Embracing the Wild: A Storyteller Guide to Dispersed Camping Etiquette

Embracing the Wild: A Storyteller Guide to Dispersed Camping Etiquette

Solo female van life story time, with some dispersed camping etiquette guidelines :)

Original travel art painting of the strip in Las Vegas by Travel Artist Blogger MeganAroon
Sharing my original painting of the strip in Las Vegas, since I just left there!

I left Las Vegas, after a fun-filled weekend with family, and was ready to head off into the sunset for some new adventures!  The forecast was showing a slew of atmospheric rivers rolling in from the West Coast over the next two weeks, so I relentlessly scoured the weather apps for Arizona and New Mexico for prime camping spots that would have the least amount of rainfall. Something about me - I detest ANY kind of precipitation, it's the bane of my existence.  Maybe because I grew up in the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world, ie Tongass National Forest in Alaska, but I digress, haha, back to the story at hand!

I had finally arrived at my chosen spot south of Tucson for dispersed camping, far away from the crowded campgrounds and bustling cities, my preferred mode of camping/living. There was only supposed to be one day of rain the first week, and the roads all have dedicated bike paths, win-win!  The spot I found was tucked away off a paved road and easy to access, no chance of getting stuck in the sand.  Although after the first day of heavy rain, a poor soul, on a bike (deja-vu), came asking for help to extract his rig from the mud, luckily my spot was solid ground for the most part. I felt so bad turning him away, but as you all know, my van has been stuck before, as regaled in this post, and would have surely gotten stuck in the mud as well. The first couple of days I spent setting up camp, getting work time in after not having done any for several days, and just recovering from all the amazing food, games and company had in Vegas!  Then the rain came... 

It started late in the evening and was a relentless downpour for two days straight, with hail, lightning and sleet hammering my van for hours on end.  Not my idea of a good time :(  Then, around 7pm, after full darkness had descended upon the area, a vehicle pulled into my one rig camping spot.  My chosen spot to park up was at a dead end campsite with one fire ring; to turn my 20' van around it took a couple of 2 point turns.  Clearly only set up for one vehicle, possibly two that were caravanning together, but very obviously NOT a general parking spot for anyone to just pull up into. I watched nervously as the cars brights shined into the cab of my van, piercing through the steady rain, lighting up the surrounding darkness outside. I always have at least a curtain up separating the cab from the living space, and all my window coverings were in place, so I wasn't worried about anyone seeing in the van and knowing I'm a solo female traveler, just the worry of someone approaching my van in the dark - in a secluded camping spot; never a comforting feeling. I peered out the window, taking stock of the vehicle and hoping they would move along. Thankfully, they did, and turned around after a couple of tries. I watched as they moved up to a spot that was empty but close to the road - a spot I had bypassed because of it's proximity to the road, and noise. I couldn't see their vehicle any longer, but heard their voices carried on the wind, until it seemed as though they had set up camp and were cozied up for the night.  I myself, feeling safe now that they had found their own space, drifted off into a slumber with the constant drone of rain on the van roof lulling me to sleep...

dispersed camping etiquette respect your neighbors blog post by traveling artist camper meganaroon (1)
My dispersed camping site on Public BLM Land, I pulled all the way to the back for the only level spot available

Out of the haze of deep sleep I was harshly awakened by a car approaching and once again bright lights werre slicing through the darkness within the van. I quickly looked at the time to see it was 11pm. Instantly wide awake and on guard, I stealthily peeked around the cab curtain to see that it was the SAME vehicle that had drove through my space earlier.  This was definitely an oddity and a red flag - my hackles rose and I grabbed my bear mace and had other weapons near at hand. Thoughts racing through my mind as to why they would have come back, especially so late into the night, after they had already found a spot.  As a solo female van lifer these situations do happen and I'm prepared to deal with them, but would rather not, obviously!  I then realized my Starlink dish was where I had left it, on the ground near the rear of the van. I had taken it off the roof where I usually have it, due to high winds (yes, it has been blown off before, story for another day). I worried they may be there to take whatever is laying around, but in reality probably not, but my mind was racing all over the place trying to figure out why this same car came back.  I watched as they pulled in, front first, literally feet away from the cab of my van and parked. They turned off the engine, but had numerous lights still shining directly into my van, and the constant opening and closing of their car doors disturbing the silence of the night - as they were clearly setting up their car for camping right there.  I was stumped!  Who does this? 

I've had this happen on occasion before, and had to educate the "trespassers". Almost always it's people new to dispersed camping, who understand once dispersed camping etiquette on public lands is explained to them, they move along. I choose to do dispersed camping so I can be by myself, with nature; I prefer the peace and solitude it provides. I don't caravan, or travel with anyone else, and specifically select boondocking sites for this very reason. So, it took this duo almost a half an hour to set up camp, making a considerable amount of noise, with beaming lights shining into my home, before they tucked into their tiny space for the night. I thought at first it was two women, which was less scary for me for obvious reasons, but found out the next day it was a young couple, also not the most threatening, but you just never know.

Once I knew they were in for the night, I quietly and quickly jumped out of the van, mace in hand, under blanket of the dark rainy sky and grabbed my Starlink!  I wasn't chancing leaving it on the ground for easy pickens - I don't know these people from Jack, who knows why they chose to move from their spot into mine, I'm guessing the road noise - ? It took me a considerable amount of time to drift back to sleep, wary that strangers were parked so close to me, with every minor sound throughout the night nervously waking me. I have actually moved in the past when someone parks next to me like this, but due to the incessant rain and knowing that another vehicle had got stuck in nearby mud, I was super nervous to drive my van, in the dark, on a slightly flooded, potentially very muddy road. It was a restless night, so when I awoke in the morning, just as the sun was rising and periodically peeking through the drizzle of rain, I quickly surveyed the situation outside - understandably in a pretty grumpy mood!

dispersed camping etiquette respect your neighbors blog post by traveling artist camper meganaroon (1)
Uninvited guests...

I waited patiently for sounds of movement coming from the car to address the would-be trespassers, but finally around 9am I was perturbed enough at this point that I was determined to wake them and find out why they were parked practically on top of me!  I stepped outside, with mace once again in hand (out of their sight), and called out from behind the side of the van to get their attention. I positioned myself so that I could easily hop back into the van and close/lock up in mere seconds - my solo female van life motto - "safety first" always. It took several tries of loudly hollering "hello", before there was rustling and movement within the car. Shortly after, a young woman and man emerged from the back of the vehicle.  

Me: Why are you parked so close to me, in my camping site?
The Male: This is public BLM land, we can park anywhere we want.
Me: (really annoyed now, as the entitlement was evident coming from him, and I was operating on minimal sleep) Yes, this is public land, but these sites are all first come, first serve, and I'm clearly parked here. This is a one rig, maybe two from the same group, site, as can be evidenced by the size and only one fire ring.
The Male: Did you rent this space?? (in a VERY snarky tone)
Me: (now I'm realllllly annoyed, haha! Time to educate...) No, but dispersed camping sites are basically the same as a paid campground. Proper dispersed camping etiquette is that if a spot is already occupied, DO NOT park there. The whole point of dispersed camping/boondocking is to be alone, or with only people you know.  Don't ever park where someone else already is, this is an unwritten, but well understood rule of dispersed camping.  I don't know you, you don't know me, why would you choose to park right next to me? The noise and lights jarred me out of my sleep, and I don't know who you are - this could have been a bad situation for me...or you...
The Male: (silence)
The Female: We're so sorry, we didn't realize that's how it works, we just thought we could park anywhere! And we tried to be quiet, so sorry!
Me: (slightly mollified due to her sincerity, and lack of entitlement) Of course you can park anywhere on authorized BLM/forest service land, it's just not okay if someone else is already there. For future reference just always be aware and not park where anyone else is, this is proper dispersed camping etiquette. I'm guessing you are new to dispersed camping?
The Female: Yes we are!  We didn't know, again we are so sorry, we will move right away!
Me: Thank you :)  
dispersed camping etiquette respect your neighbors blog post by traveling artist camper meganaroon (1)
My camping site was only set up for one vehicle, or maybe two - of people who actually knew each other
Disaster averted, haha!  Luckily they, or rather SHE, was understanding and realized they were in the wrong, and oddly enough, moved right back to the other spot for several hours. I'm guessing it was too noisy up there during the night - or something, maybe they felt safer parking next to someone since they were new to dispersed camping? I didn't ask, but that's certainly no reason to move right next to a stranger camping in another spot, was really an odd choice. Hopefully moving forward they understand the dispersed camping rules a little better, and to respect the privacy of other campers.  Which leads me to the whole point of this blog post inspired by this experience - a little long-winded yes, haha, but I like to tell a story behind my informative posts versus just the deets, makes it a little more interesting I hope!  Below I've listed some of the rules to follow while dispersed camping on public lands.
 Choosing the Perfect Spot: Finding the ideal camping spot involves more than just a scenic view. It's crucial to respect the delicate balance of nature. I always make sure to set up camp at least 200 feet away from lakes and streams, allowing wildlife to roam freely without human interference. This not only safeguards their habitats but also ensures that the crystal-clear waters remain undisturbed. And to ONLY ever camp in designated sites that have clearly been occupied before, never blaze your own campsite, it's a big no-no and actually illegal in most instances.

Leave No Trace: The philosophy of "Leave No Trace" is the heartbeat of dispersed camping etiquette. Every step we take should leave nature as we found it, or even better. That means packing out everything we bring in – from food wrappers to toilet paper. Digging a small hole at least 6 to 8 inches deep for human waste, away from water sources, is a discreet yet responsible way to answer nature's call.

Quiet Hours and Respect for Wildlife: As the night settles in, the symphony of nature takes center stage. It's a magical experience, and one that should be preserved for everyone. Dispersed camping means no generators after a certain hour and keeping noise to a minimum. The goal is to blend into the surroundings, allowing both human and animal inhabitants to enjoy the peace that nature provides. I was greeted almost every night in this spot with the melodic sounds of coyotes, thrilled that they would come right up to the van under the cover of the dark and sing to me.  Not so thrilled for my cat Mikee however, so 100% supervision only if I let her outdoors with so many coyotes around. This is their domain, I'm just visiting and will always respect their home.

Campfire Considerations: A crackling campfire under a starlit sky is a quintessential part of the camping experience. However, it's vital to follow the principles of "low impact" fires. Using established fire rings when available, keeping the fire small, and using only wood I've bought or have legal rights to.  Many areas don't allow the collecting of any wood in an area, so be aware of the rules for the particular spot you are camping. Before leaving, ensure the fire is completely extinguished and the site shows no signs of your temporary blaze. Also be cognizant of fire bans, as almost all public lands in the summer have fire bans at some point.  Check with online sources to determine if your dispersed camping spot is under a fire ban before lighting up.

Respecting Boundaries: In dispersed camping, personal space is vast, but it's essential to respect the boundaries of others. Keeping a reasonable distance from neighboring campsites ensures that everyone can revel in the solitude that drew them to the boondocks in the first place. A friendly nod and a wave can go a long way in fostering a sense of community without intruding on the solitude of fellow campers. As told in my story above, it's just not okay to park within a few feet of a fellow camper in their dispersed site.

Navigating Off-Road Trails: Access to dispersed camping often involves navigating rugged, off-road trails. Respecting trail regulations, yielding to other vehicles, and treading lightly to minimize environmental impact are crucial components of responsible off-road etiquette. Knowing the capabilities of your vehicle and understanding the local regulations ensure a safe and sustainable journey through the wilderness.

Help Your Fellow Campers:  At some point we all need help from our fellow dispersed campers and should assist when we can.  But, only if we have the capabilities and feel safe with the situation. I had to rely upon the help of a fellow camper when I got stuck a month ago, and will be forever grateful for the kindness of strangers, and vow to pay it forward whenever I can.  Which is why I felt so bad not being able to assist the camper whose vehicle was stuck in the mud nearby.  But, I simply don't have the ability with my van to pull someone out, I would most likely end up stuck myself! This was a man on a bike by himself, which also made me nervous, so I profusely apologized, from inside the safety of my van. But, if I'm ever in a situation where I can help someone, and feel safe doing so, I absolutely will.

As the continuous rain and hail pelted my van throughout the day following the incident, I reflected on the privilege of embracing the peace and solitude afforded to me on public land as a solo female vanlifer. Dispersed camping, with its inherent freedom, comes with the responsibility of preserving the beauty that drew us to these remote corners of nature, and respecting our fellow campers. By adhering to the unspoken code of dispersed camping etiquette, we can ensure that future generations will have the opportunity to experience the untamed beauty of the boondocks, whether solo or with others.

beautiful van life dispersed camping location on BLM land near Tucszon Arizona travel blogger artist MeganAroon
My camping spot once the sun came out and the fellow campers found a new spot
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