Boondocking: How To Camp on Public Lands
The freedom of the open road sounds so romantic. Just hop in and drive, let whimsy be your navigator, and then when you’re ready to sleep you just … pull over? Well, not exactly. “Just pulling over” isn’t always an option. It may not be safe, first of all, or you may not even be allowed to park there. Best consider boondocking! Boondocking is also known as “dispersed camping.” It means camping, for free, on public lands in undeveloped areas. Luckily, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the US Forest Service (USFS), allow free camping on their managed lands (for the most part, and unless otherwise posted).
So how do you know where you can boondock? Our good friend, John Godino, has some excellent answers for GoCampers.*
CAMPING ON PUBLIC LANDS
* Excerpts included in this article were shared with John’s permission. The entire original article is here on John’s blog, Alpine Savvy.
Disclaimer #1: As cartographers like to say, ”the map is not the territory.” Meaning, what’s really on the ground is the truth, not the printed map or phone app in your hand. If the map says you’re on public land, but the sign on the tree says no trespassing, or there are some grumpy locals who are giving you bad vibes, use your common sense and move on.
Disclaimer #2: The federal lands map layers in general seem to be more correct and consistent in these map tools and apps than the state land maps, at least for where I am in Oregon. In Oregon, it’s pretty easy to tell in the Coast Range whether it’s public or private. Privately owned lands almost always have a locked gate at the access road, and public lands do not.
Observation #3: Rural gas station attendants are often great sources for good free campsites. A small tip offered for your gas before asking can work wonders. =^)
Observation #4: I’d like to think I hardly need to mention this, but Leave No Trace principles of course apply. Don’t camp in meadows, near waterways or other fragile areas, leave zero garbage, toilet paper or fire rings behind, be VERY careful with campfires (if you even choose to have one) and observe all rules regarding fire closures, common in the summer. Have a walk around and pick up somebody else’s trash before you leave.
MAPS & APPS
Sometimes it’s hard to know whether you’re actually on public land that allows free camping, or not.
Good news is, there’s some good desktop mapping software and phone apps that can answer the question, hopefully leading you to a secluded, free overnight spot with no hassles.
CalTopo – Go to CalTopo.com, my favorite backcountry mapping software, and zoom into your area of interest. Here’s Crater Lake National Park. Choose a map layer. I like “Mapbuilder Topo,” the default. Then, mouse over the map layer menu in the top right corner, and check the box next to “Land Management,” under the “Map Overlays” section.
Now, your map should look something like this. Note the clear boundary between the National Park land around the lake, and the green tinted National Forest lands around the park.
Now we’re talking! Look at all those logging roads (in the red box) just outside the main road that leads into the park from the west, all on National Forest land. Most of these should offer some decent, free dispersed camping options, just a few minutes away from the park boundary.
Gaia GPS – On the “professional version” of the app, which is $40 a year, Gaia GPS has a map overlay option called “Public Land US.” With the “pro” version, Gaia has an advantage of being able to adjust the opacity of the map layers with a slider bar, which can be a big help in seeing smaller roads and pull outs.
Free Roam – FreeRoam is a phone app designed to show camp options and public lands. It’s free! It shows BLM and USFS land, some but not all roads, existing public campsites, and occasionally user added “dispersed camping“ sites. The app does not have all the whistles and bells of Gaia GPS, but as far as showing your location and whether you are or are not on federal land, it does a decent job.
Thanks for the tips, John! Alrighty, GoCampers, go get to know your public lands. They’re yours, after all! PublicLand.org is a comprehensive interactive mapping resource. And if you want to have the peace of mind of a reserved camp spot as a backup to boondocking, check out this earlier article we shared about finding the best campgrounds.
With a little bit of research, and appropriately equipped with proper maps and navigation tools, you’ll be able to just hop in your adventure-ready GoCamp camper van, and bask in the boondocking romance of the open road.
John Godino has an MS in Geosciences / Cartography. He is a 5-time President of Columbia River Orienteering Club, former wilderness ranger, climb leader and main navigation instructor for Mazamas mountaineering club, and host of AlpineSavvy.com, a website with more than 300 climbing tips and navigation resources. But most impressive? He’s the owner of a super sweet Vanagon Camper.