Van Life Guide: Boondocking
How to sleep for free across America
Boondocking on the banks of the Flathead River, MT - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan
Faded National Park stickers and added rust - time painted upon the van full of memories. After four years parked in Los Angeles, my campervan was itching for new roads, and in the wake of a breakup so was I. On July 18th, 2020 - five years since the van’s last voyage carrying us across Eastern Oregon - I sold it to a woman with her own Van Life Dreams.
As I watched the 1988 Ford Econoline drive off for the last time, I reminded myself that one road ending meant another was beginning. The money from the van sale was going to fund another adventure - a solo road trip in my 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee. The goal was to take the van and put it inside the Jeep, giving myself the ability to once again live the off-grid dream. I built a platform in the back of the Jeep that fits a queen size mattress topper. Below the sleeping area I installed a refrigerator, and created a storage area large enough to carry all the essentials for the road. The roof rack would support a shade structure, a road shower, and additional storage capabilities. The plan was to travel the west, with the ability to camp for weeks on end in the wilderness.
The US Forest Service calls it Dispersed Camping. Others refer to it as Dry Camping. But I prefer to call it Pioneering. Van Life is the closest we can get to the pioneering spirit these days - save for throwing all your provisions on your back - whether you talk in an old-timey pioneer accent or not. The basics of boondocking are the same as backpacking, just with a vehicle - in a school bus, van, SUV, or sedan. The level of comfort and fun comes down to the individual pioneer's versatility in building camp - an art that mirrors a bird’s nesting practice.
Glacier Rim, MT - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan
The Bureau of Land Management operates on over 245 million acres of public land - the vast majority of which is located in the Western part of the country. Their mission: "To sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of America's public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations." The BLM manages developed campgrounds and giant swaths of undisturbed land alike, providing campgrounds ranging from full service sites with pit toilets and running water to backcountry and roadside locales. In addition to these established campgrounds, they administer massive areas of land for dispersed camping - basically just camping away from developed resources like toilets, trash, and water.
Though some developed campgrounds can be found for free, the majority come at a cost; and when you intend to extend your unemployed time on the road, free camping is a requirement. The ‘roughing it’ aspect of boondocking leads to fun activities like building a fire ring. Though the BLM prefers for you to use previously camped areas - there is no harm in finding your own as long as you stick to the principles of Leave No Trace.
Lost River Range: Mackay, ID - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan
The BLM permits campers to set up for 14 days at a time, after which you are required to uproot and move to a new site at least 25 miles away - restarting the 14 day limit. Two weeks is a long time to set up a home, thus the rule - which is meant to keep the land from receiving permanent damage. This strategy has been effective in protecting these areas, while allowing for extended recreation potential as well. Many desert areas with ample public land and mild winter weather, such as Quartzite, Arizona, are meccas for boondocking all winter long - bouncing around every two weeks until the land up north thaws. These seasonal nomads are referred to as snowbirds: once the desert heats back up they flock back north to places like Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Canada.
The longest I've ever boondocked in one area was a month in Central Idaho; spending two weeks in the Pioneer Mountains near Sun Valley, and two weeks in the Lost River Range outside Mackay. Lazy days enjoying the perfect September weather on the edge of the Rockies made uprooting from both locations rather bittersweet; like driving away from home. Two weeks in nature can feel like a long time - so I made sure to have the essentials: a shade structure, solar power system, and shower system… and the little things I brought such as multicolored solar lights, my typewriter, rock collection, and a tapestry made my home on the range feel more like a home. People tease me about these extra items, but for myself - the little things are a big deal - especially when living on the road.
Idahome in the Lost River Range: Mackay, ID - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan
Since most BLM land is in wide open desert, plains, and forest-void mountainscapes, bringing shade is just as important as bringing water. A plethora of outdoor companies offer a wide range of shade devices, from awnings to pop up shade shelters. Don't forget the likelihood of high winds when setting up these essentials. Anchors are always necessary - be they in the form of rocks, sandbags, or stakes.
Naturally, the amount of water you have dictates how long you can live off-grid. I generally bring a gallon and a half of water per day, for both drinking and cleaning. For extremely hot or arid conditions, I increase that allotment to two gallons per day. Conservation of your resources is highly important. Learning to wash with minimal water is crucial - no matter how much water you bring, it is good practice.
Idahome in the Pioneer Mountains: Sun Valley, ID - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan
A cooler is an essential item, especially for the long term boondocker. Depending on the cooler, ice only lasts about a day or two, so it is a good idea to have two coolers - one just for ice and one for food. To avoid hassles with ice I have always had a refrigerator as part of my setup. When I lived in a campervan it was powered by propane, in my Jeep-conversion I have a 240w portable power station by Jackery charged with a foldable 60w solar panel bank. The power station can run my refrigerator and charge my phone/computer, and on a clear sunny day the panels keep the station fully charged. While driving, the station can charge off the car's battery - providing fully charged power reserves no matter where I end up parking.
Black Rock City: Gerlach, NV - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan
But of course, let's not forget about the crucial part of human existence...what to do with the poo. On my boondocking adventures I have never had the luxury of a Blackwater tank, the waste collection system common to most RVs. On both van and Jeep adventures, the addition of a portable emergency roadside toilet has been crucial. It isn't glamorous, but it does the job. I prefer the Cleanwaste: Go Anywhere toilet kit - each kit comes with an interior waste bag, the near magical Poo Powder® deodorizing agent, and a puncture-resistant zip-close disposable bag that is capable of handling...many uses. This is a useful system that makes for easy clean up, and is far better for the environment than digging a hole. There are many places (like the Black Rock Desert pictured above) where there isn't the option of digging due to environmental concerns - many environments can't support it, and often too many people can make for disgustingly hollow ground.
North Cascades National Park, WA - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan
Boondocking extends the range of diverse places you can travel to, and camp at. Since it is free to camp, this is the most cost effective way to experience the outdoors for long periods. It takes grit, but it is definitely worth it.
My favorite places to boondock range through every ecosystem. Here are some highlights (excluding the glorious places in Idaho referenced earlier):
North Fork Flathead River - Columbia Falls, Montana
On the banks of one of Montana's prettiest rivers, this popular spot is literally a stone's throw away from Glacier National Park, which lies just across the Flathead River.
Crane Prairie Reservoir - Bend, Oregon
With a clear view of a trifecta of massive volcanoes just to the north, Crane Prairie is one of the more scenic places I've camped. Mt. Bachelor, Broken Top, and The Sisters all loom above the reservoir; catching the evening sun shimmering off the water makes for beautiful sunsets.
Black Rock Desert - Gerlach, Nevada
The dry ghost of Ancient Lake Lahontan makes for a very special camping experience. Miles of wide open desert present a perfect place for stargazing. It is also the home of Black Rock City; the location of Burning Man. The temporary city appears in August, but camping here any time is a great experience in itself.
Trona Pinnacles - Trona, California
A favorite filming location for car commercials and TV shows looking for an alien landscape, the Trona Pinnacles are an array of geologic formations that create unique spires, standing tall out of the Mojave desert.
Wire Valley - Virgin, Utah
Nestled between huge walls and canyons of Navajo Sandstone, this area adjacent to Zion National Park is a great jumping spot for the marvels of Southern Utah. If you’re planning on setting up camp here make sure to arrive early in the day, as the site tends to fill up quickly with like-minded boondockers.
Although those are the highlights of my own boondocking experience, there are a plethora of great spots that can be found via resources online. My go-to for such is Freecampsites.net, a free site that allows community veterans to post and rate boondocking locations. This has saved me from many mistakes when picking a campsite, and has led to many good times on the road.
Tools of the Trade: Hornbrook, CA - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan
Life on the road is made smoother, cheaper, and more adventurous by finding good boondocking locations. So be sure to do your research and even a test run to discover specific needs before diving into such a unique camping experience. I recently went on a four-month solo road trip, mostly relying on boondocking to get me by. Having solid knowledge and experience with boondocking comes in handy for any form of road trip, as it gives you the tools you need to sleep anywhere, anytime.
The majority of the BLM’s dispersed camping opportunities are across 12 western states, but that doesn’t rule out the eastern part of the country for boondocking opportunities. The majority of Wal-Marts will allow you to camp in their parking lots; it is also common for casinos to do the same. Truck stops and rest areas are fine for a night or two, but keep your head on a swivel - it is all too common to be met with shifty eyes. Most civilized boondocking locations require a self contained toilet system, so keep that in mind - you don’t want to wake up with an urgent need to pee and no pee plan.
Over 245 million acres of public land eagerly awaits your next expedition. Embrace the pioneering spirit, and wheel your way toward a new home out in the wilds of America. Sitting out in the wilderness, calmly being one with nature, is an amazing feeling that everyone should experience. Boondocking is an excellent way to find your own adventure... To quote ski film pioneer Warren Miller: “If you don’t do it this year, you will be one year older when you do.”
Join us next Monday on the Pathloom Blog as we continue with part 3 of Scott's Van Life series, which will discuss specifics of a buildout, providing key tips and tricks of how to prepare your vehicle for an adventure of your own!
If you missed part 1 of the Van Life Guide, which gave an overview of The Life in general and Scott's own origin story, click here to check it out!
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