How to Find Campsites

Tents are an essential piece of the ultimate camping checklist PDf

Posts that list specific places to camp can be great. But they can take you to overcrowded destinations and leave out untouched spots. What if you knew how to find campsites on your own? Somewhere you can camp for free and have a good idea of what to expect before you go?

In this post, we’ll dive deep into finding unique campsites with the features you want. These tools and tips are best suited for dispersed camping, also known as wild camping or boondocking.

With a few free tools and these techniques, find your own top ten list away from the crowds and stay at spectacular campsites for free!

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Areas with Dispersed Camping

Dispersed camping in the United States most commonly takes place in federally-owned public lands: national forests, wilderness areas, and land owned by other federal and state institutions, such as Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Many of these areas have a light green shading to them on most maps, including Google Maps.

View of Lost Lake near Red Feather Lakes, Colorado.

Don’t confuse National Forests with National Parks:

  • National Forests: Areas where you can often camp for free in essentially limitless locations
  • National Parks: Beautiful protected areas that usually limit camping to developed campgrounds

Wilderness Areas are often located inside of National Forests and place additional restrictions against things like motor vehicle use. They can also require permits or other equipment, such as bear cans.

If you want to find campsites that others have already visited and left reviews of, our post on the best camping apps and websites might be a better place to start. These include options to find great places to camp in nearly any area imaginable, including National Parks, National Forests, wilderness areas, and more. And they have reviews from other campers.

Still here? Good. This information listed below can help you discover some of the best campsites that few people visit.

Satellite and Topo Maps

In order to find the ultimate campsite, first place to start is with the maps. It may not sound like fun, but certain maps can give you a good idea of what the area looks like: satellite and topographical maps.

It takes time to get used to scouring maps for this information. But the more you use them and investigate, the more you will understand the area and find locations where camping is allowed. Spending the time looking over the maps for these pieces of information can be completely worthwhile.

Once you have a general idea of the location you’d like to visit, switch over to satellite view to look for certain features. Look for forested areas, water sources, even hiking trails can be visible.

Also check out the satellite images for the roads you’ll be traveling on. It isn’t easy to determine the exact difficulty, but if you see dead ends or an impassable spot, you might want to think twice (or bring a chainsaw). A lot of vegetation might mean the road is deserted. is a good resource for seeing how challenging your road in might be. You may not find a review of the specific trail. But it can still give you an idea of what the area is like.

Topographical maps are also key to understanding an area before you visit. You don’t have to go crazy. Just know that the closer the lines of a topo map are, the steeper the area is. If you see a lot of lines very close together, that’s going to be hard to drive on and hard to find a flat sleeping area.

Make sure to practice leave no trace principles while camping: Prepare, camp on durable surfaces, dispose of waste, leave what you find, minimize campfire, respect wildlife, and be considerate.

Motor Vehicle Use Map

On most National Forest websites, you can find motor vehicle use maps (MVUM’s). These are the golden tickets to dispersed camping. While they can be difficult to work with, they show you many of the crucial details you need to know to camp in areas don’t go.

Some areas have a lot of detail. So the National Forest Service splits them into many files. Guessing which map correlates to your area can take some time. One trick is to look for a large landmark (body of water, mountain peak, etc.) to see what area the MVUM map covers.

Here is one example of a MVUM for the Pike and San Isabel National Forests in central Colorado.

Kristina hanging out at our semi-developed campsite near Red Feather Lakes, Colorado. Image by Off Path Travels.

Use this combination of satellite, topographic, and MVUM maps to decide on precise locations for campsites. Some people will just wing this part and start driving in an area they know they can camp, until they find something nice. Studying the map can give you a better chance at finding the best campsites.

Secret Weapons to Discovering Campsites

There are some other tools that can provide valuable insight. In fact, sometimes these tools are good to use first, then go back to the maps to find a specific spot. Here are our secret weapons.

(1) Strava Heat Map

Did you know it’s possible to see how popular specific areas are? With this map, you can get an idea of how many people visit and how bust a location is.

GPS-based heat maps are the trick. Companies like Strava use GPS data from personal devices to create heat maps. These show you how many devices go through a location.

Big cities are easily visible and offer the best way to orient yourself while looking at these maps. The most popular recreational areas will also be evident since most people camp with some type of GPS-enabled device.

For example, if you search within a 1.5 hour drive from Denver, you may notice that many areas have a ton of GPS tracking and show a lot of people visited the areas. But if you stretch out the drive to 2.5 hours, the popularity decreases dramatically and you may be able to find more seclusion.

Strava Heat Map is our favorite. Check it out if you want to find the areas that are less crowded.

(2) Google Street View

Most everyone knows of Google’s street view and images to check out storefronts and the view from roads. But did you know this same feature can allow you to view tons of places away from roads?

Users upload 360-degree photos with GPS information to Google Maps. Using these, Google allows you to see the view from the mountain tops, hiking trails, dispersed campsites, and just about anything you can imagine.

Here’s how: On the desktop version of Google Maps, there is a yellow person icon at the bottom right corner of your screen. That is the toggle to turn this feature on.

All of the 360 degree photo locations will be marked by blue dots. Just click on the dot to see the image. You can even move it around to see different directions (360-degree photo actually means it).

Google’s help page can provide more details.

GPS Maps: CalTopo, Gaia GPS, AllTrails, and  Motion-X GPS

Most people are now using some type of GPS-enable app or dedicated GPS device (such as the Garmin inReach) while camping in remote areas.

These are useful and amazingly easy to use. But any safety-conscious camper knows that relying on an electronic device for something as critical as navigation is a recipe for disaster. You want a physical map too.

If you’re visiting an area often or want to pay a little fee for a convenient map, the Nat Geo Trail Maps are perfect. More on that in a second.

You can also use to create and print your own GPS map of anywhere you want. Add in waypoints, markers, trails, and anything else you want. It’s a free mapping resource with tons of different options and plenty of customization.

Image by Himesh Kumar Behera via

I like to go crazy with waypoints and markers. I drop markers for potential campsites. And even create lists of waypoints for hikes. 

CalTopo maps can be printed off to a PDF or to a printer. I recommend sharing the PDF with your camp/hike group. A hard copy or two is crucial for safety.

Take this a step further by transferring the GPS data to your favorite GPS app. The GPS waypoints can be downloaded from Caltopo in a GPX file. Gaia GPS, AllTrails, and Motion-X are three of my favorites.

Click here to read our other post featuring a complete list of the best camping apps and websites.

National Geographic Trail Maps

The other option is to buy incredible maps from National Geographic. These provide a bit more of a general view rather than pinpoint locations for campsites and hiking waypoints. But they can be a perfect solution to make sure you have a map that doesn’t rely on battery power.

They usually cost around $15 each. And they even make a decent little souvenir to remember the trip by. We have a stack that I love to look through. Just browsing the list of available maps can even help get ideas for future trips too.

NatGeo maps are excellent resources and can be a great addition to your camping or backpacking gear.

Campfire in Colorado

How to Find Campsites

If you want to find spectacular campsites, study those maps! And don’t overlook the motor vehicle use maps from National Forest Services. They are the information you need for a lot of dispersed camping.

Want to read more about camping? Our post on the camping kitchen gear can help figure out how to cook like a pro while on your next adventure.

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How to Find Campsites in Colorado

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