Tips for Four Fears of Dispersed Camping

The peace and quiet of dispersed camping is hard to beat. The author’s grandson Robert Bennett contemplates the serenity of it all during a previous trip to the Cibola National Forest near Pie Town.

With the closing of most campgrounds this spring, many folks got introduced to the joys of putting up a tent away from the crowds somewhere along a road in the forest, what the Forest Service calls “dispersed camping.”

And why not? There are roughly 9 million acres of national forest land in New Mexico. If it were a state, it would rank as the 42nd largest, between Maryland and West Virginia.

Actually, it’s kind of intimidating. The national forests are huge and fearsome. It is very dark at night with strange noises off in the distance. Is it even safe? Let’s take a look.

What if I get lost? First of all, be prepared. Fuel up before going into the forest. Take plenty of food and water. Tell someone where you are going. And take a map! A Forest Service map. You can pick one up at a ranger station. You or your navigator can mark your route on the map as you go along. Remember landmark features. And stay within a couple hundred feet of the road.

What about bears? Bear contact is uncommon, but here are some safety tips. Don’t lock your car — you don’t want a search for keys to slow you down. Store your food and trash inside your vehicle at night. Never eat inside your tent or take food in there. Camp at a distance from a water source.

What about needing the toilet? Take your shovel (don’t forget to bring one) and carve a round hole about 8” wide and 6” deep. You might be able to lift the sod out in one piece. Do your business and poke stray material into the hole with a stick. Replace the soil. Warning: Be mindful of your clothing. Also, keep track of that toilet paper…especially on a hillside! Tissue, etc. should be packed out.

What about my campfire? A gentle breeze, fire, an axe, and maybe a few beers…what could possibly go wrong? Personally, I don’t use a fire without a good reason. And I never leave the embers to burn overnight. Never. Instead, you might fire up the lantern, gather around it and relax. For what is better than a circle of friends listening to mysterious night sounds in the forest and sharing stories under a starry sky?

Jon Knudsen is a freelance writer and retired educator. Email him at

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