The Mobile Cabin

How to find the ultimate backcountry campsites for your rolling home office

Jul 26, 2016
Outside Magazine

The blueprint for making life on the road sustainable is finding isolated, off-grid, wilderness parking spots.    Photo: JJAG Media

To my mind, RV parks are like prison-yard time: better than being locked indoors, but not something you do voluntarily. Even campgrounds, with the lights, traffic, and babble of campers, are a poor substitute for true woods. Which is to say, the blueprint for making life on the road sustainable, at least for Jen and I, is finding isolated, off-grid, wilderness parking spots. That might sound easy, but when you’re hauling around the equivalent of a 4,600-pound missile silo with a 50-foot turning radius, motoring down any old dirt road is as likely to end in a beaching (think: dying whale, not swim trunks) as it is the ultimate campsite.

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So we’ve been working on a system to unearth sweet spots before we go. It mostly involves a a few basic, readily available tools that we’ve been using for years to plan activities like riding and hunting, plus some web research. It hasn’t been perfect every time—connectivity seems to still be the biggest hurdle—but we’ve managed to link up a series of excellent, secluded spots, including what might just be my favorite desert refuge anywhere. (More on that in a second.)

First thing is to know where you can camp. National Forest, which totals nearly 300,000 square miles, and BLM lands are the best options as you are largely permitted to post up just about anywhere, anytime, provided you don’t stay longer than 14 days. There are stricter limits in certain places and other regulations. But it’s all easy stuff: camp at least a quarter mile from roads and water sources; adhere to fire provisions; don’t create infrastructure like tire tracks and fire pits; don’t shoot gun; etc. In short, treat the land with respect.

  Photo: JJAG Media

Another good alternative are state trusts lands, though these are a little more involved as regulations vary from state to state. For instance, in Arizona, where we often winter, you can only camp two weeks out of a calendar year on all of these parcels and you must apply for an advance permit, while in New Mexico, there’s no limit on duration, so long as you acquire prior approval. In all cases, check before you go and defer to any field postings.

Once we’ve ID’d a region or area we want to camp, we turn to the computer. Using Garmin BaseCamp, we scroll around the vicinity to see what lands are public. This software is a bit finicky, but it’s useful because it clearly delineates boundaries and land ownership. It also allows you to toggle between map view, which shows property boundaries and roads with route numbers, and Google Earth, which lets you look at topography and features. This is super useful because it means you can find sites tucked amidst boulders or on a bluff overlooking the beach just by flipping between views. And, once you’ve discovered a site, you can quickly scroll in and out to see if maybe there’s a better spot up the road, tucked into a trough, or perched on a hidden mesa, all of which you would might overlook while scouting in the field.

Traveling with a trailer, even a lifted one like Artemis, limits us from getting too deep or wild, meaning we’re constrained to roads. And Google Earth, especially with its new, higher-res imagery, comes in handy here, too, as it’s possible to bore down into the tightest view and largely—though not perfectly—get a sense of the quality of the roads. You can generally see if they are smoothed out and wide (easy!), faint two tracks (use caution), or winding or rocky (no go!). In a few cases, we’ve even spied other trailers and RVs in the satellites, which is the surest sign we’ll be good. So far, our judgment based on the computer recon has matched up with field conditions every time.

Once we’ve settled on a site or two, we drop pins in Garmin BaseCamp, upload the file to our GPS, a Garmin eTrex 35T, and head for the hills. Another tool we’ve found useful is the Hunt by OnXMaps series, which give us access to all property boundaries in the field. Not surprisingly, we’ve found a few discrepancies between where we thought a public boundary lies on Google Earth and in the field. When in doubt, the best bet is to err on the conservative side.

  Photo: JJAG Media

The toughest thing to date has been connectivity. Campsites without service mean we’ll be forced to drive somewhere at least occasionally to pick up email and send files, so as much as possible we look for cell service when choosing where to stay. A number of websites and apps make this easier, the best of which seems to be Open Signal. Plug in any location, and the site will show you details of the nearest towers. You can toggle between a coverage map that shows where signals are likely to be weak and strong and a tower map that shows tower details by carrier and technology generation (2G, 3G, 4G, etc.). Open Signal’s app allows in-the-field positioning of antennas for best reception, as well. None of this is exact, so until you’re in the woods, it’s difficult to know whether we’ll have to hike to the top of the hill for work. But a short hike is a small price to pay.

So far, we’ve found a dozen excellent sites with this method. Perhaps the best was a spot outside of Page, Utah. Several years ago, Jen and I covered a place called Amangiri, a mod, spare resort in what might as well be a private national park given its location between four national parks and recreation areas. We’ve always wanted to return, but a night costs more than our mortgage. With a bit of digging, however, we dropped a pin on a site not far from Aman and set up our own luxury resort for a week. There was dirt road for mixed-terrain road bikes all the way to the Grand Canyon, a glorious outcrop of slick rock that doubled as a mountain bike playground, and a hike to a hanging canyon that sheltered an oasis. Working there under Artemis’ awning was perhaps the most sublime office space I’ve ever been lucky enough to occupy.

I say perhaps only because we’ve posted up at a half dozen sites since then that were just as gobsmacking. With the Airstream and some GPS research, the backcountry of the West is fast becoming one giant, inspiring mobile office.

Filed To: Modern Nomad, Gear

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