As one of the United States’ most rugged regions with ancient plains, spectacular mountains, and stunning canyons, New Mexico is full of natural sights ready to be discovered. And we believe dispersed camping in New Mexico is one of the best ways to experience and enjoy them!
Thankfully, dispersed camping is legal and free on publicly owned land – such as areas under the control of the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. Which makes camping a fantastic way to explore the ‘Land of Enchantment’.
We explain the rules for dispersed camping in New Mexico in this article, along with forbidden areas and regulations for campfires. So read on and let your adventure begin!
Dispersed camping in New Mexico: 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 New Mexico 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, 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.
Typically on state maps, BLM lands are colored yellow and sometimes pink, Forest Service lands are green.
However be aware that there are a few areas where dispersed camping in New Mexico 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.
- Camping is prohibited within 900 feet of any developed water source in New Mexico. Such as a guzzler or watering trough so that the water remains accessible to wildlife and livestock
- You should camp at least 200 feet from other water sources.
- 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.
While you can camp almost everywhere, the Bureau of Land Management has also created some camping areas situated beside popular hiking trails. These exist in the hope of encouraging campers to camp in the same place, and therefore reduce the impact on the environment. If you’re interesting in camping within one of these, ask the branch office in the area where you plan to visit for locations.
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 during a 28-day period. What that means, is that you may camp for two weeks, either all in one block or spread out across a 28-day period . After this time period is up, you must relocate to another site at least 25 miles away.
The regulations are slightly different in state forests and parks. 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. After the second 14 day period is up, you must leave your campsite and the national forest or grassland you’ve been camping in. What this means, is that you can camp within one state forest or grassland for a total of 28 days within any 60-day period.
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 New Mexico, 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 New Mexico forests and mountains, 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 New Mexico: The rules around campfires
Wildfires are a big problem in New Mexico, and the penalties for ignoring fire restrictions can be severe. You can see current fire restrictions in New Mexico here.
Typically campfires are banned in all open areas – including New Mexico State Parks – unless you’re “using a cooking or heating device that uses kerosene, white gas or propane as a fuel in an improved camping area that is cleared of all flammable vegetation for at least 30 feet or has a water source.” A cooker like a Trangia storm cooker would work well for this purpose.
During the summer rainy season, campfire restrictions are often relaxed a bit. The local branch of the BLM or Forest Service in the area you are planning to camp in can tell you if this applies.
Even if no restrictions are in place, 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.
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 in New Mexico 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.