To Disperse or Reserve

This weekend we loaded up the truck on a Friday afternoon to camp. I would typically never, ever, consider camping on a Friday because at that point all the good dispersed spots would be taken by childless youngsters fully outfitted with expensive REI gear on unemployment. My wife and lifelong camping partner and I would argue about who took too long to get off work or something else that placed us in this situation. Thankfully, a friend had reserved a pay spot for us months ago, and it was just sitting there waiting for us park the truck and drive stakes. The only grief I received was for forgetting Baileys for our coffee.

Arapahoe Bay Campground

The site was nice, a little closer to strangers and their noisy offspring than we’d like, but it was flat, had a bear box, and fires were allowed here with Stage 1 fire restrictions in place. If we had dispersed camped, a campfire would have been out of the question. Nobody likes $1,000 fines. And here comes the pros and cons and just differences between my beloved Dispersed camping and Pay Campgrounds. Below is a somewhat comprehensive list I’m sure I’m leaving some important things out of. But I’m writing this so my mind is all that is getting dumped. Let’s just jump right into it.

Pay campground Pros:

  • Completely reserve-able in advance at No driving for hours trying to find a place while the sun goes down and the frustration ensues.
  • Usually a flat area for your tent. Not always, but usually.
  • Campfires allowed during Stage 1 fire restrictions.
  • Bear boxes sometimes provided, but not always.
  • Easy access with any type of car. Your Prius can get there, no sweat.
  • Firewood can be purchased from the camp host so you don’t have to scavenge.
  • Toilets. They always have vault toilets, cleaned daily by the camp host. Which is nice, but these echoing dungeons of sewage are still gross.
  • Fresh water is usually provided by pump at campgrounds, sometimes a little off-color, but harmless.
Florida Campground outside of Durango, CO


  • Camping right next to strangers who fight (or screw) all night, get shit face drunk and party too late, kids who don’t know camping etiquette, and dogs who don’t either.
  • You are not going to have privacy from your neighbors.
  • The vault toilets smell terrible if you are downwind.
  • Not typically on water. Sometimes pay campsites are on lakes but are usually a good distance away from a water source. Most are close to water, but usually a trek to get to, and then everyone else is there being idiots, scaring away all the fish.
  • The fire pit grills are never cleaned. So much grease and dingleberries cling to the bars, I’ve still never let our food touch them.
  • It Ain’t free. I’d much rather put that hard-earned cash towards a bottle of Stranahan’s.
Grizzly Creek Campground – South Dakota


  • Remoteness. You can really stretch out and let the dog off leash and wander around.
  • Make the campsite your own. Pitching your tent to capture the best views is all on you. Creating a fairy garden, or horse shoe pit, or capture the flag are all in bounds.
  • Spread out your stuff. We always set up the archery range, kitchen, hammock, etc. wherever we want and have plenty of space between ourselves and anyone else in the area.
  • Creek camping. More often than not, a pay campsite is not next to water, because everyone would wash their dishes in it or lose their trash in it. Dispersed is typically close to a stream or river which provides fishing and frolicking.
  • Quiet. Pay campsites are never quiet. Dispersed is almost always filled with silence, minus our own children or distant coyotes howling at sunset (which is awesome).
  • Self-sufficiency. When you know there is no toilet or fresh water for miles and miles, one tends to conserve what fresh water you haul in, and toilet paper.
  • Fire pits. There is nothing less romantic than a steel fire ring. When we camp, one of the fist items on the list is to rebuild the fire pit stones, or move it to a better location, or create a new one altogether. This hearty effort makes the campfire that much more special.
  • Fire wood. Spending $8 on a small bundle of firewood hurts when you know it’s just going up in flames. But cutting and splitting an enormous pile of firewood to burn at bonfire strength is extremely rewarding. “Chop your own wood and it will warm you twice.” – Thoreau.
  • Freedom. Our kids have learned to drive on dispersed camping trips because there are miles of empty roads and no people. Best to learn here than in town where there is much more to run into.
  • Peeing outside. With no other campers in sight, I love just walking a long way from the tent and just whipping it out without a care in the world. Can’t do that in a campground. So I’ve heard.
  • It’s totally free!!!
Geneva Creek – Colorado


  • Fire restrictions can really suck and you don’t want to mess with writing a huge check, or worse, starting the forest on fire and winding up in jail.
  • Fresh water will have to be hauled in. But the thing is, if you run out, someone in the nearest town is always going to let you fill up your jug.
  • Rough roads. Washed out or washboard roads will keep the big rigs and small cars out most of the time, but they will also play hell on your nerves after a half hour of getting bumped around.
  • Just finding one can be tough if you don’t get away early enough. Especially now with everyone wanting to camp. My advice, don’t go during peak season. Spring and Fall and Winter will make the campsites a lot easier to find.
  • Pooping outside. I hate pooping. No matter where I’m at. But digging a deep hole, aiming and firing is not my favorite. I’d rather use a vault toilet any day.
I’ll never tell where this place is.

So there it is. All tied up in a bow for you to make your own decisions. Truthfully, there is a time and place for both methods and both can provide outdoor bliss. I love to disperse, but the stress is sometimes a bit much when you aren’t finding a good spot, it’s getting late, and your marriage is falling apart along a bumpy dirt road. Therefore, maybe a mixture of both is just a wise decision to balance your adventurous life outdoors, and put less stress on your relationships.

Published by willbarch78

I grew up in the middle of nowhere Texas. The nearest Walmart was a full two hours away. My family still runs a ranch back home that I grew up on, but at some point in my treasured youth I hung up the idea of becoming a cowboy, and pursued my passion for architecture. Today I still find myself trying to fit in to a life that has treated me with the average ups and downs one can expect after a certain number of years. My wife and I moved to Denver after attending Texas Tech School of Architecture in Lubbock as we needed a grade change from the Llano Estacado. We camp with our three growing girls all summer and into the fall while I write and create and fly fish to maintain sanity. Life is moving fast as our careers and children progress in all areas, so being outdoors with each other keeps us mostly grounded.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: