4) Now that you’ve got your map(s) and your mind(s) right, let the real fun begin. Look at all public land allocations within a two-hour radius.
In summer, I’ve come to prefer National Forests because they are shady and have ample water sources. In winter, I prefer Bureau of Land Management lands (BLM) – typically open grasslands or high deserts – which tend to be abundant in sun and my favorite fire woods, pinyon and juniper.
[Note: For those of you in the east or midwest where there is very little public land, your hunt is a lot harder. This article is about my Western process. My Eastern process is simpler: I find private land I can camp without getting hassled, or I park in towns and cities (which I’ll get into later). The same issue goes for Southern California and warm beach areas, which have become so overpopulated that finding free camping is nearly impossible, but it still can be done.]
5) With your map of public lands, decide what mood you’re in. Is it hot? Should you get high on a mountain, or to the coast or to a lake? Is it cold? Should you get to a hot spring or the desert?
The more you pursue your intuition, the better you’ll get at finding the best spots. This sounds very fuzzy because it is, but when your brain is drawn to something on a map, there’s a reason. And the more you follow these reasons, the luckier you’ll get.
6) Learn tolove the dirt! Dirt roads keep the tourists away and rarely lead to anything but treasures. When I started getting dirty every night, my luck increased exponentially.
[Note: While we’re on the topic of dirty, it’s unfortunate, but much of our public land has been trashed by thoughtless folks. Many times, I will come across a perfect camp with a nicely built fire ring, only to find dirty diapers stashed in the woods, shotgun shells littered throughout, and eight Keystone Ice cans in the fire.
Don’t get discouraged. If it’s a good camp, stay. Use it as an opportunity to clean up the land and leave your own trace (none). Bag the trash and disperse the negative energy others have left behind; make it your own home with your own energy. I try to leave each campsite improved… cleaned up and (if energy permits) with firewood for the next free-seeker.]
7) Let’s say you’ve driven for an hour and are stumped. Here are landmarks that are sure winners:
a) Bridges – before and after bridges there is usually a (well-hidden) dirt road that leads down to the water source and camping near it.
b) Radio towers – all radio towers have roads to them. Some of these roads have gates, but many are left unlocked. If you can stand the thought of the incoming/outgoing waves, the views are unparalleled.
c) Telephone lines – same story as radio towers, most have access roads to them that are never used.
d) Around paid campsites – often the best place to look, especially in National Forests. People with the same free-camping philosophy have most likely carved out a camp nearby.
e) Railroad tracks – paralleling all railroad tracks are dirt roads and pullouts. Just don’t park too close to the tracks or the train engineers will whistle at you all night long.
f) Trailheads – any place that allows overnight hiker parking is (free)game for camping!
8) You’re still stumped and out of energy? Don’t be afraid to break the rules, just be thoughtful in your execution. Don’t add unnecessary harm to the land or others. Be able to justify your camp to a reasonable person if asked. My #1 rule in breaking the rules: don’t bother anyone and you won’t get caught.
I really try not to urban camp because you have to be sneaky about it, which takes away the feeling of freedom. But I have to say, I do get a kick out of it – there’s something mischievous about sleeping in front of someone’s house who has no idea you’re there.
[Note: Urban camping is way harder (or impossible) if you have a dog (one of the reasons I don’t) or if you’re traveling with 3 or more people or a small child.]
When my three buddies from Current Sea were on the road, they had to pop the top every night for sleeping room. They often pulled into neighborhoods and asked permission from the neighbors to pop and park the night. Often they heard “Yes!” I thought this was rad but have never done it myself.]
On Walmart – somehow Walmart has gotten the reputation as being a great place to urban camp. I totally disagree. The last place I would camp is under 82 fluorescent lights with a bunch of people driving around all night. There is another way.
1) Get your cooking done and your van tidied up before seeking good urban camping. I’ve definitely cooked on the street in front of someone’s house before (which actually helped me meet three amazing friends). But, finding a spot and going to bed is the surest way to stay low profile. Reading, watching movies, etc. is fine too, just avoid activities that require a lot of van shuffling.
2) Find a good neighborhood. This is the question I ask myself: where’s the nicest view in town where neighbors won’t notice an unfamiliar vehicle?
There are nice neighborhoods where people have “their parking spot” and would be peeved if you took it. You’re looking for the rung of neighborhoods just below that kind… the ones where your van fits in as a visiting friend.
This is a feel thing, I can’t explain how I know the good neighborhoods, I just do. You’ll know them too. I’ve gotten some epic views in neighborhoods where people pay multi-millions for their lot. Very few things feel better than that.
3) Look for parks, double lots, empty lots, tall hedges, and houses for sale.
a) City parks are always the first place my eyes go to on the map. Many times there are parking restrictions at parks (for people like us!), but a block away, there won’t be.
b) If you can’t find a good park, start looking for empty lots. When you’re aware of them, you’d be amazed at how many empty lots there are in any town or city. Park in front of one, make it your lot.
c) Next best to empty lots are double lots. Park in the back part (yard part) of the lot, so the homeowners won’t notice you when they’re eating dinner.
d) Tall hedges, ahhh, my best friend. Those people who want privacy so bad, they can’t even see your van on the street. Perfection.
e) Houses for sale that are uninhabited. Their tell-tale sign is the single porch light and single living room light that are on. They also have a strange vacant energy if you watch them long enough.
4) Okay, you’ve found a good spot, but it has a horribly uneven lie. You have three options:
a) High energy level – leave, find something better.
b) Medium energy – pull your tires up on the curb to level out. Yes, it will look obvious, but if you’re not bothering anyone with your post-parking activities, no one will bother you.
c) Low energy – stay, do nothing, lie with the lie. The nights I have a horrible lie and don’t care are the nights I will have zero problem sleeping anywhere.
5) What about peeing? I’ve never been one for a pee-bottle (or bucket) because they smell, it’s easy to miss (or overfill), and you have to deal with them later.
If you’ve followed the steps above, you will have an urban camp with green space nearby… (queue mischievous feeling)… I just get out and pee when everyone’s asleep (my bladder has a way of picking 3:23AM).
6) What about extended urban stays? The longest urban stretch I’ve done was a week in multiple places. Find a good 3-4 spots and rotate them. I’ve got my rotation dialed in Anchorage, Jasper, Durango, etc.
I know you’re wondering, have I ever been hassled? Never by weirdos, three times by authorities.
Twice while rural camping (illegally). Both times I got moving too late. Both times I was pleasant. Both times – after the authorities saw I wasn’t causing any harm to anyone or the land – they let me go without a citation. Just let the authorities feel like they’ve won, because guess what, that means you will too.
I can’t say you’ll never get caught camping illegally if you leave before 6:30AM, but I’m almost positive you won’t get caught (I never have). Most government agencies don’t pay well enough to get their people up before then.
I’ve been hassled once while urban camping, but I asked for it. It was the night of a friend’s wedding, and I had a buddy in the van with me, pop top up. I was being arrogant with the top up.
We knew what to do if someone knocked… do nothing, stay quiet. Sure enough, at 2AM, we got knocked on and flash-lighted. Trouble for the authorities was, since they couldn’t see us (curtains drawn) and we didn’t make a peep, all they could do was leave.
That’s all I got for now. Happy free living… happy Wheel Estate Empire building! If you explore what I’ve outlined above, your concept about rent and land ownership will change forever. I’m just warning you now…
Most days, I’m sure we burned more calories hunting the fish than they gave in return, but we were fine with this. The taste of each meal and our connection to it were things no one else could provide. After a week in Big Sur, eating the best fish from the best market would forever be ruined.
Some of you may know this crew, others may not – it’s Emily, Corey, Penny (the dog), and Boscha (the van) from @wheresmyofficenow. They’ve spent the last year and half on the road… challenging the idea that work has to be done in an office from 9-5. They’re proving their own hypothesis that work really is the value you bring into the world, and it can be done anywhere with a change in mindset. They’re idealists, but they are grounded in a hard-work realism, which gives me confidence they will help change the concept of work in modern society. After spending 4 days with them, their biggest challenge (which is also mine) will be enduring on the system’s fringe long enough to find permanent stability. It’s a creative exercise in endurance. They have big plans, so let’s give them a pat on the bumper! (I would never have met these guys without our friends @gowestycampers, and for that I am grateful)
I’ve joked with people that there are two things that could stop my travels… a girl or going broke.
Of all my expenses (and there aren’t many), gas was the one I worried about making me broke. I hypothesized I would spend about $600 per month on gas, but I really had no idea when I started.
So I started this little scratch sheet in April of 2013 to calculate my monthly gas expenditures. I thought there was no chance it would last… I would lose it, or spill coffee on it or eventually say fuck it, who cares about keeping track of gas money anyway.
But it turned out differently. This piece of paper rode shotgun with me for a year, clipped neatly under my tire pressure gauge. And I didn’t end up saying Fuckit ’til I got to Canada and gas was $6-8 per gallon.
I enjoyed unclipping this paper and documenting exactly how much my bank account was shrinking and how little it really mattered. I enjoyed writing down each town name (wish I would’ve started from the beginning), and I enjoyed scanning over the previous towns. Every now and then, I’d see a name from way back and a memory would flash in from that time and place. I’d smile or laugh or say man, those pancakes at the Perkins in Butte were just what I needed that day.
I still remember what the sky looked like and how I felt at each of these gas stations. What started off as a way to track gas expenses became an unfolding blueprint of a year on the Road.
This little sheet represents a year of my life. It represents a year of work and a year of freedom from money… a year that has forever changed what my eyes see when they open in the morning.
When people ask me how much I spent on gas last year, I know. $6,229.34… just about $520 per month.
But fuck it, who cares about keeping track of gas money anyway.