A car camping trip is a great way to get the whole family outdoors for some quality family time. Source: Getty Images.
Whether you camp in an established campground or prefer to sleep on public lands that are more remote, car camping might be for you.
It’s a great way to enjoy the outdoors if you’re camping with young kids, or with someone who has limited mobility. Lately, employees who work remotely are doing so from the great outdoors.
While there are variations of car camping, the concept is the same: you load your camping gear in a vehicle and drive your car right directly to your campsite.
Here are some tips for car camping: essential things to pack, delicious camp recipes, and navigating dispersed vs. established campgrounds. Consider the best maps and apps, no matter where you camp.
What is car camping?
Car camping is different from backpacking. With backpacking, everything you need must fit in your pack. You choose what you can carry — camp pad, sleeping bag, camp stove and food — based on weight.
With car camping, you can pack whatever fits in your vehicle. You can bring your two-burner propane stove, a 5-gallon jug of water, air mattress, fire pit, family tent, sunshades and camp chairs. Car camping allows you to bring bocce ball or horseshoes or the pack ‘n play or bouncy swing for your toddler. Why not strap a canoe on top?
Car camping doesn’t mean you must sleep in your car, though it can be convenient to settle down for the night in the back of your vehicle rather than sleeping in a tent. Either way, car camping offers more luxury and convenience than backpacking.
Unlike backpacking, setting up camp when car camping usually include heavier items, such as a two-burner stove, coolers and camp chairs. Photo by Kati Blocker, UCHealth.
Where can I car camp?
There are two different options when car camping. You can find an established campground on private or public land. Established campgrounds have extra amenities like restrooms, potable water and trash services. These mostly require reservations, but some offer first-come, first-served sites.
Or, you can choose dispersed camping on public lands.
A dispersed car camping location on public lands within a recreational area. Photo by Kati Blocker, UCHealth.
What is dispersed camping?
Dispersed camping occurs outside an established campground on public land within U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands. You don’t have water, toilets or trash disposal. Most dispersed campsites don’t have picnic tables, and if there is a fire ring, you might find yourself restacking rocks and digging out the pit before you start your fire.
Pawnee National Grasslands is a prime example of dispersed camping opportunities, and there is also an established campground and trail system. Read more and find a map of the area.
Dispersed camping is free because you’re finding a clearing off a road on public land. That’s why people often call it “free camping.”
As people have discovered during the COVID-19 pandemic, dispersed camping is an excellent alternative to designated campgrounds, which fill up quickly or require reservations months in advance.
There is nothing better than finding that perfect dispersed camp site, like this camp site near the Upper Colorado River. Photo by Kati Blocker, UCHealth.
Making reservations in established campgrounds
If you want to car camp in an established campground, your options are endless, though these sites have fees.
Both the U.S. Forest Service and BLM have established campgrounds and there’s usually a self-serve fee station at the entrance. Most sites have toilets, water and trash services, though these services may be seasonal. Fees, which go toward maintaining the campgrounds, vary in price but are posted on the campground information page on blm.gov or fs.usda.gov. You must pay within 30 minutes of arrival so bring cash or a check. These campsites can be seasonal, so check websites for seasonal information.
Some BLM campsites can be reserved via recreation.gov.
The National Park Service offers camping in established campgrounds and information can be found on Recreation.gov. Backcountry camping with a permit is also available through the NPS, but this applies to hikers who backpack. Entrance passes are required for most national parks. Free lifetime national park passes are available for veterans and their next of kin. People 62 and older are eligible for a lifetime pass for $80, or an annual pass for $20. If you have a pass, you’ll still need to pay for the campsite.
Most national parks are surrounded by public land owned by the BLM or Forest Service and these lands often have dispersed camping opportunities.
The National Park Service has designated dispersed camping in most of its recreational areas (away from monuments, trailheads and established campgrounds), such as at Blue Mesa Reservoir and Lake Granby.
State parks also have established campgrounds requiring reservations. Browse the specific state park website for fee and reservation information. Fee prices are usually different for residents vs. non-residents.
Starting Jan. 1, 2023, Colorado residents can get a $29 Keep Colorado Wild Pass during their annual vehicle registration through the Colorado Division of Motor Vehicles. This pass provides entry into all Colorado state parks. The cost is automatically applied to your registration fee unless you opt out. If you hold this pass, you only need to pay the campground fee.
Most state and national park campsites can be booked six months in advance, up until the day you plan to visit. Campsites fill up fast. It’s best to plan ahead and reserve your site as soon as your date opens for booking.
Car camping at private campgrounds
Outside of government-operated campgrounds, private campgrounds and RV parks offer an array of experiences. There are several apps/websites where you can find information about unusual places to car camp, such as in an orchard.
At Big B’s Orchard between Paonia and Hotchkiss, Colorado, you can reserve a camp site, like this, among the apple trees. The sites have fire rings and picnic tables, offering a great car camping experience. Photo by Kati Blocker, UCHealth.
Some online sites or apps may require a membership fee that often includes reduced or free camping options. These websites include:
Private RV parks and campgrounds have electric and nonelectric sites. A nonelectric site costs less. Choose an electric site if you have an RV or want to plug in cooking devices or charge your phone. If you have your waffle maker, plug it in too. It’s car camping, after all.
Choosing the correct map for camping
When heading out to camp, remember you might not have cell phone reception for the entirety of your journey. Having a “hardcopy” map, or a map you can download onto your phone is helpful.
There are many different maps for finding good car camping locations. You can purchase them, or oftentimes, they are free at area visitor or information centers. Photo by Kati Blocker, UCHealth.
Hardcopy maps to take with you:
- Road & Recreational Atlas. These maps of a state or region show public land boundaries and state and national parks and monuments. It also includes campgrounds, RV parks and nearby attractions like zoos or options for hiking, skiing and boating. It includes information about paved, unpaved and 4WD roads.
- Detailed Topographic Maps. These detailed maps provide public and private land boundaries, terrain, water sources, rest areas, public campgrounds, mountain peaks, and climbing sites. Points of interest include family outings, fishing, recreation areas and outdoor adventures.
- Forest Service maps. The Forest Service publishes a variety of map products. For a complete list, visit here. Many of these maps can be found on the Avenza Maps app (see below). U.S. Geological Survey maps for specific areas can be purchased online, or found at visitor’s centers.
- Avenza maps. You can download maps and track yourself even without cellular service. The app includes some free Forest Service maps. Pages from national forest atlases are about 99 cents, and visitor maps are about $5.
- Forest Service. usda.gov – These online maps were created by combining public Google Maps with Forest Service recreation areas from the U.S. Forest Service website. You can click on map markers to learn about a campsite or recreation activity.
How do you find a suitable car camping site when searching for dispersed camping?
First, visit the Forest Service or BLM website, where you can often find maps and details of BLM-managed campsites and places to disperse camp. You can also stop by a regional office where you can talk to someone and get maps.
Here are a few apps and online sites that can also help you find dispersed camping:
- Campendium. This is a camping app that uses other users’ experiences to provide reviews and first-hand information on different sites from RV or free camping. You can search sites for free, or sign up for an annual $50 membership to access more details.
- iOverlander. This is a nonprofit project almost entirely run by volunteers. You can select the type of places you want to visit and the amenities you require in your search, then click on a map to find more details about specific locations. It is user-generated content.
- Freecampsites.net. Search user-generated campsites to find free camping.
You can create your own map in Google Maps. When you find a great spot, “pin” it on your map, add descriptions and a rating so the next time you research where to go, you remember your favorite spots. Google Maps allows you to easily share maps with others, or publicly.
What to do when you get to your dispersed camping area
Look for signs that you’re on public land.
Here is a public lands sign, usually found at secondary road entrances, which provide you information on what is available and allowed in that area. Source: blm.gov.
Dispersed camping sites are not usually marked and located along secondary roads. Camp away from roadways, waterways and trailheads. The access roads often have signs letting you know locations and distance of a pass, reservoir or trailhead, for instance.
Maps from the U.S. Forest Service show dispersed camping roads via a dotted line, but a few don’t. You may run into a gate, but if it’s public land, the entrance will be marked with a Forest Service or BLM sign that tells you what uses are allowed in the area.
Choose a spot that has already been used for camping so you don’t disrupt fragile ecosystems. Avoid camping on living plants – pick the spot under the tree rather than in the middle of the meadow.
Prepare for weather that could produce flash floods, mudslides or blizzards. In Colorado, the weather changes in minutes.
National forests have different rules than BLM lands. This means there is a marked campsite even though you can’t reserve it. This was done because many of these dispersed camping areas became overcrowded, and people weren’t respecting the area. The designated sites are designed to protect ecosystems and natural habitats.
How long can you stay? It depends, but for most National Forest Service areas, the limit is 14 days within a 30-day period and 20-mile radius. Some places, like Nederland’s West Magnolias, allow for a 30-day stay, making it challenging to find an open spot because campers tend to be long-term.
Guidelines to follow when dispersed camping
With no camp host to maintain camp areas within dispersed camping, and no trash or toilet services, it is up to individuals to be responsible campers to keep areas accessible for generations to come.
Here are some rules you should know and follow if you’re planning to disperse camp:
- Leave no trace. This applies to anything you do in the outdoors, and the concept is simple: leave the area in better condition than when you found it. That means you don’t leave soda cans in the fire pit, used toilet paper under a bush, or trampled ecosystems where you placed your tent. Washing needs to occur at least 200 feet from any waterway. Use biodegradable soap.
- Set up in an existing spot. You should park on the bare and compacted areas, about one vehicle length from the road. These areas may have a rock fire ring. Don’t go off-road as it destroys native ecosystems and habitats. When this happens, state and federal regulators shut down areas and close road access.
- Do not camp at trailheads.
- Use a fire container. This means bringing your own fire pit or using an existing one, usually made from rocks. Follow fire restrictions, and make sure your fire is completely extinguished before you leave. A propane fire pit is usually acceptable during stage I and II fire bans, and is a great alternative. Brighten up your site with fun solar or battery-pack charged lights. For cooking, pull out that gas stove.
- Follow specific rules set by that county or district. You may be required to have a portable toilet.
Know how long you can stay. In Colorado, most places limit you to 14 days in one spot and 28 days total in that park or district.
Fire bans don’t have to ruin your car camping experience. Get some lights that run off a battery pack to light up your evening. Photo by Kati Blocker, UCHealth.
Respect your surroundings
- Give moose, deer and cows ample space. Area ranchers can lease public land for “open range” grazing. A good rule is to stay at least 100 feet from large animals. If they respond to you, then you are too close.
- Keep food secure in a bear-proof box/bag or in your vehicle, never in your tent. Both small and large animals will become nuisance animals if they get a taste of human food. This can cause dangerous consequences for both humans and animals.
- Respecting your surroundings also means respecting other campers in the area. Keep noise to a minimum and group sizes to six or fewer. Always leave your site in better condition than you found it.
Car camping is a great way to introduce your children to the outdoors. Photo by Kati Blocker, UCHealth.
- Leave glass at home, and pack out your trash and used toilet paper (yes, seriously, or critters will dig it up and string it along the site when you leave.) Consider bringing a toilet system/wag bag; for females, a pee cloth eliminates some toilet paper waste.
Packing tips for car camping
- Map. Download a map before you go, or buy a map to keep in your car.
- Water. Will you have access to potable water? If you’re in an established campground, you probably will. However, some campground shut off their water supply in the colder months. Bring your own water if you’re dispersed camping.
- Think one gallon per person per day for drinking, cooking and washing. Don’t forget to count the dog as one.
- Trash bags. Most established campgrounds have a place to dump your trash, but that is not the case with dispersed camping. Ensure you bring several good trash bags that won’t leak in your vehicle on the ride home. Be responsible and pack out all your trash.
- Toilet system. Established campgrounds will have toilet facilities. Some may even have sinks and showers. But often, it’s just an outhouse or port-a-potty. Bringing enough water to wash your hands (that 1 gallon per person per day factors in handwashing) and hand sanitizer is a good idea. If you’re dispersed camping, you may be required to bring a toilet system (the website of the public land for that region will tell you). You can buy a self-contained toilet system for a few hundred dollars, or a 5-gallon bucket with a lid and wag bags work great and will cost you about $40.
- Shovel. This is an excellent tool for wherever you camp. You can clean your fire pit or dig a “cat” hole. Make sure you follow the best practices for remote waste management, which includes packing out toilet paper.
- Wood or propane fire pit. Established campgrounds usually have fire rings that also have a grill that moves over the fire for cooking.
- Be aware of fire bans and restrictions. In Colorado, a stage I fire ban still allows fires in official campgrounds with designated fire rings. Fires in dispersed campsite rock rings are not permitted under this ban. Neither option is allowed during a stage II fire ban. However, propane fire rings are allowed in both cases because they have a shut-off valve. A stage III fire ban restricts access to public lands.
- First aid kit. It’s helpful to have basic first aid supplies, such as Band-Aids, sanitizer, antiseptic, medical tape, tweezers and gauze. A first aid kit is even more critical if you choose dispersed camping. You may not have cell service to call for help or be far from any emergency medical services.
- Vehicle self-recovery. Make sure your spare tire is in good working order, and you have a jack and lug wrench. Also, pack jumper cables and a flashlight. And don’t forget to have a full tank of gas. It could be hours or days before you see someone else, and you may not have cell service.
- Food storage. If you’re car camping, the best place for food at night is in your vehicle. You’d be amazed what the little fingers of raccoons or possums can get into and drag away (don’t leave your shoes outside for that reason). If you’re camping in your vehicle, it might be a good idea to hang your food from a tree about 200 feet from where you sleep (never put food in a tent!). A food storage bag should hang 4 to 6 feet from a tree trunk or limb and about 10 to 12 feet off the ground. A 50-foot line should work for hanging food bags from a tree. This video shows you different methods for doing this.