Boondocking Part 2: Finding a Sweet Free Campsite!

Free campsite in Dixie National Forest, near Cedar Breaks, Utah

Now that you know there are 450 million acres acres of public land in the United States that are free for camping, how do you find a sweet spot? Some states, like Wyoming and Utah have vast tracts of public land while others, especially those east of the Mississippi may only have a few pockets of free space.

The best resource I have on the road is my National Geographic Adventure Atlas. Not only does it mark all the developed (usually 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, for free.

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 vehicular side roads (as opposed to foot trails or ATV roads) are usually marked by a brown fiberglass post with three or four white numbers, indicating the Forest Road number.

These side roads often have multiple pull outs and/or end at a dead end. Any spot that’s out of the way, clear and level is fair game for camping, unless marked with a “No Camping” sign. Ideal spots will be off the road far enough for privacy, have space to maneuver a car, room to pitch a tent and in my case, park a Teardrop  and have a nice rock fire ring already in place.

Free cottonwood-shaded campsite in Ashley National Forest, Utah, at the dead end of Forest Road 032.

Ideal campsites have a history about them. Some have been used by travelers for decades: road trippers, RV’ers, bikers, cyclists, hikers and possibly once migrant workers, miners, drifters, Pioneers, Spaniards, explorers and Indians. In my seven years of Boondocking I have camped near Outlaw caves, Pioneer carvings and Native petroglyphs.

These places may have a history, but these days they’re rarely crowded. Occasionally I run into a fellow traveler, but in seven years on the road I’ve never once had a problem with anybody. There’s a code among dispersed campers; nobody’s out there to bother or be bothered and we give each other space, peace and quiet. My worst experiences have been noisy teenagers. Annoying, but we’ve all been there. Kids gotta have fun somewhere. Might as well be the wilderness.

Speaking of sweet free campsites, here are a few shots from my spot in Utah’s Dixie National Forest. After checking out Cedar Breaks National Monument – an incredible Bryce Canyonesque place – I camped for free in neighboring Dixie at a dead end pull out, surrounded by a grove of old arbor-glyphed aspen trees. The dogs and I went for an evening hike around the perimeter of a big open, aspen-ringed meadow and saw a lot of deer and a porcupine, none of which my good dogs chased. 🙂

Arborglyph: This is the Cross Roads of the World

Aspen Mountain Meadow Dogs

Deer skull, at least two seasons old, judging by the grass growth

1939 Arborglyph

Dixie National Forest D.O.G.

Click here for my previous post on Boondocking 101: How To Camp For Free In Beautiful Places.

About theblondecoyote

Mary Caperton Morton is a freelance science and travel writer with degrees in biology and geology and a master’s in science writing. A regular contributor to EARTH magazine, where her favorite beat is the Travels in Geology column, she has also written for the anthologies Best Women's Travel Writing 2010 and Best Travel Writing 2011. Mary is currently based in western Colorado. When she’s not at the computer she can usually be found outside -- hiking, skiing, climbing mountains and taking photographs. Visit her website at
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38 Responses to Boondocking Part 2: Finding a Sweet Free Campsite!

  1. I’m filled with admiration at how safe you feel. Is it the presence of your two big dogs that gives you this poise? Or just the experience of knowing no one bothers you? Here in Europe women are ill advised to drive around alone in a camper van.
    I love your blog, your photos, discovering America with you, and the feeling of freedom you bring to my day!

    • Hi there, Women are also “ill-advised” to travel alone in America, but after seven years on the road, I’m quite confident in saying that’s fear-based bullshit designed to keep us in line, at home or behind a desk. Common sense and self confidence go a long way, at least in this part of the world. Yes, the dogs certainly give me a lot of peace of mind. I sleep soundly knowing that if something is going on that I need to know about, they’ll tell me. They’re great allies. A long time ago, I decided to live based on my own first-hand experiences of the world and not what the media or movies or even authorities would have us believe. I don’t watch TV or violent movies and I don’t read violent news stories. There is evil in the world, but there is also much good. We can choose which our lives revolve around.

  2. All I can say is WOW…..WOW….WOW

  3. paulaacton says:

    I would be interested to know a bit more about the arborglyphs how are they done? Are they common over there. I dont think i have ever heard of the here in the UK people are far more likely to have carved initails into a tree. Is is to do with the type of tree? Sorry for so many questions 🙂

    • Questions are always welcome, Paula! Arborglyphs are simply carvings on any type of tree, but those left on the white papery bark of aspens have a special lore about them. Many are quite old and can sometimes be dated by studying the thickness of scar tissue that develops around a carving over many years. Aspen bark is thin, easier to carve than other trees, and allows for more intricate designs. Perhaps I’ll write an Arborglyph post! I have lots of photos… 🙂

      • I hope you will post an article on Arborglyph’s. (especially the Aspen’s)…I and I’m sure, many others, are fascinated by the history found among the Aspen’s….I so enjoy your site!!

  4. Pingback: Back to Utah & A Big Thank You To Wilson Electronics! « Travels with the Blonde Coyote

  5. Great tips as always! I want to take up camping again. Need to find a tent first, I don’t have a spiffy teardrop.

    I’ve been wondering – how is it driving with the teardrop? I recently towed a small uhaul trailer (my second time doing that), and I hated it! If it’s empty, it rattles and bangs like nothing else and gets on my nerves. Loaded up, it’s touchy in wind.

    At any rate, I’m going to work at downsizing my stuff so the next move is easier. While I was packing for this move, I was really envying you!

    • Let me know if you need tent buying tips! I’ve been on a quest for the perfect tent for the past couple of years and at this point, I feel like I’ve seen them all! Although, I’ve been focused on backpacking tents and you might be in the market for a car camping tent.. anyway. The Teardrop is actually a dream to tow. It took some getting used to and I have to take it easy (under 60 mph) if I don’t want to burn through a ton of gas, but most of the time, I can’t even tell it’s back there! It only weighs 500 pounds, so it’s kind of like having a couple of fat people in my backseat. The only big downside is that it’s harder to pull over fast when I see something photo-worthy on the side of the road. I’ve had to make more than a few u-turns to go back and check out abandoned houses/ cool trees/ scenic overlooks/ etc.

      • I’d love the tips – I prefer backpacking tents. I’m not keen on the idea of camping in/near a parking lot where everyone else might be camping too. It’s mostly state parks around here, but I plan on checking for BLMs and other public parks. 🙂 I’ve seen those brown signs often over the years, but never knew the significance.

        The tent needs to be large enough to sleep two people (ok, one person and a big dog). My guy is a spoiled doggie. 3 seasons, probably – doubt I’ll ever go camping in winters up here. I’m not sure of what other requirements I should be looking for.

        The other issue is warmth: up here in the pacific northwest, it’s still pretty chilly at nights – 30s and 40s right now. So I’m thinking I should get a sleeping bag as well, which adds to the carrying weight. At least I have a good hiking backpack now; it’s a dream to carry weight compared to the old pack I had.

        Any recommendations on either sleeping bag or tent? Budget-friendly preferred but I know I’d be using them for a long time so I’m okay with spending a little more.

  6. kotascatch says:

    Camping free is great, but it is important that people know how to go to the bathroom out there! Carry a small shovel in your car or a sturdy gardening trowel. I carry one in a plastic bag in a fanny pack, along with toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and a bottle of water. It is small and it works in all places so there is no excuse not to dig a hole. Dig your hole about 6 – 8 inches deep, 100 feet away from streams, springs, lakes, etc. After use, cover your biz and pack it down. I put a few sticks or rocks on it so rodents won’t dig it up. Don’t pee on top!! Or animals will dig there. Women may pee in the hole, but bury it, too, or else pee elsewhere. For women just peeing, don’t leave toilet paper! Bury it, or carry a small plastic bag for it, put your t.p. in the trash! If the soil is so rocky or hard, dig down some anyway (if I can do it, you can too), do your biz and cover it with the dirt or sand that you can, then cover it with rocks. Don’t just use rocks without a dirt cover as flies can get in between the rocks.

    • Thanks for the tutorial! A Boondocking, Part 3: How To Crap In the Woods post was on my to do list. Thanks for crossing it off for me! 🙂

      • We stay on BLM land all the time! Nothing better than FREE well our taxes did pay for it!

      • kotascatch says:

        Please do the part 3 because people are more likely to read it there, and add to it: such as don’t use non-compostable baby wipes, use only toilet paper. Don’t bury food with poop — don’t bury food at all! ( I don’t use dish soap. I use soap only for washing my hands and shampoo on my hair and body.) I’m sure you’ve got more to add. Please re-use what I’ve said, too. I’m tired of seeing crap and toilet paper at trail-heads and boondocking camp spots.

  7. Native Utahns are so non-chalant about being able to camp for free just about anywhere! I remind people all the time how lucky we are to have so much BLM and National Forest near us so that we can enjoy camping in the quiet (not a campground) and for free all the time. This year the summer is so early, looks like you found aspens without snow and with leaves in May — WOW!

  8. Pingback: Boondocking Part 3: Leave No Trace! « Travels with the Blonde Coyote

  9. Pingback: Boondocking 101: How To Camp For Free In Beautiful Places « Travels with the Blonde Coyote

  10. Love seeing photos of some of the free places that you’ve found. We’ve found some good ones here and there, but I really like getting some ideas for new places to scout out. Carol

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  13. Randall says:

    you really need a contact me button, i know you’ll get a ton of spam, but you will also get emails (if thats your prefered method of contact) from people that have found this blog and been inspired. Because of your blog and the information in it i now have a new path in life, to live, im going to build my own teardrop and see the country. maybe one day on a desterted desert or mountain trial ill run into you. if not, ill know that there are people like me out there that crave the freedom and open spaces that modern society has forgotten. thank you Ms. Coyote. thats all i can say is Thank you.

    • Hi Randall, Fantastic to hear from you! I love getting feedback like this. My email address is listed under the “About Me” tab. I get less spam that way than if I had a contact button. My address is Drop me a line. I’d love to hear more about your plans! Congrats to you! Thanks for reading and best of luck! Cheers, Mary

  14. Chelle says:

    Great blog!

    I’m a fellow woman-camper and would love to do it fulltime, one day. We own a hardware store, however, and have to tend to it even though we have great employees.

    We can do much of it from the road, thankfully.

    If you get bored check out my site at

    Girl power, baby!


  15. Pingback: Hey Blonde Coyote, Will You Plan My Road Trip? | Travels with the Blonde Coyote

  16. Sarah G. says:

    This is so helpful. I wish I had read this before the road trip I just took. We got so frustrated with all the fees for camping. It doesn’t really make sense to us that you can’t just pull over and camp. It seems we just didn’t know where to look!

  17. rachel says:

    Do you ever get worried about mountain lions or bears? And have you ever encountered any!

  18. Ben Carver says:

    Nice lifestyle flow. I went a bit too minimal in response to society, got rid of my car, camp all summer in VT on friend’s land, then figure something out come winter. But your flow would allow you to just flow on to where it’s nice and warm. Feeling like it’s time for an upgrade

  19. Terni says:

    I couldn’t find a way to contact you so I decided to leave a comment… more of a question. My boyfriend and I are planning on full timing in a couple of months. We have four dogs and just purchased a 24 foot trailer for an amazing deal… $1200 with a free and fantastically running 1991 suburban thrown in. The trailer is great but it’s just so large! I feel like it will take away from the experience for me a bit… and limit where we can go… I wanted to do a lot of deep woods camping. I would have loved something smaller… or just to live in the back of the suburban. But many advised against it with 2 people and 4 medium-large dogs. I guess I’m just wondering what u would think of the situation. I saw u traveled with 2 dogs yourself and I had to ask. Thanks for any advice you can give me.

  20. Evan says:

    How do you get to that beautiful aspen camp area your pictures near cedar breaks? That looks incredible.

  21. Wayne says:

    Excellent article, and only serves to stoke the RV fire that has recently consumed me; I’m about to commit to a vintage AIRSTREAM 31′ Sovereign travel trailer (for full-time living and restoration/customization) and was curious as to whether or not you are aware of many free campsites that will accommodate the mighty Land Yacht…

  22. When I read the complaints based on misbehaving campers, I wish the customer had called our emergency number. It could be that folks don’t know when something is an emergency. If it is 2 a.m. and there are campers making a lot of noise, call the emergency number.

  23. Emily says:

    I know this is probably a dumb question but my fiancé and I wanted to camp one night on the way to our honeymoon destination after we get married and I happened to find this, our idea was to take his F-150 truck and put a tent that fits in his bed, I’m scared that we will find a location where we can’t necessarily park his truck and go camping, is there ideal locations to do this? or can we just find a random location we like in the park and decide to camp there?

    • Jennifer says:

      Love all this great information! Keep it up 🙂
      Just wondering if you know of any nice camping in Northern California. I’m close to San Francisco. Thanks!!

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