By Bob Difley
Just knowing that you can legally boondock almost anywhere on public lands, such as those managed by the forest service and BLM, as I wrote in last week’s post, does not tell you exactly how to find these dispersed campsites (meaning not within the confines of an organized campground).
You won’t find any signs saying “Campsite Here” or numbered posts designating campsites. No hosts in golf carts will lead you to an open site. No, you have to find them for yourself. Since finding dispersed campsites is more difficult than finding campgrounds, it is one of the features that makes boondocking attractive–there won’t be a lot of RVers competing for the same campsite.
First, become alert so that you notice when you enter public lands. You will recognize national forests or national recreation areas by their familiar brown signs (photo below). Seldom, however, will signs identify BLM lands. Much of the land in the Southwest used by snowbirds in winter is BLM land.
Maps are available from visitor centers in states that contain public lands and on the Public Lands website where shaded areas define lands managed by the BLM, Bureau of Reclamation, National and State Forest Services, Fish and Wildlife Service, Indian Reservations, etc. However, the BLM and some other agencies do not necessarily post signs so you can determine when you enter and leave. Sometimes the only way you can recognize when you are on public land is the absence of “No Trespassing” signs, mailboxes at side road junctions, and locked gates.
Lacking these, go for it. Even if you see a gate, but it is not locked, it is OK to enter. The gate is to keep cattle from straying off the land. Just be sure to close it once you enter. Many of these public land side roads were originally built to support logging and cattle trucks, and are therefore substantial enough to support your rig–as long as they have been maintained.
Train yourself to focus on spotting side roads when crossing public land, even if you are not currently looking for a campsite. Save the location (photo left) to your GPS or indicate it on a paper map for next time you pass through and may need a campsite. Not all roads will yield acceptable campsites, but by spotting certain characteristics, you can make an educated guess whether you will find one.
Pass by roads with these features: narrow or winding road; overhanging tree branches; deep ruts; soft, sandy, or muddy road surface; debris on road; road soon climbs a hill or drops into a canyon; cattle on road; bears picking blueberries. Look for these signs: wide, level road (photo below); clear overhead; evidence of use by large vehicles; turn around room; large, level parking (potential campsites); other boondockers.
You may not be able to spot all the positive signs from the main road. If not, walk in a ways (the walk will also stretch out your stiff joints from sitting too long) to see how it looks. If it looks like it has potential, I highly recommend that you unhitch and drive your tow or toad in to locate a spot. Once you find one, return to retrieve your rig and move to the site.
This may seem like a lot of work for a single overnight spot, but with a little experience you will begin to recognize those roads that are likely to have campsites, and walking in a hundred yards or so will often find you an acceptable overnight spot. Then make a record of the spot for the next time through. You may think you will remember it, but short term memory is an indicator that you’re not getting any younger.
For longer boondocking stays, find a suitable spot for the first night, even at an organized campground, then explore the next day (pick up maps from the local office of the management agency) so you can find a spot far enough off the access road that you can’t hear the traffic, or beside a stream, or in a wildflower covered meadow. For several days of camping, it is worth expending a bit more time and effort to find the perfect campsite.
Check out my website for more RVing tips and destinations and my ebooks, BOONDOCKING: Finding the Perfect Campsite on America’s Public Lands, Snowbird Guide to Boondocking in the Southwestern Deserts, and 111 Ways to Get the Biggest Bang out of your RV Lifestyle Dollar.