Dispersed Camping In California: The Rules, Tips, Campfires & More!

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Last updated on July 3, 2023 by Wandering our World

As one of the sunniest U.S. states with iconic beaches, spectacular waterfalls and stunning mountains and deserts, California is full of natural sights ready to be discovered. And we believe dispersed camping in California is one of the best ways to experience and enjoy them!

Thankfully, dispersed camping in California is legal and free on publicly owned land – such as areas under Bureau of Land Management control. Which makes camping a fantastic way to explore the ‘Golden State’.

We explain the rules for dispersed camping in California in this article, along with the rules around campfires. So read on and let your adventure begin!

Photo for illustrative purposes only: iStock.com/welcomia

Dispersed Camping In California: The Rules And Where You Can And Cannot Camp

DISCLAIMER: Below we give general advice, but we always recommend staying in an official campsite. If you choose to go dispersed camping, then make sure you do so with someone who already knows the area where you’re planning on camping for your own safety.

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 California 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.

Just remember that public land should be treated with respect – just as you would like your own land to be treated. We have tips on how to camp respectfully further down this article.

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.

Photo for illustrative purposes only: iStock.com/SolisImages

Just be aware that there are a few areas where dispersed camping in California 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 100 meters of a water source (springs, rivers, water catchments etc).
  • Areas that specifically state ‘closed to camping’ or similar are forbidden. Each state forest and BLM area has several regions where dispersed camping is not allowed. When you know which region or state forest you wish to camp in, you can check that state forest or BLM area’s official page for where restrictions exist. For example, in Sierra National Forest you can see the restrictions here.
  • Campers are asked to not camp in the middle of a clearing or meadow, and to make any campsite hidden so not to spoil the landscape for other people.

Sometimes permits are also required to camp – often in the most popular parks.

In the famous Yosemite National Park you need a permit to camp outside of official campgrounds. Furthermore, camping is forbidden between Yosemite Valley and Little Yosemite Valley. For information on permits, and where you can and cannot camp, click here.

While you can camp almost everywhere else, the Bureau of Land Management has also made dispersed camping areas that are 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.

Photo for illustrative purposes only: iStock.com/cookelma

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.

However one exception is the territory covered by the BLM Bishop Field Office where dispersed camping is limited to 14 days per year.

Furthermore in Yosemite, the limit is 30 nights of camping per calendar year. However, from May 1 to September 15, the camping is limited to 14 nights.

The regulations are slightly different in California state forests. You may camp at one site for a maximum of 14 days, and you may stay in each district for up to 21 days before having to vacate.

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.

Photo for illustrative purposes only: iStock.com/Eshma

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, 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 California, 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 do 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 also asked to abide by the seven principles of leave no trace – they can be seen here.

With bears roaming California’s 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 California: The Rules Around Campfires

Wildfires are a huge problem in California, which is one of the driest states in the US with an average of just 15 inches of rainfall a year!

When dispersed camping in California, campfire permits are required for open fires in California – such as campfires, barbecues and portable stoves. You can get a permit – which is free – at the following link.

Having a permit means: That campers are “authorized to build a campfire…subject to restrictions in place at the time.” Therefore you still must check whether fire restrictions are in place where you plan to camp. You can check that by getting in contact with the U.S. Forest Service or BLM office in the area you are camping.

When building a fire please remember to only use dead wood that is no larger than wrist size, and to never leave a campfire or stove unattended.

Instead of building campfires, you could use a storm cooker – but check local laws first. Then there is much less wildfire risk and you can cook knowing that the fire is contained. We believe the best ones on the market are Trangia storm cookers.

Recommended for your dispersed camping in California adventure

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  • Wandering our World

    Hi and welcome to Wandering our World! This article was written by one of the Wandering our World team - a team of travel enthusiasts who live around the globe.