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Finding the joy in Green Living.
|The Earth Does Not Belong to Us, We Belong To The Earth. ~ Chief Seattle
|Camping on BLM Desert land in Arizona.
Photo by Charlene Swankie
The single most important thing you can do to increase the quality of your life is spend
time in nature. As we've discussed, we are products of our evolutionary past, and the
vast majority of that time was spent in direct, non-stop connection with the earth. Over
a period of literally millions of years of our march from primate to conscious human,
we developed instincts, needs and fears based on a connection to the land and to the
small, close-knit clan of hunter-gatherers to which we belonged. Then suddenly, in an
evolutionary blink-of-the-eye, we lost nearly all connection to the Earth Mother from
which we sprang. What we failed to see is that an alienation from the source of our
lives would inevitably lead to alienation to ourselves and other people. The result has
been an astounding increase in our intellectual and external lives, but an equally
astounding loss of our emotional, social, and spiritual well-being. The solution is
simple, reconnect to the land. When I retired, I was on a limited budget so I got a job
as a campground host in the National Forest in the summer, and then stayed on BLM
desert land in the winter. In this way, 365 days a year I lived in nature. It profoundly
changed my life. I found a sense of peace and joy like I had never dreamed I could
have. I wish that for you as well.
Fortunately, if you've moved into a small vehicle home, it is quite easy to live on the
land, by dispersed camping on National Forest (NF) or Bureau of Land Management
(BLM) land. All Federal lands in the U.S. are held in public trust for the best use of
the people. One of the primary uses of public lands is recreation. So nearly all
National Forest or BLM land is available for camping. Some of it is set aside as
formal campgrounds that are developed to give people more amenities. If you aren't
familiar with public land, you probably think that you are only allowed to camp in
those campgrounds, but that isn't true at all. Nearly all National Forest (NF) or BLM
land is open to what the government calls Dispersed Camping. That means that you
drive along any NF or BLM road until you find a place you want to camp, then you
pull over and set-up camp. I think it is safe to say, that it's ALL open to dispersed
camping unless there are signs posted telling you otherwise. And that does happen in a
very few places, there are places where either you can't disperse camp, or it is
restricted to designated sites. The most common reason for the restrictions is it is near
a large population center or very popular site where there are so many people trying to
use the land, that it will be damaged unless it is restricted. A second reason is the land
itself is sensitive to damage. A common example of that is along rivers where heavy
camping can damage the waterway. But, anytime there are restrictions, there should be
a sign telling you that. If I don't see signs saying otherwise, I assume there are no
restrictions. Something else you may find is that in some areas you will be required to
get a permit for dispersed camping. It isn't common, but it does happen. Usually the
permit is automatic and free, I've never seen one where you had to pay. One example
is the area around Quartzsite, AZ which is hugely popular with the snowbirds (people
in RVs who spend the summer in the North where it is cool and winter in the South
where it is warm). Another example is in Grand Staircase Escalante National
Monument in Utah. When I got my permit, she said the reason is because the area is so
vast, and so hot in the summer, that it is deceptively dangerous and they want to know
where people are in case they get in trouble.
14 Day-Stay Land:
Nearly all public land has a limit of how long you may camp on it. That limit is most
often 14 days, or two weeks. The idea is that it is public land, owned by all the people
of the country for recreation and not for living on it. That's quite reasonable, so when I
say I live on public land, I don't mean to imply any ownership, nor do I stay for
extended periods of time. Last year I camped on public land all 365 days of the year.
Almost 6 months of that was in a NF campground where I am a campground host. The
other 6 months was on BLM desert land in AZ, NV, and CA. The longest I spent in one
spot was 2 months. There is so much land, and so few rangers, that enforcement of the
14 day limit is very spotty. Now, I revere the land so I never do anything to harm to it,
and I stay in places where there is practically no one else around, so I feel like I may
be breaking the letter of the law, but I am within the spirit of the law. If you aren't
comfortable with that, then you can just move every 14 days, it isn't a hardship. You
almost always have to move a certain distance (usually 25 miles) before you can camp
again. Generally, after 14 days, you can move back to that original spot. However,
there are some areas that are so popular that the rules are more restrictive, so if you
are close to a fairly large city, you may need to look into that. To find specific
information about a NF, do a goggle search of the name of the NF you are. So you
might type in "Sierra National Forest, CA" (CA is the state the NF is in). The search
results will give you the name, location and phone number of the Ranger Stations in
charge of the forest. Then call the Ranger Station and ask if there any restrictions on
dispersed camping in the area you want to camp in. For BLM land you would do the
same except you will search "BLM AZ." Again, AZ is the state you are in. You will
find a phone number that you call asking about dispersed camping.
Long Term Visitor Areas (LTVA):
Winter LTVAs: There is such a demand for long term parking by the Snowbirds in the
RV community, that the BLM responded by creating Long Term Visitor Areas. These
are in the desert of Arizona and California along the Colorado River corridor. As of
April, 2011, the cost is $180. For your money you get a pass that allows you to stay at
any LTVA from September 15 to April 15. That works out to about $26 a month for
seven months. Thats cheap camping! You don't get a lot for your money except for a
camp site. Some of the LTVAs offer some ammenities such as water, garbage and
dump stations, but some offer nothing at all. Some are very busy and you will have a
hard time finding privacy, but some are remote enough that you can be alone or with
others. If you don't want to stay for the whole season, can pay $40 for 14 days of
camping. I don't understand why anybody would do that since all the LTVAs are
surrounded by 14 day stay land you can camp on for free. You can get more
information here: www.blm.gov/ca/st/en/fo/elcentro/recreation/ltvas.html
Summer LTVAs: For a long time there was only a winter season for snowbirds who
wanted long term camping. But recently the BLM set aside several campgrounds on the
Eastern side of the Sierra mountains near Bishop California for use as LTVAs. The
cost is $300 and the season runs from the first Saturday in March to November 1st.
The campgrounds vary in altitude from 5,000 to 7,500 feet above sea-level, so
although it is desert country, it might not be too terribly hot in the summer. Learn more
The Slabs area totally unique place you can go and set up camp and stay as long as you
want. You can stay a day, or a decade, the choice is yours and no one will bother you
no matter how long you stay. It is located 3 miles East of Niland, CA, near the Salton
Sea. During World War II it was a Marine base that was later decommissioned. When
it was shut down, they removed everything except for the concrete slabs that were
under the buildings. That's how it got its name. Since then it has fallen between the
cracks of ownership, and RVers started using it for camping. More people came until
its fame spread and it has become very popular. At the entrance, the original guard-
house is still standing and someone has written on it "Welcome to Slab City, the last
free place." And that describes it perfectly. It's as if there were no rules or laws,
people live any way they want. The first thing you will notice is the place is filthy.
Over the years many people have used it and somehow the sense of freedom they find
there gives them the idea that none of the normal rules apply. So they trash their area,
and then just leave it. You can find some terribly old, trashy Rvs right beside nice,
new, neat Rvs. Some people love it, others hate it. You will just have to go and check
it our for yourself. If you like it, you can stay as long as you want.
Close-In or Remote?
Some of the NF, and nearly all BLM land, is so huge that you can drive further and be
in the back-country where you are very unlikely to see anyone else. Here's how you
can find those places:
- Buy a DeLorme Gazetter or Benchmark Atlas. They are books that take a state
and break it down into many small maps. They have a map somewhere that shows
BLM land, which is very handy! They also show many of the small forest service
or BLM roads into the back-country.
- Using your Atlas, decide which area you want to be in.
- Drive down a paved road through the chosen area.
- Take a smaller road off the main road.
- Drive along until you find a smaller road, take it. At some point the roads will
become unpaved, and progressively worse.
- Keep taking smaller roads until they either get too rough for your vehicle (which
they will) or you find your ideal campsite. This is where a high-clearance or four-
wheel-drive vehicle would be good to have.
And then you are home! The further back you go, the less likely you are to ever see
anyone else, including a Ranger. If you like solitude, then you are in heaven! But, there
are disadvantages to being that remote. First, you will be a long way from supplies
(water, food, fuel). When yours start to run out, it may be along haul to get to them.
One thing I do is carry a backpackers water filter made by MSR and I try to camp near
a creek or lake and I filter it to extend my time before needing to make a supply run for
water. Second, if you break down, or need other help, you are a long walk or drive
from it. Third, you won't have cell phone or internet access. For some people, the
remote-ness is well worth the minor inconviences, for others it is unacceptable. You
will have to decide for yourself.
If you don't want to be that remote, it's generally fairly easy to disperse camp on NF or
BLM land fairly close to a small town of some kind. Those small towns usually are
oriented towards campers and tourists, so you can get water, dispose of trash and
dump your holding tanks there. Almost always there is a small grocery store that will
have the basics of what you need, but it will all be much more expensive than the
prices you will pay in a larger city. Also, there will generally be cell and internet in
those towns. I have Verizon as my cell phone and internet provider, and I have never
been to any small mountain or desert town where I didn't have service. A few times I
have camped close enough to town to get cell or internet, but generally you have to
drive a few miles to get to it. In the desert, I can always get cell/internet if I am within
a few miles of a freeway, or sometimes even a major road. Let me admit that isn't true
of you have ATT service. I've been on many freeways that didn't have ATT service,
but I've never been on one that didn't have Verizon service. I camped in the desert once
so far from the freeway that it was just a dim line in the distance. I couldn't get any
service, but when I walked up a small hill I got 3 bars. It was inconvienant but I had
service. The biggest disadvantage to being close to towns, is that you are generally
more noticeable. So Rangers may notice you and you will have to move every 14 days.
Personally, I try to find someplace that is neither too close, or too far away. This is
what I am looking for in a campsite:
- Remote enough that there will be minimal traffic around me.
- I try to be within 60 miles round trip from a Walmart so I can make a once a
month trip for the least expensive supplies.
- Cell/internet service available in camp, or at worst just a short drive away (10
miles round trip).
- A small mountain/desert town where I can make either weekly or bi-weekly trips
for perishable goods (bread, meat, milk, fruits/vegetables, ice).
I have never been anywhere where on the West coast I couldn't find a place to meet
these criteria. I almost never find a place on the East coast that meets them. That's why
I live out West.
Since we are trying to live the greenest, and most comfortable off-grid lives we can,
we need to try to avoid temperature extremes. Because we live on wheels, if it is too
hot in the summer, or too cold in the winter we can just move to somewhere where the
weather is better. Most people think in terms of moving North in the summer and South
in the winter. But that has problems:
- It doesn't always work. Many states on the Canadian border are very hot in the
summer, and very cold in the winter. An example is Great Falls, Montana which
is over 100 degrees much of the summer.
- It is very expensive to drive from the far north of the country to the far south.
A much better idea is to move up in elevation! For every 1000 feet of elevation gain,
the temperature drops by three degrees. So if it is 100 degrees at sea level, it will be
80 degrees at 6,000 feet. So if it is 100 degrees in Tampa, Florida, and you drive up to
6,000 feet in the Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina, it will only be a much more
comfortable 80 degrees. The problem with the East coast is that the mountains of North
Carolina are very crowded in the summer with very limited dispersed camping, and
you still have to drive 500 miles for that difference in elevation. Also, it is a very
humid heat in both places. Compare that to the West coast. The distance from
Quartzsite, AZ at 400 feet to Flagstaff, AZ at 7,500 feet is only 250 miles, and it is a
very dry heat and there is a huge and virtually unlimited amount of dispersed camping.
Or compare it to Fresno, CA. When it is 110 degrees in Fresno, you are only two
hours drive from being at 8,000 feet in the incredibly gorgeous Sierra NF where it is
80 degrees. Or compare it to Denver, CO. The plains states all get very hot as does
Denver. So when it is 100 degrees in Denver, you can drive 2 hours to Leadville, CO
and camp in the NF around it at 10,400 feet where it will be 80 degrees. The Rockies
are gorgeous and there is plenty of dispersed camping.
So if you are looking for the good life with free camping in Mother Natures wonderful
home, it's easy to find. I encourage you to take advantage of our natural resources, and
get out there and see how it changes your life!
|Camping near Palmer, Alaska
Camping near Quartzsite, Arizona. Standing on this small hill,
I was able to get 3 bars on my Verizon cell phone from a
freeway that was close to 7 miles away. The freeway was
behind me in this picture.
|Just outside my campsite in the Sierra NF.