Tag Archives: Campendium

Free Camping in the National Forest

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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.

Free BLM Camping on Willow Springs Road Near Moab, UT

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This is one of the cool views from our campsite on Willow Springs Road

When the Lady of the House and I were planning our epic road trip through Arizona and Utah, we wanted to spend the night at the Devil’s Garden campground in Arches National Park. Alas, when we were planning our April trip in early March, the campground was booked through August! Apparently one must book months in advance in order to spend the night in the Devil’s Garden.

Since we couldn’t stay where we wanted, I turned to the website I always use when I’m looking for a camping spot: Freecampsites.net. On that site we learned about free BLM camping on Willow Springs Road. The area is about 15 miles northweat of Moab, and approximately 21 miles from the entrance to the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park. It seemed like a good spot to stay on the night after our adventure at Arches National Park and before our early morning entrance to Island in the Sky.

After our afternoon at Arches, The Lady treated me to a delicious, house-made veggie burger at the Atomic Café in Moab. After a leisurely dinner on the restaurant’s back patio, we went in search of free camping on Willow Springs Road.

Earlier in the day, The Lady and I had experienced some confusion about the camping area. She’d checked it out on Google Maps, and it seemed like we’d have to go miles into the wilderness to get to a place where we could camp for free. My recollection from the Free Campsites website was that camping was allowed not far from the highway. I used the Campendium website to cross reference, and was pleased with the ease of use. I’d never used Campendium before, although other rubber tramps had mentioned it to me. I found the website helpful and added the site to my set of finding-a-free-place-to-camp tools.

Campendium confirmed we did not have to go miles out of our way to camp on Willow Spring Road, so we decided we’d try to find a spot there for our quick overnight between national parks.

When we left Moab, we took Highway 191 north out of town. We traveled about 13 miles from the Atomic Café, passing Under Canvas Moab not long before it was time to turn onto Willow Springs Road (BLM 378), which was marked by a green street sign. When we turned onto Willow Springs Road, a brown info board marked the area as public land. The Lady hopped out of the van to read the signs on the board. We had arrived.

This is what Willow Springs Road (BLM 378) looked like when the Lady of the House and I spent the night there in April 2018.

On the right, just past the info board was an area of bare rock where camps were set up. I drove the van into the area, thinking we could park near the highway for our brief stop, but I couldn’t find a level spot. I took the van back to the road through the camping area and drove farther from the highway.

Willow Spring Road was a good dirt road when I drove on it in early April 2018. The part of it we saw was mostly smooth with some gravel. There were no large bumps or ruts in the road, but I drove slowly anyway to help keep the dust down.

There were plenty of big rigs parked just off Willow Spring Road. It didn’t’ seem to be a problem to get large RVs onto the free camping area, at least in the first mile or two off the highway.

In the area we saw, camping was happening on either side of the road. People had found spots to park their rigs just off the main road. I was trying to stay a respectful distance from other campers, so I passed up several flat spots that would have worked for our needs. The place we settled on was a little closer to the next camp than I usually park, but the ground was flat and there was a rock fire ring showing that particular slice of land had been camped on before. I figured that because we wouldn’t be up late cooking dinner or sitting by a campfire, we’d be up and out early in the morning, and we’d only stay for one night, we wouldn’t be too disruptive to our neighbors.

I parked the van so this is what we saw through the windshield.

We saw a portable toilet on the side of the main road between the highway and where we camped. Neither The Lady nor I utilized it, so I have no report on its cleanliness or the availability of toilet paper there. I can only say that there was a portable toilet in the area when we visited.

The land in the camping area is dusty with some scrubby bushes and a few small trees. The landscape around the camping area was majestic Utah in all its glory. We could see the Las Sal mountains from where we camped (although, unfortunately, I was not able to get a decent photo of them with the light conditions we experience while we were there), and beautiful red rock walls.

Since we didn’t have to cook dinner, we were in the van fairly early. We set up one of my folding tables and put a jug of water and a bottle of soap on it as a handwashing station then went to bed. I must have fallen asleep immediately and deeply because I don’t remember hearing a sound, but The Lady said she heard vehicles driving on Willow Springs Road deep into the night.

In the morning we awoke early as we’d planned and found frost on the table. The morning was cold, but we cooked and ate our breakfast so we could move on to our adventure at Canyonlands.

Other than an inconsiderate neighbor across the way who let her dog run free and did not let the sounds of nature prevail, I found Willow Springs Road a fine free camping spot. I suspect it’s quite hot out there in the summer when the heat beats down on little shade, but it was a nice spot for an overnight during our early spring travels.

I took the photos in this post.

How to Save Money While Visiting Tourist Attractions

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If you live nomadically, you have more freedom to visit tourist attractions across the U.S.A. From Arcadia National Park on the coast of Maine to Disneyland in Southern California, nomads can spend their days basking in natural beauty and having fun in amusement parks and at roadside attractions. Since fun often comes at a price, and nomads aren’t the only people on a tight budget, today I offer tips on saving money while visiting tourist attractions. The tips are aimed at nomads, but will be helpful for anyone trying to save money while on vacation.

#1 Visit in the off-season, Peak tourist season is usually Memorial Day Weekend through Labor Day Weekend  when lots of kids are out of school, but some places (I’m looking at you, Southern Arizona!) have the opposite peak season because of the ultra-hot summers and the mild winters. Some places (like Taos, NM) have two peak seasons—one during family vacation season in the summer and another during ski season in the winter. Do some research on the places you want to visit to find out when they’re less likely to be busy.

Not only are attractions less busy in the off-season, you may find nearby accommodations and activities deeply discounted.  Some amusement and theme parks offer better deals on admission during slow times.

#2 Sleep cheap. Find free or super cheap camping near the places you want to visit. You can save a bundle by camping instead of staying in a hotel or motel. I’ve found free camping close to several national parks (Arches, Canyonlands, Carlsbad Caverns) using the Free Campsites  and Campendium websites. On occasions when I couldn’t find a free campsite, I’ve found campgrounds listed on those sites (like the Super Bowl campground right outside the Needles District of Canyonlands) with a nightly fee under $10.

If you want to splurge on a night out of your rig, but don’t want to spend a wad of cash, look into staying at a hostel. Available in both mega cities (several in  NYC, three in San Francisco, and the Phoenix Hostel and Cultural Center in Phoenix, just to name a few) and in smaller towns near ski areas (the Lazy Lizard in Moab, UT; the SnowMansion northeast of Taos, NM; the Santa Fe International Hostel in Santa Fe, NM) hostels offer budget rates on a place to get a shower and a bed for the night. Cheapest accommodations are usually in dorms, but some hostels offer private rooms with private baths and cabins.

#3 Keep your food cost down. Bring your own snacks and drinks into the attraction if you can. Most national parks and monuments allow visitors to bring in food and beverages, so stock up before you arrive and don’t pay gift shop prices for granola bars and trail mix. Many amusement and theme parks do allow visitors to bring in a limited number of bottles of water, small snacks, and medically necessary food.

If possible, cook for yourself instead of eating out. If you’re boondocking or staying in a campground, cooking for yourself will probably be part of your normal rubber tramp routine. If you’re sleeping in a hostel, use of a community kitchen is often included in the nightly fee. If you do stay in a hotel or motel and the room includes a microwave, take advantage of it to make a simple meal. Also take advantage of any free breakfast the hotel/motel offers, as well as any free coffee or tea available to start your day.

Remember: food will usually cost less in supermarkets than in convenience stores or small grocery stores, so stock up on food before you hit the road or you might end up spending a lot of money on food in a remote location.

#4 Buy all your gear before you head to a tourist attraction. Similarly, supplies are going to cost more in remote locations. Avoid paying gift shop and small town prices for sunscreen, insect repellent, propane, fire starter, and batteries by planning ahead. Save money by getting supplies before you leave civilization.

You may also find better prices on fuel for your rig if you buy it in a place where several gas stations compete for business. If you can even find fuel in the middle of nowhere, you’re going to pay more for it. Top off your tank before you leave civilization.

#5 If you’re going to visit several attractions in one area, look for a bundle pass that offers access to multiple places for a one-time price.

When my host family visited Utah in the summer of 2017, they planned to visit Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, and Natural Bridges National Monument. Admission to each park costs $15 to $30 per vehicle, but the Southeast Utah Parks Pass was only $55 and allowed unlimited access to the three attractions the family wanted to visit, plus Hovenweep National Monument. Because the pass was valid for 12 months, The Lady of the House used it again in April 2018 to get us into those places during our epic Arizona-Utah road trip.

#6 If the price of admission allows you to enter the attraction for multiple days, take advantage of this option. Most national parks are expensive to visit, usually $25 to $35 per vehicle (and probably more in some places), but most national parks I’ve visited have allowed visitors to enter for five days to a week after paying the admission fee. Spending $35 to visit an attraction seven days in a row is a much better deal than spending $35 to stay in the place for just a few hours. Especially if you have a free or cheap camping spot nearby, slow down and get your money’s worth by exploring a place for as many days as your admission fee allows.

#7 Find out if the place you want to visit offers birthday discounts or freebies. Out of Africa wildlife park in Camp Verde, AZ charges between $18.95 (for kids 3-12) and $33.95 (for adults, with discounts for seniors and active duty members of the military and veterans) for admission, but offers folks free visits any day during their birth month. While such birthday gifts may not be typical, it’s worth checking into at privately owned attractions.

#8 If you’re eligible for a federal senior pass or access pass, get it! The access pass is available for free to U.S. citizens or permanent residents who are legally blind or permanently disabled. The senior pass is available to U.S. citizens or permanent residents 62 years or age or older. The senior pass now costs $80, but that’s a one-time fee, and the pass is valid for the pass holder’s lifetime.

Both of these passes admit the pass holder and passengers (in a private, noncommercial vehicle) to national parks and other federally managed lands. These passes also provide 50% off camping fees in many campgrounds on public land. Even at $80, the senior pass could pay for itself after only a couple of visits to national parks or a few nights in a campground.

#9 Participate in activities included in the price of admission. When my friend and I visited Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Southern Arizona, we found ranger-led van tours were included in the cost of admission. We rode in a passenger van driven by a ranger while another ranger told us about the desert scenes we saw through the windows. On another day we returned to the monument and went on a hike led by a ranger. The ranger drove a group of us to the trailhead and we hiked together while the expert shared information about the plants and animals we saw.

The visitor centers at most national parks and monuments—and at some state parks too—have educational exhibits and movies. These exhibits and movies are offered at no extra charge and allow visitors to learn about the area at their own pace.

The visitor center should also have information about upcoming ranger talks or ranger-led activities. The last time I was at Sequoia National Park, I attended a free ranger talk about woodpeckers. It lasted about half an hour and was fun and informative.

#10 If you must have souvenirs, buy small, less expensive items. At only 51 cents each, pressed pennies come for a price that’s hard to beat. At the Utah national parks and monument gift shops I visited, quarter-sized tokens depicting famous landmarks were going for 99 cents each. I also found strips of six postcards at the same gift shops for $1.99 and individual postcards for about the same cost per card at a supermarket in Moab. Not only were these items the least expensive souvenirs, they take up very little of the limited space in my van.

If you’re attracted to larger (and usually overpriced) souvenirs like sweatshirts, water bottles, and coffee table books, ask yourself these questions before you buy: Do I need it? Where am I going to put it? Will I really use it? Can I really afford it? What will I have to give up in order to bring this into my life?

#11 If you’re visiting with kids, set spending limits before you walk into a gift shop or step up to the snack shack.  Offer options within the set price range, such as You can spend $5 on lunch, which means you can have a slice of pizza or a hot dog and fries. or You can spend $10 on a souvenir. Do you want the flashlight or the Smokey Bear compass?

If you and the kids are visiting national parks, collect all the Junior Rangers freebies available and do your best to convince the children the free stuff is better than anything for sale in the gift shop.

Being on a budget does not have to stop you from having fun. By planning ahead and using skills you already have as a rubber tramp (such as knowing how to find free camping and cooking for yourself) you can have fun and see gorgeous places without breaking the bank.

Blaize Sun has been a rubber tramp for almost a decade, but has been a tightwad for a lot longer than that. Blaize comes from a long line of tightwads, including a grandma who could squeeze a nickel so tight the buffalo would groan. Blaize knows how to have a good time on the cheap and firmly believes if she can do it, you can too!

I took all the photos in this post.