Saturday, February 14, 2009

Free Sleeping on Public Land

Free Sleeping usually involves an element of stealth and evasion of authority, but there are vast areas in the American West where you can legally and openly camp for free. These are public lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management of the U.S. Government. On this land you have a right to camp wherever and whenever you want, without a permit, as long as there isn't a specific local regulation against it.

The most common local BLM regulation is that you can't spend more than 14 continuous days in one location. After that, you have to move a certain distance away before you can legally camp again. After a certain length of time (typically 14-76 days), you can legally return to the original campsite and camp again. Thus, by hopscotching around like this, you can live perpetually on public land without paying rent or asking anyone's permission.

How does anyone know you have spent more than 14 days in one location? They don't, unless you do something to tell them. BLM rangers, who are responsible for enforcing the 14-day rule, are usually spread thinner than soap film over a vast territory. You'll be lucky if you see one in a lifetime, let alone twice within a one-month period. Like most law enforcement, they don't usually go out looking for illegal campers. Instead, they wait for complaints to come to them. If you choose a discreet camping spot, leave no visible signs of your presence and don't give anyone any reason to complain, all this land is basically yours.

The only drawback to public land is that you usually need a vehicle to reach it, as it tends to be located away from urban areas and public transportation.

How do you identify public land? First, it is only in the Western States (as shown above). Secondly, there is a notable lack of No Trespassing signs and border-marking fences. If, for example, you are driving on a local highway in Nevada or the California desert, away from any town, and there is no fence along the road, the land is probably public. The best record of whether a certain area is public is a local land-use map, available from the BLM.

Whenever I am traveling in the West, I liberally interpret my right to camp. Once I encounter open, inhabited land that appears to be public, I simply camp there, preferably out of view of the road. I hold it the responsibility of the government or landowner to tell me I can't camp there. And if my presence is secret (primarily for safety reasons), they are never going to know I'm there, so they won't have the chance to tell me anything.

Why doesn't everyone live on public land? It's the same problem of real estate everywhere: location, location, location. Public land is fine if you want to get away from it all, but sooner or later you are going to want to interact with your fellow man (and the services he provides). If you want to do this on a regular basis without an hours-long commute, it will probably require sleeping in an urban area where public land is rare. That's when you have to get stealthy and marginally criminal of you want to sleep for free.


Links

Here are some general BLM camping regulations (in this case for the Mojave Desert near Barstow) as published on an official website:
Except for "special areas" with specific camping regulations, visitors are welcome to camp anywhere on BLM managed land.
Note that it costs $6 to camp in a campground but nothing just outside it.

And here are some exact local regulations, as published in the Federal Register. Although the exact regulations vary from place to place, the 14-day limit seems pretty universal. The only thing that varies is how far away you have to go when the 14 days are over and how long you have to wait before returning. Again, if you keep a low profile and never develop what appears to be a permanent encampment, the 14-day limit is pretty meaningless.

11 comments:

  1. Is there a good resource for locating BLM land without guessing (or at least limited guessing)? I have the Oregon Gazetteer (http://www.amazon.com/Oregon-Atlas-Gazetteer-Delorme/dp/0899333478) which shows BLM land on a good enough scale to find small patches, but thats just for Oregon, I dont really want to buy one for each state (that and I hear that not each state has BLM land marked).
    My dream would be something like the USGS site (free USGS topos for all the states, 7.5 and 15 minute maps, among others).

    Also, would you suggest a NFS interagency annual pass to camp on public lands (NFS, BLM, etc.) or is that a waste of money?

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  2. I, too, have been searching for an easy, accurate, inexpensive way to locate BLM land for camping. I would like to find some GPS mapping software that clearly shows BLM, Forest Service, and Park Service land depicted (for example) in different colors.

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  3. I'm not terribly concerned about exactly who controls what land. As long as there COULD be public land in the area, and the land in question is wild and unmarked, I treat it as public land. I am invisible anyway, so it doesn't make a lot of difference.

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  4. I plan on living in the Las Vegas area in the manner you have described except without a car. I will be using a nice road bike for transportation. I want to be able to keep my supplies(backpack,tent,clothes,sleeping bag) in the same spot without having to transport them too frequently. Is the land to the west of vegas near red rock(or a few miles to the east of redrock) suitable for free sleeping or is that area more populated? I assume the main problem is hiding the vehicle from the sight of prying eyes which is why one has to drive far out, but I won't have that problem. Is the south area just better in general?

    Also, which libraries are the best? I've been looking into using the summerlin library or the College of southern nevada's library.

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  5. Although the camping possibilities are endless in the Nevada desert, they are very POOR in Las Vegas itself. That's because the land is completely open and it's hard to find places to hide.

    The only suitable desert you seem to be able to get to by public transportation is in the vicinity of Railroad Pass (on the bus route from Henderson to Boulder City). The mountain bike might extend your range, but you're still going to have trouble hiding your stuff for long.

    Why would you want to live here anyway? The weather is find for camping (dry!) but the economy and society suck! In other areas of the country it's not as dry, but at least you have more nooks to hide in.

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  6. hey bro, great blog; learning a lot here.

    I'm wondering if there's any way to be living on public lands and have a dog too. Maybe get a husky and have him pull me around on a skateboard for half an hour commute to a small town or something. It'd be great to be on the road with a protective companion ya know.. Think there's any way to get away with it?

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  7. Hi Glenn.. I'm about to embark on a long homeless journey via modified bicycle don the oregon coast.. Looking for advice? I am going fairly prepared with a military sub zero sleeping bag, a "tube tarp" I modified with zippers for sleeping in the direct rain, a bivy for a total of 3 layers for cold temps during nighttime.. A hand held generator for my small devices... A small self contained disk butane burner(very tiny), plus small tools and various clothes..LOTS of socks! I read what you mentioned about "public lands", so I'm looking for public lands on the oregon coast WITHIN biking distance of a very small town(either one can be on the water, thats my ONLY stipulation)... I need a small town so I can get my food via foodstamps... Looking for any and all advice for either places you suggest or camping methods for my purposes... By the way, never mentioned small campfires on public lands for cooking? Id appreciate any advice you can give.. Thanks..

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  8. Hi Glenn.. I'm about to embark on a long homeless journey via modified bicycle don the oregon coast.. Looking for advice? I am going fairly prepared with a military sub zero sleeping bag, a "tube tarp" I modified with zippers for sleeping in the direct rain, a bivy for a total of 3 layers for cold temps during nighttime.. A hand held generator for my small devices... A small self contained disk butane burner(very tiny), plus small tools and various clothes..LOTS of socks! I read what you mentioned about "public lands", so I'm looking for public lands on the oregon coast WITHIN biking distance of a very small town(either one can be on the water, thats my ONLY stipulation)... I need a small town so I can get my food via foodstamps... Looking for any and all advice for either places you suggest or camping methods for my purposes... By the way, never mentioned small campfires on public lands for cooking? Id appreciate any advice you can give.. Thanks..

    ReplyDelete
  9. Hi Glenn.. I'm about to embark on a long homeless journey via modified bicycle don the oregon coast.. Looking for advice? I am going fairly prepared with a military sub zero sleeping bag, a "tube tarp" I modified with zippers for sleeping in the direct rain, a bivy for a total of 3 layers for cold temps during nighttime.. A hand held generator for my small devices... A small self contained disk butane burner(very tiny), plus small tools and various clothes..LOTS of socks! I read what you mentioned about "public lands", so I'm looking for public lands on the oregon coast WITHIN biking distance of a very small town(either one can be on the water, thats my ONLY stipulation)... I need a small town so I can get my food via foodstamps... Looking for any and all advice for either places you suggest or camping methods for my purposes... By the way, never mentioned small campfires on public lands for cooking? Id appreciate any advice you can give.. Thanks..

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  10. Hey there!

    I see this post is a few years old, but still reading about being borderline criminal, while living outdoors, brought a wide smile to my face. :D I've done that more often than not. Hahaha

    I do wonder how come only the West USA has BLM. Could it be possible that public lands in the East are simply more available for camping, generally?

    From my travels in western Europe in a similar manner, sleeping randomly outside in all sorts of places, and living without any money, I heartily agree that stealth and evasion are the way to go. Privacy is always a nice thing to have, regardless. Although many people treated me well on my way, it was always a better option to remain invisible, because the few that do mean harm - nobody wants to encounter, ever.

    Cheers and many adventures!
    http://www.AssafKoss.com

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