The Lost Art of Boondocking

Boondocking, or camping off-the-grid in unofficial spots, was once the tried-and-true method for budget-minded road trippers. Back in my vagabonding days in the 1990s, fellow nomads and I carried tattered paper atlases highlighting potential boondocking locations we’d pass along via word of mouth – like hikers exchanging notes on the best trails. How times change. These days, apps like iOverlander and FreeRoam dominate the scene. While technology makes pinpointing free campsites easier, I’ve found tried-and-true paper atlases like Benchmark and AllStays invaluable companions.

Let me tell you about the time I nearly stranded myself in the wilds of Idaho thanks to an inaccurate GPS coordinate. It was mid-July and sweltering – this Seattle girl isn’t built for triple-digit heat! My partner Stan and I were roadtripping across the Northwest in Beulah, our 1990 Toyota camper van. After a long day navigating the rollercoaster roads through Hell’s Canyon, I was eager to settle in a nice shady national forest spot along the Salmon River with a cold beer in hand. Relying on the iOverlander app, I punched in the coordinates for a user-submitted campsite near Riggins. “Just follow the dusty spur road for 0.2 miles until you hit the clearing,” said the entry, I’m paraprahing. Seemed simple enough.

Two hours and 15 miles of increasingly potholed backcountry roads later, there was no sign of the alleged campsite. Temperatures were still roasting even as the sun sank lower. Beulah’s A/C wheezed asthmatically – she wasn’t built for desert climes. To make matters worse, we hadn’t passed a gas station in over 60 miles. Our situation wasn’t yet dire, but I mentally kicked myself for trusting an unverified online tip over our trusty paper atlas.

After consulting Stan’s dog-eared 2006 Benchmark Atlas, we discovered a national forest campground a mere 15 miles away near the banks of the river. While not as isolated as the imaginary boondocking spot, it would do nicely. As the trees enveloped Beulah, I breathed a sigh of relief. That night I slept like a baby with the Salmon River’s gentle gurgling as my lullaby.

The Allure of Boondocking

For tent campers, vanlifers, and RVers alike, boondocking offers an unparalleled connection with the landscape. Picture waking up to misty dawn light filtering through pine boughs, the chitter of chipmunks your morning alarm. At night the Milky Way blazes, unimpeded by light pollution. You won’t find amenities like electric hookups, but that’s part of the appeal – a chance to unplug. Boondocking hot spots cluster around national forests and BLM land in the West, especially scenic spaces like Moab and quartz crystal coves of Arizona. With a little research, you can enjoy these places sans crowds and fees.

Fellow wanderers swap intel on ideal boondocking like anglers sharing favorite fishing holes. Apps make it easier than ever to discover previously word-of-mouth sites. A boondocking app equipped with cloud sync lets you share your finds while accessing points pinned by fellow users in real time. Whether you prefer solitude or community, boondocking offers the best of both worlds. However, I’ve found a paper atlas still can’t be beat for reliability.

Benefits of Apps like iOverlander

As someone who remembers when print road atlases were the best available navigational tool, I’m continually amazed by the power pocketed in smartphones. GPS-enabled apps like iOverlander and FreeRoam harness this power to enhance the boondocking experience. Just look at these benefits:

Pinpoint precision: Apps leverage satellites for accuracy within feet rather than the miles of paper maps. This allows you to plug in super-specific spots down dirt roads where you’d otherwise feel lost. Apps even include notes on road quality and vehicle accessibility.

Real-time updates: Fellow users can upload new locations and leave reviews on existing ones, ideal for super-seasonal boondocking. Snowbird RVers flock to Arizona in winter, while Washington’s North Cascades draw summer crowds. Apps make it easy to identify boondocking hotspots during prime visiting months.

Amenity filtering: Search by amenity to discover sites perfectly suited to your rig’s capabilities. Filter by tent-friendly, trailer-accessible, or big rig-sized. Also look for cell service, proximity to water access for filling tanks, or dog-friendly for your four-legged co-pilot.

Social connection: Apps allow you to link up with fellow travelers in the area through comments and check-ins. I once had a dead car battery in New Mexico and was able to get a jump thanks to the iOverlander community!

Considerations When Using Boondocking Apps

While I’m a fangirl of technology, boondocking apps aren’t without limitations. Based on my experience, here are a few factors to weigh:

Spot reliability: User-submitted points aren’t always verified, meaning you may arrive to find no campsite or accessibility issues for larger rigs. Confirm everything through multiple sources.

Cell service: Many boondocking areas lack coverage. Download offline maps ahead of time just in case. Bring a paper backup like Benchmark.

Outdated info: App content can quickly become outdated as landscapes evolve. Fire, flood, new restrictions may impact access. Check regulations with the local land office before heading out.

Disturbance: Some worry apps lead to boondocking “hot spots” becoming overrun. Try visiting at off-peak times or seeking hidden gems not yet pinned.

** Purchase requirements:** While core features are free, premium versions cost around $40/year. This unlocks additional filters and offline capability. Still, don’t upgrade until you try the free version.

The Boondocking Blueprint: My Strategy

After many years vagabonding in Beulah, here is my strategy for locating great boondocking:

Step 1: Target National Forest or BLM land

I look for national forests on public lands maps. BLM land also offers boondocking freedom with 14-day stay limits. I highlight promising areas on Benchmark maps where networks of forest service roads crisscross. Apps help too, by narrowing down trailheads or meadows in those zones.

Step 2: Cross-reference using multiple sources

I compare apps like iOverlander, FreeRoam, AllStays, etc. Making sure a site exists across sources boosts confidence. User comments provide helpful clues on road condition, crowdedness, or other useful beta.

Step 3: Confirm regulations with the local field office

Before venturing out, I call the ranger district office with jurisdiction over that land. They can verify whether dispersed camping is permitted, closures are in effect, and offer pro-tips on their favorite spots. You’d be shocked how much insider knowledge rangers will spill.

Step 4: Have backup options in mind, just in case

Boondocking is flexible by nature. Still, I prepare backups in case Plan A falls through – an outdated coordinate, another group already set up camp, or my spot simply feeling off. That’s why I love having both apps and a Benchmark atlas handy for improvising on the fly.

Tips for Paper Atlas Users

As much as I love technology, my paper Benchmark atlas remains a trusted companion. Here’s my advice for fellow paper map fans:

  • Highlight promising zones on your atlas showing national forest access roads. This makes zones for potential boondocking jump out.
  • Note the mile markers for forest service road turnoffs described in guidebooks or forums. When listed on your atlas, it’s easier to locate.
  • Add exploratory waypoints in your GPS unit for venturing down backcountry 4WD roads. Granular landmarks help you avoid getting turned around.
  • Pencil in your own spots once you’ve scouted an area and found sites to return to. Personal trial and error always pays off.
  • Bring a ransacked atlas – scribbles, folded corners and all. The more worn and annotated, the more useful and full of wisdom.

Parting Thoughts

At the end of the day, boondocking is more a state of mind than a spot on a map. As Edward Abbey wrote, May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds. Wherever you lay your head, may it be under starry skies and tall trees. With the right sense of adventure and mix of tools, youre bound to find your version of boondocking heaven. Just be sure to have backup plans, as even the best routes sometimes lead to dead ends.

About Author