Ultimate Guide To BLM Camping
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One of the biggest challenges in camping is finding places that are not over-run with people. And even better, where you can camp for free.
I had heard about the Bureau Of Land Management (BLM) camping and decided to do more research on this.
What Is BLM Camping
The BLM is a government agency that was created by President Truman in 1946 to oversee lands “nobody wanted”.
And the agency also oversees mining.
It took me a while to understand what BLM does because I live in Texas. While there is a lot of open spaces in Texas, most of it is owned by someone. Thus I don’t comprehend “land nobody wanted.”
And this is why I wasn’t familiar with the idea that there are millions of square miles that you can just park and camp without permission. But this is how the BLM works.
It’s amazing how much land the BLM manages. In particular, if you don’t live in the American West. Because most of the land we could use for camping is in the west.
I have heard that when you combine BLM land with National Forest land, it equals to around 25% of the entire US landmass.
And most important for our purposes, 90% of this land can be used for free camping.
You can learn more about the BLM here.
Contrary to popular belief, there are prepared campgrounds on BLM land. You don’t hear as much about prepared campgrounds on BLM property because the reason why people want to go on BLM land is to avoid over-crowding at traditional campsites.
The fact that BLM has prepared front-country camping, does surprise people because avoiding prepared campgrounds is why people choose BLM in the first place.
But front-country camping isn’t just for people who don’t want to completely rough it.
It’s to protect the environment.
Even with hundreds of square open miles, certain areas become popular. And this results in damage to the soil, the water, wildlife, and of course the trees as people pick it over for firewood.
This is the type of camping most people love to do on BLM camping.
Dispersed camping means to camp in a place that does not have any prepared campground. It’s about as close as you can get to frontier life as you can get in modern America. Of course, if you’re doing dispersed camping (sometimes called boondocking) in a Class A motorhome, you’re probably living a more comfortable life than me in my house.
But this style of camping is what attracts people to BLM land.
You pitch your tent or park the RV at any place on BLM land and set up camp. There are no fees. And unless you’re traveling with friends, no other people.
But there’s also no amenities at all either. No potable water. No toilets. No power-grid to tap into to charge the phone.
You might also wake up to the sound of cattle or sheep because the land is being used by a rancher for grazing.
How Long You Can Stay
BLM is ideal for people who want to be constantly moving.
You can only stay up to 14 days at one spot.
And then you must move at least 25 miles. And cannot return to your previous spot for at least 28 days.
This is typically not a problem because tent-campers rarely stay for more than a couple of days. And full-time RVers love to travel and see as much of the country as possible.
How To Find BLM
To find BLM camping is not hard though you do need to make sure you’re not on private land.
But to start out, most of the BLM land is in the western US. This does not include Texas, which is where I live. The only public land we have here is in the national forests.
As with many things in life, there are websites and apps to help you out. Starting with the BLM government website.
And another popular site is Freecampsites.
Pay Attention To Forest Fires, Weather, And Flooding
Unfortunately, you do need to pay attention to what’s happening around you. Dispersed camping has unique dangers.
And no, I’m not talking about the boogeyman from a bad horror movie.
There are three things to be aware of.
Weather - a bright sunny day can turn into a hail-storm in a blink, in particular, if you are on a mountain top. So make sure you’re weather aware.
Flash Floods - when it rains, lands can flood quickly. Thus make sure that you are not camped in a gulley or dry riverbed.
Fires - forest fires happen. And they can spread rapidly. A fire thirty miles away could be upon your location within minutes depending upon the wind.
So while you might want to disconnect from the world, you might still need your phone to get updates, if you can get service. Otherwise, make sure to keep a reliable weather radio on-hand.
You Are Off-Grid
When you are going BLM camping, then you will be going off-grid.
This means no water. No toilets and no electricity.
For some people, this will sound ideal. They look forward to this type of camping.
Typically they are young, single men. My hunch there is an evolutionary purpose here. Because there’s always been people who wanted to go explore.
Plus there is a great deal of satisfaction to be had by having a successful off-grid camping trip.
However, even if you are ok pooping in a hole in the ground and no TV, you still might want to take photographs or video of your trip.
Or you have rechargeable headlamps or lanterns.
Which means, you need access to electrical power.
RV campers, are often older and can no longer tent camp. They need the AC and heater. Or perhaps require a CPAP machine.
Or let’s face it, after 3 days of rain, you can only play so many board games. And just want to veg out and watch a movie.
Thus you’re going to need electrical power.
You have two basic options. Either a propane-powered generator or a solar-powered generator.
Water is important to human life. If you are in a survival situation, you need to secure a safe water source before food. Heck, you might even need water before you build shelter.
How important is water?
Watch an episode of the TV show Survivor. The TV show doesn’t provide the contestants with shelter.
And they don’t provide much food.
Heck, they don’t even make it easy to build fire until after the first time a tribe visits Tribal Council.
But they always provide clean water.
And this is true while you’re out on BLM camping.
Make sure to bring water with you. You need it for hydration. You need it for cooking. And you need it for basic hygiene.
You can also augment your water supply by using found water. But you need to make that water safe to drink.
While you can boil the water, this takes a long time and if you’re tent camping, it means building a fire. Which isn’t always easy. There may not any burnable materials around. Or it might not be allowed because of a burn ban.
This is why boiling water is our last choice in making water safe to drink. Instead, use a water filter. They are affordable, simple to use, and reliable. You can check out our guide on choosing a water filter.
And you can use water purification tablets. With tablets, all you need to do is put them into the water and wait. This is our second preferred option if a filter is not available.
Deal With Your Waste
Not only is thee no electricity and no water, but there’s also no bathrooms either.
If you’re a tent camper, this means you will need to improvise a solution.
This could be as simple as digging a hole in the ground. Or you could bring along a bucket like a Luggable Loo. Or just put a toilet seat on a 5-gallon bucket with a trash-bag. You can cover it with dirt or cat litter to help with the smell.
Or invest in a compostable toilet. An RV might also have an electric toilet. An electric toilet (something I first learned about via a news story on tiny homes) incinerates the solid waste.
Make sure to check the local regulations to see if you are allowed to bury your waste or if you must take it with you.
As we have established, you are out on your own. And often in areas where it’s dry.
And there’s no water. And no fire department.
Thus you need to make sure you pay attention to fire safety. You don’t want to be the person who starts a forest fire.
Make sure to keep the area clear of burnable materials.
You should have a fire extinguisher. Or at least a bucket of dirt.
You could also bring along a fire blanket and a welding blanket. If you bring a welding blanket, look for a carbon fiber blanket otherwise use gloves when handling to avoid getting a rash from the fiberglass.
You’re The First Responder
This should be obvious by now, but you will be the first responder while on a BLM camping trip.
Make sure you have a well-stocked First-Aid kit.
I would also encourage taking a wilderness First-Aid class. This is a class that will teach you how to treat injuries while hiking and camping.
When people ask me what “survival” skills they should have, I always say start with a First-Aid class. Because most likely why you’re in a survival situation in the first place is because you’ve had some type of medical situation. Both the Red Cross and REI (via a partnership with NOLS) offer Wilderness First Aid classes.
Learn Map and Compass Navigation
On our first trip to Broken Bow, Oklahoma, we stayed in a new cabin. The cabin itself was not roughing it at all.
It prompted me to joke about camping cabins - “They’re RV without wheels”.
But the location was not yet on Google maps. And we were driving back after dark. And fog had rolled in. It took us an hour to finally figure out way back using a paper map I had.
This is why it’s important to bring paper maps with you as well as a compass. This will help you navigate your way back to civilization if you’re lost.
One final note, even if you don’t have phone service, your smartphone does have a GPS receiver in it. Thus it can still figure out its location. The bigger problem is that the standard maps just might not have a map for where you’re at.
Tell People Where You’re Going And When You Will Be Back
Because you’re going off-grid, for extra safety you should tell people where you are going. And when they can expect you back. This way if something happens, you can know that someone will be able to ask for help. And a rescue can be attempted.
Keep In Contact Off-Grid With A Satellite Phone
I wrote this article during the height of the US Covid-19 health crises. Thus I understand a strong desire to get away from all contact.
Heck, I’m even writing this article on this specific day because I was supposed to be out hiking. But we’re having a day of rain. Alot of rain.
And while I have a full rain-suit, my trails are along water. Lakes and rivers. And they’re all flooded out.
So, it’s double ugh.
If you’re going to go off-grid and don’t have cell service, you might want to consider investing in a satellite phone such as the Garmin InReach.
They often have a GPS, weather, a phone, and an SOS feature.
You don’t need to talk to anyone if you don’t want to but you might want to have a way to send for an SOS if you find yourself hurt. And need medical attention.