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Thursday, May 14, 2015

Working around Forest Service campground closures

One of the major players in public lands recreation across the country are National Forests. Trails, recreation sites, and campgrounds, along with a network of roads that makes access to all of these things easier for RVers are a mainstay for many in the RVing community. But an alarm bell just rang in Colorado that should be of concern.

The San Juan National Forest is a huge chunk of public property, covering nearly two million acres – almost 3,000 square miles, touching on 10 different counties in the western part of the state. You may well be familiar with it – if you ever caught a ride on the Durango and Silverton Railroad, you've passed through a section of that forest. Needless to say, it's not a small player in terms of public forest lands.

Now comes the news that Forest Service officials have found themselves in that uncomfortable position of having to cut back services due to budget slashing. In 2006, the Service was handed $2.5 million to handle recreation needs in the forest. By 2018, officials say they'll have only about $1.7 million for the same job – despite increased demands by the public for recreation. If the cuts weren't bad enough in themselves, Forest Service folk say they're already behind the eight-ball to the tune of $3 million in deferred maintenance.

So what gets hacked? Count on campgrounds to shut down, trails to go bye-bye, and other services that the recreating public depends on to shrink down substantially. You may not be too concerned, figuring your recreational travels won't take you to the San Juan, but hang on, if it's happening there, you can be sure that cutbacks will come to a National Forest near you.

So what's to be done? We won't even try to touch on the politics of this matter, but rather, shoot for something practical. If you've already experienced camping in a National Forest Service Campground, chances are pretty good you've learned to get along without the standard fare of "RV resorts." You can handle doing without electricity flowing out of a plug-in, and fresh water under pressure from a tap. Let's take it a step farther: Do without the campground.

That's right, there's plenty of camping to be done in National Forests, even without setting tire in a developed campground. Dispersed camping, as it's called, simply puts you away from other RVers, and more in touch with the land.

Dispersed camping is defined by Uncle Sam as: "Camping anywhere in the National Forest OUTSIDE of a designated campground," and for the most part, that also means "At no charge," and "With few crowds." Of course, you'll be doing primitive camping--no water, terlits, or garbage dumpsters. Can you handle that?

The fact that it's free doesn't mean there are no strings attached. Here are some guidelines that will make Uncle's stewards of the forest a lot happier if you observe them:

Try and camp on bare soil to preserve grass and plant populations.

Stay a mile away from established campgrounds and 200 feet from streams.

While meadows are lovely, park your rig on the edge--rather than in the middle--so that others can appreciate a pristine scene.

ALWAYS observe fire restrictions and observe safe campfire practices. If you stay in an area where others have had fires before, use their fire rings if possible. Don't cut live (or even standing dead) trees or plants. Find deadwood or bring your own.

Pack out your trash. Be a good neighbor and dump your holding tanks ONLY at proper dump stations.

Check with Forest Service officials to make sure you don't boondock in a closed area.

While you may not be able to do much about budget cuts, at this point, camping in the National Forests is still firmly in place.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Interactive campground mapping system for boondockers makes the search easier

One of the more difficult things for boondocking enthusiasts is to pre-plan a trip with suitable overnight locations. While there is information on potential boondocking spots, far too often, it's spread out all over the Internet and it can take hours to ferret out the information you need.

We've found a single Internet site that may help alleviate some of the trouble. The web site, ultimatecampgrounds.com largely focuses on public lands, be they state, federal, county, or even municipal. Not only are there thousands of listings for the United States, you'll also find scads of entries for Canada, too.

When you initially bring up the home page, you'll "find yourself" centered in the U.S. You can zoom in, and "move the map" as you like to zoom down into whatever area you want to know more about. Zoom in closer and you'll soon pick out colored circles that correspond to broad geographic areas. Inside the circle you'll find a number, showing how many camp areas are in that region. Zoom in closer and colorful markers appear that designate camping spots in the area. These markers are coded to indicate management of the land.

For example, as of today, in an area running north from Bakersfield, California, up toward Fresno, then veering east, you'll find a region that contains 363 camping locations. Zoom in closer by clicking on that circled "363," and the number is broken into more circles. We clicked on a circle near Bakersfield and immediately got markers for several different site managers – county (both parks and a fairgrounds), U.S. Forest Service, and one operated by a utility company. Click on the marker and you'll get detailed information about location, costs, and "warnings." In our Bakersfield search, two of the campgrounds weren't suitable for RVs – glad to know that before we'd head out for those! In some cases, telephone contact information is included as well.

The ultimatecampgrounds.com site does not provide information on privately held RV parks. You will find information on state parks, as well as a host of other entities. If your trip planning takes you near any of the nation's big rivers, you can be sure you'll find info on Army Corps of Engineer parks.

So how is all this financed? The great thing about the map system is that it's free. If you want detailed data on POIs (points of interest) to enter into your GPS system, you can pay a $6.95 sign-up fee and download regularly updated POI listings. Those are updated on a monthly basis, and the subscription is good for a year. The site also graciously accepts donations from users who don't need the POI lists, but find the service useful.

In practice, we found that trip planning is better suited on a PC than on a portable device. While the system works on a device, it's a bit clumsier and can be a little frustrating to manipulate. For less than $4 you can download an app for your devices – we'll try it out and report back.

Like anybody else, we immediately started tracing out some of our more "familiar" routes to see if the site, "got it right." We found the system knew most of our favorite spots, and others we'd driven past before but weren't aware were there. We'll be field testing this system in the next few months and will report back with our field-findings.

Hear more from Russ and Tiña De Maris on their weekly podcasts on YourRVPodcast.com.