Tag Archives: free camping

Free Camping in the Carson National Forest Near Tres Piedras, New Mexico

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I camped near these rocks in September 2021.

I’ve camped off of Forest Road 64J near the Tres Piedras rocks several times, first in late August 2020, again in early May 2021, and on two occasions in September 2021. Before I camped there, The Man and I visited a few times to hike around the rocks and get some time away from home during the pandemic locked down spring and summer of 2020.

This camping spot is about 40 miles from Taos, NM and just outside the community of Tres Piedras. Don’t get too excited about the town of Tres Piedras because it’s tiny. There’s a post office, a meeting place for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the Chili Line Depot which offers food and lodging. There’s no fuel for vehicles for sale in Tres Piedras, and if you’re looking for a major supply run, you’ll wan to go to Taos or Antonito, Colorado (31 miles away).

What Tres Piedras does have is a National Forest Service ranger station, cool giant rocks that folks who know what they’re doing can climb, and free camping.

The free camping area is off Highway 64. If you’re coming from the east, you’ll pass the ranger station, then look for a sign on the right that say “64J National Forest.” The next road on the right (a dirt road) is the one you want to turn onto. f you’re coming from the west, directly across from the road you want to turn down is a brown sign that reads “Carson National Forest Information Visitors Welcome Ahead.” The sign is quite weathered. One way to know you’re on the right road once you turn is the ginormous green water tank. If you’re coming from the east, you can definitely see it before you turn.

About that sign that says “Visitors Welcome…” As of September 2021, the visitor center at the ranger station was still closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. There were several bulletin boards outside the ranger station offering lots of information about the surrounding area, but I couldn’t pick up a map or say hi to a ranger while I was there.

Some of the plants growing in the area.

There is a trail that goes from the side of the ranger station and crosses road 64J and picks up on the other side. I walked the trail from the ranger station to 64J once during my evening constitutional. It was not very exciting. The most exciting thing I saw while walking the trail were some animal (cow?) bones. I did not take the trail after it crossed 64J, so I don[‘t know what it’s like over there.

Once you turn onto road 64J, find a flat and empty dirt spot off the road and among the pine trees to camp on. There are spots to pull over all along the road. If you go all the way to the end before the road splits, you will see a couple of sites with picnic tales and three or four fire pits constructed from rocks. These are sort of designated camping spots, but everything is quite informal back there.

64J is a pretty good dirt road. The last time I was on it, there were some ruts and wash boarding, but I was able to easily navigate it in my Toyota Sienna minivan.

If you make a very sharp left turn onto the less defined road right before you come to where the road Ts, you can follow it back and find places to camp right next to big rock formations. Picturesque! While these rock formations are big and cool, when you see these, you haven’t really seen anything yet.

If you take either of the more well-defined roads to the left at the T, you will find more places to camp, and before too long come to the Tres Piedras rocks. Calling them “rocks” is something of a misnomer. These are not just a few little rocks or even some boulders. This is a massive rock formation. Rock climbers climb these rocks. They are very, very big!

Jerico and I contemplate the Tres Piedras rocks, summer 2020.

The access to the rock formation is on private property. I’m unclear as to how the far the private land extends, but the land owner allows folks on the private land in order to get to the rocks. However, there’s a fence, so you’re not going to be able to drive your rig right up to the rocks to camp or for a photo opp. Park or camp elsewhere and walk through the access gate to get to the rocks.

This area of Carson National Forest is grazing land for cattle. When The Man and I spent a week right off road 64J in the travel trailer in late August of 2020, there were cows all over the place. If you see cows here or on any public land, don’t harass them. The cows have every right to be there. In fact, the cows are the paying customers, as someone has bought a permit from the forest service to graze them there. Also, you don’t want to get between a mamma and her calf. Cows are typically calm and docile, but they’re also big and protective of their young. If you don’t hassle the cattle, they’ll likely leave you alone.

I’ve seen wildlife in the area too. Peregrine falcons nest in the crevices of the rock formation during some parts of the year, and The Man and I saw some flying around the first time we visited. In the camping area where the fire pits and picnic tables are, I’ve seen woodpeckers and robins and bluebirds and bluejays and other birds I couldn’t identify. Although I’ve heard coyotes yip and howl in the distance, I haven’t seen any while camping near Tres Piedras. While I was writing the rough draft of this post from the comfy warmth of my bed, I saw something in my peripheral vision. I looked out of the van’s side window and I saw two deer off in the distance walking among the trees.

Travel trailer camping in the vicinity of the Tres Piedras rocks.

I’ve never known the camping area to be crowded. (Of course “crowded” is a subjective idea. My “not crowded” might be your “too much.”) Even on Labor Day weekend of 2020, the place was mellow. There tends to be a mix of folks sleeping in tents, vans and minivans, small motorhomes, and pull-behind travel trailers. I’ve not seen any really big Class A motorhomes or 5th wheels parked nearby.

I think it’s not crowded because it’s quite a ways from Taos, where most of the action in the area is. Also, I’ve noticed campers tend to gravitate to water, and there’s no stream or lake near the Tres Piedras rocks. That’s ok with me. I’d rather have peaceful bliss with few neighbors over a crowded body of water any day (or-especially-night).

My cell phone signal (provided by Verizon) was weak in the area and sometimes disappeared entirely. When I tried to have a voice conversation, I could hear the person on the other end fine, but after a few minutes, she said my voice was breaking up. Outgoing texts were sometimes delayed, but eventually went thought. Internet access was best in the early morning. I didn’t try to stream anything.

Other than a few picnic tables and fire pits, camping in this part of the Carson National Forest is a true boondocking experience. There are no hookups and no toilets. There’s no running water, no drinking water, and no showers. There are no trash cans, so prepare to pack out all your trash.

Camping area with picnic table sand fire pits.

On 64J road, you may find yourself–like I did the morning I wrote the first draft of this post–alone with the breeze, the trees, the gentle tapping of a woodpecker, and deer in the distance.

I took the photos in this post.

My Recent Travels

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My first camping spot at the start of my adventure. This photo was taken on the Ski Valley Road between Taos and the Taos Ski Valley.

I recently spent three weeks on the road traveling in New Mexico and Colorado.

I went from Taos to Taos Ski Valley to Tres Piedras, all in New Mexico. Then I went to Colorado, where I visited the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Crestone, and Alamosa. Back in the Land of Enchantment, I camped in the Carson National Forest near Tres Piedras for three days. Next I visited museums, thrift stores, and a friend in Santa Fe. From the capital city, I went to Moriarty, the three sites of the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument, the Very Large Array, the Box Recreation Area near Socorro, the Catwalk National Recreation Area, and the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. I also shopped in nine thrift stores in four towns.

Along the way, I mostly camped for free. I only paid for a campsite once, when I stayed at the Piñon Flats Campground in the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. Otherwise, I spent my nights boondocking at no cost.

In the next few weeks, I’ll share with you where I went, what I learned, what I saw, and where I stayed. Stay tuned for all this great new content.

I had a terrific time during my three weeks of travel. It was fun to be back on the road. However, I am glad to be at my home base, settling in for the winter. It also feels good to write blog posts again. I hope you will enjoy hearing about my adventures as much as I enjoyed living them.

Footprints in the sand at the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Colorado.

I took the photos in this post.

The Jolly Green Giant

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I don’t think we knew the Jolly Green Giant was there. We certainly didn’t go to Blue Earth, Minnesota to see the Jolly Green Giant. I think we went to Blue Earth, MN for the free camping.

According to Wikipedia,

Blue Earth is a city in Faribault County, Minnesota, at the confluence of the east and west branches of the Blue Earth River. The population was 3,353 at the 2010 census[5] Interstate Highway 90 is centered on Blue Earth, as the east and west construction teams met here in 1978. As a tribute, there is a golden stripe of concrete on the interstate near Blue Earth.

At the time, there was also free camping at the Faribault County Fairgrounds in Blue Earth. It was a good deal. There was potable water on site. There were restrooms on site too, with flush toilets and hot showers. There were also a limited number of campsites with electrical hookups. All of these amenities were put to use by participants of the county fair and other big events, but when nothing was happening at the Fairgrounds, the county said, Come on over and camp for free!

Many small communities throughout the Midwest offer free camping in town or county parks, or at least they did a decade ago. I guess the town and county leaders figured they had more to gain than to lose. People staying in a small town would probably buy some supplies from the local businesses. Food, ice, propane, maybe gas for the rig would all add up to a tidy bundle of money for the stores in a town. If campers stuck around for a few days or a week, they might even shop more than once. Why not let them stay on land that would otherwise be empty?

We did our part for the economy of Blue Earth, Minnesota at the Wal-Mart (which I read somewhere online isn’t a Wal-Mart any more). I don’t remember what we bought, but I’m pretty sure ice was on the list. It was summer after all, and even though we’d thought it would be cool in the northern state of Minnesota, the air was hot and humid.

At the time, we typically slept in our van in Wal-Mart parking lots. I remember the Wal-Mart in Blue Earth had signs in the parking lot basically saying, You can’t park here overnight. Go park for free at the fairgrounds right over there!

After we procured our supplies, I drove the van over to the Faribault County Fairgrounds. I believe that’s when we saw the Jolly Green Giant statue towering above everything else.

He’s life-size, I marveled.

Jolly Green Giant (Blue Earth, MN) I had forgotten how short his toga is.

I’m not sure a mythical creature who’s never been truly alive can actually be life-size, but according to Roadside America, he’s

55.5 feet tall [about five stories]…[and] [h]is six-foot-long feet fill size 78 shoes.

The Roadside America post also gives the history of how the Green Giant ended up in blue Earth.

The Giant has stood in Blue Earth since 1979 due to the efforts of radio station owner Paul Hedberg…The entire project was funded by Blue Earth businesses, with Hedberg himself kicking in the largest amount…Creative Displays, fiberglass statue manufacturing forerunner of F.A.S.T. Corp., built the Giant in the summer of 1978…on July 6, 1979, the Jolly Green Giant was bolted to his eight-foot-high base, complete with a staircase so that visitors could pose for snapshots between his legs.

After finding a place to park in the sparsely populated camping area at the Fairgrounds and checking out the facilities (Look Pa! a gen-u-ine flush toilet!), we walked over to visit the Jolly Green Giant.

There was a Jolly Green Giant museum near the statue, but it was closed for the day. The Jolly Green Giant himself was always available to receive visitors and pose for photos, however, and I stared up at him in wonder. Did I mention that the statue is really tall?

As the Roadside America article mentioned, there are steps up to the platform the Green Giant stands on. Visitors can climb the stairs and stand between the Giant’s big feet. We each took our turn climbing up for a photo opp with the Giant. At the time, I hardly ever brought out my camera to document our activities, but I was so impressed with the Giant that I dug out my camera that day and photographed the big guy in all his green glory.

Outside the museum there were wooden cutouts of Little Green Sprout and farmers with a sort of lust for vegetables painted all over their faces. I took some photos of those folks too.

According to the Little Green Sprout’s Organics webpage,

Since 1972, Little Green Sprout has been an enthusiastic apprentice to the Green Giant. Little Green Sprout is an adventurous eater who loves to try new things and is always working on nurturing his healthy eating habits.

You can also view a timeline of Sprout’s history on the aforementioned webpage.

Little Green Sprout (Blue Earth, MN)

After looking around and taking some photos, we wandered back to our campsite and had dinner. I have no recollection of what was on the menu, but I doubt we ate any Green Giant vegetables

I’d hoped to hang around in Blue Earth for a few days. Camping was free, after all. (I think people were invited to camp at the Fairgrounds at no cost for two or three nights; after that campers were asked to pay a few bucks for each additional night they stayed.) Also, who could argue with free flush toilets and free hot showers? I really did want to visit the Jolly Green Giant Museum, and it would have been fun to check out what else Blue Earth had going on.

Alas, we packed up the next afternoon and headed out. We never stayed in one place for very long in those days. We were constantly on the move then, constantly looking for something we never did find.

If you want to visit the Jolly Green Giant, the aformentioned Roadside America article offers great directions.

If you are interested in camping at the Faribault County Fairgrounds, the City of Blue Earth website gives the following information:

The campground has 4 tent sites and 9 electrical sites with full hookups. There is a fee of $20.00 per night for the electrical sites and $10.00 per night for the tent sites. The City allows a maximum of five consecutive nights of camping at the campground unless prior arrangements have been made. There is a $5.00 charge for waste tank dumping. A payment box is located at the site for your convenience.

If you have any questions about camping at the Fairgrounds, you can Contact the Blue Earth City Hall at (507) 526-7336.

I took the photos in this post.

Camping Basics

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When I asked for suggestions for topics for my Wednesday posts of special interest to vandwellers, vagabonds, rubber tramps, nomads, and travelers of all kinds, my friend Laura-Marie of the dangerous compassions blog suggested I write about the basics of camping. Good idea! Camping season is upon us, so today I’ll share the steps for finding a camping spot, setting up your equipment, having a great time, and packing up to go home.

#1 Decide where you want to camp. Do you want to camp close to home, or do you want to visit a different region? Do you want to camp in a campground or hike into the back country? Do you want to camp at the beach or on top of a mountain? Do you want to camp in a forest or in a desert? Do you want to be in a remote, quiet location or close to civilization? Answering these questions will help you decide where to camp. (If you decide to camp in a forest, desert, or on top of a mountain, see my blog posts “How to Stay Safe and Healthy in the Forest,” “10 Tips for Surviving and Thriving in the Dessert,” or “Managing in the Mountains” for more tips for a pleasant camping experience.)

If the mere thought of using a pit toilet makes you gag, this might not be the right campground for you.

#2 Decide on the amenities you need a campground to provide. Do you want to rough it in a place with no amenities or stay some place with running water, electricity, hot showers, and flush toilets? Do you want to stay in a yurt with real beds? Will you be pitching a tent or staying in your motorhome, travel trailer, or 5th wheel? Do you need to take a hot shower every morning? Do you gag at the thought of using a pit toilet? Do you want to hike, fish, or collect rock specimens during your trip? The answers to these questions will also help you choose the right camping spot for you.

#3 Do research online before you hit the road. If you want to camp for free, check out both the Free Campsites and Campendium websites. These websites list free and cheap campsites across the USA and include reviews from people who’ve actually stayed in those places. Many of these camping spots are in primitive camping areas on public land, so be ready to boondock and meet all your own needs. (Not sure what it means to boondock? See my post “10 Fundamentals for Boondockers.”)

National parks, forests, and monuments often offer developed campgrounds. You can get information about and make reservations for your stay at these campgrounds at Recreation.gov. National forest campgrounds typically do not offer showers but often do offer pit toilets, picnic tables, and fire rings. Campgrounds in national parks tend to be a bit fancier and may include running water, hot showers, and flush toilets.

If you want to camp at a state park, do an internet search for the parks in the state you’re interested in that have campgrounds. State parks often have amenities like hot showers, picnic tables, fire rings, flush toilets, and even visitor centers with educational exhibits. If you need some comforts of home while still enjoying time out in nature, a state park campground may be the right choice for you. (New Mexico has fantastic campgrounds in its state parks. You can read my posts about camping at Elephant Butte Lake State Park, Brantley Lake State Park, Rockhound State Park, and Oliver Lee Memorial State Park. You can also read my post about the New Mexico State Parks Annual Camping Pass.)

Another camping option is a private campground. Some private campgrounds cater to Rvs while others have spots for tent camping too. Some private campgrounds prohibit car camping, so if you’re a vandweller, you may want to carry a small tent for just such occasions.

No matter what sort of campground you decide to camp in, make sure it has the amenities you need before you make a reservation or pay a fee. Get as much information as possible online before you make a decision.

#4 Pack everything you need. Where you camp will help determine what supplies you will need. If you’re not bringing an RV, at the very least you’re going to want a tent, food, and water. If you want even a bit of comfort, bring a sleeping bag. For extra comfort, bring a sleeping pad or air mattress to go under your sleeping bag. If you’re going to cook, you’ll need a portable stove, fuel for the stove, pots and pans, utensils, plates, ingredients, cooking oil, spices, etc. If you’re in a spot with no drinking water, you’ll have to bring your own. If there’s no water at all where you’re camping, you’ll have to bring water for washing too.

Other basic necessities: flashlight or headlamp with fresh batteries (it’s dark out in nature, even in a campground); tarp to go under your tent; rain gear (just in case); pillow (you can get small ones especially for travel and camping); strong stakes to help hold down your tent; small shovel, hand soap, and toilet paper if you are going to be primitive camping.

(For a very complete list of items useful for camping, see my Checklist of Things to Take on the Road.)

#5 Once you arrive at your general camping destination, find your campsite. If you’re staying in a campground, the camp host will probably assign you a site, or maybe you already picked your site when you made a reservation. Ask the camp host for help finding your site, check your reservation confirmation for your site number, or look for a placard with the name of the person who made the reservation on it. If you’re in a first-come, first-served campground, look for a site that’s not too close to the (possibly stinky) pit toilets and not on an obvious incline.

If you’re boondocking, find a spot that’s been camped on before. Look for a place where the groundcover has been disturbed or where there is a fire ring made of stones.

No matter where you are camping, you want a nice flat spot for your tent. (Creeping downhill all night because your tent is pitched on uneven ground is a special kind of hell.) Make sure you aren’t pitching your tent on top of bumpy tree roots. When you find a spot that seems workable, look up. You don’t want a branch falling on your tent in the event of high winds Once you’ve found a flat spot with no dangerous branches overhead, clear away any sticks and rocks. (Another special kind of camping hell is finding you’re sleeping on top of rocks, sticks, and roots.)

#6 Pitch your tent. For a complete step-by-step guide (with pictures!) to setting up (and taking down) your tent, see the WikiHow article on the subject, but for your convenience, I’ll hit the high points here.

  • Practice setting up your tent before your trip. This step is especially important if you won’t arrive at your camping spot until after dark. This will also allow you to make sure all of the tent components are present.
  • Once you’re on your campsite and have picked a place for your tent, unpack and lay out all the items you will need to set up the tent. These items include the tent itself, rain-fly, ground cloth or tarp, tent poles, stakes, guy lines, and a mallet or rock for pounding in stakes.
  • Lay out the tarp or ground cloth where you want the tent to be. The ground cloth will help protect the tent floor from tears and punctures and keep it dry. This bottom layer should be as big (or nearly so) as the bottom of your tent.
  • Lay the tent over the ground cloth.
  • Assemble all the tent poles.
  • Put the poles through the sleeves on top of the tent. Beware: With some tents, poles of different sizes go into specific sleeves.
  • Once the poles are in place, the bottoms of the poles must be attached to the bottom of the tent. Look for pouches at the bottom of the tent the poles can fit into or metal pins attached to the tent that slide into the hollow end of the poles. As the poles go into place, the roof of the tent should lift off the ground
  • If the tent has clips used to hold its fabric close to the poles, snap the clips over the poles.
  • The bottom of the tent should have loops through which the stakes go. Put the stakes through the loops, then pound the stakes into the ground using your mallet or a rock.
  • Stretch out your guy lines and stake then down. You want your guy lines to be taut but not overstretched. Staking the guy lines will help the tent stand properly and will help the zippers slide smoothly.
  • Attach the rain-fly if your tent has one. You may want to leave the rain-fly off on a clear night, but if there is any chance of rain, put it on. Trust me, you do not want to go outside in a thunderstorm to attach your rain-fly.

#7 Set up your kitchen. Your kitchen will be one of the mostly highly trafficked areas of your camp. If your campsite has a picnic table, that’s a logical place for your kitchen.

If you’re camping in bear country, you’ll need to take some extra precautions. In the book Bear Aware, author Bill Schneider offers an entire chapter detailing camping in bear country. One of the most important tips he shares is to separate your sleeping and cooking areas. If food smells attract bears, you want them as far away from sleeping people as possible.

“The sleeping area and the cooking area must be separated by at least 100 yards,” Schneider advises.

Also, he says be prepared to “hang everything that has any food smell” or store those items (including trash, toothpaste, sunscreen, lotion, etc.) in bear canisters.

#8 Keep a clean camp. Food and garbage lying around can attract flies, rodents, raccoons, ravens, and bears. Of course, you don’t want to tangle with bears, but even smaller animals can create a huge mess by dragging food and garbage all over your campsite. Flies carry disease, and no one wants to get sick while they’re supposed to be enjoying trees and birdsong. For more information about dealing with wildlife while camping, check out the great article “How to Keep Animals Out of Your Campsite” on the Camping Cooks website.

If you’re in a campground, dispose of trash in garbage cans or dumpsters regularly. Be sure you close garbage containers securely. If you’re camping in a place with no trash containers, tie garbage bags and stow them securely in your vehicle until you can pack out what you’ve packed in.

#9 Once your camp is set up, you’re going to want to relax and enjoy yourself. Most campers love to sit around a campfire, maybe roasting marshmallows and telling ghost stories. Of course, before this fun can begin someone has to build a campfire. If there’s already a fire ring on your campsite, use it. Otherwise, build one with stones. Do NOT start a fire on bare ground. Also, you need a source of water, a bucket, and a shovel on hand at all times during your fire building and enjoyment.

If you are allowed, gather wood from around your campsite. Sort your wood according to size. Even if you’ve brought firewood, gather small sticks and dry leaves and needles for tinder if you are allowed to do so.

Place some tinder in the middle of the fire ring. Use sticks less than one inch around to build a teepee-like structure over the tinder. Shove balled up paper in between the sticks. Once the framework is built, light the balled up paper. You need to start your fire small, then add larger pieces of wood. Once the fire is burning strongly, you can add larger pieces. You can get more information about building a safe campfire from Smokey Bear.

Had your campfire fun and now you’re ready to go to bed? Make sure your campfire is DEAD OUT. Any time you leave your campsite, any fires must be DEAD OUT. Smokey Bear can tell you how to do this too, but briefly, pour lots of water on your fire or stir sand or dirt into the embers to bury the fire. Smokey says,

Remember:
If it’s too hot to touch, it’s too hot to leave.

#10 When it’s time to go home, break camp.

Make sure any rain or dew on your tent has dried completely before packing. If your tent is damp when you put it away, you will have to set it up again at home so it can dry, or you run the risk of unpacking a stinky, moldy mess next time you go camping. Pack up the tent in the reverse order of setup.

Clean up your campsite. Practice the leave no trace rule of camping where you remove every hint of your presence. Pick up all trash, including microtrash. Put all trash in trashcans, or if none are available, pack out what you packed in. Don’t leave any trash in fire rings. Be a good campground steward and leave your campsite cleaner than you found it.

If you piled up rocks, sticks, leaves or pine cones before you set up your tent, spread those materials out over the big bare patch where your tent sat.

If you built a fire ring, take it apart after you have determined that the fire is DEAD OUT. Disperse the rocks and ashes so their presence cannot be detected.

Don’t leave any belongings behind. Get everyone in your party to do a final walk through of the campsite to make sure everything brought has been packed up.

I hope you had a great camping experience! What did you learn that I left out? Share your camping tips in the comments below.

There’s no way to imagine or prepare for every situation one might encounter on a camping trip. Remember, Blaize Sun can’t prepare you or protect you from every danger you might encounter in nature. You are responsible for our own self! Research the problems you might encounter in the area you plan to camp before you get there. If you plan to camp on Bureau of Land Management or Forest Service land, call the field office or ranger station responsible for that place and ask about hazards in the area. Think before you act. If something you’re about to do seems potentially dangerous, don’t do it!

I took the photos in this post.

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.

Heritage Square and a Little Free Library (Flagstaff, AZ)

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Brown public land sign saying "All Campfires Prohibited" and "Camping Permitted Beyond Here."
Camping on public lands outside Flagstaff, AZ

The public land around Flagstaff, AZ has offered me and The Man (and Jerico the dog) places to stop over (for a night or a week or even two weeks) on our way to new adventures. In April of 2017, we left Ajo, AZ and spent a night outside of Flagstaff on our way to Taos, NM. Later that year in late June we spent a few days and nights near Flagstaff on our way to jobs in the mountains of California. In April of 2018 we again found ourselves in Flagstaff area for a couple of weeks before we went to our Cali jobs. We stayed until the prospect of an early May snowstorm sent us packing. We found ourselves in the area again in late September of 2018 when our jobs in the California mountains ended. We hung out near Flagstaff until the temperature dropped and it was cool enough go back to our fifth wheel in Why, AZ.

During one of our 2018 stays, The Man decided he wanted to try to sell some of the pendants he’d made in Heritage Square. According to the Heritage Square Trust website,

We arrived fairly early on a Saturday morning and stopped the van close enough to drop off a table as well as The Man’s jewelry and jewelry-making supplies. Then The Man parked the van farther away where we wouldn’t get a ticket while I stood guard over his belongings. After setting up his table and arranging his pendants, The Man began working on a new piece. I wandered around Heritage Square taking photos.

Sculpture of a reclining life size mountain lion painted bright colors
“Asset #15 – Positive Peer Influence” Apparently that’s how big a mountain lion really is.

There’s a cool statue of a colorful cat in Heritage Square called Asset #15. According to the Encircle Photos website, it is part of the PAWS project.

This is one of the eventual 40, life-size painted mountain lions found around Flagstaff…The PAWS project is sponsored by the Coconino Coalition for Children and Youth. Each sculpture portrays one of the developmental assets essential to raising a healthy and successful child. For example, this is “Asset #15 – Positive Peer Influence.”

Flag pole base made of stone and including rocks from the Grand Canyon.
Actual rocks from the actual Grand Canyon.

I also like the exhibit of the Grand Canyon strata. It’s a nice display of information about the natural wonder only 81 miles away. According to the aforementioned Heritage Square Trust website,

The base of the flag pole contains actual rocks from the Grand Canyon placed carefully to reflect the geologic strata of the Canyon, with Vishnu schist on the bottom and Kaibab limestone on the top.

My favorite part of Heritage Square was the Little Free Library (LFL) I was pleasantly surprised to find there. Little Free Libraries are grassroots gift economy projects. LFLS are places where people can leave books they don’t want; anyone is allowed to take one or more books from the libraries. According to the Little Free Library organization,

A Little Free Library is a “take a book, return a book” free book exchange. They come in many shapes and sizes, but the most common version is a small wooden box of books. Anyone may take a book or bring a book to share.

This is the Little Free Library I encountered in Heritage Square.

I thought this was a registered Little Free Library with a charter number, but after looking at the photos I took of it, I see that it is a renegade LFL! I do love me a renegade! The LFL is a project of Oasis Flagstaff and the Downtown Business Alliance. It goes to show that a Little Free Library doesn’t have to be “official” to be built well and look nice.

 I appreciate its sturdy construction, which surely makes it less attractive to thieves and vandals.

Let me say here, anyone who steals or vandalizes a Little Free Library has problems and needs prayers. According to the Little Free Library FAQs,

Small incidents of vandalism are common. Things like having a guest book stolen or a few books damaged are going to happen at one point or another. Bigger problems, like having all of your books “stolen” or your entire Library damaged, are much less common. In our annual survey of Little Free Library stewards, more than 80% of stewards reported never dealing with significant vandalism.

This Little Free Library had plenty of books to offer.

 I didn’t take any books from the LFL that day or leave any behind either, but I paid another visit to it before we left town. I dropped off one book (The Unincorporated Man) and took one to replace it (a historical romance set in Chicago during World War II, the title of which I cannot remember).

I love visiting Little Free Libraries, even if I don’t take or leave books. I’ve visited LFLs in Los Gatos, CA; Phoenix and Mesa, AZ; Santa Fe, NM; and Taos County, NM. The LFL in Heritage Square was my first (but not my last) in Flagstaff. I’m so glad I had the opportunity to see it.

Intricate wire wrapped pendant with blues stones.
The Man made this pendant. He gave it to me for my birthday.

As for The Man’s jewelry sales, it was a bust. He didn’t sell a single thing. Hardly any people walked through the square, and the ones who did didn’t even stop to look. Maybe we were too early. The last time we’d gone there and found traveling kids making jewelry, playing drums and guitars, and generally hanging out, it had been later in the day.

There’s no shade in Heritage Square, and we hadn’t brought an umbrella or an awning. By noon the sun was beating down, and we were quite hot, so we packed up and drove a few miles back to the woods.

I took the photos in this post.

Free Camping near Quartzsite, Arizona

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Two weeks ago, I wrote about the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Long-term Visitor Areas (LTVAs) located along the Colorado River in Arizona and California. La Posa (North and South, on either side of Highway 95) is the LTVA closest to Quartzsite, AZ. As I stated in the LTVA post, it costs $180 for a seasonal LTVA permit, good from September 15 to April 15. If you just want to stay at an LTVA for two weeks, you can get a permit for $40. (To learn a whole lot more about LTVAs, read my post about the Long-term Visitor Areas.)

Wait a minute!  you may have thought when you read the LTVA post. I heard there was free camping on BLM land near Quartzsite.

Well, you were right about that! There is free camping on BLM land all around Quartzsite. Sometimes people get confused because both LTVAs and free camping are on BLM land. The difference? After paying the permit fee, one can camp at an LTVA all season (or move among the LTVAs at no additional charge), while camping is allowed on the free spots for only 14 days within a 28 day period.

According to the Free Campsites website, free camping locations on BLM land in the immediate Quartzsite area are Plomosa Road, Hi Jolly, Dome Rock Mountain, Scaddan Wash and Road Runner. In addition, there are other free camping areas on BLM land within 20 miles of Quartzsite in Ehrenberg, AZ, as well as within 40 miles near Bouse and Parker, AZ. If you want to go a little further (about 75 miles), there’s also free camping on BLM land near Lake Havasu City, AZ.

Although there is no cost to camp on the BLM land near Quartzsite (other than La Posa North and South LTVA, of course), a permit is required. Getting the permit is no big deal. Each camping area has a camp host who issues permits. Simply stop at the camp host’s campsite and ask for your permit. The camp host may ask to see your driver’s license or ID. The camp host will write your name, address, and license plate number on the permit. You will get one copy to adhere to your windshield and the host will keep the other copies for the BLM’s records.

A BLM ranger might hassle someone camping on any of these free camping areas without a permit. I believe a ranger could even issue a ticket to someone camping without a permit, but I don’t know anyone this has happened to. But why risk? The permits are free and easy to obtain.

Once you get your permit, you are allowed to camp in the area for which the permit was written for up to 14 days. In the past, people have stayed on free BLM land near Quartzsite for much longer than two weeks, but in the last few years rangers have started cracking down on these long-term stays in the short-term camping areas. After two weeks, some people simply move to a different free camping area near Quartzsite and get a new permit, but technically, doing so is not permissible.

One can camp for free on most BLM land that is not an LTVA for 14 days within a 28 day period at no cost. One can move 25 miles away and camp on BLM land for free (if allowed) for 14 days. One can return to the original camping spot on the 29th day since the first day of camping. A BLM website explains it in detail this way:

Dispersed camping is allowed on public land for a period not to exceed 14 days within a 28 consecutive day period. The 28 day period begins when a camper initially occupies a specific location on public lands. The 14 day limit may be reached either through a number of separate visits or through 14 days of continuous overnight occupation during the 28 day period. After the 14th day of occupation, the camper must move outside of a 25 mile radius of the previous location until the 29th day since the initial occupation.

(Camping rules for BLM land may vary according to the ranger district. Always check the camping rules for the particular BLM ranger district in which you want to camp.)

The free BLM camping areas near Quartzite are totally undeveloped. Like on most other BLM land in the Southwest, these public lands open to free camping require boondockers to provide for their every need. (If you don’t know the first thing about boondocking, see my post on the “10 Fundamentals for Boondockers“.) You may find a fire ring made of stones left behind by previous campers, but otherwise you are on your own. You will not find a trash can or dump station in any of the free BLM camping areas in this part of Arizona. Plan to pack out anything you pack in. Don’t look for picnic tables, pit toilets or electrical hookups because there are none. The lack of running water means you can forget about flush toilets or hot showers. (To find out where you can find a hot shower and other amenities see my post “Where to Go for What You Need in Quartzsite.”)

All sorts of folks camp in the free BLM camping areas in Quartzsite. I’ve seen plenty of RVers in motorhomes, travel trailers, and fifth wheels of all different sizes and conditions. There’s no shortage of vandwellers out there either, in everything from Roadtreks to minivans, converted cargo vans to old-school conversion vans. Skoolies make an appearance too, both full-size and short buses. Travelers stay there in truck campers, and I’ve witnessed literal car camping out there too. Some hardy souls brave the wind and chilly night to camp in tents.

Whatever one’s living situation, there are rules to follow while staying on the public land. Be quiet during quiet hours, typically 10pm to 6am. Comply with any fire ban and do NOT gather any native wood lying on the ground. (Hopefully I don’t have to tell you not to cut down or in any way damage plants growing on BLM land.) Keep your pets leashed and under your control. (This is for your pet’s safety, as coyotes in those parts have been known to snatch unattended dogs.)

If your rig does not have toilet facilities, it is allowable to dig “cat holes” for your elimination needs. According to the Tread Lightly! website,

Human waste should be disposed of in a shallow hole six to eight inches deep at least 200 feet from water sources, campsites or trails. Cover and disguise the hole with natural materials. It is recommended to pack out your toilet paper.

However, there’s hardly any privacy on the BLM land set aside for free camping near Quartzsite. You’re in the desert out there, not the forest, so it won’t be easy to find a tree to hide behind. You can set up a privacy tent, but be aware that the winter wind can be fierce out there. I recommend you set up some sort of elimination facility in your rig. (If you have never camped in the desert before, check out my post “10 Tips for Surviving and Thriving in the Desert” to get more advice on doing it right.)

If you don’t mind being a little farther away from Quartzsite, you have a couple of other options. According to the Free Campsites website, there is dispersed camping on BLM land on Gold Nugget Road east of Quartzsite. It doesn’t seem like a permit is required to stay there. You can also camp for free in the Crystal Hill area of the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge, about 8 miles south of Quartzsite on Highway 95 at milepost 95. Camping there is limited to 14 days during any 12-month period.

What if you don’t want to camp on the public lands near Quartzsite? Do you have other options? The answer is yes!

There are two truck stops in Quartzsite, a Love’s and a Pilot. I have stayed overnight at both Quartzsite travel centers. One year after the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous (RTR) I wanted to stick around for a few more days for the PowWow gem and mineral show. I’d already reached my 14 day BLM limit, so I stayed in my van at the Love’s for a couple of nights with no problems. On another occasion I stayed in town using the internet to schedule blog posts until after sunset and didn’t want to try to find my campsite after dark. I spent that night in the Pilot parking lot, again with no trouble. I’ve seen plenty of other vans and truck campers parked overnight in those travel centers too.

So yes, it’s true, you can camp for free on BLM land near Quartzsite, but technically only for two weeks before you have to move down the road, at least for a little while.

I took the photos in this post.

Let the Sounds of Nature Prevail

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La Sal mountains near Moab, Utah

We hadn’t been awake long when The Lady of the House pulled back the curtain between the van’s front seats and the living area and looked out the windshield. She reported a dog running around between my van and the camp next door. As far as she could tell, the dog was not accompanied by a human.

The Lady and I were on an epic road trip in Arizona and Utah. We’d spent the night in a free BLM camping area on Willow Springs Road northwest of Moab. We were going to the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park that morning, and we were up early in hopes of arriving in time to get a site in the Park’s Willow Flat Campground. When we spilled out of the van, we found chilly air and frost on the table we’d set up the night before, but we were not deterred. We were determined to get on the road as soon as possible.

As we prepared our simple breakfast (oatmeal for The Lady and eggs and cheese on a flour tortilla for me), the dog The Lady had seen earlier continued to run around unattended. It tried to come into our camp, but I shooed it away, telling it to Go home! It finally settled down next to the small SUV parked across the road from us.

While we ate, a young woman emerged from the tent pitched a short distance beyond the small SUV. From the way she reacted to the dog, we could tell they were traveling companions.

The young woman bustled around her vehicle, opening and closing doors, but I didn’t really pay much attention to her until she reached into the vehicle and turned on its radio. A dreadful slow jam destroyed the morning quiet.

Granted, it was past the customary 6am cutoff for quiet time on public land, and the young woman was not blasting the tunes. However, The Lady and I could clearly hear the music across the road in our camp, which means to me the music was too loud. I would have probably been more forgiving if it had been afternoon, but the music was destroying the morning peace. I might not have minded as much had the songs I was subjected to been some that I liked, but the music the stranger enjoyed was grating noise to my ears. However, even if she had been playing the Grateful Dead, I still would have thought the music was being played too loudly and too early for public land.

I once read a publication from the Forest Service that said people on public land should “let the sounds of nature prevail.” That mandate has stuck with me. People are ostensibly out in nature because they want to enjoy nature. When I’m out in nature, I want to enjoy silence or, at most, some energetic bird song. I do not venture into nature to listen to over-produced radio music.

I didn’t say anything to the young woman. I didn’t walk over to her camp to let her know her music was bothering me or suggest she find a portable device and earbuds. The Lady and I were leaving once we cleaned up from breakfast after all. I just gritted my teeth while we packed up and hoped we’d find more considerate neighbors in the National Park.

I took the photo 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.

10 Fundamentals for Boondockers

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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.