I discovered this free camping areaon BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land while looking for a free place to stay near the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in southern Colorado. Whenever I’m looking for a free place to camp, the first place I look is the Free Campsites website. Once again, the site helped me out, this time by directing me to Lake Como Road.
This BLM land is easy to get to. From Alamosa, CO, take Highway 160 to Highway 150 and turn left. From Fort Garland and Blanca, CO, take Highway 160 to Highway 150 and turn right. If you’re heading south on Highway 17, take a left when you see the signs directing you to Great Sand Dunes National Park . When you hit highway 150, make a right As you may have guess, this camping area is off of Highway 150. Great Sand Dunes National Park is at the the end of Highway 150, so it’s very easy to get there from this camping area.
I did a lot of looking for a free place to camp before my visit to the Great Sand Dunes. This is the closest spot I found that was truly free in that was not a State Wildlife Area (where folks are required to have a valid Colorado hunting or fishing license in order to camp) and was reported to have a road that did not require a 4 wheel drive and/or high clearance vehicle. Since I’m in a minivan now, I have to be more conscious of poor road conditions. I didn’t want to try to drive on a road I maybe couldn’t handle.
The dirt road into this boondocking area was not terrible. It had washboard ridges in places, and there were some small exposed rocks, but overall it was fine, at least as far as I went. I stayed within a mile or two of the turn off to from Highway 150, and I think any vehicle could make it as far as I did. Just take it nice and slow, which you should be doing anyway on this very dusty road. You don’t want to be the one to choke out all your neighbors.
The camping spots are just wide, dusty areas with little vegetation on the side of the dirt road. The first camping area seemed to be the biggest with room for four or five rigs. I was a little nervous about the road, but I wanted a bit more space to myself, so I drove father in. I could see rigs parked miles up the road as it climbed up the mountain, but I was not that adventurous. I just needed a place to put the van where I could cook and sleep before I went off to the park, so I didn’t feel the need to find a great spot.
It’s a good thing I didn’t need a great spot because I didn’t have one. There was zero shade where I was. Most of the spots had the same problem. There are no trees until well up the mountain road. Even in mid September, it was pretty warm there during the afternoon, especially with the sun beating down. If you’re going to camp there for a few days, plan to use your awning or bring a popup canopy or a tarp you can use to fashion a sun block.
Or maybe you shouldn’t use an awning or popup canopy or any kind of sun block after all. It was quite breezy the afternoon I was there. If you’re using a tarp, tent, or canopy out there, but sure to stake it down well. If you’re using an awning attached to your rig, keep a close eye on it so the wind doesn’t have the chance to twist it out of shape.
Cell phone service was great where I stayed. Texting worked normally, and I was able to access the internet with no problem. However, I didn’t try to stream or watch videos, so I don’t know if that would have worked out.
The view of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains was beautiful, and I enjoyed the big blue sky filled with puffy white clouds.
This area is available for true dry camping. There are no amenities here: no running water (for drinking or otherwise), no electrical hookups, no shade structures, no picnic tables, no restrooms (flush toilet, pit toilet, portable toilet, or otherwise), no dump station, no trashcans. Bring with you everything you need to survive for however long you plan to stay on Lake Como Road.
There are fire rings make from rocks in some of the camping spots. Check on fire bans before you build a campfire. The area is is really dry, so please don’t build a fire if the BLM has deemed doing so dangerous.
As always when boondocking, be prepared to take all your trash with you when you leave. As I said before, there are no trashcans or dumpsters here; you really do have to pack out what you pack in.
I had a quiet night on this BLM land. I didn’t hear any music or other sounds of people partying, In the morning, I had a quick breakfast just as the sky was beginning to turn light, then took off to the Great Sand Dunes.
Some camping spots are about beauty and getting close to nature. Some camping spots are about location. For me, camping on Lake Como Road was all about location. I appreciate public land like this where I can hang out and sleep for free before going off to enjoy natural splendor.
What’s the difference between a national park and a national forest? What’s a national monument anyway? What can I do on BLM land? What’s the Corps of Engineers and where is their property? Can I camp in a national wildlife refuge? Are state parks federal land?
People are confused about public land, and who can blame them? There are so many state and federal agencies managing public land that it’s difficult to keep them sorted out. Today I will do my best to clear up confusion by giving you information about the different categories of public land.
The [national parks] system includes 419 areas covering more than 85 million acres in every state, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. These areas include national parks, monuments, battlefields, military parks, historical parks, historic sites, lakeshores, seashores, recreation areas, scenic rivers and trails, and the White House.
Some national parks charge entrance fees, but fewer than one-third do. Click here to find a national park to visit.
National parks emphasize strict preservation of pristine areas. They focus on protecting natural and historic resources “unimpaired for future generations.”
National forests are another designation of public land. According to the U.S. Forest Service webpage called “Managing the Land“,
The Forest Service manages the National Forests and Grasslands for sustainable multiple-uses to meet the diverse needs of people, ensure the health of our natural resources, provide recreational opportunities, manage wildfire, [and] guard against invasive threats…
The aforementioned website of the Great Smokey Mountains National Park sums it up this way:
National forests…emphasize not only resource preservation, but other kinds of use as well. Under this concept of “multiple use,” national forests are managed to provide Americans with a wide variety of services and commodities, including lumber, cattle grazing, mineral products and recreation…The national forests are managed by forest rangers with the US Forest Service (USFS) under the Department of Agriculture.
The website explains,
Because they have different purposes, adjoining national parks and national forests may need to have very different rules. For example, national parks usually forbid hunting, while forests usually allow it. Dogs can be taken on national forest trails, but not those in national parks…
National parks emphasize preservation, while national forests allow for many uses of the land and its resources.
National parks fall under the authority of the Department of the Interior, while national forests fall under the authority of Department of Agriculture.
National parks and national forests have different rules.
Ok, so what about national monuments? Where do they fall in the scheme of public land? How do they differ from national parks and forests?
According to the March 2019 article “The Difference Between National Parks and Monuments” by Ashley M. Biggers,
[t]he primary difference lies in the reason for preserving the land: National parks are protected due to their scenic, inspirational, education, and recreational value. National monuments have objects of historical, cultural, and/or scientific interest…
Another big difference, according to the Biggers article, is that
the BLM administers the lands that remain from America’s original “public domain.” Created in 1946 through a government reorganization…the BLM is the successor to the General Land Office (established in 1812) and the U.S. Grazing Service (originally called the Division of Grazing and renamed in 1939).
The BLM manages for multiple use across regions and landscapes, with partners and using sound science.
The same page says the BLM’s mission is
To sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.
I’d heard from several different people that the BLM manages lands “out West,” but while researching this post, I discovered this assertion is misleading. The agency is not limited to managing lands only in the West. The BLM’s “What We Manage” page states
[t]he BLM manages one in every 10 acres of land in the United States, and approximately 30 percent of the Nation’s minerals. These lands and minerals are found in every state in the country and encompass forests, mountains, rangelands, arctic tundra, and deserts.
The Army Corps of Engineers is the steward of the lands and waters at Corps water resources projects. It’s [sic] Natural Resources Management mission is to manage and conserve those natural resources, consistent with the ecosystem management principles, while providing quality public outdoor recreation experiences to serve the needs of present and future generations.
The National Wildlife Refuge System is managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. According to the agency’s website,
The mission of the National Wildlife Refuge System is to administer a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management and, where appropriate, restoration of the fish, wildlife and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans.
The National Wildlife Refuge System lands and waters serve a purpose distinct from that of other U.S. public lands: Wildlife conservation drives everything on national wildlife refuges, from the purposes for which each refuge was established, to the recreational activities offered, to the resource management tools used.
National wildlife refuges from Alaska to Florida offer camping opportunities that allow visitors to see wildlife up close in a variety of natural habitats.
The aforementioned bulletin also lists a variety of camping options in national wildlife refuges.
The Bureau of Reclamation also manages public land open to recreation. According to the Bureau’s website, these Bureau of Reclamation projects
are located in the 17 Western United States of North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, California, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington.
Reclamation projects include approximately 6.5 million acres of land and water that is, for the most part, available for public outdoor recreation…To use and enjoy recreation areas and facilities that are open to the public, no use permits are required.
National Recreation Areas are managed by different federal agencies, including the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Forest Service.
The Empowering Parks website offers
an alphabetical listing of all our natural national recreation areas, with links to the official site of each national recreation area.
If you prefer the beach to the forest or the desert, visit national seashores and lakeshores. According to the National Park Service,
national lakeshoresand national seashores focus on the preservation of natural values while at the same time providing water-oriented recreation. Although national lakeshores can be established on any natural freshwater lake, the existing four are all located on the Great Lakes. The national seashores are on the Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific coasts.
Wilderness areas were established as places meant to stay quite untouched by humans. According to Wilderness Connect,
[w]ilderness areas are the most protected public lands in America. Managed with restraint, they are intended to be self-willed lands, both philosophically and practically…Found in most states, but concentrated in the west, they protect lush forests, arid deserts, snow-capped peaks, dank swamps and sandy beaches.
The U.S. Forest Service says,
The National Wilderness Preservation System is a network of over 109 million acres – more area than the state of California – of public land comprised of more than 760 wilderness areas administered for the American people by the federal government. These are special places where nature still calls the shots…They are final holdout refuges for a long list of rare, threatened, and endangered species, forced to the edges by modern development. They are the headwaters of critical, life-infusing rivers and streams. They are places where law mandates above all else that wildness be retained for our current generation, and those who will follow.
The last public lands I’ll cover today are state parks. According to Wikipedia,
State parks are parks or other protected areas managed at the sub-national level within those nations which use “state” as a political subdivision. State parks are typically established by a state to preserve a location on account of its natural beauty, historic interest, or recreational potential. There are state parks under the administration of the government of each U.S. state…
Fall is here, and it’s time for nomads, rubber tramps, vagabonds, and vandwellers to start planning for winter. One possibility for folks who want to live cheaply and escape the worst of the cold rain and snow is spending the winter camping in one of the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Long-term Visitor Areas. Each of these areas is commonly called an LTVA.
An LTVA is a large plot of public land set aside by a BLM ranger district for long-term camping. According to the BLM’s brochure “Long-term Camping on Public Lands,” all of the LTVAs are located in
the Arizona and California deserts…along the lower Colorado River.
LTVAs are administered by BLM field offices in Yuma, AZ; Palm Springs, CA; and El Centro, CA. In all, there are seven LTVAs: Hot Springs (in California, Latitude/Longitude: 32.76734444, -115.2703056) , Tamarisk (in California, Latitude/Longitude: 32.70812222, -115.1271), Pilot Knob (in California, Latitude/Longitude: 32.74273889, -114.7554806), Mule Mountain, Midland (in California, Latitude/Longitude: 33.7296, -114.661), La Posa (in Arizona, divided into La Posa North and La Posa South, Latitude/Longitude: 33.65165, -114.2169), and Imperial Dam (in Arizona, Latitude/Longitude: 32.901256, -114.495431).
Camping in a LTVA is not free, but it is less expensive than any RV park I’ve ever heard of. Most LTVAs do offer some amenities. Amenities vary by location, but may include trash receptacles, running water, dump stations, and restrooms. Where trash receptacles and dump stations are available,
[g]arbage and sewage [including grey water] must be transported by visitors to the nearest disposal site,
according to the BLM brochure.
It is important to note that no LTVA is a developed campground. LTVAs offer open desert camping with the possibility of the few amenities mentioned above. Potential LTVA campers should research each area to find the one that best suits individual needs. For example, while both LTVAs at La Posa and Imperial Dam offer restroom facilities,
[c]ampers must be 100% self-contained for waste and gray water in order to utilize [Midland LTVA] since vault toilets are not provided.
The BLM brochure mentioned before states,
[s]ince only minimum facilities are available at most of the sites, visitors should plan to arrive in a self-contained camping unit. Self-contained units are those with a permanently affixed wastewater holding tank of a 10-gallon minimum capacity.
Furthermore, in the supplementary rules governing everyone who enters an LTVA at any time of year,
BLM does not consider port-a-potty systems, systems that utilize portable holding tanks, or permanent holding tanks of less than 10-gallon capacity, to be self-contained.
Can someone in a rig without a minimum 10 gallon wastewater holding tank stay at an LTVA? Yes, but only at Mule Mountain, Imperial Dam, or La Posa. For example, La Posa LTVA has 10 ADA accessible pit toilets available for public use. Folks dwelling in rigs that are not self-contained are required to camp
within 500 feet of a vault toilet or rest room.
Campers can get either a long-term or short-term permit for
access to the LTVAS.
The cost of the LTVA long-term permit is $180. According to the BLM informational webpage dedicated to the La Posa LTVA, the long-term permit
allows use of…LTVAs continuously from September 15 to April 15…or for any length of time between those two dates.
For folks who don’t want to stay at a LTVA for quite so long, there is also short-term permit which costs $40. According to the aforementioned website, this permit
allows use of…LTVAs for any 14 consecutive day period from September 15 to April 15…The short-visit permit may be renewed an unlimited number of times for the cost of the permit.
[b]ecause LTVAs are special permit areas and not developed campgrounds, the Golden Eagle, Golden Age, Golden Access Passports, and America the Beautiful Pass discounts DO NOT apply to LTVA permit fees.
This means you will NOT be able to use your Golden Age/Senior Pass or Golden Access/Access Pass to get half off the price of a camping permit at a LTVA. Nor will any other pass get you any other sort of discount at an LTVA. If you want to stay at an LTVA, you have to pay full price.
Campers may obtain permits at LTVA host entrance stations, or by contacting…[the overseeing] BLM offices in Arizona and southern California. Permits are not available through the mail.
The contact information for the aforementioned BLM offices are given at the end of this post.
Both the long and short-term permits are valid in any of the LTVAs. Permit holders can move from one LTVA to another without paying any additional fees. Be sure you really want to camp at a LTVA before you lay your money down because according the Long-term Visitor Area Supplementary Rules, the BLM will not refund permit fees. Permit holders cannot reassign or transfer a permit.
Also according to the LTVA Supplementary Rules, when the
long or short-term permit is purchased, the permit-holder is issued permit
decals. A decal must go on the windshield (“bottom right hand corner”) of each
transportation vehicle. Each permit allows for two secondary vehicles to be
used within the LTVA. A decal must also be placed “in a clearly visible
location” on the camping unit.
The rules also say that rigs in any LTVS should be parked no more than 15 feet from any other “dwelling unit.” No rig or campsite in an LTVA should be left unoccupied for more than five days unless a BLM officer has given permission. Finally, all wheeled vehicles must remain mobile during a stay at a LTVA. “Wheels must remain on all wheeled vehicles.” However, trailers and pickup campers may be set “on jacks manufactured for that purpose.”
Other rules deal with wood and campfire. Campfires are allowed, but must be in compliance of all local, state, and federal rules. That means if there is a fire ban in the area, you won’t be able to enjoy a campfire. Neither are you are allowed to collect firewood nor possess native firewood within LTVAs. This means you must purchase firewood in the nearest town (or sometimes from the camp host) if you want to enjoy a campfire.
The BLM “Long-term Camping…” brochure mentioned above explains why certain sites were chosen for the LTVAs.
The areas designated as Long-Term Visitor Areas were chosen because of their past popularity with winter visitors and because access roads have been developed and facilities are available nearby.
That brochure is also a great resource for seeing the location of each LTVA and the amenities offered each one.
The information I’ve shared today was accurate as far as I could tell when I was writing this post. Blaize Sun is not responsible for any out-of-date information posted on the internet. To double check the information shared in this post, you can call, write, or email the BLM field offices in charge of each LTVA directly.
The Yuma Field Office oversees La Posa LTVA and Imperial Dam LTVA.
Address: El Centro Field Office 1661 S. 4th Street El Centro, CA 92243
The Palm Springs-South Coast Field Office oversees Mule Mountain LTVA. All of the official websites concerning Mule Mountain LTVA seemed to be down when I was researching this post. PLEASE contact The Palm Springs-South Coast Field Office before setting out for Mule Mountain LTVA.
If you’re new to the RV and/or vanlife world(s), you might be hearing a lot of terms you are not familiar with. For the sake of public education, I decided to run this post from January 2016 again after revising and updating it.
the vocabulary or jargon of a particular subject or group of people
I hate lingo. When folks use specialized language, it feels like a separation to me–us vs. them. If you understand the specialized words I use, we have something in common and we are insiders. Those people over there who don’t understand what we’re talking about? They must be outsiders, and good riddance!
I know lingo also makes communication easier for people who share knowledge. Like pronouns, lingo saves us from having to use full descriptions every time we talk. But lingo is often exclusionary, even if folks don’t mean to use it that way. In the interest of sharing knowledge, I will now explain some of the lingo I’ve encountered while living my life on the road.
Airstream–A brand of travel trailer made from distinctively shiny metal, with curves instead of corners.
I boondocked on this BLM land.
Bureau of Land Management (BLM)–Government agency that administers public land, especially in the Southwest. There is so much BLM land where folks can boondock/dry camp for free.
Boondocking–Staying somewhere (often public land) for free. Some people use boondocking interchangeably with dry camping, while others differentiate between the two and use boondocking only in relation to public land. To learn all about boondocking, read my post “10 Fundamentals for Boondockers.” My friend Coyote Sue calls dry camping in a parking lot blacktop boondocking .
Canned ham– A trailer, usually vintage, in the shape of a can of ham on its side.
Casita–Brand of a particular style of lightweight travel trailer.
*Class A—RV that looks like a bus with a flat front nose; motor home.
*Class B–A van with the comforts (shower, toilet, kitchenette) of an RV.
*Class C—motor home with a van nose and an overhead cab with a bed.
CRVL–I saw this twice at the RTR and had no idea what it meant, until I saw it spelled out in tiny letters at the bottom of a sticker. CRVL stands for Cheap RV Living, a fantastic online resource for anyone living on the road, no matter what kind of rig is involved. There’s also a Cheap RV Living YouTube channel for folks who’d rather watch videos.
I did some dispersed camping on Bureau of Reclaimation Land in New Mexico, and this was the view of the Rio Grande from my campsite.
*Dispersed camping–Camping on public land in places other than official campgrounds; sometimes called primitive camping or boondocking.
Dry camping–Camping with no hookups, sometimes used interchageably with boondocking.
*5th wheel–Trailers which hook to a hitch in the bed of a pickup truck.
Full-timer–Someone who does not have a sticks-n-bricks house; someone who lives on the road all the time.
*House battery–A deep cycle battery used to run household items in a rig.
Motor home–An RV that has a motor in it so it can be driven; a motor home can be a Class A, a Class B, or a Class C.
Mr. Buddy–A brand of heaters which run on propane and are very popular with vandwellers and rubber tramps.
Nomad–According to Merriam-Webster, this is a member of a people who have no fixed residence but move from place to place usually seasonally and within a well-defined territory; an individual who roams about.
Part-timer–Someone who has a sticks-n-bricks house where s/he lives at least sometimes; someone who lives on the road sometimes, but also lives in a stationary home sometimes.
Popup–A type of towedRV that can be collapsed for easy storage and transport.
The Lincoln National Forest in New Mexico is public land.
Public Land–Land owned by a local, state, or federal government. When rubber tramps and other nomads talk about public land, they typically mean land open to (usually free) camping. Public land can include city or county parks, fishing lakes, BLM land, Bureau of Reclamation Land, National Forests, National Monuments, National Recreation Areas, wild and scenic rivers, and national seashores and lakeshores.
Primitive camping–Camping on public land in places other than official campgrounds. In primitive camping areas, there are no water, sewage, or electrical hookups and usually no toilets of any kind, no water, no ramadas, no picnic tables, and no metal fire rings. Primitive camping is sometimes called dispersed camping. Folks boondock or dry camp in primitive camping areas.
This was my rig during one part of my life as a full-time rubber tramp/vandweller.
Rig–What one drives and lives in. My rig is a conversion van. A rig can be a cargo van. A rig can be a pickup truck with a slide-in camper. A rig can be a car or an SUV. A rig can be a Class A, a Class B, or a Class C motor home. A rig can be a combination of a tow vehicle and a travel trailer or a converted cargo trailer or a 5th wheel or a tear drop or a popup.
Rubber tramp–The Urban Dictionary says a rubber tramp is a “person who travels and lives out of their vehicle (normally an RV, van, bus, etc.). They stop and stay wherever they choose for however long they want, but eventually, so as long as there’s a way to put gas in their tank, move on.” Not all folks at the RTR would consider themselves rubber tramps.
RTArt Camp–A camp within the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, The RTArt Camp is a place within the larger gathering for nomadic artists and creative nomads to come together to share skills, create art together, have fun, and build community.
Rubber Tramp Art Community (RTAC)–An intentional community for nomadic artists/creative travelers. Members of the group meet to camp together, create art together, teach each other new skills, help each other, and spend time together as a community.
So far, I’ve attended four RTRs.
Rubber Tramp Rendezvous (RTR)–A winter gathering in Quartzsite, AZ for folks who live on the road (either full-timers or part-timers) or who want to live on the road. At the RTR there are seminars about living on the road and opportunities to meet people and hang out with friends. I’ve written quite a bit about my experiences at the RTR in 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018. Also see Cheap RV Living for more info about the RTR.
RV–Recreational vehicle. RVs include motor homes, 5th wheels, and travel trailers.
Shakedown–a practice trip taken before a longer trip. (According to Wikipedia,, this term comes from “shakedown cruise,” which “is a nautical term in which the performance of a ship is tested.”)
*Snowbird–Someone who lives in cool places in the summer and warm places in the winter, traveling as the seasons change. Snowbirds can travel north to south or from low elevation to to high elevation and back again.
Solo–Traveling alone, usually said in regards to a woman. The assumption that most women travel with men is often made, so a distinction is sometimes made when a women travels alone. I’ve never heard anyone asking a man if he is solo or hearing a man describe himself as solo.
Sticks-n-bricks–A conventional home, although it doesn’t have to be made from wood and bricks. A sticks-n-bricks can be an apartment or a manufactured home, or a house made from adobe or stucco or straw-bale. A sticks-n-bricks isn’t mobile.
Teardrop—a streamlined, compact, lightweight traveltrailer, which gets its name from its teardrop profile. They usually only have sleeping space for two adults and often have a basic kitchen in the rear.
Toad–A vehicle towed behind an RV. I guess because the vehicles are towed, people started calling them toads. People in big motorhomes often pull a vehicle behind the motorhome so they can park their rig and use the smaller vehicle to drive around for errands and exploring.
Tow vehicle–What one uses to tow one’s travel trailer.
*Travel trailer (TT)–Travel trailers hook up to a hitch and are pulled by a tow vehicle. Travel trailers vary greatly in size. Most people use the travel trailer as living quarters and don’t live in the tow vehicle.
During my time as a camp host, I cleaned this pit (or vault) toilet many times.
*Vandweller–A person living in his/her van who wants to be there.
Vault (or pit) toilet–Non-flushing toilet sometimes found on public land; basically a tall plastic toilet set over a hole where the waste products sit until they are pumped out.
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.
So you’re going to escape the worst of winter by heading to the deserts of Southern Arizona (the Sonoran), Southern New Mexico (the Chijuajuan) or Southern California (the Mojave). Maybe you’re going to Quartzsite to attend The Rubber Tramp Rendezvous or to stay in a Long Term Visitor Area (LTVA). Congratulations!
While you probably won’t face seemingly unending days of ice and snow, a desert environment can pose its own challenges. If you’ve never been to the desert before (or you’re a desert dweller who needs some reminders to shake you out of your complacency), here are ten tips to help you survive and thrive in the desert.
#1 Drink plenty of water. Even if your winter desert isn’t hot, it’s still extremely dry. Even in the winter, it’s important to stay hydrated. Drink before you feel thirsty.
#2 Alcohol can dehydrate you, so limit your consumption. The desert environment has probably already dehydrated you, and alcohol can make things worse. Take it slow with the alcohol until you determine how your body is reacting to the dry environment. If you’re drinking alcohol, up your water intake.
#3 Don’t get too much sun. Yes, you’ve escaped the harsh winter and the sun feels good on your skin, but don’t overdo it. Be sure you have some shade to escape to during the hottest part of the day; yes, even in the winter, a desert can get hot. Wear long pants and long sleeves made from light cotton to protect your skin, and wear sunscreen on any parts you leave uncovered. I use sunscreen on my face, and I wear my hat with the wide brim to further protect my face. My hat also provides a barrier between the sun and my head.
#4 Deserts can get cold too, so have appropriate gear. Even if a winter day in the desert is sunny and relatively warm, the night can get cold. Especially if you’re going to be out and about in the desert night, be prepared with long pants, a long sleeved shirt, and a warm hat. If you tend to feel cold and depending on the temperature, you may also need a jacket and gloves. If your ears are sensitive be prepared to protect them from the wind. Check the weather forecast before you head to your desert destination so you know what clothing you may need.
#5 Watch for Critters. You’re less likely to see a rattlesnake in the winter than the summer, but the snakes are still around. Especially on a warm and sunny day, rattlers may be on the move. Don’t stick your hands or feet into any crack or crevice you haven’t first visually inspected. If you do encounter a rattler (or any other snake) give it a wide berth so it has plenty of room to escape. Don’t poke or prod it, and let it be on its way. If you are bitten by a nonpoisonous snake, clean the wound and get a tetanus shot if you need too. If you are bitten by a poisonous snake, get to an emergency room ASAP.
Turn your shoes upside down and shake them out before you put them on. This will help prevent your toes from meeting any unwelcome spider or scorpion visitors. Check out these tips from the Mayo Clinic about what to do if you’re stung by a scorpion before you need them. Maybe print out the tips and include them in your first aid kit.
#6 Don’t get too close to cholla. Pronounced [chaw-yah], there are more than 20 species of this cactus in the deserts of North America. The joints of this cactus are attached very loosely and will easily attach to a person or dog who brushed by. The joints are full of spines, and if you touch them, you’re likely to be full of spines too!
Keep inquisitive dogs away from cholla. When a dog tries to sniff cholla, it usually ends up with spines in its nose. The dog then tries to use its paws to scratch at the spines in its nose, thus getting spines in its paws. The situation can quickly escalate into a full-blown mess.
Many desert rats accustomed to living in cholla country will carry a large comb with them: it’s an excellent tool for prying cholla stems off yourself.
#7 Be ready for wind and the dust it can bring. I grew up in the Deep South where the wind was nothing to get upset about unless we found ourselves in the midst of a hurricane. I began to learn about real wind when I moved to the Midwest, but I really didn’t know wind until I spent time in New Mexico and Arizona. A desert wind is quite a wind. It can blow hard for hours or days on end and whisk away folding tables and chairs and other gear you may have outside your rig. Any tents or easy-ups must be held down securely so the wind doesn’t blow them away and mangle them in the process.
Without moisture to hold it down, desert dust is easily blown around, sometimes leading to poor air quality. Be prepared to stay in your rig with the windows closed when the dust is at its worst.
#8 Don’t camp in arroyos or other low-lying areas. An arroyo (pronounced [uh–roi-oh]and also known as a wash, gully, gulch, or ditch) is a place where water flows when it rains. (Yes, it rains in the desert, sometimes in the winter.) Even if it’s not raining where you are, a flashflood caused by heavy rain upstream can fill an arroyo with water suddenly and unexpectedly. I’m not talking a trickle of water; I’m talking enough water to wash away your camp.
I can tell you from bitter experience that even though that flat, sandy wash bottom makes a bonza place to pitch a tent, it is horrible if there’s a thunderstorm in the night. At worst, you’re swept away and drowned. At best, you’re awakened in the middle of the night by the stream that’s now flowing through your sleeping bag, and you have to haul your soaked self and belongings to high ground. In the dark. In the rain. And you’ll do a terrible job pitching the tent. Where you won’t be able to sleep because you’re too wet.
#10 Old mines are dangerous; don’t go in them! There are thousands of abanoned mines on Bureau of Land Management sites throughout the deserts of the Southwest. I saw one while camping on BLM land outside Ajo, Arizona and did some research, leading me to write a blog post about what I disovered. The the BLM’s FAQ on Abandoned Mine Lands says such mines can lead to physical and human health hazards.
Physical hazards: Unsecured AML [Abandoned Mine Lands] sites pose a risk of death or serious injury by falling down open mine shafts.
Human health hazards: Exposure to toxic gases and chemicals, cave-ins, explosives, and water hazards endanger human health
If you see any signs like the one pictured here, stay safe by keeping your distance.
Don’t be discouraged! Being prepared for the challenges of the desert can help you avoid the environment’s pitfalls and increase your chances of enjoying yourself. I was in my 40s before I grew acquainted with the desert, but now it’s my winter destinations of choice. You might find you grow to love it too!
Remember, Blaize Sun can’t prepare you for or protect you from every problem you might encounter in the desert. Only you are responsible for you! Do your research before you head to the desert, use common sense, and think before you act.
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.
The Man and I found ourselves in Roswell, NM. When he mentioned he’d never visited Carlsbad Caverns, I said we had to go. I’d been once before, six years ago, with my boyfriend who turned out to be not very nice. Carlsbad Caverns changed me in ways I cannot describe because I can barely understand it all myself. When I realized we were less than 100 miles from a natural wonder The Man hadn’t experienced, I insisted we go.
As soon as we decided to visit Carlsbad Caverns, I got on the FreeCampsites website to try to find us a nice, free place to spend the night.
When my ex and I visited the National Park, we spent the night before our adventure in the parking lot of the Wal-Mart in the town of Carlsbad. I didn’t want to do that if we could help it. First, I haven’t met a Wal-Mart parking lot that wasn’t hot, noisy, and too bright. Why spend the night in a parking lot if we could be out in nature instead? Also, the town of Carlsbad is about 20 miles from the famous caverns, meaning we’d have to start the day with a half hour of driving if we stayed in town. Better, I thought, to drive in the evening and park for the night in a quiet, dark, natural spot.
On the Free Campsites website, I found several options for free camping on BLM land near Carlsbad Caverns National Park. The place I picked doesn’t even have a name; on the website, it’s simply referred to as “Public Lands near Carlsbad Caverns.”
I used the FreeCampsites.net free app on my Android phone to search for promising camping areas. When I decided on the spot where I wanted to camp, I clicked on the “Get Directions” link on the page with the information about the camping area. This link is near the GPS coordinates for the site. When I clicked the “Get Directions” link, it opened up Google Maps which told me how to get from my location to the road where I wanted to camp. The Man taught me it’s better to click the “Get Directions” link than to put in the GPS coordinates myself because I might make a mistake transferring all those numbers. Once Google Maps opened, we let the spokesmodel (I named her Mildred Antwerp) guide us into our spot for the night.
Without Mildred Antwerp to talk us through, it would have been a bit difficult to find the place. I would have had to keep a close eye on my odometer in order to figure out where to turn because the road onto the BLM land not only doesn’t have a street sign, it doesn’t have a name! Google Maps just calls it “Unnamed Road.” There wasn’t even a sign announcing we were on BLM land.
When directed to, we turned off US-180 W/US-62 W onto a fairly well-maintained dirt road. The road was bumpy, but I’ve certainly been on worse New Mexico roads. I didn’t feel as if the van was in any danger.
It wasn’t long before we saw a pull-off–a wide dirt area–on the left side of the road. Farther ahead, we saw other vehicles parked on the left. As indicated in the description of the camping area, we saw a fire ring in the pull-off, not BLM issue as far as I could tell, simply local stones someone had gathered and arranged in a circle. We knew we had arrived.
This pipe snaked on the right side of the road, across from the free camping area.
We didn’t want to park in the first open spot because we like privacy when we can get it, so we continued up the gently climbing road. As we went up and saw other people parked in pull-offs, I worried there might not be a place for us.
All of the camping spots were on the left side of the road. On the right side, I saw a thick, dark pipe snaking across the land. Once we stopped, I was able to read a signpost near the pipe: natural gas. The government owns the land, and somebody’s making money from the sale of the natural gas being pumped out, so I guess the least they can do is let the people camp there for free.
We found a spot, the first unoccupied one past an old pickup with a slide-in camper. The Man backed in the van next to our stone fire ring. We hadn’t brought any wood and there wasn’t any lying around to gather, so we didn’t have a fire that night. We did, however, have a nice view from the back doors.
We were quite far from our nearest neighbor, and we didn’t hear any noise other campers might have made. We were also quite far from the highway and didn’t hear any sounds of traffic. The whole time we were there, only two vehicles passed our camp. Soon after we arrived, a truck drove up the road and not too long after, drove down the road and away. In the morning, a woman who must have been camped above us drove past the van as she left. Otherwise, it was easy to imagine we were the only people in the area.
View from the back of the van
Staying on this BLM land was a true boondocking experience. There was no water, potable or otherwise. There were no toilets of either the pit, the flush, or the portable variety. There were no garbage cans or electricity. It was totally a case of bring in everything you need and take out all the waste you produce. The fire rings were the only indication people had camped there before.
Ocotillo plants and clumps of grass
I did have service for my Net 10 phone the entire time we were on the BLM land. I was even able to post a picture to Facebook and view updates from friends.
I’ve stayed in prettier free camping spots, but this place was not completely lacking beauty. We were in a sort of deserty area with clusters of grass, small cacti, and ocotillo plants growing from rocky ground. Below us, flat land with no trees stretched as far as my eyes could see. What the area lacked in beauty, it made up for in silence and darkness.
It was also in a great location. In the morning we woke up, ate our cereal and milk, then drove about five miles to the entrance of Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Spending the night on this BLM land beat staying in the Carlsbad Wal-Mart’s parking lot on every count.
The night we stayed on the BLM land, we were blessed with a red moon above us.
Last week my friend and I walked around the desert, looking for a place to make a good camp on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land. While we were walking around, I took photos of some of the things I saw.
This photo shows the old car we found in the wash. It’s very rusty.
The most unusual thing we saw was the rusted remains of an old automobile. Believe me, the car was not in a place it could have easily been driven to. In fact, it was in a place that seemed impossible to drive to. It was high up in a wash, in a place I think no motorized vehicle could go.
How do you think that car got here? I asked my friend.
I dunno, he drawled.
I think it was washed here in a flood! I said. How else could it have gotten here?
The car seemed old, not just because it was rusty. The design of the car seemed old. I think the car had been sitting there for years, decades even. I don’t think anyone is going to drag the car out of the wash. I think the car is going to sit there until it becomes one with the earth.
This is the front of the car we found in the wash. It looks really old to me.
Wow! Look at that bug! I said when I saw a beetle sunning itself on a small rock. I like to see creatures hanging out in nature.
We poked at the beetle a little, just to see it move, then we felt bad about disturbing it. It tried to hide in the shadow of the surrounding rocks. I tried to move it back to the sun where I’d first found it.
Later, I almost stepped on it as I skidded down from a higher level where I’d climbed.
Watch out for our little friend, my friend said to me, but I thought he was talking about the dog. Luckily, I didn’t step on the beetle, although I was pretty out of control at the moment, waving my arms and trying to get down the steep, rocky incline without falling.
Here’s the rock formation I’d climbed up to look at more closely:
I stood at the base of it and looked at the openings in the rock. I think it was full of packrat nests. I saw what I thought was feces, and got away from it fast. I don’t need any New Mexico plague, thank you very much.
I think the formation was made of sandstone. It felt gritty to the touch, and seemed as if it could easily disintegrate or wash away. Although at first I thought camping up against it might make for a good campsite, we ended up deciding it was too unstable to trust with our lives.
After a couple of hours of walking around, we found a spot my friend liked. It was mostly flat and mostly secluded. He set up his tent and hauled his things over while I reorganized the van.
As I left in the late afternoon, I saw the sunset in my sideview mirror.
It was a lovely end to a lovely day in the desert.
Before I got to Quartzsite for the Rubber Tramps Rendezvous (RTR), my new friend Iggy told me about the hikes he’d taken the year before near the site of the RTR and the abandoned (and not so abandoned) mines he’d discovered out on that BLM land. It sounded cool and interesting, and I said I wanted to see an abandoned mine too. Iggy and I went on a hike the day after we both arrived, but we had to turn around to beat the sunset before we ever got to a mine. After that, I was always too tired or too busy to go hiking with Iggy, and then the RTR ended and we went our separate ways.
I went to Ajo, AZ next and spent a few days boondocking on the BLM land adjacent to the Ajo Scenic Loop. One morning, as I was driving down the loop, headed into town, I saw a sign that said Abandoned Mine. What? I thought about Iggy of course, so that afternoon after parking the van in my spot, I walked down the road to see the mine. I didn’t have to hike or climb or avoid cacti to get to the mine. It was right next to the road. I took a couple of photos, and that was that.
The most interesting thing I learned was that Arizona has a state mine inspector. Who knew?
Before I wrote this post, I decided to do a quick Google search on abandoned mines on BLM land. I learned a few things on a couple of BLM webpages too.
BLM maintains an inventory of known abandoned mine lands on public lands. Most of the sites are abandoned hardrock mines. As of April 18, 2014, the inventory contained nearly 46,000 sites and 85,000 features. Approximately 23% of the sites have either been remediated, have reclamation actions planned or underway, or do not require further action. The remaining 80% require further investigation and/or remediation. [Emphasis theirs]
The AML [Abandoned Mine Lands] program addresses hardrock mines on or affecting public lands administered by BLM, at which exploration, development, mining, reclamation, maintenance, and inspection of facilities and equipment, and other operations ceased as of January 1, 1981…with no intention of resuming active operation.
What are examples of AML hazards?
Physical hazards: Unsecured AML sites pose a risk of death or serious injury by falling down open mine shafts.
Human health hazards: Exposure to toxic gases and chemicals, cave-ins, explosives, and water hazards endanger human health.
Environmental hazards: Water contaminated by mine tailings threatens nearby communities and destroys habitats.
Which types of sites become cleanup priorities?
The decision is made on a site-by-site basis, but typically the following factors are taken into consideration when determining priorities.
For physical safety sites:
Safety: Death or injury has occurred;
Public use: Have high public visitation;
Accessibility: Are easily accessible;
Population: Are located nearby populated areas;
Cost: Have cost-effective partnerships available.
What are some of the ways BLM addresses hazards at abandoned mine sites? BLM addresses physical safety hazards associated with abandoned mine sites by:
Posting warning signs and fencing off access to dangerous areas;
Closing horizontal opening (adits) to keep people out. Where bats are present, BLM uses bat gates that allow them to use the adit for habitat;
Closing vertical openings (shafts) either by filling them, or by covering them with little roofs (cupolas); and/or
Removing and properly disposing hazards such as mining and milling equipment, oil and chemical drums, and other debris.
This aforementioned webpage also says that as of January 2, 2015, the number of known abandoned mine sites in Arizona was 6,229.
I took this photo from outside the flimsy material fencing off the mine. (You can see said flimsy material on the far side of the hole.)