Car Camping without the Campground

Campgrounds can be great.  If you are partying with a large group, bringing small kids, or enjoying the campground’s amenities, they are worth it.  On the other hand, there are several reasons to try camping without the campground.

If you are just getting into camping, campgrounds are like training wheels.  Once you are familiar with your gear and practiced in your skills, you may decide to graduate to the superior experience of camping without the campground (dispersed camping).

Why you should graduate to car camping without the campground.

  1. Camping without the campground saves money.
  2. Dispersed camping (away from other people) is better.
  3. Camping without the campground is not as difficult as you think.
  4. Primitive camping (no facilities) is fun.
  5. If you arm yourself with knowledge, you will be perfectly safe.

Car camping without the campground saves money.

Dispersed camping site michaux state forest
This free, dispersed camping site in Michaux State Forest was a bit of a walk, but it was worth it.

Although campgrounds are cheap when compared to hotels, for what, exactly, are you paying?  You are paying for access to potable water and a bathroom that may or may not meet your standards.  You are also paying for the feeling of safety gained by being near other people.

Let’s assume that the campground doesn’t have any extras like a pool, laundry, or fun equipment.  It is also safe to assume that plugging in to electricity will not be convenient.  Further, the showers and toilets may be so uninviting that you would rather go to the bathroom in the woods.

In short, you are paying $30 or so dollars so that you will not have to carry water (as far) or dig a hole.

Imagine that you are taking a 10-day road trip.  Staying in campgrounds rather than hotels might save you $700.  Car camping without the campground might save you another $300. (Note: Some places may charge a small fee for a dispersed camping permit.)

What I like to do is camp for free and use that money for a couple of hotel stays – a bit of luxury and some metropolitan entertainment.  After all, you don’t want to drive past Indianapolis without seeing the Rotary Jail Museum (spinning jail cells, it was a thing).

Dispersed camping is better.

crowded campground
CC photo by Pierre Guinoiseau

Camping without the campground means eliminating many annoyances.  You will no longer have to listen other people or their generators.  You can stop complaining about sub-standard facilities. You can avoid weirdos who want to demonstrate their newfound passion for interpretive dance.  

More important is what you gain in camping without the campground.  You have more space and freedom to set up your campsite.  You are surrounded by the sounds and sights of nature.  You can let your kids and/or dogs run wild.  (Note: Letting your dogs run free is not allowed in some areas.)  You can walk around buck-naked and play your didgeridoo all night long.

Camping without the campground is not as hard as you think.

Imagine that you are camping in a campground.  Then take away everything that is not part of your campsite.  What have you really lost? Not very much.  Your car is only a short walk away, and you are using the same gear. Unless you are backpacking in for some back-country exploration, camping without the campground is not that hard.  

Finding dispersed camping

Popular destinations for free, dispersed camping include U.S. National Forests, Bureau of Land Management areas, and Crown Land.  Finding a spot can be as easy as looking at google maps (look for the green areas) and making a phone call.  There are lots of great websites and apps to help you find what you need.

Pro tip: Do not overlook state forests.  If your destination is not near a national forest, no problem! State forests often provide awesome dispersed camping sites for free.  These sites are often intended for groups, so it is likely that you will have lots of space.

Sourcing your water

Water for primitive camping
A simple container like this is all you really need.

The simplest solution is to bring a full five-gallon container (maybe two) of potable water.  Try to use something that is easy to fill, easy to clean, rugged, and has a convenient spigot.  This is not a big deal since you would have to move water at most campgrounds anyway.

If you want to be less reliant on filling up frequently, bring a method to purify your water.  Boiling water is the best way to kill disease-causing organisms, however, boiling does not remove toxic chemicals or pollutants; the EPA recommends using granular-activated carbon block filter.

Going to the bathroom in the wild

I am not going to lie, going to the bathroom in the wild can be intimidating.  You need to find some privacy, be conscientious, make yourself comfortable, and avoid making a mess.  However, once you get the hang of it, you may find that it is more pleasant than a run-down campground bathroom.

You can find a lot of advice for pooping in the woods, and some of it is pretty weird (packing it out, smearing it on a rock, building a funeral pyre, etc.), but I try to keep things simple.

  • Move away from camp.  Beyond the obvious reasons for this, what you leave buried could also attract some wildlife visitors.
  • Do not contaminate the water.  Stay away from bodies of water and look at the topography to make sure that you are not in a run-off path.
  • Bring hand sanitizer, a digging tool, and TP.
  • Plan to bury it.  This is fast, easy, and environmentally acceptable. After all, humans were pooping in the wilderness for hundreds of thousands of years before we started destroying the environment. Dig the hole first to avoid contamination or having to clean your shovel.
  • Use wilderness-friendly toilet paper.  Some people are not OK with this as you are “leaving a trace” under ground.  This is especially true in arid areas where the TP will take a long time to break down.  Furthermore, environmentally sensitive areas may have added restrictions.
  • Position yourself for success. When it comes to pooping positions in the woods, I recommend the full squat with the optional sapling-grab upgrade (for stability).  Remove your pants and undies completely to simplify matters, and set them to the side.  Face a sapling at a comfortable grabbing distance.

Do not try the seated hang method (hanging your butt off a log or rock).  Although this might resemble what you are used to, it could be disastrous. (Falling off a log is, you know, easy).  At best you will be uncomfortable and, at worst, you will fall backward and land in a world of……mess.

Do not try the tree-hug method.  Although the added stability is appealing, how are you going to dig through the tree’s roots?  I also don’t want to be caught unaware when Bigfoot takes my picture.

For people who want to combine pooping in the woods with an advanced yoga routine, you can try pooping positions like the crab, the full orangutan, the ironman, and many more!

Finding the right shelter for car camping without the campground.

Best tent for dispersed camping
This tent has been awesome.

Finding the right tent for dispersed camping is a balancing act. You want something that you can spend some time in when the conditions are poor.  It is nice to be able to set up some chairs and stuff inside.  On the other hand, you do not want to deal with a huge monstrosity or multiple structures.

As my photos show, I like the Coleman Cabin Tent (6 person) with Instant Setup.  It is 10 x 9 x 6 and has served me well for many trips.  You can move the bedding out of the way, set up a table and chairs, and spend the day in there if you must.

To keep it comfortable inside, I set it up with an over-sized tarp as a rain-fly. (See the featured image.)  This keeps the tent dry in the weather (even with the windows open) and cool during the day.  Additionally, it creates a little porch area on the outside.

Staying clean.

Hot showers did not become popular until the 19th century.  Are you wimpier than the average Victorian? You can stay quite clean with a daily towel regimen.  If you are lucky, there will a body of water nearby where you can rinse-off and feel rejuvenated.

I do not recommend staying gross for a few days.  Believe me, if you take the time to clean up and change your clothes every day, you will feel better and enjoy your stay.

Primitive camping is more fun.

Car camping cooking options grill

Dispersed camping from your car does not have to be that primitive.  If you are parking close to the site, you can bring a ton of gear and be as comfortable as you wish.  Nothing is stopping you from having air mattresses, easy-up structures, devices, etc.

On the other hand, it is fun to stay primitive and test your bush-craft skills.   On my most recent trip, all of our wood (and the surrounding area) was wet.  I was able to use my Bowie knife to split wood and take dry tinder from the center.  For me, it was a fun challenge.

If getting back to nature is your goal, a campground is a sad half-measure.  Going off on your own and making it work will make you feel like a true adventurer.

Related post: Camping Cooking Options

If you arm yourself with knowledge, you will be perfectly safe.

Camping dangers Infographics (1)

It seems to me that people are often worried about the wrong things. We fret over being in a dark forest and think nothing of jay-walking across a chaotic boulevard.  Your chances of being struck by lightning are as low as your chances of being…well…they are just really low.

In many ways, you are safer in the woods than you are in your hometown.  As long as you do some research, pay attention, and use your common sense.

  • Let people know where you will be and keep up communication.  Keep your phone charged and check the reception.  You may want to plan a check-in schedule with your home base.  If you are really nervous, a personal locator beacon is not out-of-the-question.
  • Avoid camping alone.  Camping with at least one other person increases safety immeasurably.  You will need help if you break an ankle.  Although our imaginations might run wild with images of animal attack a la The Revenant, the animal you should be wary of is the human animal.
    • Case study: On a recent camping trip I was victimized by the human animal.  Somebody stuffed an applesauce cup into the tailpipe of my Subaru.  Who does that?
  • Know where you are headed and know what to expect.  Will it be permissible to have a fire? Are you in bear country? Are there any venomous snakes?  Do you need to be checking for ticks that may carry Lyme disease?
  • Pay attention.  Look at your prospective site with safety in mind.  Are any trees or limbs hanging precariously around your spot?  Is flooding a concern? Is your tent a safe distance from the fire pit?
  • Have a first aid kit.  You are more likely to be hospitalized by an infection than by a bear.
  • Remember that your car could save your life.  If you seriously miscalculate the weather, you may need to get in and run the heater. You may need to drive a companion to the hospital.  Make sure that you have a reliable vehicle, signaling tools, a working spare tire, and jumper cables or a charger pack.

Conclusions on camping without the campground

Hiking with a disabled dog
Jonesy still loves hiking.

I hope that my discussion of safety concerns has not dissuaded you from trying car camping without the campground.  I have never felt that I was truly in danger. (Of course, I have my Cocker Spaniel to protect me.  He may be deaf and have a heart condition, but he fights dirty.) Even when the bugs or heat were making me miserable, I always knew that I was only a car ride away from comfort.

The more dispersed camping that I do, the less I appreciate staying in campgrounds. The freedom, tranquility, and savings are simply too appealing.

If you have some pointers or corrections regarding dispersed camping / camping without the campground, please leave a comment.

Read more of my posts on car camping.

One thought on “Car Camping without the Campground

Leave a Reply