Tag Archives: boondockers

Free Camping in the National Forest

Standard
US Forest Service logo sign

Last week when I shared my post about free camping near Quartzsite, Arizona, a lady in one of the Facebook groups I’m a member of mildly chastised me for not mentioning free camping in national forests. I explained that the post I had just shared was specifically about free camping in southern Arizona where there is no Forest Service land. She said when she started living nomadically she didn’t know about free camping in national forests, so she was trying to alert others to this public-land camping option. Fair enough. Oh her behalf, today I will share information about free camping in national forests for all the new nomads who don’t know it exists.

The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) is overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. According to the Forest Service, their mission is

To sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. 

brown metal sign reading Carson National Forest Information Visitors Welcome
Carson National Forest is in New Mexico.

Just how much public land is under the control of the USFS? What exactly is the USFS responsible for? According to the Free Campsites website the U.S. Forest Service

administers the 175 national forests and grasslands in the United States. They are responsible for regulating logging, grazing and mineral rights on these lands as well as maintaining roads, trails, campgrounds and law enforcement in the area. The forestry [sic] service offers many developed campgrounds as well as a large number of ‘official’ dispersed camping sites.

What exactly is dispersed camping? It’s also known as primitive camping, dry camping, and boondocking. The Fishlake National Forest webpage says,

Dispersed camping is the term used for camping anywhere in the National Forest OUTSIDE of a designated campground. Dispersed camping means no services; such as trash removal, and little or no facilities; such as tables and fire pits, are provided. Some popular dispersed camping areas may have toilets.

(If you’re new to boondocking, be sure to read my post “10 Fundamentals for Boondockers, which will help you through every stage of the boondocking process.”)

Smokey Bear stands next to a sign that reads Fire Danger Moderate Today! Prevent Wildfires
Smokey Bear is probably the most famous Forest Service Employee.

What I’d like to be able to do–what would be easier for me and you–is to give you some general rules for boondocking on Forest Service land, then direct you to a website with more details. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find such a website or any standard rules for dispersed camping on public land managed by the Forest Service. I searched the main Forest Service website and found nothing. This lack of centralized information was confirmed for me on the Barefoot Theory blog which says,

For information on camping on USFS locations across the country you have to check with each ranger district directly.

Apparently each national forest is managed as one or more ranger districts. Each district is managed differently according the challenges facing each area. An area with a lot of visitors might have more restrictions than a place were few folks go.

I looked at the information given about dispersed camping in five different National Forests. While the webpages for Fishlake, Coconino, and Deschutes National Forests gave explicit rules for dispersed camping in those places, practically no information was shared about the Sequoia and Carson National Forests. What’s a potential boondocker to do in order to learn about the rules and regulations in a particular area?

Dirt road leads between evergreen trees
Dispersed camping area in the Coconino National Forest near Flagstaff, Arizona

The best thing to do is call or visit the Forest Service office nearest to the area where you want to camp. The employees at the office can tell you everything you need to know to stay in compliance with any restrictions in the dispersed camping areas.

Maybe you’re so new at boondocking on Forest Service land you don’t even know what questions to ask. That’s ok. I’ll guide you in the right direction. The following are some questions to ask the person staffing the desk or the phone in the Forest Service office nearest to the area where you want to camp.

How long can I occupy a campsite? When I leave, how far away must I travel before I am allowed to set up a new camp? How long do I have to wait before I can once again occupy the original campsite?

How far away from the road must I camp? Do I have to stay within a certain distance of the road? How far should I camp from a water source? How far away must I camp from a developed recreation area?

May I have a campfire? Do I need a fire permit if I am going to have a campfire? Where can I get a fire permit? May I gather down and dead wood for my campfire?

Is there anything else I need to know about camping in your district of this national forest?

Brown wooden Lincoln National Forest sign with a roughly drawn Smokey Bear on it

Now you know there aren’t any hard and fast rules for camping in national forests, that each area has different regulations. All well and good, you might be thinking, but how do I go about finding Forest Service land to camp on in the first place? I’m glad you asked!

From the U.S. Forest Service home page, you can select a state, then choose a forest or grassland in that state to learn more about. You should be able to use such a search to find out what ranger district oversees the area where you want to camp.

Both Campendium and the Free Campsites website mentioned above list free camping spots in national forests. Campendium has a “National Forests” tab at the top of the page. By clicking on the tab, you get a menu of links to each state. Click on a state and you get a list of national forests in the state. Click on the name of the forest and you get a map showing the camping options in the area. On the Free Campsites main page, type the name of the national forest in which you would like to camp in the “enter a location” bar.

Forest Service outhouse with snow on the ground all around it
Free camping at the Big Tesuque Campground in the Santa Fe National Forest

If you have a smartphone and don’t mind investing in an app, the Ultimate Public Campgrounds app might be for you. For $3.99, this app helps you find “tens of thousands PUBLICLY-owned camping locations in the United States and Canada,” which of course would include dispersed camping on U.S. Forest Service land. (Shout out to the Barefoot Theory website article “The Ultimate Guide to Finding Free Campsites in the US” where I found information about this app.)

The Wand’rly website offers a very extensive article titled “Free Camping in the National Forests of the United States.” The article provides state-by-state national forest information and lots of links so you can learn more about different areas.

If you’re more the paper map type of person (and even if you’re not, read my post “In Praise of Paper Maps” to find out why I think you should go old school at least sometimes), you can use your atlas or state highway map to find national forests in the area where you are or to where you will travel. Public land is usually green on maps, and national forests will usually be labeled with the name.

waterfall
Nobe Young waterfall in the Sequoia National Forest.

Also check out the maps of individual national forests produced by National Geopgraphic. Those maps tend to be very complete and show forest service roads as well as local attractions.

The Forest Service itself also offers map options, both electronic and paper. First, check out the Interactive Visitor Map online. The USFS says the map

provides the public with an online view of Forest Service roads, trails, recreation sites, wilderness areas, and wild & scenic rivers. 

Also available is “A Guide To Your National Forests” a

free brochure showing locations of national forests and grasslands along with contact information. A large map of those regions (PDF, 14.3MB) is also available.

Because both maps are available as PDFs, you can print out a copies to view at home or take with you on the road.

The USFS also sells forest visitor maps, national forest atlases, and wilderness maps. These maps can be bought at National Forest Map Store, U.S. Geological Survey Store, many Forest Service offices.

Maps are also available for purchase as georeferenced PDFs on Avenza, for use on mobile devices.


Forest Visitor Maps for each national forest and grassland provide forest-wide information on attractions, facilities, services, and opportunities.


National Forest Atlases are full color atlases…available for many of the forests in California.


Wilderness Maps are topographic maps that show natural features such as mountains, valleys, plains, lakes, rivers, and vegetation using contour lines depicting elevation gain or loss.

Las Petacas Campground is a fee area, but it only cost $6 per night to camp there.

The Forest Service also provides topographic maps free as Geo-enabled PDFs and as paper copies available for purchase at some Forest Service officesU.S. Geological Survey Store, and some retail outlets.

Motor vehicle use maps are available from the Forest Service and are very important to National Forest boondockers. These are the maps that “identify those roads, trails, and areas designated for motor vehicle use.” These maps are available three ways

Once you arrive in the national forest of your choice, here are a few things to know as you drive around looking for a campsite, courtesy of the Deschutes National Forest.

If you are going to an area where others have camped before, pick a site that’s been used before… If there is no existing campsite, then follow these Leave No Trace guidelines:


Camp on bare soil if possible, to avoid damaging or killing plants and grass. Do NOT camp within 200 feet of any water source…Don’t camp in the middle of a clearing or meadow…Don’t try to level or dig trenches in the ground at your campsite.

Once you find your perfect spot for camping, follow these guidelines (also courtesy of the Deschutes National Forest) to minimize your impact on the natural environment.

Dispersed camping means no bathrooms and no outhouses…[so] extra care has to be taken in disposing of human waste. To dispose of feces, dig a hole 6 inches deep and AT LEAST 200 FEET AWAY FROM ANY WATER SOURCE (creeks, wetlands, springs, or lakes). When you’re done, fill the hole with the dirt you dug up and take your toilet paper with you to dispose of in a proper waste container.

Never defecate or leave toilet paper on top of the ground, it could easily get into the local water source and contaminate it.


Empty built-in or portable toilets at sanitary dump stations.

Wash your body, dishes, etc., and dispose of waste water AT LEAST 200 FEET AWAY FROM ANY WATER SOURCE. Do not use ANY soap directly in a water source. Use biodegradable soap.

If you need more information about how to handle life in woods, see my post “How to Stay Safe and Healthy in the Forest.”

campfire in metal fire ring

Most campers want to have a campfire while out in nature. If you are planning to enjoy a campfire, follow the rules shared by the Coconino National Forest.

[C]heck if you are in an area with campfire restrictions

Where fires are permitted, use established fire rings, fire pans, or mound fires. Keep fires small. Only use sticks from the ground that can be broken by hand. Make sure to bring at least 6 gallons of water (preferably 10 gallons) and a shovel to completely extinguish your campfire. Burn all wood and coals to ash.

Extinguish campfires completely by generously dousing with water and stirring with a shovel. (video)


Never leave a campfire unattended. It is illegal to do so…You could be held liable for any firefighting/restoration costs that result from your abandoned or unattended campfire. Make certain your campfire is dead out, wet and cold to the touch, before leaving your campsite.

Now that you know the basics of dispersed camping in the national forest, get out there and give it a try. National forests belong to you and me and all of us, so enjoy them every chance you get.

A banner shows Smokey Bear waving. Text reads "I'm concerned about Wildfires" with an image of a fire and a tree.

The information in this post was correct at the time it was written. Please consider this information a starting point for your own research and not the final word on any subject. There are risks associated with camping, especially camping in areas off the beaten path. Blaize Sun is not responsible for you. Only you are responsible for you. Please think before you act.

I took the photos in this post.

10 Ways to Save Money on the Road

Standard

Living on the road is certainly less expensive than paying rent or maintaining a sticks-n-bricks, but living on the road still costs money. Lots of rubber tramps and nomads survive on a fixed income and would like to see their money go farther. Today I offer you ten tips for saving money while living on the road.

Obey the speed limit and don’t waste your money paying a speeding ticket.

#1 Obey the law and avoid costly fines. I don’t like authority figures telling me what to do either, but getting a ticket is expensive. Don’t exceed the speed limit. Feed the parking meter. Don’t park in a spot reserved for folks with disabilities unless you can display the proper paperwork. Don’t park in any spot your rig isn’t supposed to be in. Don’t drive in the carpool lane (aka High Occupancy Vehicle or HOV lane) if you’re the only person in your vehicle.

#2 Improve your gas mileage. Keep your tires inflated to the correct pressure. Don’t overload your rig with unnecessary weight. Change your air filter regularly. Driving the speed limit (or slower!) will help you in this regard too. (See Car Bibles for more tips on improving gas mileage.)

#3 Use gas price apps to find the lowest cost per gallon in the area you’re in. I’m not a big fan of driving across town to save 20 cents, but maybe you can plan your route to save on fuel. A 2014 article from CNN Tech suggests GasBuddy, Gas Guru, Waze, Dash, and MapQuest Gas Prices.

#4 If you boondock in remote areas for weeks at a time, don’t make daily trips into civilization. Go to your camping spot with supplies to last a week. Do a supply run (paired with fun town activities, if you like) at the end of the first week, and get enough of everything to last until you’re ready to move to your next destination. You’ll save money on fuel, and you won’t have as many chances to make impulse purchases.

#5 If you’re in the market for a rig think about gas mileage. A minivan will probably get better gas mileage than a conversion or cargo van. A Class B motorhome will probably get better gas mileage than a Class A. A small Class C will probably get better gas mileage than a large Class C. A Prius will probably get better gas mileage than anything else.

#6 Do regular maintenance. It will probably cost less to have something maintained than repaired, and a breakdown may require a costly tow. Even during a routine oil change, mechanics usually look around for obvious problems.

#7 Learn how to do your own routine maintenance and make basic repairs. Check and top off your fluids. Change your oil. Replace your brake pads. Change your air filter. You’ll learn more about the mechanics of your rig and you won’t have to pay someone else for the cost of labor.

#8 Compare insurance rates. Does one company offer lower prices than another? Just remember, sometimes lower cost means less protection.

Can you get a better rate by using a different address for your domicile?  I saved about $200 a year by using the address of one family member over another as my permanent residence.

Can you eliminate options to save a few bucks? I pay a little extra for roadside assistance through my insurance, but if I had AAA or God Sam Club coverage, I’d probably drop the roadside assistance option on my insurance policy.

#9 Invest in a large propane tank rather than the green one-pound tanks. I resisted this tip for a long time because those small green propane tanks are just so convenient. However, now I’m a believer in using the bigger tanks. They’re a better deal than the one-pound tanks even if you do the Blue Rhino exchange (available at Wal-Mart, Walgreens, supermarkets, hardware stores, and convenience stores). You save even more if you refill the tank at places like U-Haul, Tractor Supply, AmeriGas refill and refueling stations, and RV parks.

#10 Seek out free and inexpensive entertainment. You really can have a lot of fun for little money, especially in cities and town.

This is public art stands on Main Street in Mesa, AZ.

Look at public art. I especially like murals, but sculpture can be fun too.

Public libraries often offer free admission to movies, concerts, and public speakers, and they sometimes have galleries where patrons can look at art for free. Most libraries also offer free internet access, and even if you don’t have a library card, you can sit around for hours reading books and magazines at no cost to you.

Many museums offer free admission on a designated day once a week or once a month. Plan your trip to an area to coincide with free admission to a museum you want to visit.

Parks are nice free places to hang out. Cook a meal at a picnic table. Walk around the park for exercise. Sit under a tree and read. Especially in the summer, parks often offer plays, concerts, and movies at no charge.

If you’re more of a boondocker and less of a city dweller, get out and enjoy the natural beauty where you are. It’s free to hear the birds sing. Go for a hike or a brisk walk. Watch the sunrise or the sunset. Heck, watch then both. It won’t cost you a dime.

Blaize Sun has been mostly on the road since 2009. She’s traveled the U.S. with very little money, so she’s had to figure out ways to make every penny count.

Please share your favorite money saving tips in the comments.

Blaize Sun took the photos in this post.

10 Fundamentals for Boondockers

Standard

So you want to save money by camping in a place where you don’t have to pay? Perhaps you want to see natural beauty that might not be present in a private campground. Maybe you need a little more elbow room than you can get in a commercial RV park that’s more like an RV parking lot. For free camping in scenic locations with plenty of space between you and the next rig, you might want to try boondocking (also known as “dry camping” or “primitive camping”).

If you’ve never been boondocking before, it might seem complicated. Where can you camp legally and safely? How can you find the good spots? Should you stay in a town or venture into the wilderness? Have no fear! In this article, I’ll cover ten fundamentals of boondocking so you can make decisions about where to go. I’ll also give you suggestions that will help you have a great time once you get where you’re going.

#1 Before you head out, determine how long you want your boondocking experience to last. An overnight stop on the way to somewhere else will be different from a relaxing two-week stay in nature.

#2 For an overnight stay, decide on the town where you want to take a break and look into what businesses in the area allow overnight parking. Businesses to check into include Wal-Mart; truck stops (Flying J, Pilot, Love’s, TravelCenters of America, Petro, and Bosselman, plus independently owned truck stops); Bass Pro Shop; and Cracker Barrel. Always call a business ahead of time and ask if overnight parking is allowed. If you’re going to be told no, it’s better to know ahead of time than to wake up to a knock on your rig at 2am.

If you can’t find a business that will allow you to park overnight, check for free camping in town or county parks. I’ve camped for free at the county fairgrounds in Blue Earth, Minnesota and the town park in Vermillion, South Dakota.

If all else fails, look online or in your atlas (you are traveling with a paper atlas, right?) for highway or interstate rest areas. Some states have limits on how long folks are allowed to stay in rest areas (when I was traveling in California in 2012, it was eight hours), and there may be signs saying “No Camping” (which I interpret as “don’t pitch a tent”) but as their name states, rest areas are there so drivers can rest and avoid accidents from falling asleep at the wheel. (The Interstate Rest Areas website has a complete state-by-state breakdown of overnight parking rules.)

There are also apps available so you can find out on your phone what rests stops will fill your needs. The free USA Rest Stops app helps find rest stops on interstates as well as U.S. and state highways.

#3 If you’re staying in a business parking lot or at a rest area, know parking lot etiquette. Keep bodily fluids out of the parking lot. Keep your pet(s) under control and clean up after them. Dispose of trash properly. No yelling or honking in the middle of the night.

Most National Forests offer plenty of places for boondocking.

#4 For longer stays, do plenty of research before you set out. Read blog posts written by other boondockers. There’s lots of public land in the United States where people can camp for free. Look for Bureau of Land Management areas, Bureau of Reclamation land, National Forests, National Wildlife Refuges, and Corps of Engineering land where boondocking is allowed.

Gazetteers show public land and the roads that will take you to remote, secluded locations. Benchmark Atlases show elevation, and DeLorme Atlas & Gazateers are also highly respected. 

#5 For both overnight and extended stays, the Free Campsites website is your best friend. This website allows you to search for free and cheap campsites by typing a location into a search bar. Once you have a list of camping areas near your destination, you can look at the details for each area. Folks who have actually camped in the area can leave reviews and photographs. Once you pick a spot, you can click on a “get directions” link which will take you directly to Google Maps to help you navigate to your destination. I’ve camped in free campgrounds across the United States that were found through Free Campsites; I can’t say enough good things about the website

#6 If you’re boondocking on public land, be prepared to have no amenities. Boondockers must be ready to provide their own electricity from solar panels or generators or to do without. Boondockers must carry in their own water for drinking and washing. Most boondocking areas offer no showers, no toilets (pit, flush, or otherwise), no dump stations, and no trashcans. Before you set out, prepare to take care of all your needs while on public land.

I left nothing but footprints.

#7 Practice “leave no trace” camping while on public land. Camp where others have camped before you, not on pristine land. Pick up your microtrash, and don’t leave trash in your fire ring. If you pack it in, be prepared to pack it out. Leave nothing but footprints.

#8 Research fire bans and fire permits while you’re still in civilization. If you plan to have a campfire, find out if it’s legal to do so before you get out of internet range. If you need a fire permit, get one before you go out into the wilderness. A ranger might not be sympathetic to ignorance of a fire ban or need for a fire permit while writing you a ticket for your illegal campfire.

#9 Don’t park too close to other boondockers. Give everyone plenty of elbow room, especially if you have pets or a generator you’re going to be running a lot. People go out into the wilderness for quiet and solitude, not to be under the armpit of another boondocker. If you’re scared to be out in nature alone, park where you can see other people without being right up on them.

#10 If you’re out in nature for an extended period of time, don’t forget to have fun. Watch a sunset. Take a walk. Relax and enjoy your free camping experience.

I took this photo while boondocking on public land.

I took all of the photos in this post.