While I sort out what exactly I’m going to post here fiction-wise, I thought I might drop in another nomad update. Less about my travels, this one’s all about the sudden explosion in interest regarding our outdoor spaces. It got long. Apparently, I had far too much to say. But if you’re planning to squeeze in an adventure this summer or fall, give it a read please. My goal is to provide a bit of advice and ease the rising friction I’ve seen in the outdoor recreation spaces where I live and work.
This year, RV purchases went wild and prices soared astronomically. #VanLife is trending. People are working remote, thinking about their options. It’s the post-COVID normal. But if you’re living and working in the great outdoors like me, the surge of new, inexperienced campers has posed some unique challenges.
I’ve helped people out on forest roads who couldn’t change their own tire. I’ve given stranded motorists a jump. Kindly asked people sleeping in historic structures to find a new spot and chased others out of federal facilities where they had no business.
Oh, and cleaned up excrement from public spaces. Because that’s a thing. So I figure people need to be told what to do…
My intention here isn’t to gripe but to educate. With so many newcomers, many basic considerations full-time RVers and nomads take for granted are often ignored. It isn’t usually out of malice, people just don’t know. They didn’t know embarking on a trip into the Great Outdoors involved anything more than a desire for adventure.
There are, however, a number of unspoken rules one needs to follow out of simple respect and to pursue their dream safely.
Ease into Exploring
Don’t make a week-long backpacking excursion your introduction to the outdoors. There might be an exception if you have an experienced and capable guide. With all the newcomers though, I’ve seen some scary situations. Like in Glacier last year, coming down from Sperry Chalet, I passed a couple of hikers who stopped me to asked if they were “close.”
“Close to what?” I asked.
They didn’t have an answer.
Behind me was another 18 miles of trail before you hit a major road along with at least four other nearby intersections leading off to different lakes, peaks, and other beautiful places, many six plus miles distant (double that for the return trip). The hikers had on street clothes, sandals, carried no water, no map, and it was about five o’clock in the evening.
See any problems there? I’m pretty sure the detailed description of what lay ahead dissuaded them from going further.
There are far too many stories about lost hikers this season but also about less than desirable wildlife encounters. Wildlife is “wild”. They aren’t dying to be on your Instagram. They don’t want you close to them. All they want is to be left alone and you’re the one who barged into their yard, uninvited. Always, always, maintain an awareness of your surroundings and keep your distance from wild animals.
(Speaking of which, I will bear spray your unleashed dog if it charges me aggressively and you appear to have zero control over it. Follow all rules for your pet. They’re there for public and wildlife safety.)
Know Your Location
Have a map. Always.
That said, start small. If you’re in a National Park or other big open wild space, hike the front trails and well-traveled main attractions first. For longer hikes, stop at the ranger’s stations for trail condition information (you might even be required to register to use backcountry trails). Be prepared for any and all situations.
Our federal park systems has a series of designations. National Parks are the most visitor friendly, as they often have areas designed to handle large crowds. They do, however, at times have extensive backcountry trails not for novices. This is where the map comes in handy so you don’t wander onto one of those inadvertently.
Did I mention you need to have a map?
National Forests are often old or active logging areas. In many cases, four wheel drive is advisable as the roads are often unpaved and unmaintained. MVUM (Motor Vehicle Use Maps) are available to navigate these spaces. Yes, you can power over some gnarly stuff in a 2WD passenger vehicle (been there, done that) but it isn’t wise. Make sure you have all the essentials before embarking on your trip – food, water, extra fuel, a good spare tire, a map.
(In some cases, I’d even recommend carrying a saw. Narrow roads without alternate routes might cause you some serious trouble if you find your way blocked by a fallen tree.)
Areas designated as Wilderness are specifically set aside to be natural locations, untouched by human development. Here you can find old-growth forests, hidden lakes and rivers, and stunning vistas. Very often though, you won’t find well-marked trails. These are Remote. No cell service. No vehicular roads. (Which means no easy access for Search and Rescue Teams.) Get into trouble there and plan on being holed-up for days at a time. If you don’t know the list of essentials to explore these spaces, wait until you do.
Refuges are generally set aside for animals and/or endangered populations. Their recreational use policies always vary and can have very specific regulations. Hunting, hiking, viewing wildlife – always check with the local authorities/rangers as to what is allowed.
Know How to Handle Your RV.
I write this as I’m stuck in my campground because out on Highway 101, somebody put their travel trailer in the ditch, blocking one lane. Another truck was involved, so I can’t say who is at fault. But too often I see people who obviously have little experience behind the wheel of an unwieldy motorhome or RV.
They have trouble maintaining their lane. They pull into parking lots they have no chance of getting out of, or turn down inadvisable roads. They have unbalanced loads threatening to flip the whole damn mess, truck and all, as they barrel down the highway at 75 mph.
Driving a rig that size isn’t simply about knowing how it handles. Know the weight. Know the height. Know the proper tire pressure. Know it has all been properly maintained.
You also need to know your route. You need to anticipate any hazards. Keep alert. Look up – way up. Watch for and read those warning signs you’d normally ignore meant for semi-trucks. Experience behind the wheel is key, and you’ve got to start somewhere, true. But what often gets missed is the importance of simply focusing on the road and proper planning.
Choose Alternate Campsites Wisely.
This year with the crush of campers, sites are at a premium. Difficult to find, they need to be booked well in advance and the same may be true for next year as all the new RVers try to justify their purchase. In some cases, people have tried to turn temporary solutions into more permanent ones. This is never a good idea.
There are a couple guys back on the forest roads where I’m currently located who’ve been there since I got here three months ago. There’s a fine line between nomad living, vanlife, full-time RVing, and homelessness. Know that line. Also, know that even remote National Forest roads only allow dispersed camping for two weeks max. The rangers often have patience and compassion, but living there is not a permanent solution.
Highway pull outs are not RV campsites. Neither are pull outs on one-lane forest roads. (Those are actually for vehicles to utilize so they can safely pass each other.) Fires don’t belong there. Trash doesn’t belong there. Neither does poop.
(Yep, poop. As promised, more on that later…)
I understand that sometimes travelers just need a place to rest. I spent the night once in a pull-out intended for installing tire chains. We were on a two-thousand mile long-haul during the pandemic which we had to complete in one weekend (again, thanks pandemic). We were trying to get from a locked-down campground to a new location and needed a spot to sleep. The pull-out was large enough for two rows of big rigs, so I wasn’t blocking any traffic. Plus, we were outside the snowy season – nobody would be using the area for it’s intended purpose. We stayed the night and left first thing in the morning.
I overnighted in a Wal-Mart parking lot once too. We asked the manager first, bought some groceries, and settled in for maybe some of the worst sleep I’ve ever gotten in our RV. I don’t recommend it. But if you do use a business parking lot, ask for permission first. Don’t put out all your slides, your awning, your lawn chairs. Don’t block traffic. Got a big Class A motorhome like ours? Don’t drop the jacks. Depending on the parking surface, you could damage their lot. Not cool.
And absolutely follow the next rule…
Properly Dispose of Your Poop.
If you’re in an RV and filling up a black tank, you must empty the contents into a properly designated sewer hook-up, period. You don’t spew it on the ground. You don’t try to run your hose into a vault toilet. You need to find an RV dump station, hook up your hose, and empty there.
Same goes for gray water.
Some campers will find this controversial. Gray water is the kitchen sink and shower water. It isn’t full of human waste and many people have no problem dumping it on the ground. In fact, in some states and on some federal lands it is even legal to do so. However, in all cases, you have to be careful about what goes into that tank to keep it “gray” water. Even where open disposal of gray water is sanctioned, they often require you to have screened out food particles and used only biodegradable chemicals – no harsh soaps and detergents which can damage plants or harm animals.
If you’re dispersed camping (which means camping in a remote area in an unmarked, primitive campsite) and don’t have an RV with tanks, then you have two options: You can pack your poop out or bury it. (Depending on the local regulations – some wilderness areas require you to always pack it out…)
Gross? Sure. But the rules are there for a reason. I can’t begin to tell you how much toilet paper I see scattered about pristine wilderness or even near busy parking lots. The argument “it will degrade” doesn’t work if people are tossing the stuff in the same bushes multiple times per day. And it simply doesn’t degrade that fast.
Take a shovel, make one from a stiff branch, and bury the waste and the biodegradeable paper. Don’t toss wipes into the woods or into streams. Those get packed out, no exception. (Those should be outlawed IMO. Nothing but a disaster clogging up sewers, water treatment facilities, and littering woodlands.)
If there is a toilet nearby, guess what? Use it. Don’t’ pee behind it. Don’t’ poop on the trail near it. If you can’t stomach using an outdoor toilet, you might want to reconsider the whole back-to-nature thing.
What About Fido Wido’s Wittle Poopsies?
Yes, your dog is a furry animal. Many furry animals also poop in the woods. But your dog’s poop isn’t a natural part of that ecosystem. Best practice (and by the law in many places) is to bag it and carry it back out.
But whatever you do DON’T PUT IT IN A BAG AND LEAVE THE DAMN POOP-FILLED BAG ON THE TRAIL.
This has to be my number one pet (har har) peeve. I see it constantly. I can’t even begin to explain why somebody would think this is a good idea. You’ve not only prevented the poo from degrading naturally, you’ve also littered, no matter how “biodegradeable” the bag says it is.
Wait, Isn’t It Okay to Pee on the Roadside?
Sorry so much of this is about human waste. It’s possibly the most unpleasant weapon in the inexperienced camper’s arsenal. And as a campground host and maintenance crew, I have stories. Too many stories…
True, often travelers (self included) have found themselves on a roadtrip in the middle of nowhere and had to clamber through the ditch to the trees to do some business. Frankly, that’s preferable to sealing it inside a plastic bottle and letting in ferment in the sun.
But those instances are much different than say the #VanLifer who has made a highway pull out their home and is repeatedly peeing on the curb (and worse.) We have at least one parking / pull-out area along the coast near a popular feature that reeks of urine some days. People overnight there constantly, and they can’t be bothered to drive the 1/4 mile to the 24-7 bathrooms. Instead, they pop open the door, urinate, and let it funkify.
Be Considerate of Your Neighbor’s Serenity
Tents might as well not be there when it comes to blocking noise. The sides of a van aren’t much better and RVs may look monstrously huge, but they’ve only got thin layers of fiberglass and foam between you and the outside world. Any kind of noise goes right through them.
Keep your music low. Don’t run generators excessively. Turn the engine off. Resist the urge to crank up the home theater. If you do any of those things, do them during respectable hours. Many campgrounds have quiet times where noise should be kept to an absolute minimum, usually from about 10 pm to 8 am. It’s good practice to follow those guidelines even, no especially, in more remote areas. People are outdoors to experience nature, not your personal soundtrack and Netflix playlist.
Be EXTREMELY Careful With Fire
The West is an absolute oven this summer and will be for the foreseeable future. Extreme drought is drying up major rivers like the Colorado, and reservoirs such as Lake Mead. That lake, which powers Hoover Dam, is one hundred and forty feet below it’s “full” mark. The story is the same all across the American West.
Those rivers and reservoirs are fed by precipitation in the mountains and forests of which there has been far too little in the past couple of decades. Parched landscape like that is just waiting for a spark. Lightning will naturally ignite fires in those places. But we don’t need to be helping Mother Nature out.
I often skip traditional wood fires when I’m camping. I carry a backpacking stove for cooking and extra layers for warmth. Sacrilege to some campers, I know. The world though is changing and we need to adapt with it and try to leave as much as we can for future generations to enjoy.
If you must build a fire, first make sure it is allowed and know the regional fire danger level. In some cases, the county might issue warnings, and on federal land you’ll need to contact a ranger’s station or visitor’s center (or keep an eye out for warning signs posted near trails and roadways.)
Never start a fire in less than ideal conditions. This means having the go-ahead from local land management services, no drought conditions, and little to no wind. Make sure you have a well-defined fire ring and plenty of open ground cleared out around the pit before igniting.
To put it out, douse it with water. In a pinch, you can mix in sand and dirt until the coals have cooled. Don’t dig and bury it as you might inadvertently transfer burning embers to the root line where, yes, you can still start a fire. Make sure it is dead cold, like you’d be willing to shove your had in there cold, before leaving it untended.
Several times, I’ve watched wind stoke an absent camper’s fire back to life and had to put it out. That was in 2020. 10.3 million acres burned that year, the most ever in a fire season.
Go Forth And Explore!
If I haven’t scared you away, please do get out and explore the wilds. Make those memories. Take those selfies (but, for the love of God, be aware of where you’re standing…). You can wing it, sure, and while that maybe matches the spirit of your journey, know that this year you’re stepping into an unprecedentedly challenging situation. The entire nation has emerged from lockdown, desperate to be somewhere else. Take a few minutes to sort out the details, make a solid plan, and know exactly what you’re getting into before you go.