The Bureau of Land Management administers the bulk of federally-owned lands in the United States, and because there is so much of it, they have to classify certain parts of these lands into various categories. These categories come with different rules for campers…
What Types of BLM Lands Are There?
The BLM has four primary categories…
Public Lands (what campers refer to as “open lands”) – these are lands that have no other categorization, just tracts of public lands that the general public is free to use however they wish, except for some limitations. See “Public Lands” below.
Developed Recreation Sites and Areas (what campers refer to as “developed areas”) – these are lands that the BLM has designated for recreational purposes. Camping is allowed for most of these designations, while with others camping is not allowed. There are general rules that apply to all developed areas, as well as unique rules for each developed area. See “Developed Recreation Sites and Areas” below.
Wilderness Areas – these are lands that are meant to protect natural habitats as authorized under the Wilderness Act of 1964. Driving vehicles is not permitted on wilderness areas. Camping is allowed, but only by tent, and you must hike in. See “Wilderness Areas” below.
Conservation Lands – This is a general designation that includes national monuments, wildlife management areas, wilderness study areas, as well as lands designated by the National Trails Act of 1968, and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968. See “Conservation Lands” below.
Camping and RVing is allowed on Public lands (also known as “open lands”). These lands generally have no other identifying names, and usually do not have any signage or posted rules. Most travelers never know they are setting foot on BLM public lands.
These are just the most applicable set of rules for camping on public lands. Read the full set of rules at “BLM Rules for Visitor Services“.
- You cannot throw trash on the ground. You must either pack it out, or find a trash receptacle.
- You cannot dump your black tank on the ground, nor can you dump petroleum products, chemicals, or other liquid waste on the ground. You cannot dump these things in water, including lakes, streams, reservoirs, etc. Note that dumping “wash water” on the ground is still fine. See also, “Can I Dump my Gray Water on the Ground?“
- There’s generally a 14-day camping limit. However, each BLM field office is free to establish camping limits. Most use the 14-day limit, but some go longer. You may want to check with the local BLM field office just in case they allow more than 14-days.
- You cannot leave your camp unattended for more than 10 days (12 months in Alaska). Once you set up camp, you’re expected to be there with your stuff. Otherwise, the BLM is authorized to confiscate it.
- You cannot make unreasonably loud noises, create hazards or nuisances.
- You cannot intentionally destroy, deface, or remove anyone else’s personal property, nor any natural, scientific, cultural, historical, or archaeological objects. The exception to this, you can pick flowers, berries, seeds, vegetation, for personal use, and you can also collect firewood as long as your collecting off the ground or cutting off dead branches.
- You cannot set up camp within 200 feet of a body of water (river, lake, stream, reservoir, pond).
Developed Recreation Sites and Areas
These areas were created specifically for recreational purposes, and they all have some amount of development, which might be parking spaces, pit toilets, picnic tables, fire rings, trash dumpsters, boat ramps, bridges, interpretive signs, information kiosks, et al. These areas all have an official name established by the BLM.
Developed Areas Where Camping is Allowed
- Long Term Visitor Areas (LTVAs) – Unique campgrounds designed for long term stays. See, “Boondocking at BLM Long Term Visitor Areas“.
- Recreation Areas – Most have campgrounds, but may also include hiking trails, off-road vehicle areas, wildlife viewing areas.
- Management Areas – A general category for lands where the BLM is investing more funds into preserving natural habitats. Most recreational activities including camping is permitted, but each management area carries unique rules. Check with the local BLM field office.
- Off-Highway Vehicle Areas (OHV) – Most allow for camping. Some may have developed campgrounds, while others permit dispersed camping.
- River Access Sites – Intended for water activities such as boating, swimming, and fishing, many include campsites too, but not all do.
- Wilderness – These are not the same as “Wilderness Areas” as created by the Wilderness Act of 1964, nor are these “Preserves” as listed below. These are just wide tracts of land the BLM recognized for their pristine beauty, yet still allows for recreational use, including camping.
Developed Areas Where Camping is Not Allowed
- Trailheads – These are parking lots, usually with signage, and sometimes a pit toilet. While you cannot camp at a trailhead, the BLM often allows you to tent camp anywhere along the trail, as long as it’s still on BLM land.
- Nature Areas – specifically created for hiking, wildlife viewing, boating, swimming, and other day-use activities.
- Viewing Areas – Usually includes platforms with interpretive signage for viewing wildlife. Most include hiking trails.
- Day Use Areas – Comparable to Nature Areas, these areas are generally more developed, but for day use only.
- Boardwalks – These are comparable to Trailheads, but includes a wooden boardwalk built along a lake, marsh, or river bed. Camping is generally not allowed, including tent camping.
- Parks – Another type of Day Use Area.
- Preserves – Usually set aside for just hiking and viewing, similar to Wilderness Areas (Wilderness Act of 1964), but these were designated by the BLM, and not designated by the Act.
- Ranches – These are historic sites usually surrounding old buildings. Camping generally not allowed here.
The BLM does have a set of general rules that apply to all developed areas. However, each developed area also comes with its own unique set of rules established by the local field office. These unique rules are often posted at the area, but you will have to contact the field office for their complete set of rules.
Below are most of the rules, there are still others, and what’s written below was condensed for readability. Read the full text of the rules, “BLM Rules for Visitor Services“.
- You are not allowed to clean fish, game, other food, clothing or household articles at any outdoor hydrant, pump, faucet or fountain, or restroom water faucet.
- You are not allowed to deposit human waste except in toilet or sewage facilities provided for that purpose.
- You are not allowed to bring an animal into an area unless it’s on a leash not longer than 6 feet.
- You are not allowed to make loud noises, including radios, musical instruments, or other devices, that disturbs other visitors.
- You are not allowed to operate or use a public address system.
- You are not allowed to construct, erect or use an antenna fixed into the ground or to other site facilities.
- You are not allowed to camp in areas not designated for camping.
- You are not allowed to leave personal property unattended for more than 24 hours in a day use area, or 72 hours in other areas.
- You are not allowed to build any fire except in a stove, grill, fireplace or ring provided for such purpose.
- You are not allowed to move any table, stove, barrier, litter receptacle or other campground equipment.
- You are not allowed to drive your vehicle on roads or lands not intended for public use.
- You are not allowed to use firearms, weapons, or fireworks. You can still bring weapons, you just can’t use them, unless for hunting.
- You are not allowed to bring an animal, except a Seeing Eye or Hearing Ear dog, to a swimming area.
These are specifically those areas designated under the Wilderness Act of 1964, and involves public effort to petition Congress to establish an area as a Wilderness Area.
Recreation on wilderness areas is limited to tent camping, hiking, wildlife viewing, picnicking, and other activities. Wilderness areas completely undeveloped. There are no restroom facilities, picnic tables, or fire rings. Camping is generally a “pack it in, pack it out” situation on wilderness areas. The “Leave No Trace” policy is strictly enforced.
Below are general rules that apply to all wilderness areas. Refer to the full set of rules, “BLM Rules for Wilderness Areas“. Note that you will still need to check with the local BLM field office for additional rules that apply to the area you plan to visit.
- You cannot drive a vehicle on wilderness areas. Everything must be hiked in.
- Note: Most wilderness areas will still have some kind of service road that you can drive upon. However, the road itself and about 10-20 feet on either side, is generally outside the boundaries of the wilderness area. Hence, you could still drive your car, RV, van, or whatever, and find a pull-out to camp in, as long as you don’t cross over into the wilderness area boundary. Service roads do not always have the same camping rules as with “Public Lands”. You will need to check in with the BLM field office that governs a particular wilderness area to determine what special rules they may have established for the service road.
- Campfires are generally not allowed. You can, however, use camp stoves, lanterns, even portable heaters.
- You cannot gather plants, flowers, rocks, animals, animal remains, nothing. You cannot gather firewood or cut trees.
- You cannot erect any kind of structure with the exception of tent camps, fold up tables and chairs, et al.
- You cannot organize any kind of event on a wilderness area (camping meetup, et al.)
- You cannot drive a vehicle on wilderness areas. Everything must be hiked in.
These are mostly large tracts of lands designated by an Act of Congress or Executive Order by the President. These include all of the national monuments, such as Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, Mojave Trails National Monument, etc. These also include lands designated under the National Trails Act of 1968, and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, including the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail in New Mexico, and the John Day Wild and Scenic River in Oregon.
Conservation lands are not the same as “Public Lands” nor are they the same as “Developed Recreation Sites and Areas”. Each conservation land comes with its own set of camping rules. Most of these lands have developed campgrounds, but will also permit dispersed camping. In many cases, dispersed camping is further limited to specific areas, and not the entire area.
For example, at Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, there are developed campgrounds that come with their own set of rules, but the BLM will allow dispersed camping in some areas, and not allow it in others. Dispersed camping will also have their own special rules adopted by the Monument.
The BLM does not offer general rules that cover camping in all conservation lands. You will have to contact the visitor center at each area for rules on dispersed camping.