Living/Camping on Public Land

Camping on BLM desert land in Arizona

The single most important thing you can do to increase the quality of your life is spend time in nature. As we’ve discussed, we are products of our evolutionary past, and the vast majority of that time was spent in direct, non-stop connection with the earth. Over a period of literally millions of years on our march from primate to conscious human, we developed instincts, needs and fears based on a connection to the land and to the small, close-knit clan of hunter-gatherers to which we belonged. Then suddenly, in an evolutionary blink-of-the-eye, we lost nearly all connection to the Earth Mother from which we sprang. What we failed to see is that an alienation from the source of our lives would inevitably lead to alienation to ourselves and other people. The result has been an astounding increase in our intellectual and external lives, but an equally astounding loss of our emotional, social, and spiritual well-being. The solution is simple: reconnect to the land. When I retired, I was on a limited budget so I got a job as a campground host in the National Forest in the summer, and then stayed on BLM desert land in the winter. In this way, 365 days a year I lived in nature. It profoundly changed my life. I found a sense of peace and joy like I had never dreamed I could have. I wish that for you as well.

Camping near Palmer, Alaska

Dispersed Camping:
Fortunately, if you’ve moved into a small vehicle home, it is quite easy to live on the land, by dispersed camping on National Forest (NF) or Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land. All Federal lands in the U.S. are held in public trust for the best use of the people. One of the primary uses of public lands is recreation. So, nearly all National Forest or BLM land is available for camping. Some of it is set aside as formal campgrounds that are developed to give people more amenities. If you aren’t familiar with public land, you probably think that you are only allowed to camp in those campgrounds, but that isn’t true at all. Nearly all National Forest (NF) or BLM land is open to what the government calls Dispersed Camping. This means that you drive along any NF or BLM road until you find a place you want to camp, then you pull over and set-up camp. I think it is safe to say, that it’s all open to dispersed camping unless there are signs posted telling you otherwise. And that does happen in a very few places. There are places where either you can’t disperse camp, or it is restricted to designated sites. The most common reason for the restrictions is it is near a large population center or very popular site where there are so many people trying to use the land, that it will be damaged unless it is restricted. A second reason is the land itself is sensitive to damage. A common example of that is along rivers where heavy camping can damage the waterway. But, anytime there are restrictions, there should be a sign telling you that. If I don’t see signs saying otherwise, I assume there are no restrictions. Something else you may find is that in some areas you will be required to get a permit for dispersed camping. It isn’t common, but it does happen. Usually the permit is automatic and free, I’ve never seen one where you had to pay. One example is the area around Quartzsite, Arizona which is hugely popular with the snowbirds (people in RVs who spend the summer in the North where it is cool and winter in the South where it is warm). Another example is in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument in Utah. When I got my permit, she said the reason is because the area is so vast, and so hot in the summer, that it is deceptively dangerous and they want to know where people are in case they get in trouble.

Camping near Quartzsite, Arizona. Standing on this small hill, I was able to get 3 bars on my Verizon cell phone from a freeway that was close to 7 miles away. The freeway was behind me in this picture.

14 Day-Stay Land:
Nearly all public land has a limit of how long you may camp on it. That limit is most often 14 days, or two weeks. The idea is that it is public land, owned by all the people of the country for recreation and not for living on it. That’s quite reasonable, so when I say I live on public land, I don’t mean to imply any ownership, nor do I stay for extended periods of time. Last year I camped on public land all 365 days of the year. Almost 6 months of that was in a NF campground where I am a campground host. The other 6 months was on BLM desert land in Arizona, Nevada, and California. The longest I spent in one spot was 2 months. There is so much land, and so few rangers, that enforcement of the 14 day limit is very spotty. Now, I revere the land so I never do anything to harm to it, and I stay in places where there is practically no one else around, so I feel like I may be breaking the letter of the law, but I am within the spirit of the law. If you aren’t comfortable with that, then you can just move every 14 days, it isn’t a hardship. You almost always have to move a certain distance (usually 25 miles) before you can camp again. Generally, after 14 days, you can move back to that original spot. However, there are some areas that are so popular that the rules are more restrictive, so if you are close to a fairly large city, you may need to look into that. To find specific information about a NF, do a Goggle search of the name of the NF you are. So you might type in “Sierra National Forest, CA” (California is the state the NF is in). The search results will give you the name, location and phone number of the Ranger Stations in charge of the forest. Then call the Ranger Station and ask if there any restrictions on dispersed camping in the area you want to camp in. For BLM land you would do the same except you will search “BLM AZ.” Again, Arizona is the state you are in. You will find a phone number that you call asking about dispersed camping.

Long Term Visitor Areas (LTVA):

Winter LTVAs: There is such a demand for long term parking by the Snowbirds in the RV community, that the BLM responded by creating Long Term Visitor Areas. These are in the desert of Arizona and California along the Colorado River corridor. As of April, 2011, the cost is $180. For your money you get a pass that allows you to stay at any LTVA from September 15 to April 15. That works out to about $26 a month for seven months. That’s cheap camping! You don’t get a lot for your money except for a camp site. Some of the LTVAs offer amenities such as water, garbage and dump stations, but some offer nothing at all. Some are very busy and you will have a hard time finding privacy, but some are remote enough that you can be alone or with others. If you don’t want to stay for the whole season, can pay $40 for 14 days of camping. I don’t understand why anybody would do that since all the LTVAs are surrounded by 14 day stay land you can camp on for free. You can get more information here: www.blm.gov/ca/st/en/fo/elcentro/recreation/ltvas.html

Summer LTVAs: For a long time there was only a winter season for snowbirds who wanted long term camping. But recently the BLM set aside several campgrounds on the Eastern side of the Sierra Mountains near Bishop, California for use as LTVAs. The cost is $300 and the season runs from the first Saturday in March to November 1st. The campgrounds vary in altitude from 5,000 to 7,500 feet above sea-level so, although it is desert country, it might not be too terribly hot in the summer. Learn more here: www.blm.gov/ca/st/en/fo/bishop/camping/ltva.html

Slab City:
The Slabs are a totally unique place you can go and set up camp and stay as long as you want. You can stay a day, or a decade, the choice is yours and no one will bother you no matter how long you stay. It is located 3 miles east of Niland, California, near the Salton Sea. During World War II it was a Marine base that was later decommissioned. When it was shut down, they removed everything except for the concrete slabs that were under the buildings. That’s how it got its name. Since then it has fallen between the cracks of ownership, and RVers started using it for camping. More people came until its fame spread and it has become very popular. At the entrance, the original guard- house is still standing and someone has written on it “Welcome to Slab City, the last free place.” And that describes it perfectly. It’s as if there were no rules or laws, people live any way they want. The first thing you will notice is the place is filthy. Over the years many people have used it and somehow the sense of freedom they find there gives them the idea that none of the normal rules apply. So they trash their area, and then just leave it. You can find some terribly old, trashy RRs right beside nice, new, neat RVs. Some people love it, others hate it. You will just have to go and check it out for yourself. If you like it, you can stay as long as you want.

Just outside my campsite in the Sierra National Forest

Close-In or Remote?
Some of the NF, and nearly all BLM land, is so huge that you can drive further and be in the back-country where you are very unlikely to see anyone else. Here’s how you can find those places:

  • Buy a DeLorme Gazetter or Benchmark Atlas. They are books that take a state and break it down into many small maps. They have a map somewhere that shows BLM land, which is very handy! They also show many of the small forest service or BLM roads into the back-country.
  • Using your Atlas, decide which area you want to be in.
  • Drive down a paved road through the chosen area.
  • Take a smaller road off the main road.
  • Drive along until you find a smaller road, take it. At some point the roads will become unpaved, and progressively worse.
  • Keep taking smaller roads until they either get too rough for your vehicle (which they will) or you find your ideal campsite. This is where a high-clearance or four- wheel-drive vehicle would be good to have.

And then you are home! The further back you go, the less likely you are to ever see anyone else, including a Ranger. If you like solitude, then you are in heaven! But, there are disadvantages to being that remote. First, you will be a long way from supplies (water, food, fuel). When yours start to run out, it may be a long haul to get to them. One thing I do is carry a backpackers water filter made by MSR and I try to camp near a creek or lake and I filter it to extend my time before needing to make a supply run for water. Second, if you break down, or need other help, you are a long walk or drive from it. Third, you won’t have cell phone or internet access. For some people, the remoteness is well worth the minor inconveniences, for others it is unacceptable. You will have to decide for yourself.

If you don’t want to be that remote, it’s generally fairly easy to disperse camp on NF or BLM land fairly close to a small town of some kind. Those small towns usually are oriented towards campers and tourists, so you can get water, dispose of trash and dump your holding tanks there. Almost always there is a small grocery store that will have the basics of what you need, but it will all be much more expensive than the prices you will pay in a larger city. Also, there will generally be cell and Internet in those towns. I have Verizon as my cell phone and internet provider, and I have never been to any small mountain or desert town where I didn’t have service. A few times I have camped close enough to town to get cell or Internet, but generally you have to drive a few miles to get to it. In the desert, I can always get cell/Internet if I am within a few miles of a freeway, or sometimes even a major road. Let me admit that isn’t true of you have ATT service. I’ve been on many freeways that didn’t have ATT service, but I’ve never been on one that didn’t have Verizon service. I camped in the desert once so far from the freeway that it was just a dim line in the distance. I couldn’t get any service, but when I walked up a small hill I got 3 bars. It was inconvenient but I had service. The biggest disadvantage to being close to towns is that you are generally more noticeable. So Rangers may notice you and you will have to move every 14 days. Personally, I try to find someplace that is neither too close or too far away. This is what I am looking for in a campsite:

  • Remote enough that there will be minimal traffic around me.
  • I try to be within 60 miles round trip from a Wal-Mart so I can make a once a month trip for the least expensive supplies.
  • Cell/Internet service available in camp, or at worst just a short drive away (10 miles round trip).
  • A small mountain/desert town where I can make either weekly or bi-weekly trips for perishable goods (bread, meat, milk, fruits/vegetables, ice).

I have never been anywhere where on the West coast I couldn’t find a place to meet these criteria. I almost never find a place on the East coast that meets them. That’s why I live out West.

Snowbirds:
Since we are trying to live the greenest, and most comfortable off-grid lives we can, we need to try to avoid temperature extremes. Because we live on wheels, if it is too hot in the summer, or too cold in the winter we can just move to somewhere where the weather is better. Most people think in terms of moving North in the summer and South in the winter. But that has problems:

  • It doesn’t always work. Many states on the Canadian border are very hot in the summer, and very cold in the winter. An example is Great Falls, Montana which is over 100 degrees much of the summer.
  • It is very expensive to drive from the far north of the country to the far south.

A much better idea is to move up in elevation! For every 1000 feet of elevation gain, the temperature drops by three degrees. So if it is 100 degrees at sea level, it will be 80 degrees at 6,000 feet. So if it is 100 degrees in Tampa, Florida, and you drive up to 6,000 feet in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, it will only be a much more comfortable 80 degrees. The problem with the East coast is that the mountains of North Carolina are very crowded in the summer with very limited dispersed camping, and you still have to drive 500 miles for that difference in elevation. Also, it is a very humid heat in both places. Compare that to the West coast. The distance from Quartzsite, Arizona at 400 feet to Flagstaff, Arizona at 7,500 feet is only 250 miles, and it is a very dry heat and there is a huge and virtually unlimited amount of dispersed camping. Or compare it to Fresno, California. When it is 110 degrees in Fresno, you are only two hours’ drive from being at 8,000 feet in the incredibly gorgeous Sierra NF where it is 80 degrees. Or compare it to Denver, Colorado. The plains states all get very hot as does Denver. So when it is 100 degrees in Denver, you can drive 2 hours to Leadville, Colorado and camp in the NF around it at 10,400 feet where it will be 80 degrees. The Rockies are gorgeous and there is plenty of dispersed camping.

So if you are looking for the good life with free camping in Mother Natures’ wonderful home, it’s easy to find. I encourage you to take advantage of our natural resources, and get out there and see how it changes your life!