Map of a frontcountry campground with running water, bathrooms, parking, and a caretaker
Map of a frontcountry campground with running water, bathrooms, parking, and a caretaker host.

The camping “landscape” is often divided into frontcountry campsites, backcountry campsites, designated campsites, and dispersed camping. You’re likely to encounter these terms if you camp or backpack in National Parks, National Forests, and State Parks and it’s important to understand what they mean.

Frontcountry Campsites

Frontcountry campsites are located in well-established full service “frontcountry” campgrounds with running water, restrooms, and even showers. They’re often managed by federal and state agencies, or private companies, and you can usually reserve them in advance through an online booking system, although they often reserve a few sites for walk-ins. Most frontcountry campsites have electrical or water hookups for RVs and campers as well as disposal facilities and trash dumpsters. Individual campsites usually include a picnic table, fire ring, space for several tents, and parking. It’s assumed that you’ll store your food inside your vehicle to prevent animals from stealing it. Dogs are often permitted, but regulations vary.

Backcountry Campsites and Designated Campsites

Backcountry campsites are also frequently referred to as designated campsites. They’re hardened campsites that have been set aside in more remote areas, but lack the conveniences of frontcountry campsites such as running water, restrooms and showers. It’s good to use them if they’re available to concentrate your impact on the wilderness when you camp and a good place to meet likeminded people.

Designated Campsite with a lean-to, tentsites, and an outhouse.
Designated Campsite with a lean-to, tentsites, and an outhouse.

Some designated campsites will have lean-tos or shelters in addition to tent sites. These sites often have outhouses because they cater to a larger of backpackers, while less frequented sites won’t. When you camp at a backcountry campsite, you’ll probably need to filter or purify your drinking water and hang a bear bag or use a bear canister to protect your food from animals. There will also usually be multiple tent sites available, so you should expect company. Some parks let you reserve a backcountry campsite in advance, but many don’t and they’re first come, first serve. While most backcountry sites are marked on maps, some aren’t. They are usually signed though.

Dispersed Camping

Dispersed camping is permitted in some National Parks and Forests, or State Parks, but its best to check the local backcountry camping rules beforehand because there usually are limits on where it’s permitted. Dispersed camping refers to the practice of setting up a completely “wild” camp at a place that has not been reserved for camping. You’d do this because there aren’t any designated campsites in the area that you can use or because you prefer to camp deep in the wilderness surrounded by nature without seeing anyone else.

Dispersed camping on a durable surface (spruce needles) in the wilderness
Dispersed camping on a durable surface (spruce needles) in the wilderness.

Some people feel that it’s important to leave no trace, namely any evidence that you camped at a dispersed campsite after you leave, so that others can enjoy it in its natural state. That’s a personal choice. Another option is to use a site that has obviously been used before by someone else to camp, to avoid creating a new campsite.

Finding a good dispersed campsite can be a little tricky if you have a tent (see campsite selection tips), but is much easier if you camp with a hammock in forested areas. Like backcountry campsites, you’ll need to filter or purify your water, protect your food from animals, and be completely self-reliant – which explains the reason why some people prefer dispersed camping. It can be spooky camping alone, without anyone else nearby, but is sometimes unavoidable when you hike in remote country.

Wrapping Up

That in a nutshell is the difference between frontcountry camping, backcountry and designated campsites, and dispersed camping. If you have any questions, leave a comment below.