Wilderness Campsites – the Cheapest Roadtrip Option

a truck  in the desert
wilderness camping in the desert

So I am a seasoned traveler. Mostly backpacking internationally, but also in the wilderness and camping and road trips and weekend warrior flights or ski days. I have got to say road trip camping is so much easier than any other form of travel I’ve tried. I don’t have to be on a schedule, I don’t have to worry too much about what will be available in the next spot or even what the next spot will be. It’s more challenging on the East Coast but still possible – there are many open forests, deserts and such where I can just camp.  Those random dirt roads off of remote highways? They lead to camping – legal and free. Often these wilderness campsites come with established fire rings, though I often don’t have a fire.

truck in a spring forest
my campsite outside Flagstaff

This most recent trip I had a “America The Beautiful – National Parks and Federal Recreation Lands Pass” – $80.  This got me free entrance to any National Parks or Monuments and counted as the Adventure Pass necessary for certain forests in Southern California. It’s the “Interagency Annual Pass” described on this forest service page.  If you know you’re going on a trip far enough in advance, I’d recommend getting the volunteer time in and get the volunteer pass.  A lot of the volunteer programs will also show you some wilderness skills and introduce you to cool people.   The passes generally let you park and adventure pretty widely, but the more amenities at a given campsite, the more likely you’ll have to pay.  You don’t need a pass at all for camping in most National Forests or BLM lands.

Wilderness Campsites

A rule of thumb: running water = additional payment.  Pit toilets are often available at free campsites, as well as fire pits and picnic tables but don’t forget your own water and you’ve still got other campers around.  Another alternative for free is to just drive out into National Forest or Bureau of Land Management land on the established dirt access roads – generally labeled with some obscure 3 or 4 digit number and look for a good spot.  The legality of fire will differ depending on the forest and weather conditions, often researchable from your phone or posted along these rural roads, so be sure to check that out.  If you have an iron fire ring you are pretty safe in having a fire, if it’s stone… well check it out. These are wild places so also be sure you practice fire safety – there’s no one else to clean up after you.  You’ll also have to pack in and out everything you need – eg bring enough water, bring good trash bags and take out your trash, a shovel for digging your own ‘cathole’, fire wood…

a campsite with the picnic table partially submerged in swamp
a flooded campsite in Delta National Forest

Also, something to be aware of – these campsites are somewhat off the grid(hence ‘wilderness campsites’) and unevenly maintained.  Often the maintenance is by volunteer groups, and as there are no camp hosts there is no one to make reservations with, or check the conditions with. As I drove through the Delta National Forest in Mississippi most of the campsites(and forest roads) were submerged by the delta. This was actually one of the drier spots, and notice the picnic table is still partially under water.  Relatedly, the mosquitoes were numerous and fierce, the snakes were out on what dry land there was in abundance, and I pretty much stayed in the truck. I ended up going to the higher and drier Holly Spring National Forest to camp. Don’t get too committed to any spot until you’re there – and even then I’ve ended up moving a few times.  For example, a rainstorm can make the mud factor difficult for the truck – so that campsite near Flagstaff had only a short occupancy.

dawn colors viewed through a screen of trees
Primitive campgrounds at county parks are another good option

Other, slightly less wild, options – county parks & other organizations

In many small towns there are county parks which offer primitive camping – this generally involves a nominal fee and is in a multiple use space.  Pictured above is some lake near Wesson, Mississippi with a primitive campground and disc golf course in the same space.  Yeah, better listen for anyone yelling ‘fore’.  I actually discovered several campgrounds set up like this in Louisiana and Mississippi, so be aware.  Other ‘sorta’ spaces I sometimes camped in were Wildlife Management Areas – not sure of the rules for these because basically this is hunting space.  I didn’t wander too far from the road, or go on hikes, and kept my stays in these spots pretty short, but they had some beautiful territory.

The forests of the West are still more open than the East – but there are still plenty of forests. They tend to be more developed so you do end up paying slightly more, though I was told to track down the Army Corp of Engineer campsites and Civilian Conservation Corp sites for good free spots along the Appalachians.  In the Southwest there are the “Lower Colorado River Association” campsites, also cheap and easy.  Generally for tent camping I tended to avoid RV campgrounds unless they explicitly mention tent camping, as the sites will often just be gravel…  So with that, I recommend you go camping – and don’t bother with reservations or paying for a campsite.

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One Reply to “Wilderness Campsites – the Cheapest Roadtrip Option”

  1. HaLong ! A marvel of the earth erected towards the high skies. HaLong means ”Where the Dragon Descends into the Sea”
    Once upon a time..
    During the old time when the Land was newly formed, Vietnamese had to fight against very fierce invaders coming from the North ,they wanted to occupy the country named Vietnam. Luckily, Jade Emperor felt sorry for humankind here ,he sent Dragon Mother with her children to this land for helping people to sweep away the invaders. Dragon Mother and her children blow gems and pearls which became into thousand of islands. Some of islands linked as a ramparts but many other looked like battles to prevent the invaders. After destroying the enemy, they had not flied to the heaven but descended in this area. The place where Dragon Mother descended down called Ha Long Bay; the place where her children descended down called Bai Tu Long (a part of HaLong Bay, the place where Dragon’s tail whisked called Bach Long Vi island.The beauty of Halong Bay consists in its mountains, water, clouds and caves and grottoes. Many, however, do not realise that Halong was also the cradle of an ancient people helping create the present Halong culture. It is also a place closely linked to Vietnam’s history with such famus geographical names as : Van Don (site of an ancient commercial port); Poem Mountain (with engrav-ings of many poems by emperors and other famous people of the past) and Bach Dang River (the location of three fierce naval battles of Tran Dynasty fighting against Mongols foreign aggressors).
    In the two wars against the French and American, together with the people in the whole country, Halong Bay had achieved many glorious feat of arms, particularly a general strike of over 30,000 miners participated in the period from 1930-1945 which made the French domination system in the coal area to be loosed. Now the 12th day of the November every year becomes the traditional festive day of the miners.
    Halong is a small bay at the western coast section of Bac Bo Gulf, in the northeastern sea region of Viet Nam. It includes the sea areas and islands of Halong city, Cam Pha town and a part of Van Don island district. Its name have changed over historical periods. The present name of Halong Bay ( Landing Dragon Bay ) appeared in bibliographies and in some French maritime maps only from the late 19th century. Bai Tu Long Bay lies adjacent to the northest part of Halong Bay. Cat Ba islands are next to the southwest part of Halong Bay.
    halong bay
    The area of Halong Bay is about 1,500 km2 , including about 2,000 small and large islands, most of which are made of limestone. The core area of the bay covers 334 km2 where 775 islands are clustered. The tectonic movement in the bay, in which limestone was formed, occurred about 500 million years ago under different geographical circumstances. The full tectonic evolution of the karst terrain of Halong Bay took over 20 million years. In this evolution thick limestone was decomposed under hot and humid climate and the terrain was slowly raised. Halong Bay is the center of a larger area with similar elements of geology, geomorphology, landscape, climate and culture.
    At the present people live on about 40 of the nearly 2,000 islands of Halong Bay. These islands have areas from tens to thousands of hectares and they are mainly located in the east and southeast of Halong Bay. In recent decades, many floating fishing villages have started to settle on the virgin islands and turned them into fertile islands, for example Sa To island (Halong city) and Victory island (Van Dong island district).The heritage area (core area) of Halong Bay, which was officially recognized by the world community, has an area of 434 km2. It is similar to a triangle with the three vertices of Dau Go island in the west, Ba Ham lake in the south, and Cong Tay island in the east. The heritage area includes 775 islands with a great number of caves and beaches. The adjacent area (buffer area) is a national heritage recognised by the Ministry of Culture and Information of Viet Nam.
    The terrain of Ha Long is composed of mountains with abrupt cliffs and islands alternating between ocean basins. The soil is saline and has mangrove forest. Rock, water and the sky are the lively elements making up the beauty of Ha Long. Islands in Halong Bay have their own shapes absolutely different from that of other coastal areas of Viet Nam. But they are also not similar to each other. There are places where islands are so much clustered that they seem to be piled up if looked at from a far distance. But there are also places where many islands stand in horizontal or vertical rows like ramparts. These island rows are as long as tens of kilometers and cross each other. It seems that all islands make a mythical realm of rocks. One island is like a human face turning towards the mainland ( Man Head Island), while another resembles a dragon flying above water (Dragon Island) . La Vong island looks like and old fisherman and at a distance from him is Sails Island with two parts like two sails. Mam Xoi Island is a small island similar to a tray of steamed glutinous rice.
    Rooster and Hen Island reminds one of a cock and a hen lovingly playing on the waves. Lu Huong island ( Incense Burner Island) stands on a vast sea like a giant incense burner. Ong Su Island (Monk Island) is like a monk standing in the middle of the immense bay, who clasps hands to worship the Buddha. Chopstick Island is a round island of 40 meters in height and looks like a great chopstick. But viewed from another direction, it is like a royal mandarin with a blue costume and a “dragonfly” hat, so fishermen called this island Royal Mandarin Island, and so forth.

    Source: http://halongtourvietnam.org

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