04 Jul Illegal Camping

This holiday week, every campsite in California is taken. As I drove up the coasts from L.A. entering the far-west leg of my From Animal House to Our House book tour, I tried five state campgrounds and had no luck. So I went into the back country, found a one-lane blacktop, followed it until it was dirt, then pulled off at the edge of a cliff and thought, Yes, this is more like it. Later, a car pulled up to my cliffside site and I hopped out to see who my visitor was. He owned the land and said I was parked illegally.

My father took our family camping every summer. We piled everything on top of our station wagon, then we toured the country. We three boys slept in a canvas tent. The tart smell of canvas brings me fond memories still. I have since done some back-coountry backpack camping, but prefer car camping because I want the mobility and like covering a lot of ground. Although I am currently traveling in a camper van (a miniature RV), I don’t need RV hookups. I can park anywhere and, on this trip, mostly I’ve been parking in Walmart lots and truck stops.

The problem with campgrounds is that they can get so crowded and noisy, it’s like visiting a popular beach at the height of summer: dogs, children, music, nosy neighbors, etc. Which is why I like camping in the fall. RV campgrounds are worse: often they are simply lanes of dirt roads packed with RVs. Some RVers park in these places for the entire summer.The idea is that they have removed themselves to a lovely locale — which is not the place they’re parked but the places they can walk to from the packed parking lot.

Resort towns ban overnight parking for all the obvious reasons. Otherwise, every street would be clogged with illegal campers, littering, cooking on the sidewalks, peeing in the bushes, blocking driveways. The key to illegal camping, of course, is to do it discreetly. That means not only keeping a low profile but also leaving no evidence of your visit and making no impact on the landscape. Because my little rig is totally self-contained, I don’t even pee in the grass.

For the most successful illegal camping, the most important things to remember are that you want to be 1) remote, 2) unseen, and 3) alone.

1) Going remote means you get away from people who might be looking for mischief. Mischief makers include teenagers on joy rides who may be racing over dirt roads. Drunken hunters. And, yes, roaming serial killers. The closer you get to cities and resort ares, the more likely you are to find any of these mischief makers. And most definitely do not park near resort areas.

You may think that going remote means you make yourself more vulnerable. But consider: the more remote you are, the less likely you will meet others. And, of those you meet, the chances that any of them will even find you, much less wish you harm, are very, very small.

2) Going unseen means that you get away from dwellings, park behind a copse of trees, away from major roads. I like parking up high, rather than low, so I always go up a mountain, using county roads, usually access roads that take me to power lines or radio towers. National forests are coursed with logging roads and fire roads that can take you to some amazing places. It helps to have a vehicle with high undercarriage clearance. And you want to be mindful of muddy roads because getting stuck in remote areas is most inconvenient. But, generally, I’m game for trying dirt roads, even though I don’t have a four-wheel drive. If the road gets too rough, I turn around.

3) Going alone means that you do NOT seek out like-minded illegal campers. You do not park near anybody else anywhere for any reason. If you get called out for tresspassing, you want to be able to say, “Oh, sorry, I got lost.” Which may be true.

I do not recommend trespassing. If the road is posted as private, I turn around. I’m looking for public roads (county and state roads) — there are plenty of those. No need to piss somebody off by sneaking into their property. In the case of my recent trespassing, I did not see any postings. I told the land owner that I had been shut out of every campground I could find and all I wanted was a place to park. I would make no impact and leave nothing behind. He made me promise not to build a fire (Californians are rightfully fearful of fires) and then gave me permission to park.

If you are particularly desperate to find a safe parking place, some RVers recommend stopping at a farm house and asking permission to park in a field — you can even offer to pay, say, ten bucks for the privilege. Really, it’s better than staying in a private campground. The problem with private campgrounds is that they are usually poorly situated in marginally attractive land and they are expensive: prices start at $30 a night. County camprounds are not much better.

State campgrounds take reservations but many national park campgrounds do not. At the height of the season, campgrounds that take no reservations usually fill up by noon. Obviously, if you do not have a self-contained rig (i.e, one with a toilet), your choices for alternative parking/camping are limited. You can buy a portable (chemical) potty that can fit in the trunk of your car and, thus, greatly increase your mobility.

On this trip, I’ve been allowed to park in some cool places — like on the grounds of mansions and historic properties. However, I anticipate doing more illegal camping because it’s summer and crowded out there, and so I’ll be forced to seek out a hiding place on a remote hill maybe near a town like yours.