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What is the Difference between Frontcountry Camping, Backcountry or Designated Campsites, and Dispersed Camping?

Map of a frontcountry campground with running water, bathrooms, parking, and a caretaker
Map of a frontcountry campground with running water, bathrooms, parking, and a caretaker host.

The camping “landscape” is often divided into frontcountry campsites, backcountry campsites, designated campsites, and dispersed camping. You’re likely to encounter these terms if you camp or backpack in National Parks, National Forests, and State Parks and it’s important to understand what they mean.

Frontcountry Campsites

Frontcountry campsites are located in well-established full service “frontcountry” campgrounds with running water, restrooms, and even showers. They’re often managed by federal and state agencies, or private companies, and you can usually reserve them in advance through an online booking system, although they often reserve a few sites for walk-ins. Most frontcountry campsites have electrical or water hookups for RVs and campers as well as disposal facilities and trash dumpsters. Individual campsites usually include a picnic table, fire ring, space for several tents, and parking. It’s assumed that you’ll store your food inside your vehicle to prevent animals from stealing it. Dogs are often permitted, but regulations vary.

Backcountry Campsites and Designated Campsites

Backcountry campsites are also frequently referred to as designated campsites. They’re hardened campsites that have been set aside in more remote areas, but lack the conveniences of frontcountry campsites such as running water, restrooms and showers. It’s good to use them if they’re available to concentrate your impact on the wilderness when you camp and a good place to meet likeminded people.

Designated Campsite with a lean-to, tentsites, and an outhouse.
Designated Campsite with a lean-to, tentsites, and an outhouse.

Some designated campsites will have lean-tos or shelters in addition to tent sites. These sites often have outhouses because they cater to a larger of backpackers, while less frequented sites won’t. When you camp at a backcountry campsite, you’ll probably need to filter or purify your drinking water and hang a bear bag or use a bear canister to protect your food from animals. There will also usually be multiple tent sites available, so you should expect company. Some parks let you reserve a backcountry campsite in advance, but many don’t and they’re first come, first serve. While most backcountry sites are marked on maps, some aren’t. They are usually signed though.

Dispersed Camping

Dispersed camping is permitted in some National Parks and Forests, or State Parks, but its best to check the local backcountry camping rules beforehand because there usually are limits on where it’s permitted. Dispersed camping refers to the practice of setting up a completely “wild” camp at a place that has not been reserved for camping. You’d do this because there aren’t any designated campsites in the area that you can use or because you prefer to camp deep in the wilderness surrounded by nature without seeing anyone else.

Dispersed camping on a durable surface (spruce needles) in the wilderness
Dispersed camping on a durable surface (spruce needles) in the wilderness.

Some people feel that it’s important to leave no trace, namely any evidence that you camped at a dispersed campsite after you leave, so that others can enjoy it in its natural state. That’s a personal choice. Another option is to use a site that has obviously been used before by someone else to camp, to avoid creating a new campsite.

Finding a good dispersed campsite can be a little tricky if you have a tent (see campsite selection tips), but is much easier if you camp with a hammock in forested areas. Like backcountry campsites, you’ll need to filter or purify your water, protect your food from animals, and be completely self-reliant – which explains the reason why some people prefer dispersed camping. It can be spooky camping alone, without anyone else nearby, but is sometimes unavoidable when you hike in remote country.

Wrapping Up

That is the difference between frontcountry camping, backcountry and designated campsites, and dispersed camping. If you have any questions, leave a comment below.

Written 2017.

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  1. In some parks, only a certain number of people are allowed to camp in each dispersed zone per night to minimize the concentration of impact. (I was using Swype to type this and it first read “vamp” in each dispersed zone. They probably also regulate vamping in the backcountry if they got wind of it!)

  2. Dispersed = stealth?

    • Unfortunately people use the phrase “stealth camping” for everything from illegally camping on private property to camping on illegal campsites right off the side of the trail. A dispersed campsite is the term land managers use for a legal campsite, either pre-existing (to avoid creating a new one) or hidden out of site. The latter is what is mean’t by the term stealth.

  3. Dispersed may equal “hunting camp” or “state park or National Forest, somewhere just off the Ozark Trail, no official campsite nearby” in my region. Does not have to be “stealthy” – feel free to use the ugly bright-color tent or hammock, or hang an orange flag off it – particularly during hunting season.

    • Best to read the land managers posted rules because they differ widely,
      This is what I could find for the Ozark Trail. Not sure if they’re the land manager though.
      “Camp at least 100 feet from the trail and from water and scenic areas. Please leave your campsite so others won’t be able to tell that you have been there.”
      I camp in a blaze orange shelter myself during hunting season. Use common sense.

  4. Dispersed camping in Colorado means free as there are actual sites in actual dispersed campgrounds. Stayed 3 nights in one last fall during an 11 day trip.

  5. Traveling out west in the late ’80s was a revelation. Not only did it seem like “at-large” camping was easier with more and easier options in the land of wide-open spaces, but there were some types of sanctioned camping unheard of in the crowded East. A number of highway rest stops were a combination of rest stop and campground, with camping permitted in grassy areas surrounding or dispersed within parking areas set back behind concession and service buildings, away from the roadway. One i stayed at even had an adjacent river. Oregon, if i remember correctly.

    One of the best “front-country” campground experiences i remember was in (former) mining territory in Nevada. Clean, well-spaced campsites, (hot!) showers, and a naturalist/history talk at night, explaining the history, human and natural, of the area. All for five bucks!

    Compare and contrast with a stay a couple of years ago at a Vermont state park. (Note to self: avoid state parks at all costs on holiday weekends.) It was late in the day, and i hadn’t scouted an option easily accessible from the road. So, state park.

    Pulling up to the attendant shack, i asked whether there had been a fire, so thick was the haze of smoke that filled the entrance way. “Nope, just the campfires.” That should have been my cue to look elsewhere. But it was late, and i was tired.

    I set up in one of the few remaining open sites. I was surrounded on all sides by pyromaniacal campers getting in touch with their primal ancestry by maintaining raging fires. The family closest to me had an especially large conflagration going—a small bonfire, really—with sparks flying and audible sizzling noises. I think they had a whole side of beef on there. (I was maybe 40 feet away from the inferno.). Eventually, people tired and left their smoldering embers to go to sleep. In the morning, the first thing they did was to rekindle their blazes.

    When i got home, i washed my tent, sleeping bag, and clothes hung them to air dry on a line, and it still took a week before the smell of smoke faded beyond detection.

    So “amenities” aren’t the only thing one gets with “front-country” camping.

  6. Wow, I’ve got a strong, visceral reaction to your “that’s a personal choice” to following LNT when dispersed camping.

  7. Does anyone else have a weird (irrational) fear of camping / sleeping at a shelter with complete strangers? I do. I trace it back when I was eight. My father and I were section hiking a small section of the PA AT. I remember meeting a real weirdo at a PA shelter. The image of that weird guy has never left me and I’m not sure how to get rid of it.

    • I guess the great thing about the AT is that if you get a weird feeling at a shelter, you can pack up and move. I’ve had 2 occasions where I just had a bad feeling at a shelter and moved on.

      Hiking during peak times, you’ll have enough good people in shelters to water down any sketchy individuals. I use to fear backpacking alone, so I would schedule my solo hikes during peak times so I was never really alone. As I got more comfortable my fears subsided and now I just enjoy my time on the trail (which, with 2 little kids is less and less).

  8. I would suggest breaking Dispersed Camping into two categories:

    Dispersed Established Site Camping

    Find and use any legal well-established campsites. Concentrate cooking, tenting, and camping activities on the most impacted “core” areas to avoid enlarging the site. If there aren’t enough tenting spots find a larger campsite or split your group across two or three campsites. If campfires are permitted use only pre-existing fire sites and collect only dead and downed wood you can break by hand

    Dispersed Pristine Site Camping

    Locate an area out-of-sight or distant from trails, water, and established campsites that has no evidence of prior camping use. Look for areas with little to no vegetation or dry grasses. Concentrate your camping activities on the most durable surfaces available and avoid creating trails by varying your route to water, tents, and cooking areas. Camp only one night and naturalize your site before departing so that others are unlikely to find and reuse it. Add organic litter to scuffed up areas and replace or add branches and rocks to disguise the site.

  9. JEFF MARLON you read my mind. Please explicate the obvious: pristine camping and open fires are mutually exclusive. As we say in radio, ASSuME nothing.

    That said, is it possible to have one’s cake and eat it too? Could you build a fire ring at a pristine site, then camouflage it?

    Established sites are the greater of the evils, but is there any problem using them over a pristine site, given the damage has been done? I understand there’s no consensus on this. What’s your opion, all.

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