Finding Boondocking Sites: Part 1

I spent 2 months in this wonderful campsite with some great friends in the Sierra NF.

I spent 2 months in this wonderful campsite with some great friends in the Sierra NF.

We just moved to our new campsite about 30 miles north of Prescott, AZ in the Prescott National Forest. It’s very nice and because it is at 5100 feet, it is much cooler than we had been in Wickenburg. Before I tell you about the camp, I thought I would walk you through how we find a new camp, that way, if you become a boondocker, you will know how to do it for yourself. This turned into such a long post so I’ve split it into two parts. In Part 2 we will look specifically at the new Forest Service Motor Vehicle Use Maps (MVUM). But first, let’s look at the initial steps to finding a great boondocking spot. At the bottom of the post I will have photos with explanations of some of these things. Here are my suggested steps:

HAVE AN OVERALL PLAN FOR THE YEAR: Most of us are on a budget and one of our largest expenses is gas. So it is best if we have a plan and not just run around willy-nilly. For example, I am planning on being in Flagstaff, AZ for an RTR in June, so all our moves have been towards it. Beyond that I hope to spend some time in Colorado in July and August and in Utah in November so after the RTR all my moves will be with that in mind. Steve and I think in terms of Negative and Positive miles. By that we mean moving us closer to (Positive) or further away from (Negative) our ultimate goal. So your job is to have broad plan for the following year and to base it on putting the fewest possible miles on your vehicle. Then as your year unfolds, try to have as few Negative miles as possible.

Life is good to step outside my trailer to this every day!

Life is good to step outside my trailer to beauty like this every day!

For most of us the plan is based on a Bucket List or friends and family. For example, if a family event requires you to be in Portland, Oregon in July, plan your travel between now and then on moving you toward the ultimate goal of Portland. As you are moving with the weather, look for places along the way that you have always wanted to see. After the family event is over in July, be looking for nearby places to visit. Two places on my Bucket List are Olympic NP and the Canadian Rockies, so if I had to be in Oregon for a family event in July, I would continue north to visit both of those places afterwards. Who knows, I may never be that way again. Having an overall plan for the year lets me see the most places and spend the least on gas.

SET YOUR PRIORITIES: Before you can find the perfect campsite you have to know what you are looking for. It is very rare to find everything you want, so you are going to have to make some compromises. For example, I want both solitude and Internet signal but the two are often mutually exclusive, so I just have to decide which is most important to me. These are my priorities in descending order:

  1. Price: I don’t pay for camping! Ever! Period! So I am always looking for either BLM or National Forest land where I can disperse camp for free. That is my highest priority
  2. Moderate Temperatures: When you live off-grid in a vehicle, the weather is very, very important. Your main goal is to find moderate temperatures and avoid extremes. So in the spring we are running away from the heat, and in the fall we are running away from the cold. As I have explained often, that means going up and down in elevation. So in the spring you are going up toward higher elevation, and in the fall you are going down to lower elevations; constantly looking for the perfect comfort zone.
  3. Internet/Cell Phone: For most of us this is an extremely important requirement for a campsite; I know it is for me. It has been my experience with Verizon that as long as I am within a mile or two of a freeway or a major road I am going to have cell and internet signal. So that is something I am always looking for when I plan for my next campsite.
  4. Proximity to Shopping: Most of us are on a tight budget, and we all have to eat and drink, so finding a place to get those things at a reasonable price is very important. If you are too remote the only shopping will be at glorified convenience stores where the prices are double or triple what they would be at most grocery stores. So having a town nearby with a real grocery store is a pretty high priority for our budgets sake. Just as important, you need to know where you will get water, propane and dump your trash.
  5. Cheri's van in a gorgeous camp n the Sierra NF.

    Cheri’s van in a gorgeous camp n the Sierra NF.

    Beauty; Hiking/Walking: I live this way because I love nature and want to be in it all the time, so the beauty of an area is very important. One thing I am looking for is a large variety of terrain, plants and animals. Are there wildflowers or mountains around? What wildlife will I see? Is there a nice place for me to walk? This is usually pretty easy to find, but I have been a few places that just were not very pretty and I just tolerated them because they had everything else I needed.

  6. Solitude: This is very important to me. I like having people around, but I don’t want to live with crowds. So finding a balance is a top priority.
  7. Ranger Enforcement: The longer I sit in one place without having to move the better. I don’t enjoy feeling like the Ranger is keeping his eye on me all the time and wondering if he is going to come around and hassle me so I try to find remote areas where there are few Rangers.
  8. Mailing Service: Since I am mobile, I need a place nearby that will receive mail for me. I do a Google search of the nearest fairly good sized towns for mailing service until I find one. A UPS Store will do, but they have gotten expensive so I try hard to find a local, mom-n-pop shop that is more reasonable.

So, now we know what we are looking for in a campsite, how do we find it? By following these steps:

Phrump, NV is my all time favorite camping spot, except for one  thing--the terrible wind.  I don't camp there anymore.

Phrump, NV is my all time favorite camping spot, except for one thing–the terrible wind. I don’t camp there anymore.

1) STUDY THE  BENCHMARK ATLAS: As far as I am concerned your single most important tool in finding the best campsite is a Benchmark Atlas; I own one for every State I spend much time in. Chances are you are more familiar with the Delorme Atlas, but the Benchmark is much better. I started out buying the Delorme but when I discovered the Benchmark I switched over for these reasons: 1) It shows public land ownership for National Forests, BLM and State Land. Since finding free campsites is my top priority, this is a huge plus! 2) It does a good job of giving elevation. It nearly always gives the elevation of towns and many other things. When you are searching for a specific elevation, this is critically important. For example, in our last move I was specifically looking to be at about 5000 feet. Below that would be too hot and above that would be too cold. 3) It shows the larger Forest Service and BLM roads which lets me zero in on an area for more specific research. Don’t leave home without one! Benchmark Arizona Road & Recreation Atlas – 7th edition

2) STUDY OTHER MAPS: The more maps you have the better! Each one has strengths and weaknesses. I own a Delorme Atlas for each state I spend lots of time in because there are a few things it does better. Arizona Atlas & Gazetteer For closer research you might want to get BLM or Forest Service maps of your specific area. They will give you road numbers and elevations. Also, Delorme sells a mapping software called Topo that is well worth owning. It has the worst user interface of any software I have ever used, but it is an invaluable tool once you learn it. I also highly recommend a Rand McNally Atlas that includes all Wal-Mart stores: very helpful. Topo North America 10.0

The Rand McNally 2012 Road Atlas: Large Scale: Includes Walmart & Sam’ Club Store Directory

I know this wasn’t enough information for you to find a campsite, but it is already a long post (my goal is 1200 words or less per post and this one is already over 1400; and the next one will be just as long). Reluctantly, I am going to quit here and in my next post I will finish with more tools to use and then a conclusion where I put it all together and show you exactly how to find wonderful boondocking sites.

Benchmark Arizona Road & Recreation Atlas – 7th edition
Arizona Atlas & Gazetteer
The Rand McNally 2012 Road Atlas: Large Scale: Includes Walmart & Sam’ Club Store Directory

Here we see me my most important tools: Benchmark Atlas, Delorme Atlas, BLM or NF maps, and a Walm-Mart Atlas. One of my goals is to be as close as possible to a Wal-Mart for cheap shopping. You can buy these Atlas' from Wal-Mart and they list every store in every state. I always check out how far I am from the nearest Wal-Mart.

Here we see me my most important tools: Benchmark Atlas, Delorme Atlas, BLM or NF maps, and a Walm-Mart Atlas. One of my goals is to be as close as possible to a Wal-Mart for cheap shopping. You can buy these Atlas’ from Wal-Mart and they list every store in every state. I always check out how far I am from the nearest Wal-Mart.

I took a photo of a page from my Benchmark Atlas. In a quick glance it tells me where BLM, National Forest and State Land are located and the elevation of all towns nearby. That is extremely helpful for broad planning! My first step is always to get out my Benchmark and decide on a general area t go to. Then I use more detailed maps to narrow it down. Below you can see the BLM map and Delorme Topo program I used. In my next post I will discuss the Prescott National Forest MVUM map which was vitally important..

I took a photo of a page from my Benchmark Atlas. In a quick glance it tells me where BLM, National Forest and State Land are located and the elevation of all towns nearby. Notice how curvy the road is to the south of Prescott. That told me it was almost certainly too rough to camp in, and it turned out to be true.From that I knew I had to camp to the North of Prescott. That is all extremely helpful for broad planning! When moving camp, my first step is always to get out my Benchmark and decide on a general area to go to. Then I use more detailed maps to narrow it down. Below you can see the BLM map and Delorme Topo program I used. In my next post I will discuss the Prescott National Forest MVUM map which was vitally important..

This is a snip from the Delorme Topo Program. It can give you some very useful informtion.

This is a snip from the Delorme Topo Program. It can give you some very useful information.

Bob
About

I've been a full-time VanDweller for 12 years and I love it. I hope to never live in a house again!

Posted in Camping Locations
40 comments on “Finding Boondocking Sites: Part 1
  1. Claudia says:

    It all sounds so exciting! Can’t wait to cut loose on my own! Thanks so much for the info.

    • Bob Bob says:

      Claudia, there aren’t words to express the inner peace and joy I have found in living on public land. It isn’t for everyone, and the transition from modern life to natural living can be a bit unnerving, but for me it is indescribably wonderful.
      Bob

  2. Kitty says:

    Dear Bob,
    Nice information. My prioritirs are friends, volunteering, showers and overnight parking. Since I am in a more crowded east coast location, I can park at friends streets or near medium rise houseing (who knows if I am an overnight visitor or not.) House sitting gives me a parking space and a shower. Next winter I hope to travel the 1300 miles to Florida and camp in the state parks. I don’t mind paying for safty, shower and trash availability. But on your good advice I am also looking into the National forest camping in Florida. It looks like a possibility!

    • Bob Bob says:

      Kitty, we are all different and have different needs. The only important thing is knowing your own and meeting them!! I wish you the very best as you pursue your dream!
      Bob

  3. Mike Spivey says:

    Very informative.This is my last week of work before I retire. I’ve decided to take some short trips before I completely head out. I am also an amateur photographer so my research centers around photogenic places. I try to do a mix of iconic places and off the beaten path places.

    I have saved a Google Map named, of course, Bucket List. When I’m roaming the web and see a great place, I reverse engineer the location and put it on my bucket list map.

    Hope to see you down the road and keep up the good work.
    Mike

    • Bob Bob says:

      Mike, in Part 2 one of the things I will talk about is photographers guides. I consider them essential not just for photographers but for everyone wanting to see those most beautiful places. It’s much too easy to be right beside them and miss them. It also helps to plan the time of the year to visit. Yosemite NP is always beautiful, but at its best in the spring, whereas I consider Zion NP at its best in November.

      I have some photo trips planned for summer and fall, maybe you can join me or I can join you!
      Bob

  4. Bob says:

    Very helpful and informative. I’m going to bookmark for the not too distant future. Thanks Bob

    • Bob Bob says:

      Thanks Bob, I rmember how hard it was for me to find boondocking spots in the beginning and want to make it easier for others.
      Bob

  5. Lynnzie says:

    This is fabulous information. I heard you talk about this at the RTR but this is really sunk in this time and having photos of how you do it really helps those of us that are so new to this I will copy this for my trips. Let me know when you all are close to sw Colorado and I will come and visit! Thanks

    • Bob Bob says:

      Lynzie, I am planning to be around Durango and up 550 probably in late July when the wildflowers are in bloom. Lets try to get together then!
      Bob

  6. Linda Sand says:

    The photos helped a lot! Thanks for the lesson. I will be using this knowledge in future winters as I’m liking campgrounds less and less. Yappy puppies much too close the other night. Other people’s radios much too close much too often. Even one of my friends bought a contractor generator against all our advice. Need to run away now.
    Linda Sand recently posted…Stormy WeatherMy Profile

    • Bob Bob says:

      Linda, I am a very visual person and whenever people try to teach me with words I quickly get lost. I think it is because I am a compulsive over-thinker and I am always thinking of other things there words could mean. But show me a picture and I can get it pretty easily. So I always try to have a visual aid. Glad it helped!!
      Bob

  7. Al Christensen says:

    I’ve been a map nerd for a long time. I haven’t bought a pile of atlases yet, but this is as good a time as any for me to order them up.

    For some past trips, Google Maps satellite view and even street view have been a help. I can see the actual places. And their terrain option is sometimes useful. Of course, when net connection is an issue, good old printed maps are a must.

    • Al Christensen says:

      The satellite view would be particularly good for places like the Pacific NW, Bob. You could check to see whether a boondocking site would be in the middle of clearcut logging.

  8. MichaelinOK says:

    Bob,

    Thanks for the helpful information. You have the gift of explaining potentially complicated and intimidating subjects in a warm and accessible way.

    I look forward to part 2.

  9. Tina says:

    Thanks Bob! This really helps, I got out one of my Benchmarks and it made a lot more sense to me now.

    Tina

  10. rick says:

    For those of you looking for the Topo software Bob was talking about I found what looks to be a good price online. On Amazon the software was really expensive but only $50 here (I get nothing from the link. just thought people might benefit):

    http://www.officedepot.com/a/products/935316/DeLorme-Topo-USA-80-National-Edition/?Channel=Google&mr:trackingCode=19743671-5121-DF11-9B13-0019B9C043EB&mr:referralID=NA&mr:adType=pla&mr:ad=19995777836&mr:keyword=&mr:match=&mr:filter=38935828916&cm_mmc=Mercent-_-Googlepla-_-Technology+Software_Books-_-935316

  11. LaVonne says:

    Thanks so much, Bob! For some reason, with all my planning, it never occurred to me that finding good campsites would be a problem. I guess I thought they would just materialize whenever I wanted one. You are doing a wonderful job of sharing your knowledge with many, many newbies!
    LaVonne recently posted…Getting Sh*t Done is a BitchMy Profile

    • Bob Bob says:

      I wish it were always that way Lavonne, but sometimes it can be pretty hard! The fewer requirements you have the easier it is, but as you can see, I am awfully picky!
      Bob

  12. Laughing Richard says:

    Bob,
    Every article that I read of yours always has some sort of good information that’s valuable to those of us that haven’t started living on wheels yet. Besides all the maps that you’ve tried out, one such item that I hadn’t given much thought to yet was the UPS or Mom and Pop store for getting your mail. I appreciate that you’re willing to share all of your experiences with us which tends to ease the transition.
    I can’t wait to get back to the US and buy a van, my new home on wheels. Hope to meet up with you on the road some day.
    Thanks Bob,
    Richard

    • Bob Bob says:

      Richard, I wish I could tell it was because I was so smart, but the truth is it is because I am so dumb!! I’ve already made every possible mistake (usually twice!) so now it is easier for me to tell you how to avoid making them.
      Bob

  13. Al Christensen says:

    It looks like Benchmark and Delorme don’t cover Canada or Mexico. Any resource suggestions for those countries?

    • Bob Bob says:

      Al, I’m sorry I don’t have any suggestions at all. I know there are lots of Americans who camp in Mexico, especially in Baja on the beach. I know there are Americans who write about it, I just don’t know who. Google is your friend! Do a Google search on “camping mexico or canada” and then try variations like adding “RV” or “free”. Sorry, wish I could be more helpful.
      Bob

    • Lyn says:

      Hi Al,
      In Canada there is a great outdoor recreation atlas called Backroad Mapbooks. Each one covers a specific area of each province so can get expensive. I think there is a map version as well which would be cheaper. The website is http://www.backroadmapbooks.com
      Hope that helps.
      Lyn

  14. Blars says:

    Since gas costs so much, sometimes I find it cheaper to pay for a camping spot. Also if it has full hookups it includes a dump and fill.
    http://freecampsites.net/ is worth looking at. The place I am in now I found on a BLM map, it’s only 6 miles from a small city. I’m taking US395 north rather than I5 because it has more free camping available.
    Blars recently posted…alabama-hillsMy Profile

    • Bob Bob says:

      Blars, that is a very good point, one I have struggled with myself. If you have to drive 15 miles out of your way to find a campsite, that is 30 miles total. I’m getting 15 mpg so I burned 2 gallons of gas and spent $7. Your RV is probably getting 7 mpg so you would double that. And it isn’t terribly unusual to double that driving distance in some parts of the country. That puts you in range of being able to pay for a RV park instead. For me, if I am spending the money I would rather drive and find a campsite on public land. That way Homer can run free off-leash, and I feel more comfortable in nature. But I can easily see why it wouldn’t be worth it to everyone.

      I love the drive up 395!! It’s one of my all time favorites!! I imagine you are on your way to work in Oregon. I did the exact same thing one year on my way to work in the Sierras in April. I stopped near Mammoth and camped in the National Forest very near the road, but I got dumped on by about a foot of snow! Gorgeous area but it is still winter there in April!

      A few miles south of there is Convict Lake. I highly recommend you stop in and take some pictures, it’s gorgeous!!
      Bob

  15. Cyrus Palmer says:

    Great post bob! I’m not a boondocker I live in the city, but that is only out of necessity. I am looking forward to boondocking on vacations and in the future when I have fewer obligations! I’m in Washington, let me know when you’re heading up north. I’d love to make camp with you and learn boondocking from the master.
    Cyrus Palmer recently posted…My new artMy Profile

    • Bob Bob says:

      Cyrus, you are surrounded by fabulous National Forest land so maybe one of these days you can take some time off and practice camping. I’m not headed that way this year, but possibly next. that’s much too far away for me to plan for!
      Bob

  16. Al Christensen says:

    A big box just arrived from Amazon with Benchmark and Delorme atlases for WA, OR, CA, NV, ID, UT, AZ, NM, MT, WY and CO. The California Coastal Access Guide arrived yesterday. I’m going to need a bigger truck.

    • Bob Bob says:

      WOW!!!! Al, that’s amazing, you should be ready to go!! Many people would think you were crazy, but I admire you! A whole world of wonder awaits you as you begin your travels. Are you blogging? I’d love to follow you as you put each and every one of them to use! Then one day I will add your blog to the list of ones to follow for great campsites.
      Bob

  17. Bob Baar says:

    Hi Bob,
    Great information on finding campsites. Info we all need.I envy your ability to explore the more remote areas as we are limited by the size of our rig.Have to hike a lot to get away from the crowds.You have a way of detailing your travels to make it very attractive. And your photos go without saying, drop dead gorgeous. keep up the good work.
    Bob and Cher

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