You can do it, Girlfriend: guerilla camping on public land

Guerilla camping near Boulder, UTfree campground near Borrego Springs, CA

The first necessary skill of guerilla camping is the ability to ferret out free overnight spots to camp along the road. That was the topic of the last post.

The second necessary skill is the ability to find spectacular places to camp for free on public land. (Which means land you’ve paid for with your tax dollars–a better investment than super-fortified, war-worthy Hummers, if you ask me.) As one homeless man said hyperbolically, “It’s a gold mine out there.” He was kinda right.

It’s not so much that the camping is free, although that’s a definite plus, but that the places themselves can be fabulous.

Case in point: Blair Valley.

Free campground, Blair Valley

Blair Valley is a campground in California’s expansive and beautiful Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. The Anza-Borrego allows “dispersed camping.”

This is music to the guerilla camper’s ears. Dispersed camping means that you can pull off anywhere and camp. You may be limited to “already disturbed” places where people have camped before. Or, as with Blair Valley, you may be encouraged to camp in established campgrounds, but you can often find beautiful, sparsely populated, free places to camp for almost as long as you like. The Blair Valley campground, for example, was spread across an expansive, high desert valley where I was all but alone. My closest neighbors were jackrabbits and a den of coyotes that sang for me at night. It was magical.

BLM campground near Overton, NV

Both Canada and the US maintain public land that allows dispersed camping. In the US, this land is concentrated in the West, but usually, if you can find a national forest, you can find lovely rustic campgrounds. Other public land besides that managed by the National Forest Service (NFS) is the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which manages about 245 million acres, mostly in 12 western states, and the Army Corps of Engineers, which has about 90,000 campgrounds, mostly along lakes and rivers in the middle of the country. Each of these agencies has its own regions, rules, maps, and offices, although you sometimes find the BLM and NFS agencies sharing an office in smaller locations. The Canadian version of our NFS operates similarly.

The system is confusing, and it’s often hard for an outsider to find the good spots, since they’re usually tucked away in remote places.

I’ve had luck with two approaches:

  •  Find the office. If you have access to a computer, a phone, and/or a GPS, you might be able to find a nearby BLM or NFS office—or you might locate one by happenstance. These offices are chock-a-block with maps and good information about campgrounds, road conditions, weather, and local lore and legend. I love finding the office, and I leave stuffed with maps and good advice.
  • Or—you can ask a local. This is just as good because the right local can point you to camping areas that the agencies know nothing about. This happened to me many times, and it’s the way I found the best camping spots.

free campground, Mountain Palm Springs

Once, for example, in Nebraska, I was looking for a place to stop for the night, and I was having a darned hard time finding one. I stopped in a small town and let the dog out to pee. She made a beeline for a guy’s yard and promptly pooped on his grass. I was embarrassed, cleaned it up, and asked the owner, who had witnessed the whole episode, about a place to camp. He directed me to a sweet county park just a mile or two up the road. $5/night or $12 with electricity. The weather quickly became torrid, so I was able to park in the shade, plug in, and run the air conditioner during the worst hours of the day.

The moral? Ask.

County park campgrounds are affordable gems. Some towns also run city park campgrounds (Southern Nebraska seems to have a lot of them.)

Bottom line? Why pay a lot of money to be enclosed in a chainlink fence with RVs the size of railroad cars and at least two ankle-biters yapping in the front windows. Are full hookups for your trailer worth the deluge of rules that insult your intelligence and that are plastered on every flat surface: Clean up after your dog! Remove lint from dryer screen! Close door to bathroom stall! Don’t pee on your shoes!

Give me a remote desert campground any day.

favorite free campground on BLM land between Cantonlands and Zion National Parks




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