring the area you pick out the perfect spot. One with trees to hang your hammock and a flat spot to pop your tent or park your camper. It is your little home that you will create out of your gear and wits. There are no campground hosts or water pumps or toilets- you create a place to survive out of seemingly thin air. You are an adventurer. This kind of camping just feels a bit more authentic.
Unfortunately the dispersed sites I’ve made home are usually littered with glass shards, cigarette butts and shotgun shells. I guess the seclusion and lack of “authority figures” (you know, those sweet elderly couples that maintain the national forest campgrounds) gives people cart blanche to participate in buffoonery that results in the mess we find. It’s too bad people don’t treat our wilderness with more respect. Leave No Trace! We always try to leave our dispersed sites in better shape than we find them. I wish all campers did the same.
I’d recommend camping in dispersed sites early in the season prior to fire bans. Seldom is there a year that goes by that there isn’t a Larimer County fire ban by August. Although established sites can still enjoy a fire, the dispersed sites cannot. For us a campfire is a huge part of camping. So the smores, snuggles and warmth in chilly mountain air are sorely missed.
If you have a camper or trailer that has a toilet then you are golden. Otherwise, you are doing “business” in the woods. Not the easiest task, the digging of a hole, the squatting, etc. So doing this with small children can make this even more of a challenge. We bring a potty chair along for the kids to make it easier. If you choose this route keep this in mind when deciding how much water to bring.
In addition to all your typical car camping gear, dispersed camping requires a few more items that might not be as necessary when camping at a campground.
As I discussed in my Deadman Road post, a lot of areas where you find the best dispersed sites are also a maze of forest service and old logging/mining roads. If you are heading to the Larimer County high country, be sure to pick up your Canyon Lakes Ranger District Motor Vehicle Use Map and if you are venturing to another area of Colorado see the lists of current maps provided by the National Forest Service.
Even if you have a water filtration system, you’ll want to bring in all the water you’ll think you’ll need for the entire trip. With kids, you’ll want to bring even more than you think you might need. For a weekend, we bring drinking water as well as 2 and 5 gallon water jugs.
Tarp and Rope
A tarp and rope can come in handy for all sorts of situations, but if you are tent camping a tarp is especially key to put under your tent to add another layer between you and the ground as there are not designated tent pads when dispersed camping.
With the right preparation and mindset, dispersed car camping is a great alternative to the hassle of reservations, too close neighbors and an opportunity to put your outdoor survival skills to the test. With everything else, adding kids to the equation takes a bit more planning but is totally doable.
What are your dispersed camping pros and cons and must have gear?