Last summer when I took over Fresh Air Fort Collins I got right on top of the Best Campgrounds in Poudre Canyon guide. It has been a wildly popular post and has helped a lot of people find their favorite local campgrounds. I’m not a campground camper, never liked it, and many other readers wanted more details on dispersed camping. So right after that I started working on the Dispersed Camping guide. I had to stop short because the roads were a little too rough with mud and ruts as a wet fall rolled in. I had to hold off on the rest until this year.
Well, after many miles of driving county roads, nights of camping out there myself, and lengthy trips to the Canyon Lakes Ranger District Forest Service Office to go over maps – it’s finally here: How To Go Dispersed Camping in Northern Colorado.
What is Dispersed Camping?
Dispersed camping is also known as primitive camping and car camping. It’s the style in between campground camping and backpacking. There are no vaulted toilets, no campground hosts to help out, no paved roads, and (hopefully) nobody camping right next to your campsite. It offers a more rustic experience without roughing it too terribly much. Honestly, you can still make dispersed camping “glamping” if you really wanted to. Although, what’s the fun in that? Suck it up and get dirty.
Prepping For Your Camping Trip
First and foremost, you really can’t be a Type-A planner when it comes to dispersed camping. You have to have a Plan A, B, C, D, be prepared for it to all go to hell and have to come up with an option on the fly. This is part of what makes dispersed camping so fun. It really is an adventure.
With dispersed camping you can pack as heavy or as light as you’d like. There are people out there hauling their RV’s (not a fan of this style, either – I think it’s cheating, damages the roads, and tears up campsites), or loading up a little more than their backpacking gear in the trunk of the car. Here’s a quick gear checklist of what you might need:
- Shelter (tent or hammock with netting)
- Ground tarp
- Nylon ropes (I cannot tell you how handy these are when you need them)
- Sleeping bags
- Sleeping pads (don’t use air mattresses. THEY SUCK and deflate with temperature fluctuations)
- An extra blanket (be prepared for weather changes!)
- Tools (hammer, axe, shovel, duct tape)
- Lighting (headlamps, lantern)
- Cooking stove and fuel
- A lighter or matches (use a long-reach lighter)
- A bundle of firewood (you never know how much wood will be around you or if it’s dry)
- Fire starters
- Camping dishware
- Camp cooking utensils (all you need is a spatula and skewers if you’re minimalistic)
- Biodegradable soap to clean dishes (some people bring a wash tub, we don’t)
- Larger water containers (Bring A LOT of water. You might not be near a clean water source. We bring at least 10 gallons of water for the family, not including everyone’s water bottles and hydration packs)
- Coolers with food, ice, drinks, cooking ingredients, etc.
- Camp chairs
- Small folding camping table
- Trash bags (Pack it in, pack it out! And clean up after the slobs before you too)
- Clothing for a few days
- Toothbrush and biodegradable tooth paste
- Sunscreen, bug spray, hand sanitizer/baby wipes
- Camping toilet paper (Yeah, don’t forget this!)
- First aid kit
- A full tank of gas
- MAPS (THIS IS SO IMPORTANT)
This sounds like a lot, and maybe for some minimalists, it is. We have all of our essential gear stored in two gigantic waterproof duffle bags and with a bit of Tetris skills, I can fit it all in the back of my Subaru outback when I take the kids with me. Ideally, we like to take our Nissan Titan because we can throw it in the truck bed, and we have higher clearance for the dirt roads.
If possible, don’t go dispersed camping in your little compact car if you’re going deep in the wilderness. Some of these county roads are 4-wheel only, and challenging to navigate because they aren’t maintained. There can be huge ruts that will bottom out your car and you’ll get stuck (Old Flowers Road is one of them). I’ve even had some close calls in my Subaru and that car is meant for more rugged outdoor driving. BE SMART.
Compact cars can find suitable dispersed camping in the popular areas. The roads around there are much easier to drive on.
Know Before You Go
Before you hit the road, make sure you know about road closures and conditions. You can check the Canyon Lakes Ranger District website for updates, and better yet, give them a call. Even then! Be prepared for something to go wrong or a change of plans. Sometimes their advice is “use your best judgement” to cover their ass on technically open roads. I didn’t heed this advice and had to get towed out of the snow once before. Don’t have a dumbass moment like I did.
Finding Your Campsite
Remember how I said maps were so important? They are as important as the gas in your car and the gallons of water that you hauled. You cannot go dispersed camping without maps.
You need two maps:
- DeLorme Atlas & Gazetteer – detailed topographical maps for Colorado
- Canyon Lakes Ranger District/Roosevelt National Forest Motor Vehicle Use Map
You can get the MVU map for free at the Forest Service office in town. In fact, do that. Don’t download screenshots. You need this whole map. It’s going to get used a lot.
There’s a seasonal designation table that will tell you when the camping dates are allowed (on average – again, it’s weather dependent).
Every road that you see on the map that is surrounded by dots is open to dispersed camping. Remember those restrictions and the link previously mentioned.
These are the most popular dispersed camping roads where you may or may not find a campsite. These areas tend to be where RV’s can find space, where you’re closer to campers (without seeing them, but you can hear them – and their late night gun shooting, which is a whole other post on its own). You’ll know them as high use because they have rock fire rings already set up and are very worn in, almost looking like traditional campgrounds. You dive in and simply set up camp!
- 63 E in Pingree
- Crown Point Road in Pingree (CR 139)
- Tom Bennett Campground Area (CR 234, 220, 145)
- Laramie River Road (103, CR 191, 191A, 103A, 103.1C, 103D, 103E)
- Chambers Lake/Lost Lake (177, 177C)
- Seven Mile Road 69 ( CR 225, 225.1, 225.2, 171A, 171D, 171E, 171F, 171G)
- Manhattan Road 69 (CR 266, 530.1, 267.1, 509)
Red Feather Lakes
- Prairie Divide Road (67J)
- Deadman Tower (CR 170, 170A, 173, 173A, 332)
- Lost Lake (CR 235)
Long Draw Road and Manhattan Road have designated, numbered dispersed campsites. Maps are available at the forest service office. Long Draw Road is recovering from a few years of beetle kill logging and the dispersed sites may have been obliterated.
There may be more than this, but these were the areas I went over that were pointed out with rangers at the Forest Service Office, and places I’ve personally camped and saw heavy use.
And this is where you have to practice your go-with-the-flow flexibility. Once you find an area, be prepared for your favorite campsites to be already taken, for whole dispersed areas to be completely wiped out from beetle kill logging, or roads totally washed out from flooding. Sometimes these smaller forest service roads aren’t included on the road closure lists on the website and rangers may not know about damage yet (this happened with our last trip around Lost Lake in Red Feather).
This is why you have a full tank of gas, a lot of extra water, extra firewood and maps for backup reference. You never know exactly where you’re going to end up and what’s available there. You may be driving more than you anticipated.
There are so many other places you can find remote dispersed camping, so again, this is why the MVU map is really handy.
Leave No Trace, Be Bear Aware, and Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires
So, now that you’ve found your campsite, you’re set up and all ready to roast hotdogs and S’mores, please remember to be bear aware. This means not leaving food and trash in your campsite overnight, including your coolers. Put it in your car or hang it. Don’t bring food with you in your tent. There are bears around popular campsite areas because they know this is where they can find food. Don’t be careless, because a fed bear is a dead bear.
Also, a lot of these places are in moose country. The more remote you go, the more you need to be on the lookout. Moose are actually more dangerous than bears.
Many of these campsites are littered with shotgun shells, broken beer bottles, and cans left from target practice. If you do these activities, please pick up after yourself. Otherwise my family ends up picking up after you when we get there and call you unflattering names in the process. Don’t be gross and keep our wilderness clean so we can all enjoy nature as it was intended.
Along those lines, also remember that you need to dig catholes at least 6 inches deep when you’re doing your business in the wilderness (or pack it out, but I don’t even do that). Don’t designate your camp latrine near water, either. There is nothing more disgusting than scoping out a campsite and finding used toilet paper all over the place. DISGUSTING.
And finally, be aware of fire restrictions. We’ve suffered a lot of horrible forest fires in Colorado and we don’t need any more started by ignorant, careless campers. Keep fires in fire rings, and if restrictions are in place, be happy to cook on your camp stove. If a fire pit is too hot to touch, it’s too hot to leave unattended.
This should cover everything you need to know about dispersed camping in Northern Colorado. Now, get out there for some Fresh Air and live a life of mountain adventure!