Our Longest Stretch Since a Campground, and Other Firsts

As of today, we’ve hit these firsts:

  • the longest we’ve been camping not in a campground,
  • the fourth time—in the nearly 100 places we’ve camped—that we’ve stayed for longer than one week, and
  • the most north and west we’ve camped.

That last one is not surprising, but the others could use an explanation.

What Is Dispersed Camping?

There are several government agencies managing federal (and state) land that allow camping for free on that land (with limits). The big ones are the Forest Service that allows camping in national forests and grasslands (some state forest services do as well), and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that does the same within their realm (they’re mostly in the west).

To give you an idea how large some of this land is, here’s a screenshot of BLM land. Imagine national and state forests and grasslands overlaid on this map, and there’s a good amount of the western U.S. where you can simply pull off the side of the road and camp for free.

But of course it’s not that simple.

Tracy’s been explaining this concept to me since we started out. We’d be driving along a road in a national or state forest, and he’d point to a gap in the woods, maybe a small field or an access road that hasn’t been used in a while, and say, “We could camp there!” The idea that you have to camp in a campground was so ingrained that it took until we came out west for me to really believe him.

It’s called “dispersed camping,” and it truly is legal to camp on many federal and state-owned lands, with limits.


You do this only on certain government-owned land. Very few national parks have set aside land for this.

You’re boondocking, so you have no access to electricity, clean water, or sewer. Often there’s no fire ring, picnic table, bathrooms, camp host. No storm shelter.

Your campsite is wherever you find that you can get your camper into and make it level enough (that’s debatable).

On Forest Service roads along rivers and creeks, the Service will build gravel-road pull-offs as fishing access areas.

Back in Maryland, one of our favorite eastcoast camping spots is in the Savage River State Forest where a nice little camping area had been created deep in the forest, away from everyone.

Your stay is limited to 14 to 16 days depending on the area, probably to keep people from simply living there. Understandable on both sides.

Who Does Dispersed Camping?

So far we’ve been doing this in Montana only (and that one spot in PA), so my experience is limited. But it looks like:

  • anglers on fishing trips, in their tents or their old trailers they keep around just for this,
  • back-country backpackers,
  • locals who have favorite spots to get away for the weekend (and also bring clunker RVs that can handle gravel roads),
  • snowbirds (RVers who go south each winter); they gather in Arizona on BLM land (more on that below, which is a different culture altogether).

Who doesn’t do it? People in large class-A motorhomes (the kind hat looks like a bus) and people in other expensive trailers, like Airstreams, apparently. We did see a class-A on the terribly rough road outside of Red Lodge, but they stayed for two nights and were off. And Tracy saw an Airstream yesterday while biking the grizzly bear trail (my new name for it) here near Eureka, but that could have been in a campground that he just couldn’t ID (there are a ton of small campgrounds here).

Generally people with large RVs or fancy ones prefer to stay in trailer parks with amenities, like, you know, swimming pools and movie stars. They like to shower every day, get satellite or cable TV, not worry about being level, and certainly not worry about scratching their beautiful RVs on tree branches as they make their way to their spot.

To get to where we’ve been camping in Montana,

  • You either have to know the area well (so, locals only) or have to spend a lot of time looking at maps and researching online (Tracy’s forte).
  • You need to be willing to either leave your trailer parked somewhere safe and drive down long gravel roads to find a spot you might fit in then go back to get your trailer and try indeed to get to and in that spot, or tow your trailer down these roads hoping that your research and downloaded google map is showing you correctly that you’ll be able to turn around eventually if you don’t find a site. Being able to turn around and go back is crucial. Always.
  • You have to be willing to tow your trailer over very bumpy, often very dusty, curvy, narrow roads with steep inclines. Some trailers are made for this (lightweight, lifted off their axles), but mostly people down these roads bring their old beater trailers.

This last piece of criteria is where Tracy really shines. He had the foresight to have the Airstream lifted three inches the last time we were at the factory service center, knowing we’d be driving down roads like this out west. And he’s freaking brave to creep down narrow gravel roads, knowing locals could be barreling right at us and we’ll have to swerve into the ditch to avoid a head-on collision. He’s like a racecar driver or a fighter pilot: he keeps his nerves steady and his eyes and ears open.

And then there’s the teamwork needed to get the trailer into some pretty damned tight spots. That’s trickiest when one or both of us doesn’t have cell service, since our walkie talkies are temperamental. Maybe I’ll write a post about how we’re do that, since it’s pretty amazing.

Record for Boondocking

It was early July when we stayed at our last campground for more than a night: in North Dakota outside the Theadore Roosevelt National Park.

Seeing as how we were the only poeple in sight for several nights, it didn’t feel like a campground. Plus, the only amenity was potable water from a hand pump a good walk away. So in my mind, it’s been since Minnesota. That feels like a world away.

Record for Breaking Our One-week-stay Trend

We don’t move every day or even every other day, but we don’t stay longer than a week in any one place, as a general rule. We simply run out of interesting things to do and are ready to move on (this is especially true because we’ve been traveling since Covid hit and not going inside buildings, which reduces the sights we’d like to see in urban areas).

This screenshot of my clickable map on this blog shows where we are now (top left), and where we’ve stayed for longer than a week since we started this adventure.

Washburn, WI

Last summer we fell in love with a tiny county campground in Washburn, Wisconsin, and turned our one-week stay into three weeks. That site had all the criteria we love: kayaking right from our campsite (on a bay off Lake Superior), biking into town with a farmers market and brewery, and easygoing neighbors (for the most part).

We had electric hookups there and that was it, but the land is flat so it was easy to hitch up once a week and tow to the dump station at the county park, then repark the trailer. We pulled our water containers via the beach wagon to a natural spring right there, too, then pulled them back and filled the trailer’s fresh water tank. Easy peasy.

Bonita Springs, FL

This was a planned month-long stay last winter as part of our Florida winter tour, but because Canadians couldn’t come to the U.S. due to Covid travel restrictions, we scored a sweet spot right on the river, with manatees visiting and everything.

Again, all the things we like were there: kayaking from the trailer, biking into town with a farmers market (had to drive to the brewery), and especially good neighbors. Plus a heated swimming pool! And full hook-ups, plus mail service. If we could get as good a spot in this campground another year, I’m sure we’d go back.

The Florida Keys

We spent six weeks in the Keys, and I’m sure I don’t need to explain why.

Eureka, MT

So, those are the three special places where we’ve stayed more than a week. And now here, near Eureka, Montana! These “amenities” are different, though. Yes, we can kayak right from the campsite. But biking and hiking are now off limits due to grizzly bear sightings (I’ll post about that soon).

We have zero hookups, but there’s fresh water at a nearby campground where we can fill our bins and then pour them into the trailer tanks. Almost no one is around. We have plenty of wildlife and solitude. There’s nowhere else we need to be for a good long while. We’re staying.

Winter Boondocking Plans

We have a few travel plans for this fall—I’ll save that for another post—but the goal is to get down to southern Arizona where a lot of RVers spend the winter boondocking. This is a different experience: in the wide-open desert, on flat land, and either out on your own if you choose or with other RVers in a kind of boondocking town. Here’s a picture of Quartzite, AZ, thanks to RVers Drivin&Vibin (they were cool until they had a baby and bought a house. It happens to the best of us).

We aren’t sure where we’ll stay or for how long, or if we’ll get bored in the desert and head to Mexico, but I want to include this as an example of boondocking on federal land—a very different example.

Record for Farthest North and West

We’re not going into Canada this summer seeing as how the paperwork is pretty extensive and there’s no big reason for us to go through that ordeal right now as tons of U.S. RVers head there, so this is the most north we’ll be for a good long while. And we’re not planning to go to Idaho, Washington, Oregon, or California (this summer), so this may be the farthest west we go, too. ‘

But “not planning on it” is the key phrase here. This post is about this new stage of our nomadic life where we don’t have firm plans, so, stay tuned.

2 thoughts to “Our Longest Stretch Since a Campground, and Other Firsts”

  1. I am always excited to hear about your adventures Shelly. Dispersed camping sounds fascinating to me. All the best you guys; looking forward to your next newsletter!