This Is How Dispersed Camping Areas Get Shut Down. We All Need to Do Better.

use existing firepits

I’m tucked into a beautiful campsite with friends. The Forest Service allows dispersed camping for up to 16 days in this lovely spot, perched on a sagebrush hillside with views over jagged, snow-covered peaks and the vibrant green valley below.

Our campsite is an established one. It looks like it has been here for years, and a quick search of historical satellite imagery confirms that it has been in use since at least 2009. It’s just the kind of boondocking campsite we should all be using—established, located on an existing road, and on a durable surface.

Early on in my stay, I watched as a truck drove over a nearby field of undisturbed sagebrush. A couple emerged from the vehicle, built a fire pit, trampled down the vegetation, and settled in.

I should have walked over and politely encouraged them to use an existing campsite, but speaking up in these situations doesn’t come naturally to me. I don’t know if it’s because I grew up seeing the colonial-era Gadsen flag fluttering in the breeze across my native New Hampshire, or if it’s my general aversion to conflict, but unless someone’s actions are putting me in danger, I mostly keep my peace.

I hold onto the belief that those of us who recreate in the outdoors desire to do so responsibly. After all, aren’t we all out here for many of the same reasons—to spend time in nature, bask in the views, and enjoy the company of friends and family?

We have a common goal, then, to keep these beautiful areas open for years to come. We need to not give the cash-strapped Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management a reason to shut down or shrink a dispersed camping area because it has become too hard, too expensive, or too overcrowded to manage.

Here’s how fast impact happens. When that couple in the truck left the site they had created, another camper arrived. And when they left, another. Then another. A week later, you’d never know that it had been a pristine field of sagebrush. All it took to create a heavily used campsite where there was not one before was seven days.

Last night, a different couple drove down the dirt road late in the evening. Finding nowhere else to camp, or perhaps motivated by a desire to have the best mountain views, they pulled their SUV over another spot of untouched vegetation. Using a shovel and their hands, they pulled up sagebrush and wildflowers and dug a fire pit before setting up their tent. They left their fire smoking when they pulled out early this morning.

Minutes later, a man pulled into the “spot.” He’d watched the couple leave moments before. Though I really didn’t want to, I walked over. I now had first-hand experience of what the impact would be if I didn’t say anything. “This isn’t an established campsite,” I said. “I’m planning to break up the fire ring as soon as it’s cold.”

He planted his feet firmly on the crumpled sagebrush; its spicy, sharp scent reached my nose. “I’m camping here,” he stated.

“But it’s really not a campsite,” I explained. “A car came in late last night and did this. They shouldn’t have.”

He didn’t budge. “I just want to see this area stay open,” I continued. I pointed to the newly created campsite down the road. “That campsite didn’t exist a week ago, and now look at it. I don’t want to give the Forest Service any reason to shut this area down.”

Like many other ranger districts, especially in the American West, the district where I’m camped is already stretched to patrol a vast area of public lands. In the last few years, they transitioned nearby areas to “designated dispersed,” allowing camping only in numbered sites. Earlier in the week, the Forest Service had placed a “No Motorized Vehicles” sign just past my campsite, cutting off the half-dozen spots that lay beyond (a call to the district office revealed that they routinely close areas to give them time to recover from overuse).

Defending his claim on the patch of sagebrush, he said, “I camp without impact. And I’m camping here.” Frustrated, but without options, I backed away.

Soon after, I decided to leave, though I had planned on staying for another week. As I pulled out of my site, his words of “I camp without impact” echoed in my mind as I watched his group squeeze into sites too small for their campers. They then ranged the hillside, pulling rocks out of the sagebrush to expand fire rings.

So, what can we do? We all need to think beyond ourselves. When an area is closed or constricted due to overuse, we all suffer.

  • Always camp in an established campsite.
  • Never expand the footprint of an established campsite.
  • Never create new campsites.

Whether you’re a full-timer, part-timer, or weekend warrior doesn’t matter. Whether you’re in a tent or an RV doesn’t matter, either. We all enjoy the same locations and bear the burden of using them responsibly. If we don’t, we may not get to use them again. We can all do better, and we have to.