RIMBY Guide: Find Free Camping During Peak Season

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One of the best feelings in the world is packing up for a weekend to unplug and enjoy the beauty that Mother Nature has to offer.

It is no secret, there are an incredible amount of amazing places to cure your wanderlust in Colorado. We recently left work early, loaded up the truck and headed to Aspen to explore the area and check out the famous Maroon Bells. The cost of campsites around the area run pretty high, standard of course in popular destination spots. The wonderful thing about Colorado is that the popular areas to visit generally have free camping spots nearby!

Whether you are looking to check out the Maroon Bells, Rocky Mountain National Park or somewhere further off the radar like The Great Sand Dunes, we've got some pointers for finding camping spots for free.

 

Do your research.

You can absolutely fly by the seat of your pants and hope you stumble along a free site in your area of preference. I however, like to have a plan. One of the first things I do is find out what National Forest land I will be on, and then go to that specific National Forest website. I click on the "Recreation" tab and then "Camping and Cabins" to find the dispersed camping areas. Downloading or obtaining a hard copy of the local Motor Vehicle Use Map is also a valuable tool.

I use Google Maps to help determine general property lines for National Forest areas. You can see the exact place you want to camp using the Satellite view. Sometimes I download offline maps of the area.
If you have a high-clearance, 4WD vehicle and an adventurous spirit I would recommend getting some off-road trail guide books for Colorado. If you want to be certain, or like the old school approach, get a topographic, recreational map of Colorado.
All you are really looking for is a flat spot to set-up camp and enjoy the outdoors.

 

Know the different camping options in our National Forests.

Here's a breakdown: 

National Forest Service Campground Facilities: Usually the more crowded option and costs money. Amenities such as tent pads, picnic tables, fire rings and vault toilets.

National Forest Service Designated Dispersed Camping Area: Free and does not typically have restrooms or facilities. Some areas may allow camping in designated, numbered spots only.

National Forest Service General Dispersed Camping: Free America that is not specifically listed or marked. Make sure you are on NFS land and not on private property.

Another option is to find a spot on Bureau of Land Management property:  BLM land is publicly managed and can have other things on the land like cattle grazing or mining. Similar to NFS dispersed camping there are no restrooms, facilities, or fire rings. BLM Land can be a bit trickier to research and are not listed on Google Maps. 

Here's a great site for researching BLM Lands specifically in Colorado.

 

Practice good camping etiquette.

Follow Leave No Trace principles.

Use existing sites when possible.

Camp and use the bathroom more than 200 feet away from water sources.

Do not travel more than 300 feet off of designated vehicle trail to campsite.

Be aware of and abide by fire/burn restrictions.

Use all precautions with food and trash, especially in bear territory.

Pack out what you pack in (Or as my mom always said, 'Leave it nicer than it was when you got there'). 

 

Have a back up plan. 

As you might expect, in Colorado we have a lot of nature lovers. This can limit camping spots during peak seasons and holiday weekends since there are no reservations in the wild.

Scope the area out for multiple free spots where you are wanting to explore. Try to avoid the weekends or plan to take off early for the week. We have always been able to find a decent place to camp. However, there have been a few times that we had to drive to a few different areas before finding a spot. As a last resort just be prepared to pay some money for a nearby fee campsite or a hotel room.

If it's early or late in the season, certain roads may be closed. On our last trip after three hours of driving we were about to pull off onto the access road to our spot and found that it was still blocked by snow. Luckily we had a back up plan!

We drove less than ten minutes down the road and found the perfect spot. It was conveniently located near the town of Aspen and our ultimate goal of the Maroon Bells Scenic Area. In the morning we drove to the trailhead and had a wonderful hike up to Crater Lake.

 

 

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Post by Mountain Standard Field Agent, Alyssa Aaron.
Follow along on more of Alyssa's adventures at @alyssaaaron!

 

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