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  1. #1
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    Random Camping - A Few Ideas

    With all the hullabaloo another thread has engendered, I thought I’d toss out some information on random camping – aka dispersed camping – based on years of experience in North America. Random camping differs from stealth camping in one major way – there is no stealth. It is done openly and without any grey area of legality. Rather than hiding, you can set up camp at 4:00 in the afternoon, read in the shade, splash in the creek, and sleep in if it is chilly or if you just want to.


    2004 Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho

    Random camping is camping on public lands that are open to the public but do not have any recreational or campground improvements – roughing it, so to speak. The advantages are many. In a day when campgrounds look and sound like parking lots, random camping allows the bicycle tourer to have a peaceful and quiet evening and night after a day of riding. Random camping allows you to experience the natural world in a manner that is often precluded in developed campgrounds. And random camping is free.


    2005 Hoback River, Wyoming

    Public lands in the United States and Canada are largely concentrated in the West and the North, but they do exist in other regions, as well. In the United States there are federal lands which generally permit free random camping - and state lands which generally do not. In Canada, crown lands are also both federal and provincial; however, almost all of the federal lands are in the territories while public lands in the provinces are administered provincially.


    Public Lands in the United States

    Here is a list of the main American agencies and lands:
    1. United States Forest Service (USFS)
    2. Bureau of Land Management (BLM)
    3. National Park Service (NPS)
    4. Bureau of Reclamation (BuRec)
    5. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS)

    Many people bike touring are unaware that they can camp legally on most USFS lands for free. Usually you have to be ½ mile away from a developed site. Also, some restrictions apply around resort areas because of overuse. These are the best places for random camping because USFS lands have streams, trees, and all the accoutrements. USFS maps are the best way to identify these lands. Since there are no services, you need to have sufficient water, water filters are now very small and lightweight. You also need a small plastic trowel for human waste. But in exchange for a minimum of effort you often receive a magical place to spend the night.


    2006 Greys River, Wyoming

    Here’s an example from the Bridger-Teton National Forest outside of Jackson, Wyoming. The green is forest land. The yellow is Grand Teton National Park. The brown is the National Elk Refuge. (Don’t even think about camping there.)



    Even so, you can (1) stop in Moose for supplies and a drink on the deck at Dornan’s, (2) soak at Kelly Warm Springs to get the kinks out, then (3) set up camp in the foothills of Shadow Mountain with a full view of the Tetons.


    2006 Teton Range near Kelly, Wyoming

    BLM land is less inviting. It was what was left over that nobody wanted – at least nobody wanted it until they found oil, gold, uranium, etc. BLM land is usually found in dry basins and badlands. Water sources are rare; however, the solitude is incredible. Nowhere can you find such a profound silence that a single cricket fills the air with its music.


    2005 Railroad Valley, Nevada

    Here’s an example of BLM lands around Bridgeport, California east of the Sierras. The orange-brown is BLM land. The green is USFS land. The white is private land.



    In this case you can (1) stop for what you need in town, (2) head out to the Travertine Hot Springs for a soak, then (3) go about a mile away to get a quiet spot to camp since hot springs can attract a rowdy crowd – with a full view of the Sierras.


    2005 Sierras near Bridgeport, California

    More below - - - -

  2. #2
    Hooked on Touring
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    Believe it or not, there are even some national parks that have free random camping. Of course, there are entrance fees, but most people touring include the national parks as part of their tours, anyway. Surprisingly, Yosemite is one of the national parks that has free backcountry camping. You have to have a permit and use bear containers, but it is truly amazing to find solitude in Yosemite.


    2002 Half Dome near Campsite

    Although other national parks charge for backcountry camping, cyclists should consider this option as one of the finest ways to experience these parks. Backcountry camping in national parks does require a permit, so it really stretches the definition of dispersed camping. Still, leaving the bike and hiking in can be truly amazing in place like Glacier and Denali.


    2004 ******* Lake Campsite

    Two federal agencies have built dams and reservoirs – the Bureau of Reclamation, mostly in the West, and the Army Corps of Engineers, mostly in the East. Although both agencies have recreation sites, the BuRec more often allows dispersed camping on their lands than does the COE.

    Finally there are state lands. These usually appear as blue squares in sections 16 and 36 on maps. States are required to have income from state lands; thus, random camping is restricted. But, and it’s a big but, most state wildlife agencies operate state game lands and fishing areas that often allow free camping and often even have free campsites in remote locations.


    2007 Starvation Lake, Washington

    These sites are managed by state departments of natural resources. Maryland, that’s right – Maryland, has many free places to camp in wildlife management areas. There’s one place right off Chincoteague Bay.
    http://www.dnr.state.md.us/wildlife/allwmabyregion.asp
    Similarly, Washington State has numerous fishing lakes with free camping. Starvation Lake is just off the Northern Tier route. I was the only person there and watched the sunrise over the lake.


    And Canada, eh?

    If you haven’t noticed, Canada is a big country. And the majority of the land in Canada remains public as Crown Lands. In British Columbia, about 95% of the province is public land most of which is administered by British Columbia Forests. There are thousands of kilometers of forest roads and, perhaps, a thousand basic recreation sites – most of which are free. Or course, dispersed camping is also permitted. In Alberta, the major area is the Rocky Mountains Forest Reserve which stretches from Waterton National Park to Jasper. Certain areas have limitations – especially in Kananaskis Country, but vast stretches allow superb random camping in the Front Ranges of the Rockies.


    2004 Elk River Road, British Columbia

    In addition to the forests, the Canadian national parks and provincial parks offer excellent backcountry opportunities – with an important extra. These parks allow cyclist to ride on old fire roads to spectacular backcountry campsites. Again, like U.S. national parks, these backcountry campsites require permits and fees, so they are not really dispersed camping, but they are not to be missed.


    2005 Kinney Lake Backcountry Campsite

    In the North there is another free option – roadside cabins. In the Northwest Territories, there are emergency shelters every 60 kilometers or so. They are primitive, the doors don’t close tightly, but they do offer a dry spot if the ground is wet. Plus, if you get a smoky fire going, you can get some relief from the black flies and mosquitos. Probably the most famous cabin is the Nadahini Hilton on the Haines Highway between Haines, Alaska and Haines Junction, Yukon. It is in the tundra country in that tiny sliver of British Columbia that wedges in between Alaska and the Yukon. Since the border crossing closes at night, you have absolute peace and quiet.


    2000 Nadahini Cabin, Haines Highway

    Finally, United States and Canadian law designate the beds of all navigable rivers and streams as public. Camping in dry streambeds in the American Southwest in not only not recommended, it is dangerous because of flash floods. However, in the North, the river beds are huge with dozens of braids in the gravel due to spring runoff. Once the rivers subside, you can use these river bars as camp sites. Because you are away from foliage the bugs are more tolerable – plus you have more breezes. There is driftwood for a fire and water nearby.


    2002 Delta River, Alaska

    Whenever random camping, it is essential that you use “No Trace” camping techniques. Campfires and fire rings scar the land. During warmer, dryer months in areas where wildfires are possible, campfires should be avoided. All fires, even camp stoves, are a risk in dispersed settings. Use extreme caution. Bury human waste well away from water sources. Leave no litter and take any you might run across. Store food by proper hanging when possible. Even outside of bear areas, raccoons will rip your tent to get to food. And NEVER eat in the tent you use for touring.

    If you do a little research, you can find fabulous, free place to camp.
    So - - - that about does it for now.
    Why not try some incredible random camping next time?

    Please, add any and all public free camping that you know of. Certainly, many small towns have great free camping. Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, other countries? Your experiences are what make it work.
    Last edited by jamawani; 12-08-08 at 12:30 PM.

  3. #3
    Long Distance Cyclist Machka's Avatar
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    Australia has some free camping campgrounds. Thredbo Diggings is one that comes to mind, near Jindabyne in the Snowy Mountains. The campground provided picnic tables, a tap for water, and a sturdy concrete block outhouse. It seems to me there might have been a nominal fee for going into the National Park, but camping was free.

    Also the rest areas along some of the main roads in Australia have a 48 hour stay limit, so a person could conceivably stay there for a couple nights. They are also free and provide limited amenities - outhouses, and sometimes running water. They are usually a little ways out of towns, but if you plan ahead and eat supper in town, they make a decent place to stop for the night.

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    Thanks for the great post!

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    I was JRA today, and thought about how I and riding companions have just stopped and set up camp on the roadside here in Australia. Well, except in one case, not quite right on the roadside.

    I still often ride along looking at potential camping sites, even though I am not right into touring at the moment.Fencelines here are generally set back 20 yards or so from the road.

    That leaves gullies, the tops of road cuttings, and various other odd spots where I have free-camped, as I call it.

    The tops of cuttings are great because none of the drivers has a clue you are there, but you are looking down on them.

    In other cases, I have ventured a little way down side roads (usually gravel). You know they are going to be really light with traffic, and often are access roads to properties.

    Provided I am not going over the fence, I can often find some neat copses, or even be in the complete open. I have never been disturbed in these cases.

    State forests are great because they offer some facilities in an excellent environment without all the baggage (including fees) that come with national parks here.

    Australians are a little more relaxed about these things, and outside major cities and big rural towns, it's not so difficult to find free camping spots. I've even set up a tent in town parks, or dossed down under the barbecue shelter with just my sleeping bag and mat.

    I'm there for all the world to see, but at the same time, I don't overstay my welcome.

    Oh, and the French, especially in villages, seem to be pretty relaxed about people camping when it is obvious they are cycle-touring as opposed to being itinerants.

    Great photos, by the way.
    Last edited by Rowan; 12-07-08 at 03:05 AM.
    Dream. Dare. Do.

  6. #6
    Senior Member staehpj1's Avatar
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    Great post Jamawani. Thanks for sharing that. It really makes me miss being on the road.

  7. #7
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    yes, thank you for taking the time to share your pictures and information with us. It is what makes this forum valuable.

  8. #8
    Senior Member bhchdh's Avatar
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    Nice post, a refreshing change from some of the others. Thank you.

  9. #9
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    Thanks! Any ideas on how to tell if the land is public land? Some states have had special maps showing all the public lands and that's been very helpful. But usually we can't really tell if it's BLM or private ranch land.
    WE DID IT! Our little family of four cycled 17,300 miles from Alaska to Argentina! The trip of a lifetime for sure. www.familyonbikes.org

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    Professional Fuss-Budget Bacciagalupe's Avatar
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    Nice pics.

    So how do you determine which areas allow open camping? And how do you get your bike to the more remote areas without impacting the land, by following trails?

  11. #11
    Neil_B
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    In Pennsylvania, camping is only allowed in designated areas in State Parks. But in State Forests, 2.1 million acres, primitive camping is free, and you can be as random as you want it seems.

    http://www.dcnr.state.pa.us/forestry/camping/index.aspx

    The only drawback is that there's next to no State Forest land near Philadelphia.

  12. #12
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    Rowan -

    Your way of camping is the best approach to random camping in the Great Plains and Canadian Prairies - where there is not a lot of public land. The public lands (after they were seized from native peoples) of both countries were designed as a huge grid system with each section, ideally, 1 mile square. Of course, on a spherical surface something has to give - and there are always some sections that are odd shaped or off center. In the north-south direction, every 24 miles there is a "Correction Line" where the sections do not line up exactly. When farm roads run along these line, they always have a jog. These are great areas to camp since there is usually an extra triangle of land in the right of way.



    Such is the case in Greenwood County, Kansas - on the TransAm Trail. If you look due east of Eureka you can spot the jogs. But there are tons of other potential places. If you look at the paved road running southeast from Eureka - there is a dirt road 1 mile to the west of Hwy 99 that is closed just past the bridge. Nice and quiet - right on the riverbank.

    J
    Last edited by jamawani; 12-07-08 at 11:17 AM.

  13. #13
    Senior Member oldride's Avatar
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    Thanks for the great post jamawani. Here in MN we have 2 National Forests and several State Forests. Dispersed camping is allowed in many areas but not all. If someone is unfamiliar with a particular area it is a good idea, when possible, to check and ask the local regulatory office were dispersed camping is allowed.

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    Nancy -

    There a state-scaled public lands maps, but they generally do not allow a person to determine specific sections. The best sources are maps of national forests which identify adjacent BLM and other public lands. Since the national forest lands are more appealing for cycling, most of us tend to be in areas covered by these maps. If not - such as in west-central Nevada or south-central Wyoming, then there are BLM maps which show public lands.

    It would be nice if all of these maps were available online, but they are not yet. You have to buy them. Most national forest maps are now plastic - which is great for cyclists. BLM maps aren't. The national forests in California have put all of their maps online.

    http://www.fs.fed.us/r5/forestvisitormaps/

    Happy Trails - - - J

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    Slow Rider bwgride's Avatar
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    Thanks for the interesting post. Great images up there.

  16. #16
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    Beautiful pictures that show the true majesty of cycling in these areas. And I like the expression dispersed camping. Having camped in many of these areas (the sawtooths, for example) I can say your excellent collection of photos was well worth the effort it took to get them!

    roughstuff
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    Senior Member oldride's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Roughstuff View Post
    Beautiful pictures that show the true majesty of cycling in these areas. And I like the expression dispersed camping. Having camped in many of these areas (the sawtooths, for example) I can say your excellent collection of photos was well worth the effort it took to get them!

    roughstuff
    FWIW Dispersed camping is the official term used by most of the gov. agencies. So if someone were to contact the NPS, BLM, UFS, etc. and if you ask about dispersed camping they will know what you're talking about.

  18. #18
    Senior Member MNBikeguy's Avatar
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    Fantastic pics.
    I'll be adding a water filter to my gear list this summer. (That's the only item that prevented stops in several places last year). Certainly makes for greater flexibility and "randomness."
    "I thought of that while riding my bike."
    - Albert Einstein on the theory of relativity

  19. #19
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    Wow! Good information and absolutely stunning images. We've camped on National Forest land and it's always been a much better experience than developed campgrounds. I recall once camping high above the San Joaquin River, with a sweeping view of the Minarets. Three days, and not another human.

  20. #20
    Senior Member wheel's Avatar
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    Capital Reef is free BC permit.
    Bryce is five dollars for BC how ever long your stay is.
    I do believe MT Zion was Five bucks
    Buy a annual pass $80 to get inside.
    Navajo Nation permit is five dollars per night, but you can camp anywhere.
    Cameron AZ and Window Rock AZ look for the parks department, or allow for a month to get your permit.
    I am more into the dispersed camping I don't really care if costs me money. Yet can't beat free.

    I spent 74 days out of 82 days doing dispersed camping last summer. Going from Phoenix to Denver via Utah, Wyoming. Turns out most of the route had a legal camping every thirty miles. I even found dispersed camping outside Vail CO. Ask the Forrest ranger at the station they will tell you all the great spots.
    BLM is the hardest to find, there most likely will be no signs at all. Use a gazette map to find public space. Most libraries have them take a picture with your camera. I think the west coast is much better for this than the east.
    Can you say Red Hill pass in CO. Only one road socked in with private land. The ranger lady guided me to what side of the road it was on as you couldn't see the road from a map only a blotch of land. Yet BLM land is tricky. Which I then found the sign "Please close the gate we have cows here."

    Great POST.
    Dixie National Forest outside Hurricane Utah. Would travel some 200 miles and still find myself choosing this forrest.
    Last edited by wheel; 12-08-08 at 02:07 PM.

  21. #21
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    Quote Originally Posted by Bacciagalupe View Post
    Nice pics.

    So how do you determine which areas allow open camping? And how do you get your bike to the more remote areas without impacting the land, by following trails?
    Bac -

    Some areas are easy. Almost all of Nevada is BLM land. After you pass the national forest signs, most of the land is national forest - certainly unfenced. Still, it is best to have national forest maps or BLM maps. A secret - if you go by the national forest office and ask for travel plans - those are free. Not as nice as national forest maps - just two color - but you can identify private and public lands - plus you have a detailed map for your touring/hiking.

    As for the high country. I mentioned that Canadian parks allow you to bike on certain forest roads. A mountain bike is best, although you could do it on a tourer with hefty tires and some walking. In U.S. parks and national forests, I will walk my bike a short to moderate distance on trails that are NOT in wilderness. I never take my bike into wilderness areas.

    Finally, unlike some, I am perfectly willing to lock my bike at the trailhead, put my panniers in bear boxes or hang them, then put on a backpack and hike in. That's why I tour with a midweight pack across the back rack. It gives me lots of hike/bike flexibility.

  22. #22
    Senior Member wheel's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Bacciagalupe View Post
    Nice pics.

    So how do you determine which areas allow open camping? And how do you get your bike to the more remote areas without impacting the land, by following trails?
    After the NF sign your good, however there are some spots which people live in the NF so you need to ride a bit farther. They will have the no trespass signs out for you let me tell you.
    In doubt walk the bike since most Forest , BLM, access roads, Fire roads will be horrible.

    In Arizona 17 percent of the land is private. You also need to adhere to tribal lands policies.


    Notice Forrest sign, most BLM won't have anything. I used a map and then found this fire road. I had to haul my stuff up a hill since the road was a cliff. Which left my private outlook.



    As for impact most likely you will take an access road into the land and hike from there. I make sure never to take my bike off the trail. I lock it up along the road/trail. Unless your in southern Wyoming which the main road leads right into BLM land. Look for the cattle guards and fences and then ensuing signs.
    I found cows make more mess/erosion with the land than me. Random camping requires some planning as many areas will have their own rules and land use. Such as no bikes on trail, or using it as a recreation site, or refuge area. I found doing google searches helped alot.

    Quote Originally Posted by MNBikeguy View Post
    Fantastic pics.
    I'll be adding a water filter to my gear list this summer. (That's the only item that prevented stops in several places last year). Certainly makes for greater flexibility and "randomness."
    I recommend getting the pills much easier and lighter. Not iodine pill these killed bacteria it took four hours.
    Last edited by wheel; 12-08-08 at 02:13 PM.

  23. #23
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    Great thread, nice pics!

    There's nothing that beats a top-notch, remote camping site- been doing "dispersed camping" for decades, and have drawerfuls of maps at home with scrawled directions all over them to some of my favorite spots in the western US. I would only add a couple of recommendations, and they're rather obvious:

    -Avoid places with a lot of trash and/or shot-up debris; these are usually used for parties and target shooters.

    -Camp farther away from main roads and towns on weekends, especially in summer, when the back country population increases.

    -Before settling in on a spot I always scope it out for a few minutes: walk around and look for potential hazards, evaluate your neighboring campers (if any) for possible trouble or companionship, and the "feel" of the place. Very rarely, I've left places that gave me a bad vibe.

    -I tend to conceal my camping spot when I'm alone; this is more out of personal preference than safety concerns.

    Looking at these pictures makes me want to hit the road again!

  24. #24
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    great post! beautiful pictures!
    sticky?

  25. #25
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    Yeah, awesome thread and good timing right after those stealth threads. Thanks Jamawani and everyone else who put up good info. Here are some of my own thoughts- admittedly I`m just starting my bike touring career, but I`ve been doing this kind of camping in since my Boy Scout days in the 70s and 80s.

    It`s good to pay attention to fences, but they don`t necesarrilly mean private property. They often run for miles to keep livestock from wandering off BLM land and onto the highway- usually just along thte interstates, but sometimes other major highways as well. Watch for gates and what kind of signage is on them- it may say "Private", "No Tresspassing", etc or it may just say please leave the gate as you found it (open or closed). Another good indication of BLM land is to watch for their unmistakeable mustard and brown signs. They often put up direction signs or mileage signs at "major" intersections on dirt and gravel roads and they all look the same. Anybody happen to have a pic of one?

    About water- remember that even though it`s nice to have a good supply right at your camsite it isn`t absolutely necessarry. You may well be able to fill up at the gas station or bar or whatever either before you make camp or after you take off in the morning.

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