As the sunniest U.S. state with iconic canyons, spectacular pine–covered mountains and raging rivers, Arizona is full of natural sights ready to be discovered. And we believe dispersed camping in Arizona is one of the best ways to experience and enjoy them!
Thankfully, dispersed camping in Arizona is legal and almost always free on publicly owned land – such as areas under Bureau of Land Management control. Which makes camping a fantastic way to explore ‘The Grand Canyon State’.
We explain the rules for dispersed camping in Arizona in this article, along with the rules around campfires. Finally we share some of our favorite places for dispersed camping in Arizona. So read on and let your adventure begin!
Dispersed camping in Arizona: The rules and where you can and cannot camp
In our opinion, there’s nothing better than camping. It’s a chance to get back to basics, enjoy nature, and separate yourself from the hustle and bustle of 21st century life. It also allows you to experience some of nature’s best views for free.
The fantastic thing about Arizona is that dispersed (primitive) camping is allowed and legal, as long as you are camping on state ground and adhere to a few simple guidelines. We outline those further down.
Land looked after by the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, and other state institutions will be publicly owned. Typically any areas that are green on Google Maps are also publicly owned. A great state map, such as this one, could help in finding camping spots too.
Keep an eye on contours as the more spaced out they are on a map, the flatter the ground will be. Maps can also help pinpoint potential water sources to camp nearby.
Just be aware that there are a few areas where dispersed camping in Arizona is forbidden:
- You are not allowed to camp in or near paid campsites (you must be at least one mile away), trailheads, or recreation areas
- You are not allowed to camp within a quarter of a mile of water source areas (springs, water catchments etc).
- Areas that specifically state ‘closed to camping’ or similar are forbidden
Furthermore, sometimes permits are required if you wish to primitive camp. This is especially true of the most popular sites in the state such as the Grand Canyon. These permits can cost anything from 5USD to 20 USD. You can see information and how to apply for a permit for camping in the Grand Canyon by clicking here.
While you can camp almost everywhere else, the Bureau of Land Management also has certain areas it has designated as dispersed camping areas that are often situated beside popular hiking trails. These exist in the hope of encouraging free campers to camp in the same place, and therefore reduce the impact on the environment.
If you’re interested in primitive camping within one of these, it’s best to contact the regional office of the area you are visiting to ask for locations. For the Grand Canyon, you can see some of these campgrounds – and the hiking trails they serve – at this link.
How long are you allowed to camp in state areas?
Legally in Bureau of Land Management Areas you can camp for two weeks at a time within a 30 mile radius during a 28-day period. What that means, is that you may camp within a 30 mile radius for two weeks, either all in one block, or spread out across a 28-day period. This is perfect for hikers who will move camp a few miles at a time.
The regulations are slightly different in state forests. In these areas you may camp for 16 days at a time in the same spot, but then you must move at least five miles to a new camp site. You can only camp for 16 days at the same spot per 30-day period.
Furthermore, if you are a group of 75 or more people you must gain a permit to camp in a US state forest – you can get that by contacting the local district office. There will be no fee.
Being a responsible camper
Once you’ve found your camping spot, make sure you leave your pitch the way you found it, and minimize waste. When going to the toilet you should do it at least 100m from a water source (such as a river or lake), and use a trowel (like this folding one) to bury human waste at least six inches underground. Take any tissue paper back home with you – use a ziplock bag to keep it sealed.
There are many different water sources in Arizona, but remember to always have plenty of water on you when camping and walking. A space-saving collapsible water bottle would be a good purchase. But remember to ensure that water from any undeveloped source is safe by treating it. That means heating it until it comes to a boil, or using water purification tablets/filter.
Campers are asked to abide by the seven principles of leave no trace – they can be seen here.
With bears roaming in some Arizona public land, you must take steps to avoid attracting them to your campsite. We advise:
- If you have a vehicle nearby, store food there rather than in a tent.
- Use a bear box or bear canister to store food, rubbish, and anything with a scent.
- Don’t pitch your tent near where food is being stored.
- Never approach any bear, regardless of its size
- Don’t spray anything with a scent
Dispersed camping in Arizona: The rules around campfires
Wildfires are a huge problem in Arizona, which is the second driest state in the US with an average of just 12.6 inches of rainfall a year!
As such, state authorities ask campers to only build fires in a grill, fireplace, or a campfire ring in a campground. You must never use alive wood to fuel a fire, but rather use wood that is on the ground or dead.
In fact it is prohibited to build a fire when primitive camping in Arizona due to the risk of wildfires.
It is also illegal to leave a campfire unattended.
Instead of building campfires, state authorities prefer campers to use stoves as they greatly reduce the risk of wildfires. We’d recommend using a storm cooker, then you can cook anywhere you want as the fire is contained. We believe the best ones on the market are Trangia storm cookers.
If you are having a campfire in an area where it is allowed , then do everything you can to minimize wildfire risk. We recommend to:
- Clean an area and make a ring of rocks around 2/3 feet around it
- Make sure your fire ring is not below any overhanging branches
- Avoid dry meadows and clearings where grass could easily catch on fire
- Avoid making a fire on days where wind could blow ashes out of the fire ring
- Check the weather reports and avoid a campfire completely on very dry days
- Have a sufficient supply of water close by in order to put out a fire
- When leaving a campfire ensure it is completely out. You will know when it’s out if you can put your hand firmly into the ashes and there is no warmth.
Below we share some of our favourite dispersed camping spots in Arizona!
Some of the best dispersed camping spots in Arizona
One of the most rewarding aspects of dispersed camping is discovering your own perfect spots. Places hidden in nature where you can be fully immersed in Arizona’s spectacular landscape.
However if you don’t know the region you are camping in, it’s good to know a few of the best places. Below are some of our favorite camping spots in Arizona:
- Wing Mountain: Suitable for tents, campers, and RVs, this camping spot has easy access to fantastic trails, and stunning views of the mountain which is a cinder cone volcano.
- Bright Angel Campground: This dispersed campsite is at the bottom of the Grand Canyon and only accessible by hiking there. It’s a spectacular and special place.
- Jasper Forest: This remote region is known for its petrified trees, but is also a spot where many historic and cultural artefacts have been discovered. You need a permit to camp overnight here – just ask park staff when arriving.
- Catalina State Park: This park has several hiking trails that will take you past towering cacti and rock formations. A great place to camp and hike for a few days.