Growing up in San Diego, I have vivid memories of taking road trips every year to see my grandparents, uncles, and aunts up north in Mammoth Lakes or Sacramento. Then I started to think of my own kids and how they don’t have those memories, because they are fortunate enough to have both sets of grandparents practically in their own backyard. Yet, I wanted them to have the joy and excitement of going somewhere adventurous or maybe the adventure would be that the car would breakdown but we’d still get there on time…yet an adventure nonetheless.
It was nearing the end of the Spring and I had a presentation proposal accepted at a conference in my career field. The only catch was that the presentation was in Los Angeles. The idea of driving to the airport, catching a flight, then another flight and finally getting there (without a vehicle) after around 10 hours, didn’t appeal to me and I knew there had to be a better way of reaching LA. The only other option I could think of was crazy to even think about….drive the family 2500 miles to Los Angeles through Route 66, then go another 2500 through Utah and Colorado to arrive back home? We could take our time on the way back and see 5 or 6 National Parks, not mentioning the view and adventure of driving through 13 states. But, would our 16 year old Ford e150 van, nearing 200k miles, even make it that far.
We had camped in the past but not for long periods and always in an established campground. We had mixed results. One particular weekend in a campground was a nightmare. The tents were too small, I didn’t bring flashlights, and raccoons attacked our food supply. The campground manager practically lived at our site during the day, constantly making small talk, hanging out, and giving the kids rides on his go-cart. Something wasn’t right with this man. He might of been a functioning alcoholic, I don’t know. At any rate, we didn’t camp much because the space was always insufficient for our large family, we always forgot important camping items, and none was comfortable at night. Plus the kids were always grumpy, probably because they went to bed hungry due to my inferior cooking skills on an open fire.
Yet, the only way we could make this trip work, would be if we camped every night while traveling. We don’t fit in a hotel room or two and all the kids hate being stuck in a 20 x 20 room after being in the van for 10+ hours anyway….including mom and dad. In comes dispersed camping to the rescue! All Bureau of Land Management, National Grasslands, and National Forests are open to free dispersed camping up to 14 continuous days at a site. How much land is there available? There are 450 million acres of dispersed camping available throughout the United States with the majority of in on the western half of the country. This sounds perfect for our road trip! The USDA Forest Service definition of dispersed camping is camping that is OUTSIDE of a designated campground. Dispersed camping means there are no toilets, no picnic tables, no trash cans, no treated water, and no fire grates, which equals – no fees!
We got to work right away and ordered the National Geographic Road Atlas – Adventure Edition. This was the edition recommended to us by National Geographic after I told them what we where doing. The nice lady on the phone said that not only does it mark all the developed (fee) campgrounds in National Parks, State Parks, Recreation Areas, National Forests and on BLM land, it also shades in National Forests and BLM lands, where you can camp almost anywhere (no fee).
National Forests and BLM land are both almost always marked with large brown conspicuous signs that say: “Entering Public Lands” or “Entering National Forest”. Once you’re sure you’re on public land, watch for dirt roads that lead off the main road. In National Forests you’ll see dirt side roads (not trailheads or jeep roads) that are usually marked by a brown fiberglass post with three or four white numbers, indicating the Forest Road number.
As you drive down the forest road, you’ll see multiple spots that are out of the way, cleared and leveled. These are all fair game for camping, unless marked with a “No Camping” sign. Ideal spots will be off the road far enough for privacy, have plenty of space for pitching a tent, build a fire pit, and have a great view.
Other useful links:
We love these Benchmark Maps for each of the states we plan to visit.
We also relied on the website FreeCampsites to help us find out of the way, gorgeous campsites.
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