An Overlander’s Guide to Camping For Free in the U.S.A.
Go farther and stay longer with these pro tips from Overland Bound
We all know that public land is out there and free for us to use, but accessing and camping on it can be confusing—especially for those who don’t live in the West. To help clear things up we turned to Michael and Corrie Murguia of Overland Bound. They’ve built a community of members dedicated to overlanding (which is like car camping on steroids), and a website where you can access everything there is to know about exploring the world in a 4×4.
Every year, the Murguias travel through public lands in their 1996 Toyota FZJ80 Land Cruiser designed to go anywhere and camp off-grid. They also help others get involved and learn more about overlanding no matter what kinds of vehicles they have or what their budget is. For hunters and anglers, getting to remote pieces of public land and being able to stay there is a huge asset, and these guys know how to do it. Here are their tips and tricks to make boondocking and public land adventures a little easier.
Q: What are the different types of camping when it comes to public land, and how are the free sites set apart from the paid-for sites?
A: Camping within public lands varies from completely open/primitive areas with zero facilities to designated campsites with basics like pit toilets and fire rings, to ‘full service’ campgrounds. When there are official campgrounds on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) lands, they are usually first-come/first-served and clearly designated with signage indicating the nightly fee and ranger station location. Always bring cash or checks for payment.
Full-service sites are frequently booked 6 months to a year in advance. BLM and open public lands are often the most rewarding locations located far away from the crowds.
Q: How do you guys zero in on and research a campsite or area that offers free camping? What are some resources for finding free campsites?
A: This is not easy. It’s a combination of deciding on a destination, doing a ton of online research in advance, and planning how to travel there responsibly with little to no impact on the environment. Our own community posts locations and campsites on our member map, and share resources and locations to explore with each other. Our Rally Point software allows members to plan trips and invite others.
In addition, ranger stations provide “Motor Vehicle Use” or MVUM maps to show where highway vehicles are allowed to go off-grid. We often stop by any ranger station we pass to get the best maps for that area. We are a global organization, and similar resources exist around the world. There are also a few great publications of trail maps for vehicles depending on your location. In California, A Guide to California Backroads & 4-Wheel Drive Trails by Charles A. Wells is a great example. As we’ve grown as an organization, the community has become its own resource for where to go.
Q: Are there any “do’s and don’ts” that you have discovered along the way when it comes to camping on BLM and National Forest?
A: Finding permitted camping areas on BLM land is fairly easy with a quick google search for the destination you’re interested in exploring. Know as much as possible before you go, and be diligent in your research to identify the areas where primitive camping is permitted, and where it is not allowed. (For instance, there is no primitive camping within 20 miles of Moab, UT.)
Many people think you can drive wherever you want and do whatever you want on BLM land. This is not the case at all. You need to stay on the trail, do not crush the brush, and always make sure you have a minimal impact on the environment. Abuse of public lands contributes to closures. Thoroughly read the Know Before You Go List from the NFS.
Q: Are there any special navigation skills that you have familiarized yourselves with or safety tips you can share for traveling and camping off-grid? Do you have any navigation tricks for areas that might not be properly marked?
A: Here are some general rules of thumb to help you get started traveling farther off the pavement:
- When in doubt, get out. Step out of your vehicle and walk the trail, even if it means getting muddy and wet.
- A marked road on a map is not necessarily a passable road.
- Have a Garmin InReach or other two-way communications solution off-grid. This is not optional if you plan to take a vehicle to remote corners of the wilderness.
- You do not need cell service to navigate “Off-Grid”. Your mobile GPS device works out of cellular range.
- Google Maps allows you to download the map in advance for off-grid navigation. Do it. Your Mobile GPS will work off-grid for navigation if you have downloaded the map.
- In areas where GPS is not available, you will need satellite comms. This is rare. You can buy a $15 GPS antenna to increase GPS signal strength and refresh times.
Q: What are the best sources for trail maps? Do you use paper maps, digital, or both?
A: We use both. As we mentioned above, we download maps from sources like Google Maps beforehand, and we supplement with paper maps either from books or Ranger Station MVUM maps. We also go to the Overland Bound forums to find GPX or KML files from members who have previously traveled in the area we are heading to.
Q: How long is a typical camping trip/overlanding expedition in the U.S.?
A: Most people are able to take weekend or long weekend trips several times a year, and more and more we are seeing people planning 2-4 week excursions annually.
Q: How much time do you give yourself to find a spot and get set up? Do you roll into campsites at night or try to make it there with enough daylight?
A: Try to get to camp by 3:00 p.m. in the winter, and 6:00 p.m. in the summer. Setting up camp after dark can be dangerous if you are not familiar with the terrain. However, this is not a hard rule. Some enjoy the morning “reveal” as long as you know you are in a safe area.
Q: Do you keep a backup campsite if the one you were looking for doesn’t work out? What are some tips for making decisions on the fly about places to camp?
A: The areas we travel are usually familiar to us, and we know we have options. You may not get your favorite spot, but you will get a spot. The more research you do, the more likely you will find an area that has plenty of space to hunker down for the night. If not, you may be stuck with a last-minute hotel or Walmart parking lot.
When we travel to places like Baja, we know where we are going and where we will be staying ahead of time because we follow an itinerary and schedule. If we are in a populated area, we make plans in advance. If we are in a remote area, we can be less structured.
Q: What are some important questions to ask BLM officers or National Forest Rangers when you get to a new area and would like to camp there? How do you find out who or where they are?
A: The District Ranger station is the best place before hitting dirt roads. Ask if fires are allowed and if you need a campfire permit. Some other good questions to ask are: Is a camping permit required? Are there any areas that are closed? Any areas that need trash removal or sprucing up?
Also, pull out your map and show the ranger or officer where you intend to go and ask questions about any restrictions.
Q: Does dispersed camping literally mean camp anywhere? How do you know that you are legal in a given area?
A: Dispersed camping does not mean camp anywhere, and that can be unclear. You are never allowed to make new roads/paths or drive in undeveloped areas. Fire rings are one of the best indicators of designated campsites; however, if there is no clear vehicle path to the fire ring, you may camp there, just keep your vehicle on a clearly used area. Don’t drive off the trail. One set of tire treads through an area can quickly turn into 15 sets of tire treads and this turns into ‘new’ trails to areas not designated for vehicle use. This can lead to closures.
Q: Some public land is behind gates, and it looks inaccessible when that might not be the case. What are the best practices with gates, and how do you know that you’re not trespassing?
A: Be very respectful of gates. They are there for a reason. A phone call to the local BLM/FS office in advance to ask about gates and private/public gates goes a long way to prepare yourself in advance. If you come across a gate on public land and go through it, leave it exactly as you found it, whether that is opened or closed. Ranchers may lease public land and manage livestock with the gates to control where they go. If a gate is marked private property, respect that and find a different path.
Q: What are some other common hazards that you look out for, and is there anything that disqualifies a campsite?
A: A hornet’s nest or similar element. (Not joking.) Make sure you’re aware of how water flows around you, especially when it’s dry. If you are in a dry region and you find a spot that is lush with green trees and bushes, pay attention. It indicates the presence of water and you want to know exactly how that water gets there. Look out for loose rocks and fragile terrain. Check to see what is above you, what’s fallen around you, and what could possibly fall at any moment like a diseased or decaying tree.
Also watch out for artifacts, which happens more often than you might think. This qualifies as an “arch site” and you are not allowed to camp there. If you see arrowheads, divots in rock for grinding grains, petroglyphs, or other artifacts, steer clear and check-in with the local ranger station about your discovery. There is a process for reporting arch sites. They are everywhere. (Our 12 year old discovered a glass bottle dated 1890 and a wooden wagon axle once.)
Q: What is a good way to conduct yourself when you’re dispersed camping, and what are some other examples of proper land use? Also, how about clean-up, what are some tricks/gear for hauling out your trash.
A: It all starts with leaving the places we go better than we found them and a “Truck Ruck.” We haul out every last thing we bring in (including our poop), and we pick up after others who were less courteous. It becomes a point of pride when you explore with integrity. We say this often, but sometimes you need to be the adult on the trail. Be the adult. Study up on Tread Lightly Principles and be familiar with Leave No Trace to start.
A “Truck Ruck” is a large bag that sits outside the vehicle designated to hold trash. It typically sits over the spare tire. Some joke that it looks like overlanders trek around with little backpacks for their rigs, but this is a piece of gear that packs a long-lasting punch.
If the litter problem is too big, contact the local ranger district or organize a cleanup through the Overland Bound Trail Guardian Program. You’d be surprised at how many people will jump at the chance to meet up off-road and haul off garbage. We helped organize a clean up in Joshua Tree where 200+ people removed 30 tons of garbage from BLM land. People want to get involved and help.
Q: What kinds of things would someone who is camping for free not be able to live without?
A: Always cover your basics:
1. Water: Invest in portable water containers that can carry at least 10L of drinking water. You can refill a smaller bottle throughout the day from this larger source.
2. Food: Have a variety of non-perishable foods and snacks, and a stove that can boil water. We see everything from people bringing gourmet kitchen equipment and fancy foods, to those who bring a couple of MREs and oatmeal. Both approaches are fine.
3. Clothing: Bring a few layering options for clothing so you can add layers in cold weather and remove them for hot.
4. Shelter: Fully prepare where you will be sleeping at night (ground tent, rooftop tent, back of truck, etc.). A 15 degree F sleeping bag, simple pad and an inflatable pillow go a long way in most climates.
One of the must have items for primitive camping is a portable toilet solution, and a clear understanding of the Leave No Trace principles on how to dispose of human waste. Knowing how to handle #1 and #2 is vital to keep public lands open and healthy. We use a portable toilet with bio gel, and pop-up privacy tent when in wide open areas like the desert. A quick search for camping hygiene products will give you a wide range of options that can handle the job (so to speak).
Q: What are the hardest parts of camping for free/dispersed camping, and how do you overcome them?
A: Some of the hardest parts of primitive camping are also the best parts, namely being completely self-sufficient and cut off from civilization. Water, food, fuel… You have to plan and pack out everything in advance to navigate the unknown. The more you front-load yourself with data (location, terrain, proximity to civilization, historical weather records, trail health, distances, etc.), the longer and farther you will be able to safely go.
The other aspect of preparing for primitive camping is it forces you to be more engaged with where you’re going before you get there. Enjoyment of the moment is heightened when you’ve already immersed yourself in the landscape mentally before setting foot or tire on it.
Q: Is there any overlanding-specific gear that you feel would be beneficial to hunters, anglers, and campers that they might not know about?
A: Your vehicle. This may seem obvious, but a well-outfitted vehicle will allow you to go farther and do more for longer. It opens up a whole new world.
Q: Do you guys use something like Recreation.gov or other pay-for camping sites when you’re on a trip?
A: While we prefer setting up camp off the beaten path, we do use pay-for camping sites as needed. Recreation.gov is a great tool to help start your adventure. We’ve also used Hipcamp (think AirBnB for camping) when areas we were heading to had no BLM options and formal campsites were sold out.
Q: Do you keep a log of places to visit again? What is the best way to keep track of good campsites?
A: Yes, we absolutely keep track. We use a combination of pins we’ve dropped using our Garmin InReach and good old fashioned pen-on-paper on a Forest Service map or local guide book. We also add locations to our Overland Bound Member Resource Map. We use a Large Eagle Creek Garment folder to store all of our paper maps and books in our truck.
Some places have a way of sticking with you, no record needed. Those are usually the best.