Dispersed Camping in Virginia, What Exactly is it?

There are hundreds of thousands of acres of beautiful nature in Virginia’s national and state parks. Plenty of commercial campgrounds, cabins, and designated campsites offer stunning camping spots for visitors to this state. However, campgrounds don’t always appeal to everyone. Popular camping spots can become crowded and noisy, especially on weekends and during the holidays. For campers seeking a peaceful retreat to nature, organized campgrounds just don’t hold the right appeal. 

Some of the best camping in Virginia can be found away from more popular spots, where you can enjoy the state’s gorgeous natural beauty in solitude. There are plenty of options for campers in Virginia, even outside of designated campsites. These include excellent opportunities for dispersed camping, an option you may not even know exists. Read on to discover all about the hidden advantages of dispersed camping, and some phenomenal locations to try it out in Virginia. 


A green field in Virginia.

Virginia’s stunning national forests offer excellent dispersed camping opportunities.


What is dispersed camping?

Many people love to enjoy the solitude and natural experience of camping trips away from developed campgrounds and other campers. For some outdoor enthusiasts, reminders of the rest of the world can have a negative impact on their retreat to nature. Dispersed camping offers an alternative, where campers can pick a spot away from any recreation facility or establishment. This style of camping is as simple as pulling over at the side of a road and picking out any campsite. 

There are no amenities around dispersed camping spots, occasionally toilets are an exception. However, for the most part, dispersed campsites are entirely isolated from outside elements; no electricity, running water, or campground staff. This means there is more responsibility on campers at dispersed sites; it’s even more important to pack out all your trash and ensure you leave no trace. You won’t find picnic tables or fire rings, but there are also no campground fees to think about. 

When dispersed camping, it’s important that all campers are confident in all the necessary basic skills and survival techniques. Although most campers drive to their sites with a car, dispersed camping still happens in remote locations, so some basic skills are necessary in order to be fully safe. There’s no reason to worry when everyone is prepared, so why not check out our article about camping safety. Any concerns are easily cured when campers are fully ready for action, and then you can fully enjoy your dispersed camping trip. 

The true benefit of trying out dispersed camping is freedom in nature. All you need is a car packed with camping gear and the motivation to explore, and dispersed camping can be a wonderfully enriching experience. Virginia is home to miles of roads winding through stunning scenes, ready to be your next tent camping spot. Of course, you can’t pitch your tent just anywhere. There’s a huge amount of choice, but you still need to know a few rules about where you can and can’t set up for the night. 


Dispersed camping in national forests

By definition, dispersed camping is camping in a national forest somewhere else that a designated campsite. The term can be used to describe other locations, but most dispersed camping occurs in national parks and forests. Forest service roads are ideal routes to take while you lookout for a spot, especially if you have the right vehicle. In popular spots you might find some previously established dispersed campsites; all the same solitude, it just might have a fire circle already. Camping in a previously used spot is ideal, as it’s likely to be a tried and tested location, as well as reducing environmental impact. 

It’s always best to check the rules beforehand, but practically all Federal public lands away from campsites and recreational facilities can be used for dispersed camping. National forests, state parks, and wildlife management areas all over the US offer hundreds of phenomenal locations. Instead of visiting a crowded popular campground, take the road less traveled and treat yourself to pristine natural views. Why not check out Virginia’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) areas or one of 24 state forests. This gorgeous state has a huge selection of excellent dispersed camping locations. 

Any lands managed by the National Park Service are likely to have greater restrictions than other areas, in order to protect the country’s most important natural monuments. Some of these national parks and recreation areas allow some limited dispersed camping, but you might need to pick up a permit from a park ranger beforehand. 

Luckily, popular national parks often have US Forest Service or BLM lands close by, where there are many more dispersed camping opportunities. On the majority of this land, dispersed camping is allowed unless you see signage saying otherwise. As a rule, dispersed camping is restricted within a mile of recreation areas, particularly campgrounds, and also trailheads, picnic areas, and other popular public spots. 


The difference between dispersed and primitive camping

You might be thinking that dispersed camping sounds awfully similar to primitive camping, also known as backcountry camping. There are surely similarities between the two, as they both occur away from established campgrounds, offering an independent camping experience. Dispersed and primitive camping are both ideals for campers seeking a more peaceful and undisturbed vacation, away from other campers and even other signs of civilization. However, there are some key differences that clearly outline how both primitive and dispersed expeditions offer a different camping experience. 

Primitive or backcountry camping refers to the whole process of hiking into the wilderness, spending at least one night away from all other semblances of civilization, and then returning. The only equipment available when primitive camping is the gear you bring in your backpack and the expedition is entirely self-reliant. Dispersed camping is also a solo venture with no amenities or campsite staff, however, it isn’t quite as wild as primitive camping. Primitive campgrounds are often in remote locations, miles away from drivable roads. You have to walk to your location, a fact which might put off some campers. There’s no hiking required on a dispersed camping trip, as you can drive right up to the site. This means campers also have no limit on what they can bring along, making the experience a little less like “roughing it”. This style of camping is a great option for RV campers, as long as they can go without hookups. 

Dispersed camping is perfect for outdoor enthusiasts who need a peaceful and natural getaway without completely letting go of life’s modern luxuries. It’s also less challenging and can be a step between campground camping and primitive sites, as if anything goes wrong you can always get in your car and drive home. The decreased risk makes dispersed camping a very attractive vacation option, we highly recommend giving this experience a try. Another great benefit of visiting dispersed sites is that most of the time, it’s free camping. With no campground fees and no permits to buy, dispersed camping is an ideal budget option. 


A person on a hiking trail in Virginia.

Unlike when primitive camping, there are no long hikes and huge backpacks necessary on dispersed camping trips.


How to prepare for a dispersed camping trip

Like all different types of camping, there are certain things that all campers should do in order to prepare for their trip. Campers staying at dispersed sites have different needs to both backcountry and campground campers, and therefore must ensure they have all the skills necessary for a safe and enjoyable trip. Not as many survival skills are as vital as when you’re primitive camping, however away from the safety of campground staff and facilities, it’s always better to be prepared. 

Dispersed camping sites lack amenities such as picnic tables, which are easy to go without. However, they also aren’t equipped with important features such as food lockers, to keep your supplies safe from bears and other wildlife. Before your expedition, make sure to brush up on camping bear safety guidelines, to avoid any unwanted problems. It’s imperative to sleep in a campsite at least 100 yards from any food storage or cooking areas and pack out all garbage and food scraps. 

We also recommend campers remind themselves of the leave no trace principles before a dispersed camping trip, as there are no campground employees to clean up after you. When staying out in natural public land, it’s so important to take care of the environment. Campers are very lucky to have access to these gorgeous scenic areas for free, so we must do our part to preserve it. 

As always, campfire safety is paramount. Many dispersed camping areas don’t allow fires at all, so bring a camp stove to cook your foods instead. Our country’s natural areas face a serious threat from forest fires, so help alleviate this threat by ensuring all members of your camping party are properly educated about outdoor fire safety. Check out Smokey the Bear’s campfire safety guidelines for more information about national forest preservation. As a general rule, any sort of wild camping requires a good basis of survival skills and techniques for every camper, just being prepared will make your camping trip more of a success. 


Where to go in Virginia for dispersed camping

There is a huge selection of top-quality dispersed campsites in the state of Virginia. Campers from the nation’s capital city of Washington DC, from the state capital of Richmond, and all visitors from out of state are spoilt for choice in this region of stunning natural beauty.

The James River flows down from the Appalachian mountains across Virginia, passing through many state parks and natural areas. Lakeside campsites and remote backcountry spots all await the adventurous camper in Virginia. Let’s explore a couple of the best spots for dispersed camping that you can check out on your next trip to Virginia. 


Shenandoah State Park

Shenandoah State Park offers just under 200,000 square acres of fantastic Virginian landscapes. Lush green forest, rocky peaks, crashing waterfalls and rolling wetlands make up this US national park, perfectly located for campers in Washington DC. Just a 75-mile drive from the capital, Shenandoah is the ideal destination if you need to get away from the city for a few days. Soak up phenomenal views and fresh mountain air on a peaceful dispersed camping trip to this national park. 

The Skyline Drive is a 105-mile road that runs the length of Shenandoah, and it’s a huge attraction for dispersed campers. This road follows along the peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a breathtaking sightseeing opportunity. There are dispersed campsites within as little as 5 miles from this epic highway, making this location a top pick for dispersed camping in Virginia. While you’re visiting Shenandoah, we recommend hiking a portion of Virginia’s Appalachian Trail

The majority of land in this national park, including the wilderness area, is available for backcountry camping with a free permit. Rules include setting up camp a minimum of 50 yards from any other campers or recreational facilities, and 10 yards from any water source. Dispersed campers in Shenandoah National Park must choose campsites more than one-quarter of a more from roads and park facilities, and no campfires are allowed within the grounds. Check out the Shenandoah Visitor Centre for additional information about permits, and any regulations you might need to know before setting up camp. 


A road going through Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.

Shenandoah National Park is truly one of the most beautiful camping locations in Virginia.


Jefferson National Forest and George Washington National Forest

These two forest service land areas are prime dispersed camping locations. The George Washington and Jefferson National Forests make up one of the largest areas of public land in the eastern United States, and all of it ripe for exploration by campers. To enrich your camping experience in Jefferson or George Washington, why not take a hike on some of the 2000 miles of natural trails. These winding pathways through the forest are ideal for a solo hiking adventure, where you can take in the environment and recentre yourself with nature. 

The USDA website provides details about dispersed camping in these national forests, where it is permitted throughout almost the entire area. There are more than one and a half million acres of scenic forested land in these two national forests, including a section of the famous Appalachian Trail. In most locations, dispersed campers won’t need a permit to stay the night, but we recommend double-checking with a park ranger. 

Shenandoah National Park and these two huge national forests are definitely our number one recommendations for dispersed camping in Virginia. However, the prime benefit of dispersed camping is the huge freedom to choose your camping spot. There are few limits on the imaginative camper, why not try New River Trail State Park, or perhaps some seaside camping near the world-famous Virginia Beach? Virginia is an excellent destination for a dispersed camping trip, so try visiting one of these excellent locations on your next vacation. 


Finding a site for dispersed camping

When searching for a dispersed campsite, make sure you don’t encroach on private land. There is a massive amount of choice where dispersed camping is allowed in Virginia so there’s no reason to break the rules. Plenty of resources are available from the National Forest Service and plenty of other places regarding dispersed camping locations, so make the most of this information. 

Google Maps can be an excellent resource for locating dispersed camping sites, just keep an eye out for green areas which represent public lands. It’s easy to visit a ranger on your way into a national park or forest, where you can pick up a few recommendations about the best spots. When in doubt, double-check the rules, and you won’t have to worry about your dispersed camping trip. 


A couple tens in the forest.

Dispersed camping could be the perfect vacation solution, a peaceful and relaxing getaway without any distractions.


Final Verdict:

Dispersed camping in Virginia as a diverse, varied, and wonderful experience. There are endless acres of public land so easily explored for campers, so why not take a camping trip in this naturally gorgeous state today. It’s easy to find a fantastic location to pitch your tent for the night, and so many spots are incredibly easily accessible. Anyone can go camping to a dispersed campsite in Virginia, it’s an experience you’ll remember for a lifetime. 

If you have any concerns when planning your camping trip, there are plenty of official resources at your disposal. The US forest service offers valuable details about national forests online, and upon arrival, you can always seek out a park ranger to answer any questions you might have. Enjoy a dispersed camping trip without any noisy neighbors or annoying distractions, and truly get back to nature on your next vacation in Virginia. 


Bonus tip: Check out this video for some more details on dispersed camping!



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