My previous post raised a bunch of interesting questions about boondocking etiquette which, even more interestingly, has actually been a post I’ve wanted to write for a while. Either all you blog readers are now psychically mind-bonded to me or it’s just a coincidence, but either way the timing is purrrfect. Now I should start by saying that although many of the public lands do have use-rules, there are really not too many firm & fast laws on the “etiquette” side of boondocking. Most boondockers you talk to just use common sense and good judgement, and that really goes a looong way to making things work for everyone (wouldn’t the modern world be better if we all lived like that?). So, don’t take my blog post as “gospel”, but rather a combination of the rules which do exist plus a good dash of neighborly love & respect for nature. Here ya go….
1/ Use Existing Roads & Camping Spots
Probably the #1 rule I can think of regarding boondocking is to use existing roads and existing camping spots. If you ask around at any Wildlife, BLM or National Forest office they will all tell you exactly the same thing. We all want to enjoy the wilds, but ultimately the goal is to have as little impact as possible and the best way to do that is to stay on designated roads and park in an area that’s clearly been used before. Personally I consider it a total no-no to drive into pristine country and smash around vegetation to “create” a spot to camp. Some places (e.g. Quartzsite) are so barren/rocky and have so many previously-used spots you can camp just about anywhere, but other areas are fragile & less-used. In those areas you really risk permanently damaging the very nature you’ve come to see.
Previously-used spots are pretty obvious and will typically have a cleared-out area and often a fire-ring or other such structure to identify them. Park in the cleared-out area, use the existing fire-ring** & of course make sure the ground is firm enough to carry your weight (ideally before you drive in there).
Some public lands will also have additional rules, typically listed as “dispersed camping” rules. For example many Forest Service areas have specific rules on how far away you can camp from developed roads (from one vehicle length up to 300 feet, depending on the forest) and even which roads you can use (identified by MVUM = Motor Vehicle Use Maps). Also most areas require that you maintain a certain distance (typically at least 100 feet) from water sources. Every National Forest & Wildlife Area is a little different, so it’s always good practice to check with the local public lands office to get these details before you go. If you want the natural beauty you see now to be there for yourself & others in the future, respect the land you’re camping on!
**Campfires are also regulated by the local public land authority. Most boondocking spots allow campfires (some require a permit), but some do not & when fire risk is high almost all public land will shut them down completely. It’s easy enough to call and check before you go.
2/ Pack It In, Pack It Out
RVing on public lands is really not much different from backpacking. We’re transient visitors so whatever you bring in to your site, you should bring back out again. Dumping black tanks & leaving trash at your site is an absolute no-no. It’s easy enough to use trash bags for stuff, and typically it’s time to move on when the tanks are full anyway. I usually like to leave our campsites looking as good (if not better) than when we find them. I’ll always pick-up any trash we find & even carry a little rake to smooth the area out if we rough up too much dirt. If you practice a policy of “leave no trace” you’ll encourage others to do the same and keep the area pristine for everyone who comes after you.
3/ Pay Attention To Stay Limits
Most of the public lands around the US have stay limits, typically 14-days within any 28-day period and that’s usually the length of stay we plan when we’re travelling around. Once the 14-days are up, most of the public lands require you to move at least 25 miles away. There are some areas that are more restrictive and there are notable exceptions on the longer-term too. For example the BLM-managed LTVA (Long Term Visitor Areas) legally allow boondockers to stay for 6 months for a fee ($180 for the winter fee in CA/AZ covers 7 BLM areas, $300 for the summer fee in the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains covers 4 BLM campgrounds). These areas also offer some basic support such as dump & trash. Also certain “well-known” boondocking spots such as The Slabs and our previous spot in Borrego are actually on uncontrolled land and have no particular stay limit. The rest however, almost always have stay limits.
You’ll meet folks who will “push the limits” and wait for a ranger to come by and tell them to leave and honestly, many places no-one will ever bother you. But over the long term I (personally) feel this leads to negative effects. For example in the past few years the Prescott & Coconino National Forests (around Flagstaff, AZ) have severely limited the areas you can camp & implemented pretty strict rules in large part because people were “squatting” the forests for long periods. This has led to some semi-aggressive ranger encounters, plus many of the camping spots which used to be available to boondockers in those forests are now totally gone. I can’t tell you what to do, but I think staying as much as possible within the stay limits helps keep these resources open and available for everyone.
4/ Keep A Respectful Distance From Your Neighbor
Now this is really not an official rule anywhere, but it’s considered good basic boondocking etiquette to park a respectful distance from your neighbor. What does “respectful” mean??! Well, it really depends on how much space there is, how many rigs are out there etc. In the wide open desert a few hundred feet of separation is not at all unusual. If you’re camping at Quartzsite during the big RV show amongst thousands of RV’s that may drop to only 20 (Quartzsite BLM actually has a 15-foot minimum rule). In a dense forest it may just mean choosing the next open site. No matter what, most boondockers will try to put as much space as they can between them and the next guy and that’s just good neighborly manners. The biggest no-no you can do is part right next to another boondocker (unless invited to do so) especially if there is space to be elsewhere. Most folks are out here to get away, so give them the space to do so.
5/ Be Neighborly About Pets & Noise
We’re getting into more “common sense” stuff here, but I always like to be neighborly about my pets & the noise we make. The vast majority of boondockers keep their pets off-leash and many public lands are even OK with this (e.g. certain areas only require “voice control”). Whether or not it’s strictly legal this is just what you’ll find when you go out camping in the wilds. I honestly don’t have much of a problem with this unless your pet is aggressive and/or not able to be controlled. That’s where I think common sense takes over & you just gotta keep them contained. I loooove dogs & meeting other pet-owners, but Polly gets frightened when packs of dogs run barking & uncontrolled towards her and the last thing I want is another dog attacking me on my peaceful walk around camp. Dog training is easy, and if not, a small portable fence or leash is even easier.
Also most dispersed camping spots have absolutely no rules on generator noise or music. If you’re on your own out there I say go for it and boogie out at top volume to ABBA all day long if you feel like it, but if you’re camping around others I think it makes sense to try and be respectful. Before we had our solar we would always limit generator noise to mid-morning or mid-afternoon, and we’ve never been the types to blast music outside. You’ll find folks who do it of course, but I think it’s nicer to be respectful so we can all enjoy the nature we came out here to see.
6/ Be Sociable, Be Private…
Most boondockers are a pretty social bunch who enjoy their privacy. Got that? Yeah, it sounds like a total contradiction, but it actually describes alot of the folks you’ll meet out here. We’ve always made a ton of friends out boondocking. It’s not at all unusual to pass by a rig in the wilds and be invited for a chat, for example. But lots of these folks also like their privacy too. Plus you’ll find particular boondockers who really just want to be left alone.
Goodness gracious, how do you walk such a tightrope?
Well, common sense prevails yet again. If your neighbor waves & talks to you on your walk & invites you over for happy hour and campfire then he’s the social type. If your neighbor ignores you then he’s probably the loner type. Within a few days in a boondocking area you’ll know who’s who….really you will. I’m a pretty social gal so I’ll usually get to know almost everyone in our area, but I’m always aware of their preferences. We generally don’t “drop in” on folks unless we know they’re the types who like drop ins, and even then we’ll only usually do it if we see them hanging outside.
7/ Share The Land
Public land is there for all of us to share. It’s yours, but it’s not yours yours if you get what I mean. If you’re a regular boondocker the spot you had last year might not be available this year, or you might get a neighbor who parks a little closer than you’d like. Unless you’ve paid for the deed and own the property there’s really not much you can legally do about it. So, you either talk to your neighbor, pull up stakes & move or deal with it. The very nature of public land means that anyone can go there whether you like it or not. I’ve seen boondockers get “possessive” over a piece of land and even go so far as to put up barriers & “no trespassing” signs. I personally think that’s taking things too far. If someone is bothering me (e.g. with noise) I’ll go talk to them about it, but ultimately we’ve got the wheels to move if it doesn’t work out.
That’s about it folks. Apart from the stay limits & specific public land rules, most of this stuff is just plain common sense. Be respectful, share the space, leave it pristine for others to enjoy and we can all be happy boondockers for many, many years to come….:) Anything I missed?
Good Links From Other Bloggers:
- Our Odyssey: Dispersed Camping On Public Lands
- Cheap RV Living: Understanding And Using the MVUM Part I, and Part II
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