There is great potential as a vehicle-based nomad to call virtually anywhere home — from the beach to the mountains and from the wilds to the urban centers. However, without a local contact, nomads are always a stranger in a strange land when arriving at a new ride zone.
Finding a proper wildland campsite can be challenging as traveler cannot just roll down any road and claim it as your home. In the western US (and Canada), we are fortunate to have publicly owned and managed lands. However, identifying these areas and finding that sweet campspot takes a bit of effort. We’ve gotta pay attention to public/private land boundaries and in-holdings, figure out where camping is appropriate, and adhere to local policies during our stay.
This land is your land…kind-of…
First off, lets start with the concept of land status. Vast tracts of the western US are managed by Federal or State agencies and are referred to generally as “public lands.” These entities all have different defined management objectives, allowed uses, and restrictions for the lands they manage. It is very important to know what entity or agency manages the land that you are looking to camp on. Here are a few of the most common:
State Lands – Lands owned and managed by the State in which they are located. State land tract sizes can range from a square mile to gigantic. Some areas allow camping, some do not. State Lands are less likely to be signed than federal lands.
National Park Service –
Federal land management agency. Camping and all activities are highly regulated within National Parks. You will stay in a fee-based campground within a park. If not, the Flat Hats will storm your villa. I promise.
US Forest Service (USFS or Forest Service) –
Federal land management agency. The USFS manages huge tracts of wildlands throughout the US, especially in the West. Forests established and maintain some great campgrounds that tend to be much less expensive than State or County campgrounds. They also allow dispersed camping and most other activities through much of the land they manage.
Bureau of Land Management (BLM) –
Federal land management agency. The BLM pretty much manages all the federal lands that were not allocated to the National Park Service or the US Forest Service. BUT — do not let that deter you from visiting BLM managed lands. The BLM lands include some of pretty spectacular rivers, deserts, and mountains in the west and are generally the least restrictive of the federal land management agencies.
Regardless of the agency managing the lands, it is also your responsibility to know the management policy for where you’re headed. Pay attention to both allowed and what is restricted. Here are a few of the restrictions that seem to be pretty common across public lands:
Duration of Stay – Generally, on federal lands such as BLM or USFS, the duration of stay is 14 days. These agencies may implement stricter requirements on duration of stay for areas of high use or high resource value. This is especially true for USFS or BLM lands adjacent to towns or cities. Conversely, the BLM has defined areas within Arizona desert (Quartzite, Yuma) where long-term camping is allowed.
Dispersed vs Designated Dispersed – Dispersed camping (boondocking, primitive camping, or dry camping) is camping out in the landscape away from campground or developed infrastructure. Dispersed camping options range from any area within 100 feet of an existing road to designated dispersed camping at signed/identified locations within an area.
Bear Country – Typically in bear country the agencies implement additional measures to reduce your chances of getting eaten by the megafauna. These could include storage of food and smelly stuff within bear-proof containers, hard-sided campers, etc.
Toilet Requirements – In the last few years, federal agencies started implementing a requirement for campers to have along and use portable toilets in areas of high use (example -some areas near Moab, UT). As it turns out, many heavily used areas were turning into red sand desert cat boxes. Seems like a good idea, as camping among the TP flowers and stanky mounds is not the experience many are searching for.
Fire restrictions – this one is huge in the west. Every year, vast tracts of land and in some cases 1000’s of homes are burned in fires that are human caused. Agencies often implement a number of fire management measures dependent on the severity of risk for damaging wildfire. These generally include seasonal fire closures (no open flame allowed), mandatory use of fire pans, etc..
Also, many areas are starting to prohibit the burning of wood products with hardware (construction materials, pallets, etc that leave behind damaging nails, staples, or other metals that do not burn). Even if these are not restricted, it’s a terrible idea to bring wood from town that leaves behind nails that will inevitably be dispersed through the camp spot and find their way into your footsie or a tire. New tires, tetanus shots, and doctor’s visits are typically not cheap.
Shooting – Discharge of firearms may be restricted or not allowed. This tends to be restricted in areas with high recreation use (camping, trails, etc.) or within a specific distance of a town boundary, or within a buffer of homes. Many areas throughout the west implement a complete ban on firearm discharge during the dry and hot summer fire season as bullets striking hard surfaces can cause spark and wildfire.
Glass bottles or other products – many areas have restrictions on use of glass containers. Typically, these are in areas like beaches, dunes, etc where broken glass offers increased opportunity for damage to your footsies and other body parts.
Tools for finding your wildland camp
After you’ve done your homework on what lands are available for camping and you have a working knowledge of the management policy, it’s time to find your homestead for a few days. You’ll need to find your way, here are a few of the best goods for finding your way:
Ask a Local – People that live and work in an area tend to know all the sweet spots. Its always worth asking about good camping options when you find a person whose info you would trust. Trust, but verify with additional info…
Old-school paper maps. Many of the land management agencies have maps of various scales that generally have land status, topography, and open roads. There are a number of companies that also print local maps. These types of small-scale maps are long on detail and great if you require high-resolution info on a small localized area. One of our go-to local map series offered is by Latitude 40 (Durango area on Amazon) or directly at https://www.latitude40maps.com/. If you are going to spend a lot of time in an area riding, camping, and exploring, the Lat40 maps have all the info you’ll need. The downside of these small-scale maps is that you’ll need a library of them if you get around.
We like the state-based map books like BenchMark Map books (California on Amazon) or Delorme Atlas and Gazateer (Colorado on Amazon). These map books are great for big picture and route planning, especially if you are linking up backcountry dirt and tarmac. We tend to prefer the the Benchmark Map books as they seem best for showing general topography and land features, recreation info, land status, campgrounds, and quality of roads.
These trusty printed treasures do not run out of battery or require linkage to the outside world, but you’ll need skills to know how to use these to determine your location and navigate.
Phone or Tablet Apps
In general, a GPS enabled app with land status and various available backgrounds such as topography, roads, and satellite imagery are super useful. There are also a number of GPS-based phone or tablet apps that allow you to download various maps before heading out to the boonies. These are an amazing resource for sealing the deal on finding and navigating to your latest “mobile mountain condo” location. We use Trailforks, iOverlander, and the Google map/search for imagery, camp areas, policy, etc.
Since the MtbNomads are perpetual trail seekers, Trailforks.com is our go-to. This mountain bike specific app is a supernova of useful information for finding ride zones, navigating trail systems, and also finding camping options.
Trailforks is a free download for Android or iOS and includes an up-to-date land status coverage, trail conditions, and a host of backgrounds (satellite, topography, mapbox roads, etc). And, since it shows all of the trails, it’s a magical tool for finding camp&ride options!
Your new home (for a bit)
OK, you’ve identified your camp zone for the next few days. It is important to be a responsible backcountry user. This includes proper gear/supplies and preparation for your length of stay, traveling only on open and existing roads, practicing minimal impact camping, and managing your waste (garbage, waste-water, the poops, etc.) appropriately. A couple of resources that you can tap into for more info on how to minimize your backcountry travel and camp impact can be found at:
Leave No Trace https://lnt.org/learn/7-principles
Tread Lightly https://www.treadlightly.org/
Remember you are a short-term visitor here and it is best to leave your area as you found it. Or, better yet, leave it better than how you found it. The next nomad to stop there will appreciate that.
Being prepared for backcountry travel includes having proper recovery gear. Check out what we have onboard for our adventures on our Amazon Ideas List.
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