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.
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.)
#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.
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.
#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
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
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!
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
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.
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.
Walnut Canyon National Monument (Hopi: Wupatupqa) is a United States National Monument…The canyon rim elevation is 6,690 ft (2,040 m); the canyon’s floor is 350 ft lower. A 0.9 mi (1.4 km) long loop trail descends 185 ft (56 m) into the canyon passing 25 cliff dwelling rooms constructed by the Sinagua, a pre-Columbian cultural group that lived in Walnut Canyon from about 1100 to 1250 CE.
This photo shows the well-maintained dirt road into the boondocking area. I believe this is the road Google calls Oakmont Drive and says becomes Cosnino Road.
From Interstate 40, we took exit 204 as directed by Google, then turned onto Walnut Canyon Road, which we followed to Cosnino Road. When we saw the Walnut Canyon National Monument sign, we knew we were close. We arrived before dark, so it was easy to see where we were going.
We turned off of the main road (Walnut Canyon Road) onto a well-maintained dirt road, which I believe is the road Google calls Oakmont Drive and says becomes Cosnino Road. This well-maintained dirt road had no signs, but we suspected we were in the right place because we could see RVs parked among the trees.
We hadn’t gone far down the dirt road before we saw a flat spot with evidence of previous camping (a fire ring made from stones, a log fashioned into a bench). We decided that site was good enough for our overnight, and I pulled the van in between the trees.
While we were preparing and eating dinner and later while we were getting ready for bed, something mildly strange occurred. At differnt times, a couple of different pickup trucks drove like bats-out-of-hell on the well-maintained dirt road past our camp. The trucks weren’t gone long; shortly they were driving fast in the opposite direction, ostensibly back to their camps. It was as if the drivers had gone to the end of the road, then turned right around and come back. Where did they go? Why did they come back so soon? What was the huge rush? Other than these strange drive-bys, the camping area was very peaceful. We heard no evidence of partying–no loud voices, no loud music.
Campers before us made a fire ring from stones and fashioned a bench from a log. I sat on that bench to eat my dinner.
The Lady discovered this mountain view.
The next morning The Lady went for a short run and came back to tell me she’d found a mountain view and other campsites. She said she’d show them to me, so I went on a brisk walk with her.
The other campsites were at the top of a slightly steep incline. The
Rutted and rocky dirt road
problem getting to the sites wasn’t the road’s climb so much as the road’s poor condition. I was glad I hadn’t tried to take my van up the rutted and rocky dirt road.
The campsites up top (evident because of stone fire rings) were nicely tucked into the trees and deserted, which surprised me. Sure, it was early April, not prime camping season, but I thought someone would have camped up there on a Friday night. However, it seemed we’d had that entire part of the boondocking area to ourselves.
Unfortunately, the fire rings weren’t the only evidence of previous campers; folks had left trash on more than one of the sites. Also, not far from where we camped, we saw the remains of two sofas. I can’t imagine how anyone could have forgotten two couches out in the woods. Maybe it’s supposed to be a hunting blind? The Lady asked
Whoever left these couches on public land left a pretty big trace!
skeptically. I don’t think so. I think the sofas were hauled onto public land specifically for dumping! What a travesty!
Overall, The Lady and I were pleased with our free camping. I would absolutely stay in this boondocking area again.
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 was making the trip from Las Vegas, NV to Phoenix in early December 2016, and I considered an overnight stop somewhere in between. I got on the Free Campsites website to look for a place and found a listing for a spot on Highway 93 east just before Kingman. The listing didn’t say who administered the land. BLM? Forest Service? Department of Transportation? No clue.
I ended up getting an early start the morning I left Vegas. Even with a stop at the Taco Bell in Boulder City for coffee and breakfast burritos, I was still on target to hit Kingman early in the day. I decided I didn’t really want to boondock just for the sake of boondocking. Besides, I was wide awake from the coffee. I knew I could easily make it all the way to Phoenix well before dark.
However, since I was passing right by the free camping spot, I thought I’d stop there and see how it looked.
Just as I’d seen during my Google Maps research, there is a turn lane with giant arrows leading right to the camping area. It’s the only big turn lane with arrows I noticed that wasn’t either in a town or leading to some business. This turn lane must often make drivers wonder, Where the heck does this go?
When I pulled in, I saw a small sign saying the area is a Arizona State Parks Heritage Fund Project. I saw no signs saying people couldn’t camp there or park overnight.
Formed in 1992, the Arizona Heritage Alliance is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that is guided by a Board of Directors drawn from a broad base of outdoor sports, environmental conservation, and historic preservation organizations that helped pass the 1990 statewide voter initiative creating the Heritage Fund.
Our mission is to preserve and enhance Arizona’s historic, cultural and natural heritage. We accomplish our mission by actively:
Protecting the integrity and voter intent of the Game and Fish Heritage Funds.
Monitoring state legislative and agency activity.
Pursuing sustainable and dedicated funding sources for Arizona’s historic, cultural and natural initiatives, programs and activities.
Educating people of Arizona about the benefits of Arizona’s wildlife, open space, parks and historic and cultural resources.
The area does have a pit toilet in one of those Forest Service style buildings (known as a CXT in the pit toilet business), but I didn’t get out of the van to check on cleanliness and toilet paper availability.
There are no actual campsites in this area. There’s a strip of road to drive on, and it seems people can park their rigs anywhere off the roadway. When I passed through, there was one camper parked to the side of the roadway near the entrance, so yes, people do boondock there.
I don’t remember seeing a water spigot or a trashcan in the area. If I were going to stay in this spot, I would plan to bring water and pack out trash.
This photo shows a view from the camping area.
The area is not super beautiful, but it’s pretty for a desert region right off a highway. Because it is a desert, there aren’t many trees, which means not much shade. This spot would probably be nice in winter, but hot as hell in the summer.
This spot would be good for boondocking if a driver wanted to stop overnight on a trip between Vegas and Phoenix or if someone wanted to explore the Kingman area.
I thought maybe next time I traveled on Highway 93, I’d actually spend the night in this area, but an April 2017 review on the Free Campsites webpage says it is “is soon to be made into day use only.” I’ll check it out next time I pass by, then issue a full report.
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.
The Man and I were going to be in Santa Fe for a few days, so I got on the Free Campsites website and found us a beautiful, free campground on the outskirts of the city.
If you’ve never used Free Campsites, you should check out the website the next time you need to stay somewhere overnight. Whether you want to boondock one evening or plan a multi-stop vacation, Free Campsites can help you find what you need. The website moves beyond Wal-Marts and truck stops and focuses on public land.
According to the site,
Our community provides the best free camping information available. Free campgrounds can be hard to find. Freecampsites.net makes it easy. We give you a simple, map based search engine to find free and cheap camping areas. Community reviews and ratings provide you with up to date information and help you select the best camp site for your next camping trip.
We believe that free camping areas are often the most beautiful and peaceful camp sites. Our focus is on public lands. You own these lands and you are entitled to use them. We especially like camping on Forest Service land, BLM (Bureau of Land Management) areas, WMA’s (Wildlife Management Areas) and county or city parks.
Contrary to the name of the website, not all camping spots listed on the Free Campsites websites are actually free. Some sites included cost up to $15 or so, which is still quite a bit less expensive than the average RV park. Of course, I’m cheap (like my mawmaw, about whom my father said more than once, she could hold onto a nickel so tight the buffalo would moan), so it’s a rare penny I spend to park my van and sleep. However, Free Campsites gives the option of inexpensive campgrounds to travelers who like the extra amenities offered and have a bit of spending money to put down.
I’ve used the Free Campsites listings on my laptop quite a bit but recently installed the free app on my (Android) phone so I can use it on the go. The app is a little slow, but I blame that on my 3G phone.
This photo shows NM Hwy 475, aka the Santa Fe Scenic Byway, as it snakes up the mountain.
When I looked at the options for free camping near Santa Fe, I found several spots on Highway 475, aka the Santa Fe Scenic Byway.
We chose to stay at the Big Tesuque (pronounced [tuh-SOO-key] Campground. It’s part of the Santa Fe National Forest. The campground’s GPS coordinates are 35.76917, -105.80861, and it’s located near milepost 13. It’s small but does include two pit toilets and bear-proof trash cans. There is no drinking water available there.
The campground is really intended for people in tents; there’s no space to park vehicles at the camp sites. The parking area has room for about a dozen vehicles. Campers are meant to park in the small lot, then carry their equipment and supplies up to the sites to unpack and set up.
We simply parked the van in the parking area. When we were ready to cook, we unfolded one of our tables next to the van and set up our stove and equipment. Only four or five cars pulled into the campground’s parking area during our stay, and nobody else spent the night. Even during busy times, I think it would be fine for a van dweller to take an empty parking space and stay there for the night.
Even if we had been tent campers, the entire campground was covered in snow while we were there! It was May 1, but there were several inches of snow all over the camping area. I guess at over 9700 feet in elevation, snow can come late into the spring. Despite the snow, it wasn’t too cold out, at least until the sun set. After dark, we hunkered down in bed and got to sleep early.
I was quite impressed with the cleanliness of the restroom I used. It even had plenty of toilet paper! (Were I a better campground reporter, I would have checked both restrooms for cleanliness and toilet paper.) Although Big Tesuque Campground has no camp host, someone was cleaning, restocking toilet paper, and scrubbing the pit toilet, even during the slow season.
My favorite feature of the campground was the brook/creek/stream/river (one of these days I am going to learn what makes those bodies of water different) running alongside it. There were even two small waterfalls of sorts where the water tumbled down to lower levels. The sound of flowing water helps me sleep peacefully, and I had a very good night in the parking lot of the Big Tesuque Campground.
Snow! Trees! Waterfalls! All at the Big Tesuque Campground, less than 20 miles from the Santa Fe Plaza.