Boondocking For Newbies Part I -> Finding Where To Go
I’ve written alot of boondocking (aka free camping in the wilds) posts over the years, and during winter pretty much all the big bloggers out there do the same thing. That’s because winter is the perfect time to be in the southwest desert and given how how much public land there is out here, it’s just such an easy, gorgeous (and inexpensive) way to spend the season. So, you can see why us bloggers write about it.
At this point in our RV lives I would call ourselves well-seasoned boondockers, but we haven’t always been this way. Once, a long, long time ago (or maybe not that long ago?) we were total green-horn newbies and the very thought of bringing our 33,000 lb rig out into the desert was terrifying. How will we know where to go? What if we get stuck? How do we know if it’s legal? So, in my attempt to take a different twist on this whole subject I thought I would approach it from the point of view of the total beginner -> the RVer who’s never boondocked and is doing their very first attempt. Initially I though this would be one long post, but it’s actually turned into a 3-4 part, ~8000-word epic so I’ll be releasing it in several blog posts over the next few weeks.
Here we go with Part I -> Finding Where To Go
For those not in the know, boondocking is the art of driving your rig into the wilds and camping for free on public land. Also known as “dispersed camping” there are many, many tracts of public land allow this in the USA. There are no hookups and no developed campgrounds, but there ARE rules and stay limits, plus not all public land allows you to do this.
The two biggest tracts of public land that allow boondocking are the lands owned by BLM (Bureau Of Land Management) and National Forest. BLM administers around 248 million acres of land, with National Forest around 193 million acres of land. The vast majority of these lands are out west which is why most of the hard-core boondockers are out here. There are a few other agencies that allow select boondocking, but these two are the biggest and easiest to start with as a newbie.
My #1 method of finding boondocking spots is what I call a “tops down” method. It’s a multi-step process that starts with figuring out if there is any public land in the area I want to visit, then works down into the details of which office manages the land and then (finally) exactly where to go. There are easier/short-cut methods too (which I’ll list at the bottom), but knowing how to do this from scratch is something every newbie boondocker should learn.
Search For Public Land
On a top-level basis the first thing I want to know is whether there is any public land in the area I”m planning to visit. I want to see all the public land info in one spot, and I don’t want to go to eight different websites to do this. The best two resources I’ve found for this are good old-fashioned paper maps and the snazzy Public Lands App.
- Benchmark Maps: My first (and still absolute best IMHO) resource for finding public land areas are the Benchmark Map Series. They are sold by state and each one has a “recreation” section which offers lovely color-coded public land boundary maps. The maps won’t list which specific office manages the area, but they’ll identify which agency (e.g. BLM or National Forest) manages the land, what the exact boundary of the area is, the roads within and what it’s called.
- US Public Lands App: My supporting resource for finding public land is the US public Lands App (iPhone/iPad/Android). This is kind of like an electronic version of the paper maps, but with the added benefit of a satellite underlay. Using this app I can easily scan an area to see if there’s any public land and identify which agency manages it. Plus I can zoom to road level and scan the satellite image for additional details. Pretty darn cool!
You could do pretty much all of your boondocking planning just with these two resources alone, but as a newbie I always recommend getting more details so that you know the conditions, rules and any specific issues or regulations for the area you want to visit. So, once you’ve figured out the type of public land you want to visit, the next battle is getting more details on the area.
Get Detailed Land Info & Maps
The most obvious place to get more details on a piece of land is on the BLM or National Forest websites, but it’s actually not as easy as it seems. Each tract of land is managed by a local field office so unless you happen to know which specific field office you need the websites are total bears (= frikkin impossible) to navigate. The names of the offices are not all that obvious either. For example the BLM area north of Phoenix AZ is managed by the Hassayampa Field Office. How in the world would you know that?? This is where a little inside know-how comes in handy:
BLM Information -> There is one, and only one easy centralized place I know to find out which field office manages the piece of BLM land you’re interested in and it’s an obscure online map which is hidden HERE. Make sure “Administrative Units” is checked and then just zoom into your area of interest. The areas in yellow are all BLM land and if you click a particular spot you’ll see the name of the specific BLM office who manages it. Zoom out and you’ll see the boundaries of the BLM area too. Voila!! It’s not pretty, but it’s there!! Once you have this info it’s easy to Google the name of the office and get their website & contact info. Some field offices publish maps and recreation info online, but there’s no consistency (some do, some don’t) however each office will have plenty of information/maps if you call or physically go in and see them.
National Forest Information -> The thing you need for finding National Forest Information is the name of the particular forest you’re planning to visit. Both the Benchmark Maps & Public Lands App give you this info, but you can also find it HERE. Once you know the name of the National Forest agency to contact you can Google their info directly and/or call/visit them. What’s particular about National Forest (as opposed to BLM) is that all the National Forest Offices (cross country) publish consistent and detailed maps that tell you exactly which roads you are allowed to dispersed camp on. They are called Motor Vehicle Use Maps (MVUM) and you can see a complete list of them HERE. Each National Forest offers the maps for free if you go to their office, but most also publish them online and some even offer special iPad/iPhone/Android versions (e.g. see an example from the Coconino National Forest HERE). If you’re planning on camping in National Forest these maps are a MUST since you can be cited for camping in an area you’re not supposed to be. So, make sure you get one before you go.
Understand The Camping Rules
Once you know which specific public office to contact it’s an easy step to make the call and find out the local rules. Now, many folks skip this step and just assume any public land is good to go and that all public land has the same rules, but this is actually not the case. Most public land has 14-day camping limits (but not all), many public lands allow campfires (but not all), many allow OHV travel (but not all), some allow hunting (but not all) and many public lands, especially National Forest, have specific rules about how far from a developed road (typically from one vehicle length up to 300 feet, depending on the forest) and how close to water (typically at least 100 feet away) you’re allowed to camp.
In addition if you call the office you can get useful tips that the websites won’t tell you, for example the latest road conditions and/or the best place to camp in a larger rig. I always make a point of calling the local office before I go to check these things. I tell them I’m interested in dispersed camping, give them info on the area I’m looking at and ask my questions:
- Is there a specific area you’d recommend for camping a large rig?
- What are the road conditions like?
- What are your stay limits?
- What are your camping rules (how far from a road or water)?
- Do you allow campfires?
Blog Post -> 7 Tips On Boondocking Etiquette -> Rights, Wrongs & Plain Common Sense
Pick Your Road & Mark Potential Spots
Once I’ve narrowed down my choices and got all the info I need, I’ll do some final detailed work with Google Satellite (or through the US Public Lands App) to scan the area and decide where I might want to park when I actually get there. Satellite views will show dirt roads and cleared-out areas that other campers have used (always a good sign for a boondocker), so I’ll make a note of them for when I arrive. Sometimes you’ll even see RV’s in the satellite view, another sure-fire sign of a usable spot.
I’ll also try and decide where we’re going to park the rig for our scouting drive. Most of the time it’s just on the side of the road or near the entrance to the area we’re planning to visit. But if you’re doing this for your very first time and you’re nervous about finding a spot, it’s sometimes easier to plan an overnight stay in a developed RV park closeby with a separate scouting day to see what you can find before you move the big rig.
The steps above are my “tops down” method for how to find boondocking spots and it’s how I do the majority of my searching especially if I want to go somewhere completely new. But there are certainly also shortcuts to this process. Folks who’ve been there, done that and are happy to share the info:
- Internet Sites: There are several well-known internet sites which offer links to popular/known spots as well as reviews by the folks who’ve been there. My top recommendations are freecampsites.net and Campendium.
- RV Blogs: Not all bloggers reveal their boondocking sites, in fact it’s more rare than normal, but there are a few who do. I have boondocking sites on my blog. Also Bob over at Cheap RV Living is very generous about sharing his sites. Several of the bloggers in my RV Blog List do the same.
- Escapees Days End: You need to be a member of Escapees to join/download this and there is an extra (small) charge, but it is a large database of free/low-cost camping that is kept regularly up to date. Click HERE.
- Boondocking Books: Probably the best set of boondocking books I know are the Frugal Shunpiker’s books. She has written 6 books with detailed coordinates, site info and travel directions covering hundreds of potential sites.
- Online Forums/Groups: There are several very active online boondockers groups including iRV2, RV.net and Facebook.
So that, in 2000 easy words, is how you find a site. The next steps in this series will go through preparing your RV for the drive and what you do when you actually get to your boondocking spot. Stay tuned….
Blog Post from Bob at Cheap RV Living-> Finding Boondocking Sites Part I
Blog Post from Bob at Cheap RV Living-> Finding Boondocking Sites Part II – Understanding & Using MVUM
Blog Post from Technomadia -> Finding Magical RV Boondocking
Blog Post -> Why Boondocking ROCKS In The West (And Why This Land Is Still YOURS)!
Blog Post -> Back To Boondocking Basics – 8 Steps To Get You Into The Wild