Traveling for two months in a van is not easy. There are huge highlights: time stretches out, we get to go to wild and fantastic places, and we spend a lot of quality time with each other. But, challenges are common too: bad roads, bad moods, and worst of all—expensive, crowded camping ($35 a night for camping alongside 100 others at state parks in CA). We’re not opposed to paying for camping, but we do prefer to camp at sites away from the crowds—off the beaten track. Over the years, we’ve honed the art of boondocking, also called dispersed or primitive camping.
Boondocking does not come with the traditional comforts of campgrounds (bathrooms, running water), but it often offers solitude and the chance to sleep in unique places. On the edge of the Kaibab plateau with Paige’s parents following behind us in a camper, we turned off the highway and drove 15 minutes down a rattling dirt road to a site in the middle of the high desert. The first thing Laurie said when she stepped out of the van was,
“This is incredible! How the heck did you find it!”
To be honest a lot of it is just driving around in the dark, but for the sake of sharing, here’s what we’ve learned after years of boondocking:
- Shaded areas are where you want to go—Forest Service and BLM generally allow dispersed camping in areas they have not developed. You will not find dispersed camping in National Parks or Monuments, or military testing sites. Once you’ve found a shaded area near where you want to go, zoom in and find roads within the shading. Some might say on a smartphone, “FR125” (forest road 125, etc). Smaller, less trafficked roads are what you’ll prefer.
Note: We did boondock successfully for years in Montana without a Smartphone; a state atlas can work effectively.
- Look for smaller roads or decommissioned roads off the main roads. Sometimes these roads dead end or they’ll have pullouts off of them—you need to find a way to get off the road (in a van, rather than a tent with a car, we actually have a smaller overall footprint).
- Don’t park where it says not to park or you might get an unwanted visit from a ranger
- Look for firerings. We always camp at previously disturbed sites. However, if there is an excess of beer cans and trash, your campsite may be a local party spot.
- Finally, it’s a good idea to venture away from the car to get the lay of the land. This is home for the night and you should have some understanding of it.
Traveling in faithful Pepa for the last two months and camping for close to 4 weeks in Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, California, Montana, Washington, and Oregon (Mexico doesn’t count because its safer and smarter to stay at established $5-$8 campsites there) we’ve paid for two nights of camping (in two unique places, with family in tow.)
Now, you can’t simply trundle up to these sites. They take some looking at maps and phones, some investigation, some willingness to drive out of your way (up to an hour). It’s also not possible to boondock in some parts of the country. You would have to be very innovative and sneaky to adopt this strategy in the eastern half of the U.S. where so much land is private. But in the west, where public land is plentiful, it can become habit.
Everyday we pull out the map, zoom in on the shading, and think: What does this forest/desert/grassland look like? And then, we find out.