Using technology and instincts to find amazing wild camping locations!
So, I promised I would write about how we found our awesome wild camping location along Magic Reservoir in Idaho a few weeks ago.
There are tons of methods for finding boondocking locations, and finding a great location really comes down to how much time and effort you’re willing to put into the search.
There are several styles of boondocking out there for RVers, including ‘black top’ boondocking at retail parking lots and rest areas and dry camping in designated campsites. This post in particular is about a particular style of boondocking we like to call ‘wild camping’ – dispersed camping on public lands.
Many BLM (Bureau of Land Management) and National Forest lands allow camping for up to 14 days at a time.
And there are tons of awesome resources from information on known boondocking sites (what we call ‘the low hanging fruit’), so we’re not going to try to replicate it. Instead, here’s some of our favorites if you’d like to learn more:
- Campendium – a fantastic curated lists of camping locations with end user reviews, both for pay and free boondocking sites.
- Freecampsites.Net – a crowdsourced website listing free or cheap places to camp, run by some fellow full timers
- Days End Directory – Available the Escapee’s members, this is a highly regarded directory to boondocking locations. (Note, Escapee’s is running a special until the end of October to join for just $29.95, and then the Days End Directory is an additional $10.)
- Back To Boondocking Basics – 8 Steps To Get You Into The Wild – Nina & Paul of WheelingIt’s guide to boondocking – from how they find their spots to managing water and electricity.
- OurOdyssey’s Dispersed Camping Post – Former full time RVers (and now boat nomads) Sean & Louise posted a very comprehensive article about finding boondocking locations, and lists a lot of the rules and exceptions. Well worth a read and bookmarking.
On our last boondocking adventure however, we used a slightly different method than discussed in the above posts. Sometimes you just want to go somewhere not well known or overshared on social media.
We don’t plan too far in advance in our routing and don’t like spending tons of time on research to find our next stopping point. Routing by serendipity works rather well for us, but sometimes we need to supplement a bit of mobile technology to aide the process.
Here’s how we found Magic Reservoir:
Step 1: Start with US Public Lands
We wrote an app earlier this year called US Public Lands (available for iOS and Android) that displays the national land boundaries on mobile devices. One of its many uses is helping find where BLM (Bureau of Land Management) and USFS (US Forest Service) land is, to help in furthering your research for boondocking locations. (Yup, we write apps to solve needs we find in our travels!)
Since we were in Arco, ID and desiring a boondocking location as our next stop – we looked ahead on our potential routing about 100-150 miles west, our comfortable distance for a day’s drive.
We set US Public Land’s to display only BLM and USFS land using the ‘Settings’ pull down, as those are the agencies who generally allow camping for up to 14 days.
Since we love water views, we looked for land along water masses. Magic Reservoir stood out – perfectly along our route and not too far off major roads. And there were patches of BLM land all around it.
That became our primary target to research further.
Step 2: Google it!
Knowing that many others before us have enjoyed our public lands, we did a web search for ‘Magic Reservoir’ and the words ‘Boondocking’ and ‘Camping’ to see what came up. Of course, if you do that now our own posts about the experience will come up too.
The first site we found was of course the BLM’s website on Magic Reservoir. And the only information we could gather on their website was that there were 9 semi-developed camping locations, and dispersed camping was indeed allowed. Most other websites we found pretty much just referenced the same information.
We checked FreeCampsites.net and the Days End Directory, and there were no entries to be found. We also checked in with the AllStays app, and discovered there was at least one commercial campground in the area, and one BLM campground. That gave us confidence that road were likely RV friendly, and there were RV park options if we didn’t succeed in reaching a boondocking location.
Step 3: Satellite Maps!
Our next step would be utilizing satellite maps to discover just where these camping locations might be. US Public Lands allows us to display the device’s satellite maps underneath the land boundary maps, which aids in the process. We also switched to Google’s satellite maps (since we use iPhones, the underlaying maps in US Public Lands is Apple Maps), which were taken at different times of the year. This increased the amount of the information we could gather.
We scouted around looking for signs of campers present when the satellite image was taken. And voila.. RVs parked along the reservoir.
This confirmed both the location of a possible campsites, and that the road to that location – at least at one time – was accessible to larger RVs.
Comparing two different satellite maps also showed us that the reservoir levels vary quite a bit and that some of the land masses might be underwater.
Satellite maps are awesome tools in virtually scouting our camping locations!
And of course, we also brought up the location in our app Coverage? to know what our connectivity would be like for Verizon & AT&T. It would be marginal, which was fine by us.
Step 4: Route to It!
We then used Google Maps and Apple Maps to find potential routes to the locations by placing a pin at the location of where RVs were in the satellite images. Both maps gave us some.. umm.. interesting.. and conflicted routing. So we knew not to trust the specific directions as we got closer.
But it at least got us to the main road to the nearest town of West Magic. Worst case, we’d be able to inquire with locals for tips on where to head.
We also used Google Street View to try to scope out some of the roads and make sure there were decent odds they’d be passable for a motorhome.
One route in particular by Google had us navigating a steep and twisty road down into the reservoir, then over the dam. Once our crew surveyed the land by foot on one of our evening walks, we nicknamed it ‘Eeep Road’ (for the sound we’d all be making had we driven it) and were mighty glad we didn’t follow directions blindly.
Step 5: Using Instincts!
With enough knowledge that RVs had gone before us, and a general target for the direction we needed to head – we left the rest to serendipity and using our instincts.
As we had our boondocking virgin friends following behind us, we were even more cautious to make sure they had a positive experience.
We caravanned out together, used the AllStays app to target a nearby rest stop on the way to use as a convergence point and final navigation pow-wow before adventuring off the beaten path.
Once we turned down the road towards West Magic, there was a BLM information sign that gave us the locations of semi developed camp areas along the reservoir. Maybe one day this sort of information will make it to their website, but it seems it’s still done the old fashioned way. You just have to show up.
Not knowing which location we’d end up at due to accessibility, we snapped a picture of the sign for later reference.
The 10 mile road into West Magic was narrow, but paved and pretty easy going. We had a couple of recreation area names now, and we kept our eyes out for signs to any of them.
Just before pulling into West Magic, we saw a sign for Myrtle Point, one of the potentials. The direction seemed to align with where we had seen RVs parked on the satellite maps. We held our breaths and turned down the narrow dirt road that looked pretty well traveled and maintained.
At several points the road had choices to make – with no further signs. And certainly navigation apps were useless at this point. We did spot a vault toilet atop a peak, a sure tell sign of a semi-developed campground. We’d stop before each possible turn and look ahead, and choose the road that looked like it was heading towards that toilet… and that looked the most passable.
And then there we were, parked near a boat ramp and confirmation that the Magic Reservoir was very very low. In fact, the semi-developed camp area with the toilet that was once water front, was now quite isolated. And a peninsula that was once underwater was clearly more recently used for dispersed camping due to the presence of campfire rings.
We parked our motorhomes, and walked around to decide our ideal landing location. We had the place to ourselves, and found a spot that made for several days of absolute isolated bliss.
Hooray for US Public Lands, hooray for satellite maps, and hooray for ditching technology and trusting instincts!
Finding these sorts of locations does take a bit of effort including research in advance that may not be easy to come by, and driving a bit off your course and possibly down non-passable roads. Not always ideal for an overnight stop, but when seeking somewhere to enjoy for a few days – it can be well worth the while for awesome free wild camping!