Dispersed, Free Camping in Colorado: Get Out There! (But follow the rules.)
POSTED BY Scott O’Sullivan
July 19, 2021
So, last year, you may recall that I wrote a long, dreamy article about camping and all of the new gear and gadgets hitting the market. I was spending my quarantine surfing YouTube and imagining all the ways I would escape my house when vaccines helped us emerge from the pandemic.
Well, I am now fully vaccinated and I can report that I haven’t really bought much new gear but I definitely plan to escape my house this summer. As it turns out, I’m not alone.
The nation’s National Park system is bracing for impact. This is expected to be a record year for park visits, and the parks were struggling to keep up with demand well before the lost year of 2020! Unless you were one of the planners who booked camping spots back in December and January (I am not one of those people), you are now looking to find dispersed camping in Colorado.
Dispersed camping is a fancy way of describing those free, hidden camping gems that you sometimes come across while hiking. There is usually a marker near the site and a fire ring. They seem so romantic and nostalgic compared to the for-fee camping areas that can feel crowded and noisy. People who frequent these dispersed campsites are used to roughing it a bit more. They often don’t have access to any amenities, like running water, and they may even have to hike in their own firewood.
But, because dispersed camping – like all camping – is becoming more popular, issues have arisen.
For one, the sheer volume of people out there seeking free camping spots has caused damage to the environment. Humans are not a low-impact species.
Also, there are rules to free camping and many people do not follow them, which is giving the rest of us a bad rap, and also leading the parks service to start limiting everyone’s access.
For example, OutThere Colorado recently reported: “Dispersed camping is coming to an end for six popular backcountry drainages nestled in the Crested Butte Valley. To ensure a sustainable future for both recreational camping and the natural beauty of backcountry, officials will begin to transition dispersed camping areas to designated camping sites only for backcountry areas along Slate River, Washington Gulch, Kebler Pass, Lake Irwin, Brush Creek, Cement Creek, and Gothic Roads.”
Also, ShareTrails.org reported that the Bureau of Land Management was working to limit dispersed camping in Chaffee County, CO, where they have seen recreational use increase by 12% every year. The growing demand has taken a toll on the wilderness, and humans have also behaved badly, leaving trash and not disposing of their own waste (poop!) properly.
The Rules of Camping in Colorado
So, clearly, if we want to keep enjoying these hidden gems, we need to know and follow the rules of camping in Colorado. I found this link to Colorado Parks & Wildlife camping rules and thought I’d share a few of the more important ones below:
One camping unit with a maximum of 6 people per campsite.
Vehicles require passes, too. Vehicle fees are separate from camping fees.
Pets are welcome but must be kept on a six-foot leash at all times, and you must clean up their waste. (See below.)
A parent or guardian must accompany any campers under 18 years of age.
Pooping in the Backcountry
You may think that your waste is as natural as any species out there in the backcountry, but you (we) are actually foreign invaders and we need to clean up after ourselves! Also, due to the rise in visitors, can you imagine if we didn’t? We will end up polluting our waterways and spreading human diseases.
Just as with all other camping rules, the number-one priority with human waste is to leave no trace.
Bury your poop. When it’s time to do your business, walk at least 200 feet (70 adult paces) from water sources and trails, then dig a hole that is six inches deep. When you’re done, bury it.
Don’t bury your toilet paper. Pack it out. (Hey, you want to “rough it?” Then do the gross stuff, too.)
Pack out your poop if you are above the treeline or in other sensitive areas.
I am quite concerned that, by the time my sons have kids of their own, they won’t be allowed to take my grandkids backcountry camping due to the impact and negligence of my own generation. Let’s do our part to keep Colorado pristine, wild and accessible!