In the United States alone, there are over 100,000 squares miles of federal land, and a good portion of this is land you can camp on. There are easily over a million places you could camp. Finding and getting to the ones you'll like the most takes some work, and in this post I'll explain how to do it.
Camped on an OHV area in the middle of Utah
The focus of this post is finding campsites within a certain area. There is a set of related posts I'm expecting to make:
So this post will start with the assumption that you have selected a general area or region where you want to go camp, and shows you how to find a great campsite in that area.
Found this nice place to camp not far from San Diego
ARC GIS Maps - shows all federal land in the U.S.
Other maps showing federal lands. They are split up into states and the files ate PDFs. So you can save them on your computer and/or print them off
A wonderful free campsite at Lake Mohave
Dispersed Camping is the name used for camping outside of official or improved campsites. Meaning these types of campers are dispersed throughout the area rather than gathered at a campsite.
That means there will be no bathrooms or picnic tables or running water. There will often be fire rings in the places you dispersed camp
Regardless of price, dispersed camping is usually better than camping in official campsites. You can go where you want instead of just to the campsite, you can get better views, and you can get much more space from other campers and have peace and quiet.
Camping in Utah under an amazing night sky
These are the main ones.
Camping on BLM land in western Arizona. The land isn't all that exciting, but I believe this area has the best sunrises and sunsets in the U.S.
use only Google Maps! They can be horribly inaccurate in showing National Forests, and they do not show BLM at all.
The ARCGIS map is the best maps I've found for locating federal lands. It shows all federal land, but it does not show state land, so you won't see the State Parks or State Forests.
The Western U.S. is mostly federal land. It's all ours! It's an incredible place for nomadic outdoorsy people. All those orange and light green areas are BLM and National Forests. That means you can camp for free in most of the entire western half of the country. Wow!!!
Here is a closer view, looking at southwestern Colorado
Note that the cities and towns are not very visible on this map. You'll likely need to look at this map along with another one to sort out exactly where places are.
Now, let's say I'm in Durango (I actually am as I write this), and I want to go camping up in the mountains nearby. Here's where Durango is:
That purple land to the south is Indian Reservation. To the north is some National Forest. So, let's check out that National Forest.
The ArcGIS map doesn't say. Let's look at Google.
It does show. That's the San Juan National Forest. Ok. We'll need to know that for finding a Motor Vehicle Use Map later on.
But sometimes, well, actually often, Google does not show the National Forest names. Or the names may be shown but it's not clear enough because you can't see borders. Here is part of Utah, with no National Forest names at all.
You can find out quickly with a search. Here's the image search result for "national forests in Utah"
Looking closer, I can see that the area I was looking at on Google was Dixie National Forest
It may not be super clear from this picture, because of the shapes of the forests, but it's pretty easy to match them up when you're looking yourself.
Motor Vehicle Use Maps (MVUMs) are maps made by the Forest Service. They show where it is legal to drive vehicles. Some MVUMs also show where you are allowed to dispersed camp.
It is important that you adhere to the MVUMs. The rules in Forests are enforced in a very wide variety of degrees. In some Forests, you'll almost never see a Ranger, and in some parts of other Forests, the Rangers enforce the rules strictly and give out tickets with fines to those who break the rules.
And the rules can be a little tricky. In a city, where there's a road, it's commonly understood that you can drive on it. The only reason you wouldn't is if there's a big "road closed" sign and barricades blocking your way. There are a lot of roads in National Forests, and generally, you can drive on all of them. But there are times where the Forests close a road. They generally do put up a gate and sign blocking it. The problem is, these are remote areas, a few jerk faces here and there decide they want to go down these road, so they take out the signs and toss them behind some bushes, and then if a ranger confronts them, they'll say "I didn't know it was closed, there was no sign when I came through". So, the rules are that you must follow what's on the map. There are, at times, roads that you can drive right onto and down, but that are actually closed and it's illegal to drive on (and there either never was a sign there, or some jerk face removed it). The MVUM is what shows where it's legal to drive. It is the only official document. If you're driving your vehicle in a place that isn't shown as a road on a MVUM, it's possible for a ranger to come ticket you. It doesn't matter that you were ignorant about it being closed, it's your responsibility to use the MVUM and know where you are.
Now, don't get too worked up. It's not nearly as complicated or risky as it sounds, and if you use common sense, you'll probably never get a ticket, much less have a ranger tell you you're doing something wrong.
Since an MVUM is the main source of driving and dispersed camping laws, you should always get copies of the them for the areas you're planning to go. Here's how to get them:
If you go to get a paper MVUM, ask the employees for advice. Often, they know the area very well and can help you find the kind of campsites you enjoy. The expertise of the person working at the front desk varies though, sometimes you may get a person who doesn't even know what a MVUM is, and sometimes you'll get a person who knows the whole forest district like the back of their hand.
Ask about these:
Even if you do a very good job scouting out roads and campsites on your own, sometimes the rangers will be able to tell you about recent occurrences - like how a road just washed out last week and you won't be able to get past this certain point, or about a big gathering of Jeep lovers happening in that area you were looking at, and if you go there it will be really crowded.
To use the map, first orient yourself using the little vicinity map that shows the outline of this map with in the whole Forest. It will be over on the left side.
Here's a closer look at the vicinity map
Ok. Now we're going to look at the map and see if it shows where dispersed camping is allowed. In some Forests, you're only allowed to dispersed camp off of certain roads. For those forests, the roads that you can camp near are usually designated on the map using little dots along each side of the road. Like this:
So this means you could drive along that road and if there are some sites established, you can camp in them. The dots do not correspond to actual campsites being where each dot is. The dots are always in that same pattern/spacing.
For the MVUMs that do not use this designation, you will either be able to camp off of any road in the forest, or only in a few specific designated dispersed camping areas. If it's the latter, it is usually explained on the left side of the map and then there is a certain symbol on the map where these areas are. If the map doesn't have the dots and doesn't say anything about dispersed camping, you're probably allowed to do it anywhere, but check with the rangers just to be sure.
Let's look at the map near Durango:
There are't a lot of roads in the forest close to town. There's that one almost straight north (that 204 leads to), and some others over to the west. Let's look closer at that area to the west:
Wow. There's a lot going on over there. We have those 6 campsites, plus dispersed camping on a handful of roads.
One thing to note here is that those white areas you see near the bottom are private property. Don't camp there. Sometimes there are signs and fences marking private property, and sometimes there aren't. The main thing is: don't go over the fences and past private property signs. Some private property looks no different from the rest of the forest and even has established dispersed campsites. You shouldn't camp in those, but it seems like the owners are unlikely to freak out about it.
Sometimes the official/improved campsites are free.
For the area we're looking at as this example, we could look up those campsites to see whether they are free. We can just search for them in google and they'll come up. (Search for "Bay City campsite" or "Bay City Campsite San Juan").
Ok, I see that Bay City is a free campsite. But, uh oh, people don't have very good things to say about it on the internet:
So I'm not going to plan on staying there. And, assuming Douglas Tooley is correct, all those other campsites along the road are not free, so I won't bother looking them up.
Now, let's look at those roads. First off, they are shown using a strange road symbol. The map key shows that this road symbol means the road has a special designation:
We can look up the designations on the map. They're in a table over on the left side of the map, like this
Looks like most all the designations say that these roads are open from June to December. It's now August, so we're good.
Ok. So we've found some roads that we're allowed to camp on. I highlighted them on the MVUM:
Now... let's go check those out on Google maps and see how they look.
Ok, first, for those not familiar, Google Maps has a handful of different views:
In this post, I'll use the normal 2D satellite view and the terrain view.
Here's how to switch between them. To switch between the normal map view and the satellite view, you can click the little square box in the bottom left corner.
To turn on the terrain view, you click the button in the top left corner with three horizontal lines, and then click terrain
If you're not familiar with how topo maps work, here is bit of an explanation. The terrain (topo) map shows the elevation, or altitude of the land. There are lines on the map corresponding to specific altitudes. A line that says 7,000 means that everywhere on the map where that line is shown is at 7,000 feet altitude. If you were to walk along that exact line, you would walk a flat path. A line next to it for 6,950 means that spot is 50 feet lower, and thus, there is a hill going upwards from the 6,950 line to the 7,000 line.
We can use this view to see what the lay of the land is like, where the hills are, where the low points are, whether a road is going uphill or downhill or is going on a flat path along the side of a hill. We can learn the kind of things that I've noted on the map below.
If you're in the satellite view and get stuck looking at a crappy 3D rendering, here's how to switch to the normal 2D picture: click the button in the top left with three lines, then click "3D On"
Ok, again, here are the areas we identified on the MVUM:
Let's look at road 171. I'll pull it up starting at the bottom of that circled area.
I see a few potential spots out there. Right where the dispersed camping starts being allowed, there is this trailhead:
The main trailhead parking lot is to the right of the horseshoe bend, and then there's short a path/road going north, and it looks like you could go camp up there. I recommend we find another spot. If the hiking trail is very popular, that main lot will fill up, and then cars will park in that other path to the north.
Moving on, this might be a spot to camp:
Here's one that looks more promising
Zooming in, we can see what's likely a fire ring. That's a very good sign
Ok, here's another one. Looks like some people were parked or camping there when the picture was taken
Here's a spot. There's a fire ring down there, but it looks like maybe you can't drive all the way in to that clearing where the fire ring is.
Areas with the most trees are the most difficult to find campsites using satellite view. In places like the PNW where there are way more trees than this, it is more difficult and you almost have to go drive the road. Of course, if you know you need a campsite where you'll get sun for your solar panels, then you'll just be looking for clearings in the trees and those are easy to spot on the satellite view.
Finding campsites on satellite view is probably the easiest in drier areas. Here's a look at a spot near Sedona, Arizona, which is extra easy because it's a popular area to camp so you can see vehicles and tents in many sites:
When you are looking for places to camp, you'll want some way of keeping track of what you saw. Here are some methods:
Here are two more methods where we'd record the campsite locations on an online map:
Using these allows you to mark spots exactly, and have those markings on a map that you can use later in the future without having to save a ragged old MVUM or papers where you wrote them down. Once you're accustomed to updating these online maps, it's easy. It does take a while to explain and show with pictures, so I'll do it in a separate post.
Here are a few examples along this road that might initially seem like places we could camp, but they probably aren't.
In this first one, there's clearing of trees and there's dirt/rocks. That's just a hill. It's probably steep, so we're definitely not going to camp there.
Here's a road or path we could drive on, coming down from the upper right corner. But.. then the path sort of disappears and comes back again. It's a path that is rarely driven on. It's likely not a good place to plan on traversing. It might end up being very bumpy.
These things below are from road graders. While grading the road, they push excess dirt and rocks off to the side. Those little slanted paths going off are often very inclined (at a sideways angle) and they aren't a place to camp
It is important to know the capabilities and limitations of your vehicle, and to assess roads so you know what you're getting into. Roads in these remote areas exist in many different conditions. Some are well maintained and you could drive any vehicle on them, and some are never maintained and are rocky and perilous. Here's a few simple examples to get you started on assessing roads:
A paved road:
Sometimes it's hard to tell whether a road is paved. If Street View is available, it's obvious:
A very well maintained gravel/dirt road:
A dirt road that looks a bit rough:
This road looks very rough, I wouldn't expect to drive on that
It can be tough to assess roads using only pictures from high above. You can't be exactly sure what you're seeing, but they can give you a general idea.
If you're really doing a lot of exploring, Books showing 4x4 roads and trails, like the ones Charles Wells and Matt Peterson write can be very helpful. They have a road difficult classification system - something like easy/moderate/difficult/hard. If roads that I'm thinking about driving on are classified by them as easy or moderate, I can expect to drive them. If they're classified as difficult or hard, I won't bother trying.
A few of the National Forest maps have a system for classifying the road conditions that gives wonderful clarification on which roads you'll be able to travers with your vehicle. This is really handy, but it exists on very few MVUMs
Everyone has their own preference on what makes a good campsite. I like having a nice view, where I can see far and wide. Here's an example of a spot with a good view, and how you can get an idea whether spots you're researching will have nice views.
If there are many trees where you're looking, you'll need to find spots that have fairly large areas free of trees. Here's one.
Generally, you're more likely to have a good view when there's a downward sloping hill in front of you and you can see a long ways. Here's what the terrain map shows for this spot:
So from that spot, the hill goes downward in most directions. When we compare the two maps together, it looks like many of the downhill directions also have no trees for a while down. That means we'll be able to see at least past the edges of what's shown in the terrain map. We could also zoom out on the terrain map and compare the nearby area. If it's all lower than 10,000 feet, we'll be able to see a long ways.
Here's how it looks in person at that site:
Once you're off a main road and driving along a back road, if you pass a vehicle coming in the opposite direction, wave at them and ask about the road condition and whatever else you want to know
When you get to where you're seeing campsites, take one of these strategies:
Wyoming has some incredible back-roads
I've described how to find campsites on your own. Another option is to check resources where people have shared campsite locations. You can look at mine, of course, and find some wonderful campsites like you've seen in these pictures. There are also public sites with contributions from many people.
I don't use these a lot, so I probably don't know about all of them. Here are some:
When you use these resources, you should still look at the area on maps. See where it is, what the roads are like, if there are other campsites nearby, etc.
If you know of more campsite location resources, particularly ones that you find useful, share them in the comments and I'll add them to this list
A reminder - the federal lands in the western U.S. are incredibly huge - over 100,000 square miles, which is almost 30% of the United States. Don't just look at these campsite resources and limit yourself to what's on them. Go out and explore. Find new places and soak them up.
Camping on BLM land right by the Colorado River. This was my favorite campsite so far
Americans have a colorful history of moving west across the continent, of exploring, of trailblazing, of finding rugged and beautiful places to camp and call home. We're incredibly lucky to still have all this land belonging to all of us, so join in on the tradition. Peruse your maps, load up your supplies, and set off.
And while you're out enjoying the views and forgetting about the hustle and bustle of the world, read a book that helps you connect with this great American past. Here are two of my favorites, they're both continually entertaining and also both include great descriptions of the huge and wonderful landscapes, the plants and wildlife, and many stories and details about the other people they encountered.
Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose - About the Lewis & Clark Expedition, with many excerpts directly from their journals.
Roughing It, by Mark Twain - About Twain's adventurous travels through the western U.S., including attempts at mining and the kind of hi-jinx you expect from Twain. It has such tall and colorful tales that it's hard to guess which are true and which are legends or jokes. Sometimes I found myself wondering whether he made the whole thing up, and then when he shared some story or details that I could check to confirm, I'd look them up, and they'd be true. It's a wonderful read.