assorted-color dome tents beside fence

Types of Camping: The Ultimate Guide

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Sleeping out under the stars is one of the best ways to enjoy the beauty of nature. Only when you’re away from the hustle and bustle of the city streets, and the bright lights of a sprawling metropolis, can you truly appreciate all that the wilderness has to offer.

That being said, there is more than one way to camp. Whether you’re a new camper or a seasoned camping aficionado, it’s easy to get confused by all of the different camping terms out there. Confusion about these terms can cause all sort of problems, especially if you’re trying to apply for permits or understand regulations on public lands.

Thus, to help you out, we’ve created the ultimate guide to the different types of camping. We’ll discuss what makes each kind of camping unique and walk you through the benefits of all of the different ways to “rough it” out in the backcountry. At the end of this guide, you should have a good understanding of the different types of camping and be stoked for your next adventure. Let’s get to it!

A tent lit up at night under the stars.


1. Dispersed camping

Dispersed camping is a term that tends to confuse a lot of people since it can actually involve quite a few different activities, depending on the land manager you’re speaking to. Here are what the major land managers in the US have to say about dispersed camping:

The US Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service and all National Forests, defines dispersed camping as any camping activities that happen outside a designated campground. For the US Forest Service, dispersed camping simply means you’re away from basic amenities, like water, restrooms, and waste disposal.

Within a US National Forest, dispersed camping can happen in areas that are specifically identified as “dispersed camping areas” but is often permitted anywhere that’s more than one mile from campgrounds, 100 feet from any stream, and 150 feet from any roadways. People who want to enjoy dispersed camping in National Forests should be prepared to be wholly self-sufficient while they’re out and about and cannot stay in one spot for more than 16 days.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which manages a gigantic swath of land in the Western United States, is actually a bit more lenient on where you’re allowed to camp. According to the BLM, you can camp anywhere on public BLM lands that’s at least 200 feet from water sources, and you can stay for a maximum of 14 days before having to move elsewhere.

The Department of the Interior, which oversees the National Park Service, uses the term “backcountry camping” to describe what the Forest Service and BLM call “dispersed camping”. Backcountry camping rules and regulations vary significantly from park to park, so it’d be impossible to talk about all the different park rules here without writing a small book.

In some parks, you need to apply for a permit months ahead of time, while in others you can just show up and do your thing. Some parks have restrictions about where and when you can camp and they limit how large your group can be, while others let you pretty much run wild – granted you follow the principles of Leave No Trace, of course. Thus, the best thing to do when looking to backcountry camp in a National Park is to visit that specific park’s website or ask a ranger for advice.

What’s important to note about “dispersed camping,” however, is that dispersed camping can be a really remote activity, as you might find in some areas, or something that can happen right along a road if you’re on public BLM land. Thus, dispersed camping is a really broad term to describe a whole host of different kinds of camping, depending on what kind of public land you’re on. It’s highly recommended that you contact land managers before you head out to see if they have any specific regulations in place regarding dispersed camping.


2. Glamping

For those of us who don’t really like to “rough it,” glamping combines the best of the outdoors with all the amenities you just can’t live without! Generally speaking, glamping is a “frontcountry” activity, which means it usually happens in a developed campground. These campgrounds may be very remote, but they often have running water, hot showers, convenience stores, picnic tables, fire rings, and well-placed and manicured campsites.

Glampers either choose to sleep in an RV/camper van or in a tent. Glamping tents, however, tend to be way more lavish than one you’d throw in your pack for a backpacking trip. Usually, they’re made of heavy-duty materials, have fairly sizeable rooms and vestibules, and are even tall enough to stand up in.

When someone goes glamping, they really go all out on amenities and conveniences. Since glampers usually aren’t carrying their gear very far – often just a few feet from the car to the tent site – they can bring pretty much anything they’d like to have from home, including electronics and large heating units. Glamping accessories come in all shapes and sizes and give you the chance to your own unique flavor and style.

Glamping is also a really fun activity for those of us who love to cook as you can bring nearly any food with you to the campground and enjoy a feast in the great outdoors. Since you can bring coolers, you’re also able to bring perishable foods and some adult beverages for a fantastic evening barbecue while glamping.

A group of cars and tents in the desert.


3. Car camping

Car camping is similar to glamping in many ways, insofar as you’re able to bring much more with you while car camping than you could while backpacking. Car camping is essentially any camping that happens really close to your car and an established road. In some instances, it can involve actually sleeping in your car, but we won’t focus on that here.

Essentially, the main difference between car camping and glamping is that glamping involves way more in the realm of luxury items and other amenities. While you could bring much of this stuff with you on a car camping trip, you might not actually find yourself in a fully-serviced campground while car camping. In fact, many campgrounds that are designed for car camping don’t have running water or flush toilets for all or part of the year. Sure, you could choose to only stay in campgrounds with these amenities, you have way more options for car camping if you venture a bit farther off the beaten path.

Thus, while car camping is still a bit more luxurious than a wilderness expedition, it also can give you a chance to disconnect from the wider world for even a brief moment in time. Car camping can be a great solo activity but can also be fun for the whole family.

Person laying in a hammock outdoors.


4. Hammock camping

Hammock camping is pretty much exactly what it sounds like – it’s camping, in a hammock. Hammock camping can happen in an established, well-maintained campground or far out in the backcountry. What truly differentiates hammock campers from other outdoor enthusiasts is the fact that hammock campers choose to spend their night suspended between two trees, instead of covered up by a tent.

The main draw to hammock camping, for many people, is the simplicity of it all. Hammocks tend to be much lighter than a tent and, if you’re traveling solo, can take much less time to set up. Some people also strongly prefer the feeling of sleeping in a hammock over sleeping on the ground, so hammock camping can help these people get a better night’s sleep.

The main drawback to hammock camping is that it requires somewhere to set up the hammock. Above treeline, hammock campers may be hard-pressed to find somewhere to hang their hammock, unless they can rig a system up on some huge boulders. Plus, unless you have a hammock with a bug net, they’re not a great option for sleeping in during mosquito and fly season.

That being said, many people choose to only go hammock camping, whether that be for an extended backcountry trip or in a campground. Hammock camping might not be for everyone, but it certainly has a dedicated group of followers out in the wilderness.

Man sitting on a mountaintop with a hiking backpack on.


5. Backpacking

Backpacking is a specific form of camping wherein an individual carries everything they need to survive inside a fairly sizeable backpack. Backpacking usually happens in fairly remote areas, both on- and off-trail, and requires that backpackers be entirely self-sufficient. This means that backpackers carry their own food and survival gear for the entirety of the trip, or until they can get to a place to resupply on food and fuel.

Backpacking is one of the more physically demanding forms of camping, simply because backpackers need to carry everything they’re bringing. Usually, this means that backpackers have to make choices about what they’ll bring and leave behind. Many backpackers allow themselves one or two “luxury items,” such as a book or kindle, but generally, try not to bring too terribly much with them that will weigh down their pack.

Some backpackers go all out on trying to reduce their overall pack weight to an absolute minimum. These people are known as ultralight backpackers and they strive to have the lowest possible pack weight that will allow them to move quickly over difficult terrain.

Regardless of what kind of backpacking you’re doing, however, backpacking is a type of camping that requires a significant amount of skill and experience to be able to effectively manage all of the risks and dangers one might encounter. That being said, backpacking is one of the best ways to truly get out into the wilderness and experience some of the world’s most beautiful landscapes away from the crowds.

Person sitting outside an RV at night.


6. RV or van camping

RV or van camping occurs when someone decides to leave their home to spend some time outdoors but chooses to sleep and live out of an RV (recreational vehicle) or camper van instead of a tent. RV camping is incredibly popular amongst people who really want to spend time outside, but also love to have many of the amenities that they’re used to having at home.

RV and van campers can choose to stay at established campgrounds, where they may or may not have “hook-ups” that provide them with water, electricity, and other modern amenities. Other times, RV and van campers choose to hit the open road and camp in pull-offs or less maintained campgrounds without hook-ups. In these instances, campers are limited to whatever water and fuel they’ve brought with them and only have electricity should they also have a generator in their RV.

This kind of camping is also popular amongst people who like to go off on road trips, but want a more economical way to live comfortably, without having to spend money every night on hotels and restaurant meals. RV and van camping is also popular with people with reduced mobility and families, as RV and van camping ensures that everything you need is all in one place.

3 tents at night in the snow.


7. Winter camping

Winter camping is a kind of camping that happens in the winter months. Although any camping that happens in the colder months of the year can be considered “winter” camping, generally, the term is reserved for camping that occurs in snowy environments.

Winter campers usually venture out into the backcountry on snowshoes, skis, or splitboards (a snowboard that can convert into skis for moving uphill) or snowmobiles and they often carry everything they need in a backpack or on a sled that they’re pulling behind them. While winter camping, people may sleep in tents, but often, they choose to build snow shelters, which can provide much more warmth and comfort in cold environments.

When winter camping, people require much more food and fuel, as their bodies need to work harder to stay warm. The good news about winter camping, however, is that you can bring all sorts of great frozen foods, such as frozen mozzarella sticks, frozen fruit, and frozen veggies, because they’ll all stay cold in the outside temperatures. This means that winter camping usually involves some large feasts and lots of laughter as you dine on food you wouldn’t normally be able to have in the backcountry.

Many people who go winter camping do so to gain access to more remote backcountry ski runs or snow-covered peaks. Traveling in the backcountry in the winter involves another layer of inherent risk, particularly if you’re traveling in avalanche terrain. Thus, anyone looking to winter camp should first gain the skills, experience, and knowledge necessary to effectively manage risk in these more complex environments.

Conclusion

Regardless of how you like to spend time outside, there’s a kind of camping out there for you. Whether you like to glamp or backpack, what’s important is that you get outside, experience the beauty of nature, and have a rollicking good time. See you out on the trail!

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