Scattered campsites offer an alternative to crowded campgrounds | Outside


Few things are more daunting for the summer camping tourist than walking into a campground and finding all the sites full. It’s especially deflating when you’ve been on the road for hours and just want to pitch your tent and relax.

It’s no wonder there are few places to camp with more than 42 million people camping in the United States each year, according to a 2012 survey by the Outdoor Industry Association. Sixty-seven percent of these campers use public campgrounds. And the Mountain Region, which includes Montana, is the area where camping is most popular, according to the survey.

Fortunately, many public and private campsites can now be booked online, avoiding such disappointment. But what about the times when you forgot to book a site, weren’t sure where you would end up, or just decided to go camping on a whim?

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If this happens near state or federal land, campers have an option known as scattered camping. This is camping where there are no picnic tables, fire pits, drinking water or toilets. It’s old-fashioned camping – the hard way.

For those uninitiated to the ins and outs of scattered camping, here are some tips for pitching a tent away from an improved campsite.

One of the best tools to help campers find a scattered site is a good map. These can be purchased from local Forest Service offices or ordered online. Local authorities are also the best source of information on where you can pitch a tent and any restrictions. Often in the summer, when fire danger is high, there are restrictions on campfires.

A GPS is another good source of location information, as the palm-sized gadgets can help you pinpoint your location in the woods as well as on a forest map. The combination of the two ensures that you are not on private property, where the campsite would incur a trespassing fine. Newer GPS software, in addition to apps that can be downloaded to your mobile phone, even displays land ownership, making it much easier to determine where you can unroll your sleeping bag.

In addition to Forest Service land, scattered camping is also permitted on Bureau of Land Management property, which is common in eastern Montana. BLM sells cards in its district offices. BLM lands are colored yellow and sometimes pink on maps, Forest Service lands are green, and State lands are blue.

Camping on state land is OK within 200 feet of a road and is limited to two days. The catch is that campers must purchase a State Land Recreational Use Permit from the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. Many hunters may already have a permit, as it is required when purchasing a hunting permit.

Even if you are going to be a “rough it” camper, there are still rules and etiquette to follow. First and foremost, do not camp within 100 feet of a lake or stream in National Forests. This increases to 200 feet on BLM land. On forest land, drive no more than 150 feet from designated roads to reduce damage to the forest.

Second, pack what you pack – that includes all the trash. Try to leave the site as quiet as possible.

On federal lands, campers are allowed to stay 14 days. On Montana state land, there is a two-day limit.

It is often illegal to camp near improved facilities, such as a campground, trailhead, or picnic area.

To go to the toilet, you will have to dig what is often called a “cat hole”. Dig the hole at least 6 inches deep and keep it 100 feet from any lake or stream. Pack your toilet paper. There’s nothing worse than finding someone’s discarded toilet paper littering the woods. Cover the cat’s hole and try to make the ground look like it did before digging the hole.

Similarly, campfires can be built in a dug-out patch of land, retaining the topsoil to cover the ashes to extinguish and hide the fire from future campers. Always be sure to carry a bucket to carry water to put out the fire.

Speaking of water, don’t drink mountain streams without using a purifying water filter, water purification tablets, or after bringing the water to a boil. Drinking unfiltered water creates a risk of contracting giardia, a nasty stomach bug. Better yet, try to bring enough drinking and cooking water with you in a large, clean plastic container.

Whether or not you’re camping in bear country, it’s always a good idea to store your coolers and other food inside your vehicle. The precaution keeps the critters away and your food is safe. In bear country, it is mandatory to follow these food storage rules.

Tents offer the easiest way to camp at a dispersed site. Try throwing it off other people’s site. After all, you’re away from the crowds, so why not increase that feeling of isolation?

The motorhome allows you to take big soft pads to put under your sleeping bag. The pads also insulate the sleeper from the cold ground. This may be a place you don’t want to skimp on.

A bucket and shovel will come in handy for digging cat holes and putting out fires, respectively.

There are foldable camping tables that provide a place to eat. Pack them with folding chairs to create a remote dining site.

Lanterns and flashlights are essential for getting around in the dark. Always be sure to check your fuel or batteries and pack extras.

Grills and gas stoves make cooking easier and faster. Keep the menu simple or prepare more sophisticated meals in advance and freeze them. Frozen meals will help keep your food cold longer.

Don’t forget to bring sunscreen and mosquito repellent. A well-stocked first aid kit can also be useful.

Repair kits for unexpected tears or a roll of tape can help solve a number of problems. A small toolbox can also come in handy in the event of equipment or vehicle failure.

Also be sure to bring a variety of warm clothes, as even in the height of summer the mountains can get chilly at night. Hats, gloves and a rain jacket are other essentials for your comfort.

Whether it’s a scheduled stopover or a last-minute effort to find a place to plant your pillow, scattered camping can provide a more remote experience for those traveling through the woods and grasslands. With few or no neighbors, campsites can feel much more remote and offer a greater chance for stress-relieving activities like stargazing, bird watching, or cooking a batch of s’ more.

So don’t feel bad if the campsite is full and you forgot to make reservations. You’re not alone. According to the Outdoor Industry Association survey, “Although nearly half of campers make the decision to go camping at least a month in advance, many campers do not make camping reservations until the day of camp. Thirty-five percent say they made a walk-in reservation on their last trip.

It’s probably because the most likely person to initiate a camping trip is a man, and you know how last minute and unprepared we can be.

Sally J. Minick