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Boondocking or boondoggle? Dispersed camping simply disperses our messes

By Andy Zipser
Back in the day, when my legs had considerably more spring in them and I could backpack all day long, I would head into the backcountry solo for a week or 10 days or – on one memorable expedition – two weeks at a time, carrying everything I needed on my back. It was a point of pride for me not to have to resupply, so the 45-55 pounds I allowed myself had to include not just my tent, sleeping bag and cooking stove, but all my food and stove fuel and sufficient clothing for any weather I might encounter. The only thing for which I had to turn to my environment was for water, and in those days, drought was less of a limiting factor.

The attraction of all that hardship, which I could never adequately explain to my non-hiking co-workers (what? you’re not going to carry a cell phone?), was the solitude and self-sufficiency I could carve out for myself. I could go days without seeing another soul – or, if I did, odds were it was someone just as willing as I to pass by with a quick smile and brief nod of recognition. Or to stop for a 15-minute chat about the weather or the country ahead. I could hike north or south as the mood suited me, spend hours just lazing beside a stream or put in a body-testing 20-mile day, stretch out at night to look at a star-studded sky or roll over to make the day’s journal entry.

Leave nothing but footprints…

I tried to pass through the high country without leaving a mark because I wanted to leave the land as beautiful and restorative as I had found it, but also because doing so fit my sense of what it meant to be self-sufficient. To me, that meant no one would have to repair or clean up after me. It meant not taking that which could not be replaced. It meant being non-intrusive, in order to preserve that sense of solitude for which I had gone searching.

Yet even on those remote pilgrimages, I would encounter disturbing signs that not everyone felt the same way. Fire pits that hadn’t been dispersed, rocks blackened and cracked from the heat. Slash marks and cuts on trees, frequently live ones, where someone had swung a hatchet for tinder or firewood. Most disturbing of all were the piles of human feces just lying in the open, often still festooned with toilet paper, with no effort made to bury this most arrogant display of human hubris. Or maybe it was just heedlessness.

RVers promoting boondocking

I think about these things when I read or hear about RVers promoting boondocking as a way to get away from too many other RVers, from over-crowded campgrounds and from the high (and rising!) cost of finding a spot with a power pedestal and hydrant. There’s a lot of emphasis on self-sufficiency and how to make resources last, from gas generators and solar panels for electricity to capturing gray water for toilet flushing to various tricks for staying cool in the heat and warm when it’s cold. Sometimes, at the extremes, all the chatter takes on a somewhat paranoid survivalist sheen that makes me wonder about other people’s fantasy lives.

The uncomfortable fact is that some of those boondockers will be like the solitary hikers I sometimes encountered with a nod and a smile, but too many others will be of the poop-on-the-side-of-the-trail variety. They’ll leave ruts across fragile or muddy soils, shatter the night stillness with their electric generators, dump their gray water (hopefully not the black!) wherever it suits them because, well, they’re out in “nature.” They’ll leave fire-scarred rocks and half-burnt stumps, demolished vegetation and food litter, like orange peels and eggshells, because that too is “natural” or “organic.”

Boondockers unintentionally harm their environment

But it’s also a fact that even the most conscientious boondockers will be unable to avoid scarring the land on which they’re camping. Not when they’re driving 5,000- to 25,000-pound wheeled houses onto unpaved and uncleared ground, squatting in one place for five or seven days – if not longer – until they’re forced to move on in search of fresh water or a dump station. And while it may seem like there’s an awful lot of land out there for the boondockers to settle on, and so whatever damage they may inflict will be dispersed and only minimally visible, in reality, the boondocker population is exploding and the land they’re seeking is much more limited than they imagine.

It’s hard for many people to accept the fact that we humans, small and insignificant as we are, could possibly have so great an effect on this seemingly limitless planet as to cause global warming of catastrophic dimensions. So, too, will it be difficult for many boondockers to accept that their attempt at self-sufficiency will likewise destroy the very environment they’ve sought out – one rut and one splintered tree at a time.

****

Andy Zipser is the author of Renting Dirt, the story of his family’s experiences owning and operating a Virginia RV park. The fascinating book, recently published, is available at many large bookstores and on Amazon.com.

Related:

Just how bad is it? Are boondocking locations getting crowded?

##RVT1034

 

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pursuits712
8 months ago

Even hikers (no 25000# payload) have become an issue in national parks, defacing and trashing our precious resources. I don’t think the issue is as much the size of the camp as it is the mentality of the camper.

Too many of today’s hikers/campers/tourists behave as if everything has been created for their personal benefit and use. I don’t think those folks even have a clue what the word stewardship means — or care.

Scott R. Ellis
8 months ago

We have been camping far-flung places on public lands for decades, and have NEVER left a rut (nor even a track beyond an existing road), a fire ring that wasn’t already there, or a hatchet mark on a tree. The “boondocking” (a meaningless term, today) crowd of course has its share of idiots. We’re not among them, and we’ll continue to camp–harmlessly–away from the rest.

Wayne
8 months ago

The areas in Southern California and Quartzsite areas where the “RV” crowds frequent we have witnessed nil in the way of abuse, trash etc.
And Especially so when in comparison to other segments of society and the areas they inhabit full time.

Suru
8 months ago

Unfortunately, there will be less and less dispersed camping allowed the more popular these spots become. One of the most amazing boondocking places, Alabama Hills in Central California, has been overran, damaged and trashed and is now closed to camping as of last month. I live very near Zion NP in Utah and the boondocking spots around that area that used to have a few campers now have hundreds. A lot of full-timers who spend months in the same spot and end up looking like junk yards. It’s very sad and will probably only get worse.

Graybyrd
8 months ago

I fear this will be a self-healing problem. Most dispersed public land access (primarily in the western U.S.) is managed by two federal agencies: the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service. As increasing numbers of users and abusers create problems for these agencies, their response is assured: land closures. There are too few employees and too little budget to cope with the problem, so the easiest and most effective solution is to close the problem areas and lock the gates. Yes, a small percentage of abusers can and will spoil it for everybody. It appears to be inevitable. Expecting all people to “do the right thing” is a forlorn hope. Go drive awhile on the freeway for a perfect example.

Scott R. Ellis
8 months ago
Reply to  Graybyrd

We could also support agency budgets adequate to provide actual law enforcement . . .

Donald N Wright
8 months ago

Andy Zipser reminds me of Colin Fletcher.

Admin
RV Staff(@rvstaff)
8 months ago

Thanks for mentioning that, Donald. I have “The Complete Walker” series (from a long time ago), but I’m going to get “The Man Who Walked Through Time,” which I haven’t read yet. Take care. 🙂 –Diane

jfreeham
8 months ago

Well, let’s all just live simply, gratefully conscious of our surroundings, including the human animal.

Ron Bunge
8 months ago

I love the argument don’t dump black but gray is OK. Think about it, gray is full of chemicals, and black is what bears do in the woods. Now I would never dump either but just saying.

pursuits712
8 months ago
Reply to  Ron Bunge

Bears don’t use chemicals with their black matter, either! lol

Dennis G
8 months ago

Guess I’m part of the problem, with my 13K pound class-a. I do not dump gray water, leave trash, or run my generator hours on end. But I do pick up other peoples trash, and only camp in designated spots (or established) camp sites.

Steve
8 months ago

I see a couple dissenting comments so I thought let’s put some numbers to this. Go RVing says there are 11.2 million households that have RV’s as of 2021. If 2% of these RVers boondock, it’s 224000 units. If 5% leave trash or damage the land, thats 11,200 campers. If they do this 5 time a year, well that’s a lot of trash. Nothing scientific about my numbers, just swags but seems reasonable. How many times have you seen “campers” with dirt bikes, 4 wheelers, etc blasting down trails or up dry creek beds? Noise, dust, etc.

No one wants to tell someone not to enjoy camping, but we need to be better stewards of this planet. Enjoy, but leave no trace, I believe this is the mantra we need to push to ensure future RVers can enjoy this land as we do!

MattD
8 months ago

I like your writing Andy, I even bought your book. But maybe this is the wrong forum for criticizing the “5000 to 25000 pound wheeled houses”. Jus’ sayin’…

Irv
8 months ago

There are varied thoughts on dispersing rock fire rings. If the location is likely to be reused its better to leave them for reuse. Only one spot has ashes, only one set of rocks is stained, only one area has soil sterilized from the heat, only one area has leaves cleared away.

wanderer
8 months ago

I’m not going to shoot this down completely, it doesn’t hurt to be reminded to leave public lands as we find them But I would invite Andy to come out and see how many people visit Quartzsite boondocking lands, and see just how pristine 99% of campers leave it when they go. There is far more trash generated by truckers pulling off the road to ‘rest’ and dropping litter by the carload than RVers leave behind. (And the wind is another guilty party, I’ve learned, whisking things far away from campsites before anyone can react).

As far as fire pits go: Once built, I’m all for leaving one (clean!) for the next camper, that way they don’t disturb new ground to make a new one.

And finally, what about all those mines operating on public land, how is it okay for them to disturb to their heart’s content and make a ton of money, but the citizens of the country are supposed to tiptoe around on the few spaces allotted to us?

Paul B.
8 months ago
Reply to  wanderer

Well said, Wanderdude. See you in Quartzsite.

Leonard Rempel
8 months ago
Reply to  Paul B.

Agreed.

Wayne
8 months ago
Reply to  wanderer

Exactly. He paints with a wide brush.

Tommy Molnar
8 months ago

This guy is totally absorbed with himself. We should be impressed by his backpacking expeditions. He put his time in as the savior of the earth, so now we should not ever go where HE has gone. We’ll screw it all up. Sell our RVs and stay home. Let Andy be the only one who can enjoy the outdoors because he’s the only one who knows how to preserve it.

Admin
RV Staff(@rvstaff)
8 months ago
Reply to  Tommy Molnar

You’re being pretty harsh, Tommy. Andy is a really nice guy and is just giving us some of his background and his opinions – as we’re all entitled to. Just sayin’. Take care. 🙂 –Diane

Tommy Molnar
8 months ago
Reply to  RV Staff

I’m sorry. I appreciate his ‘opinion’, but I still think he’s his biggest fan. He seems to be assuming that all us boondockers are going to be the scourge on the land – and I don’t agree.

Admin
RV Staff(@rvstaff)
8 months ago
Reply to  Tommy Molnar

Thanks, Tommy. I understand and appreciate your opinion, also. (BTW – Aren’t we all our own biggest fans? 😆 ) Have a good evening/night. 🙂 –Diane

Tommy Molnar
8 months ago
Reply to  RV Staff

Ha. I was going to bring up something like that (about being our own biggest fans) but decided to leave that up to you – 🙂

Admin
RV Staff(@rvstaff)
8 months ago
Reply to  Tommy Molnar

You just wanted to see if I was paying attention. Yep. BTW — only 330 more comments from you before you hit 3,000! You’re catching up with me, Tommy! 🙂 –Diane

Bill
8 months ago
Reply to  Tommy Molnar

Not what I read .. Let’s take a deep breath..

Wayne
8 months ago

Andy it seems in this day and age everyone feels they have an ordained right to tell everybody else how to live.
Folks like you are missing out on the real joy of life, and that is worshiping the creator, instead of his creation.
Sure there are bad irresponsible rv’ers out there but it sounds like you would punish us all because of a few.
For a minute there I though you were describing the squalor in San Francisco.
Perhaps that is where you should direct your message.

A Liberal planet lover
8 months ago

We humans are destroying EVERYTHING! We need to be exterminated. WAR is the only solution. Kill us ALL!!!!! When humans are gone the animals and plants on the planet can live in peace and harmony. Who need humans anyway. Please kill yourself soon to save the planet.

Bill
8 months ago

Yah! (Not you, Andy)

Last edited 8 months ago by Bill
Admin
RV Staff(@rvstaff)
8 months ago

Wow! –Diane

Vic
8 months ago

Andy you need to get with the program. It’s not global warming it’s climate change.

Tom
8 months ago
Reply to  Vic

The earth has been warming and cooling all by itself for a long time. Just a small change in the orbit of the earth around the sun causes a change in the climate. I’m all for being a good steward of the earth, but when idiots say that we have to stop burning fossil fuels and go electric, where is all the electricity coming from?
I like solar energy, but, are we going to cover all the open land with panels to get this power? I think not, also, in certain locations, we don’t see the sun for weeks. In the Pacific Northwest, hydro is king, and yet, there are stupid politicians who want to tear down dams. These same politicians want to stop the use of natural gas in new homes, they want all appliances to be electric. What happens when the power goes out? I could go on, but you get the idea.

Bill
8 months ago
Reply to  Tom

Thanks for your article and voice of calm sanity.
Would that I could be as eloquent!

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