As one of the United States’ most iconic regions with ancient plains, spectacular mountains, and stunning hot springs, Colorado is full of natural sights ready to be discovered. And we believe dispersed camping in Colorado is one of the best ways to experience and enjoy them!
Thankfully, dispersed camping in Colorado is legal and free on publicly owned land – such as areas under the control of the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. Which makes camping a fantastic way to explore the ‘Centennial State’.
We explain the rules for dispersed camping in Colorado in this article, along with forbidden areas and regulations for campfires. So read on and let your adventure begin!
Dispersed camping in Colorado: 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 Colorado 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 too.
Land looked after by the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, the 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.
With the Colorado Trail Explorer – see here – you have a free resource with many hiking trails, which can help in planning a camping and hiking trip.
Just be aware that there are a few areas where dispersed camping in Colorado is forbidden:
- You are not allowed to camp in or near paid campsites (you must be at least one mile away), trailheads, recreation areas, boat ramps, picnic areas and similar
- You are not allowed to camp within 200 feet 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, or get in contact with the local office to ask.
- 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.
In the most popular and iconic state parks in the U.S. a permit is sometimes required for backcountry camping. This is the case in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park from May 1 to Oct 31. The permit costs 30 USD and can be obtained at the permit office at Beaver Meadows Visitor Center and Kawaneeche Visitor Center.
While you can camp almost everywhere, the Bureau of Land Management and Colorado Department of Forestry has also created dispersed camping areas 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.
Alternatively, this online map shows the 11 state forests and two grassland regions in Colorado. If you click on one of the regions, it will bring up a page with dispersed camping information, such as dispersed camping areas in the selected state forest.
For the Rocky Mountain National Park, you can see dispersed camping areas on this map.
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 14 days at a time in a period of 30 days within a radius of 20 miles. You must then move on, and camp outside that radius if you wish to continue camping.
Furthermore, if you are a group of 75 or more people you must gain a permit to camp in a U.S. 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 Colorado, 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 Colorado’s forests, 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 Colorado: The rules around campfires
Wildfires are a big problem in Colorado, and the penalties for ignoring fire restrictions can be severe.
The restrictions vary from region to region, and the best way to check is with the local branch of the BLM area or Forest Service you are planning to camp in. Many have fire restrictions online too – for example information for the Rocky Mountains can be found here.
When restrictions are in place, open fires are usually completely banned – such as campfires in a pit, or fire on a grill.
When there are no restrictions you are often allowed to have campfires – but it’s best to check each region in which you plan to camp.
Campfires still must be contained within a pit, be small in size, and not placed near vegetation that is a fire risk, or below overhanging branches. Furthermore some regions only allow campfires to be built in already existing fire pits – which you can find in dispersed camping areas.
When building a fire remember to only use dead wood that is no larger than wrist size, and to never leave a campfire or stove unattended – it is illegal to do so. You will know your campfire is out if you can stick your hand into the ashes and they are cool to the touch.
Instead of building campfires, we recommend using a storm cooker, which are often allowed even when restrictions are in place. 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.