Finding Boondocking Sites: Part 1
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.
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:
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
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
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.