News and Commentary
Dispersed camping (“boondocking”) refers to camping outside designated campgrounds. It is a preferred camping mode for many RVers who prefer to avoid the hassle and price of designated commercial campgrounds. Boondocking is a more secluded and natural camping experience at a lower cost and with fewer regulations than campground camping. However, with this lack of structure comes a greater risk of environmental damage and safety hazards, including wildfires. And therein lie the principal arguments against boondocking.
Public forest lands, managed by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Army Corps of Engineers (COE), and the states, are typically the places where people go to enjoy dispersed camping. There are more than 640 million acres of public land in the USA.
The U.S. federal agencies managing this land do so under a mandate to safeguard the lands and make them available for use by the public. But the latter mandate is often subordinated to the former. Public land agencies too often view public use of the land as an inherent risk. Unfortunately, the bureaucrats have a valid argument when it comes to, say, the increased risk of devastating wildfires.
Risk of other environmental abuses
Dispersed camping also increases the risk of other environmental abuses. These include littering and the destruction of vegetation and critical wildlife habitat. Campers may also thoughtlessly leave behind personal belongings such as tents, sleeping bags, clothing, and refuse. RVtravel.com recently reported on a Colorado case where land management law-enforcement officers had to dispose of more than 3,000 pounds of detritus left behind by campers who overstayed the limit on public lands.
To mitigate these affronts to the primitive, undefiled forest lands, the U.S. Forest Service has implemented guidelines for dispersed camping, including fire restrictions, waste management policies, and rules for using portable stoves and campfires. Unfortunately, thoughtless boondockers may fail to follow these guidelines. In contrast, it is the campers’ responsibility to be aware of and adhere to the policies put in place for their own safety and the preservation of the public lands.
Getting back to fires, arguably the most significant hazard to human and wildlife safety in the wilderness areas, this risk cannot be denied during any dry seasons or with high wind conditions. Human-caused fires are often the result of campers failing to extinguish campfires properly, improperly disposing of cigarettes, or using stoves or lanterns in hazardous conditions. These types of fires can (and usually do) quickly spread. Any fire that escapes a firepit or ring to become a wildfire is out of the control of the camper and, more often than not, will devastate vast areas of land and wildlife habitat.
To reduce the inherent risks of dispersed camping, it is important for campers to educate themselves on safe camping practices and to be mindful of their actions while in the wilderness, including properly extinguishing campfires, properly disposing of waste and food, and respecting wildlife and their habitats. Campers can take steps to minimize their impact on the environment by choosing spots that have been used and by avoiding camping in sensitive areas such as near streams or wetlands. They can also reduce the amount of waste they produce by bringing reusable plates, cups, and utensils and properly disposing of their waste.
Manage dispersed camping
For their part, the U.S. Forest Service, the BLM, COE, and state land agencies need to provide adequate resources for managing dispersed camping as well as to enforce regulations that protect the environment and public safety—and not by the simple expedient of discouraging dispersed camping. This includes providing adequate waste management facilities, enforcing fire restrictions, and educating campers on safe camping practices.
Dispersed camping provides an enriching outdoor experience but also comes with a certain risk. These risks include the risk of fire, environmental abuses, and a decrease in biodiversity. Boondocking campers must educate themselves on safe camping practices and take steps to minimize their impact on the environment. By working together, individual campers and public land agencies can ensure that future generations can enjoy the beauty of public forest lands while preserving their natural beauty and health.
We boondock throughout the southwest in the winter months. Most places we have been, mostly BLM land, have been pretty clean. We have picked up trash in some places, but it hasn’t been a big issue. The one thing we have noticed is lack of BLM employees out checking on these sites. We have seen maybe one “ranger” in the last two years. No one is enforcing stay limits or picking up trash on any kind of a regular basis. Many of these agencies are understaffed and underfunded, particularly in recreation departments, and have been for years.
A well written, and thought-out article. Thank You Randall.
There is one sure way to lose a privilege; abuse it. That’s what I was taught.
Perhaps to protect their rights to pursue their happiness, spaces need to be set aside for individuals intent on destroying what little remains of our natural environment, .
I propose free, unrestricted use of landfills for this purpose!
The two preceding sentences are meant sarcastically (for those who can’t tell).
Well put. Thanks!
Two thumbs up Sven. 👍 👍
I think the time has come for an aptitude test for boondocking campers to pass in order to camp on public lands. If parents cant educate and reinforce common sense thought in their children then its time to trurn away people with no thinking skills.
We don’t boondock, for a number of reasons. We drive by some popular boondocking sites on our way to dry camping in established campgrounds. Sadly, a good many of the boondocking places show much wear and tear, some are also torn up by OHVs on top of the general camping mess. In some places, the oversight agencies (BLM, USFS, etc.) are beginning to implement boondocking only at designated sites. (I’m aware of it in at least UT and CO.) I know there are responsible boondockers, but we also see the “let’s set up party central” types.
I spent many winters in Baja Mexico. I made Local friends and asked about the trash, litter issue, which was bad(2008). They told me the gov. told people, for years, “Don’t bother, we’ll send someone to handle it”, pay more taxes. Gov. never sent anyone(But kept the taxes). Now they are having to re-educate their kids to be responsible, not gov. reliant. Things are getting better(My opinion).
The U.S. has a similar problem. The gov. has taken control of too much, and is doing too little. Except demanding more control….
A significant law-enforcement presence would mitigate most of these problems, especially in more popular areas. The agencies currently do not have the budget to provide this. A ranger coming by every day or two is expensive: a CLOSED sign is cheap.
In my experience, boondockers are the most thoughtful and environmentally conscious campers/citizens around. Public land is our land.
I agree that in the main you’re right. For that minority who refuse to follow safety precautions, trash the forest, disturb habitat, etc. there should be consequences. That could include banishment from dispersed camping areas.
Great Article Randall, I agree some kind of policing of the few bad apples would be better than closing off those opportunities altogether. Hoping to see Utah by Hotel in April, but next year I was hoping to dry camp there!
I agree. In any scenario in which an increased use of public lands for camping ensues, it will require more personnel and management resources.
I live in Southern Utah and we have some beautiful boondocking areas. Unfortunately, there are more than a few people who overstay the 14 day limit, scar the land and leave trash everywhere then move on after 3 months of free camping. Every year the BLM closes or adds restrictions to these areas. It’s just a matter of time before they are all closed. People know the rules, they just don’t care and don’t follow them. Sad
We are seeing this more and more. And as I hope my article conveys, some careless campers are providing the land management agencies with all the justification they need to close or severely restrict dispersed camping. I could have titled this piece “Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.”
Interesting piece, but it reads like it was written by a ChatBot… 🙁
I’m sitting here off the American Girl Mine road near Winterhaven, CA / Yuma, AZ. Other than minor, minor trash, it is almost pristine. I was watching the road while traveling along I-10 the other day and notice that you literally cannot move 6 feet without seeing some debris along the road’s edge. Primarily tire scraps from trucker blowouts.
The scarcity of trees here and at Quartzsite presents a very small fire danger. The entire landscape is rock and dirt.
This is our first season to do boondocking, my wife absolutely loves it. We are VERY glad these areas ARE available to be used by RV’ers. I would argue that being public land, we’ve paid for the ability to utilize it. Other than RV here, I’m not sure what one would do with the land otherwise. There are better places to offroad, certainly, and having a place we don’t have to pay to park is just wonderful.
I absolutely love boondocking.
It takes me to places that I have been in awe of.
It’s my first choice of places to visit and certainly budget friendly for my limited financial situation. I can’t imagine spending $50 or more a night for extended periods for a small place to camp with rigs on both sides of you.
There are a few inconsiderate people that leave trash and debris in some places but really in my travels the majority of people who utilize the amazing resources that belong to the people of the United States are very thankful and respect the beautiful opportunity to be able to truly camp.
Many times we have bagged up the crap left behind by knuckleheads and disposed of it properly.
If you have been hesitant to try it belay your fears and do some research and preparation and you will be hard pressed to “camp” in rv parks again.
Enjoy your tax dollars at work.
“Public land” will continue to be public land – until the public starts to use it. Then the trouble starts with more and more rules and regulations restricting the public from using public land. I know the arguments about the slobs, but overall I think we boondockers are a neat bunch. But as usual, a few bad apples (to use an old term) will be an excuse for the government to restrict more use of “public land”.
The thoughtlessness of a few will rob the honourable many.
We have boon-docked lots in many areas it there is far more garbage left behind along exits and entrances onto the interstates by my observation.
Do you really think the “Me” generation give a ” hoot”- really thinking another word- about using the outdoors in a respectable manner- Me,Me,Me.
The Me Generation was originally ascribed to baby boomers. Is it they to whom you refer?
A worthwhile conversation. I’m sure there is a lot of variety in users of public lands.
I cringe when i watch truck and suv commercials as they are often flying through pristine untouched land destroying it. And the ONLY place people buying them could drive like that would be public lands (or traspassing I suppose).
Lots of education needed on the privilege of using public lands. Twenty years ago (pre-social media) you had to really work to access nature like that. So out of the few that ever found their way to the amazing vista each year, most had already put in the time and effort and learned from peers how to leave no trace and stay on existing trails, etc. Now not so much so we need to reintroduce education (appropriate social norms)
I agree, there need to be much education to safeguard the privilege of this type of camping. As a forest ranger I fought many wildfires, and they can consume thousands of acres in a short period of time. I think it will be just a matter of time before BLM will restrict or heavily manage these areas.
Good luck with that !
“I cringe when i watch truck and suv commercials as they are often flying through pristine untouched land destroying it. ”
Me too! ATV commercials are some of the worst! They “say” to ride responsibly, but “show” nothing but totally irresponsible riding!
You’re right–education is definitely necessary. In an era devoid of scouting organizations and even common sense, some among today’s dispersed campers give no thought to the consequences of their actions. As avid boondockers, we need to address the question of how to return to safe and sane use of dispersed camping lands.