The 10 Commandments for Camping on Public Land

by | Jan 7, 2022 | Boondocking | 0 comments

Public land doesn’t belong exclusively to you. It’s not yours to treat or mistreat as you wish. It’s shared.

Being a good camper boils down to essentially one thing: respect. Respect for your fellow humans, respect for nature, and respect for the rules.

Be the camper you want others to be. Leave your campsite in the condition you would want it to be when you arrive. Leave it better.

Don’t be the bad neighbor when camped near others. Don’t be the one that makes them want to call the rangers.

So, with that as the foundation, here are the 10 Commandments for Camping on Public Land—or anywhere else, for that matter.

Thou shalt obey all local laws

Some people seem to think, “I’m out in the boonies. Woo-hoo, freedom! I can do whatever I want!” It doesn’t work that way. Camping on federally administered public land does not exempt you from state or local laws and ordinances. Trespassing, vandalism, destruction of property, theft, harassment, assault, criminal behavior, and all that—still illegal. And you want to be aware of local laws regarding firearms and controlled substances. In addition to local laws, there are often Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management regulations that are specific to an area and/or a season. For example, camping time limits, whether you can camp at trailheads, whether pets are allowed, the use of bear boxes, fire bans, firework bans, rules regarding the gathering or bringing in of firewood, minimum distances campsites must be from water, closures for environmental restoration or wildlife breeding seasons, and so on. It’s a good idea to check in with local ranger stations to see if there are any unique rules you need to be aware of.

Thou shalt use only existing campsites and trails

Public land administrators want to allow recreational use while still protecting natural resources. That means we should not go creating new campsites or trails. Use only those that are already established, usually indicated by tire tracks and a fire ring. Don’t create shortcuts in roads or foot trails. It kills plant life and creates paths for erosion. Failure to follow these rules will lead to land closures and fewer places to camp.

Thou shalt not be noisy

It’s not only a matter of courtesy, there are regulations, the violation of which can get you fined or expelled. For example, the Code of Federal Regulation covering the Forest Service states the following in Title 36, §261.4:

The following are prohibited:

(d) Causing public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm by making unreasonably loud noise;

The BLM equivalent, in Title 43, §8365.1-4, states:

    1. No person shall cause a public disturbance or create a risk to other persons on public lands by engaging in activities which include, but are not limited to, the following:
      (1) Making unreasonable noise;

What constitutes unreasonable noise? What sort of racket would you not want to hear from someone else’s campsite? What would make you complain? Yelling and screaming? Constantly barking dogs? Loud music? Noisy generators in the middle of the night? Pointlessly blipping the throttles of loud vehicles? Gunfire and explosives? Probably all of that, and more.

Thou shalt be respectful of other people’s camps

I doubt even the most gregarious, social, extroverted people want strangers encroaching on their space. Camp as far apart as practical. Keep your distance unless you’re with a group. Don’t cut through other people’s camps, don’t shine your headlights into other campsites, and don’t let your pets wander.

Thou shalt follow human waste rules

There are not many things worse than pulling into a campsite and discovering the remains of human waste. Sometimes it’s used toilet paper stuck in the bushes. Sometimes it’s a pile of feces with some rocks tossed on top. And sometimes someone must have thought, “Hey, this is the middle of nowhere, and I’m never coming back, so I’ll just dump my bucket/black tank here.” These are some of the reasons dispersed camping areas get closed.

Always come prepared to pack out your poo. Make it your first choice.

That said, there’s a proper, hygienic, officially approved (with occasional exceptions) way to bury poo. First, stay away from water—springs, streams, rivers, wetlands, ponds, lakes, oceans. Stay away from temporarily dry water courses. Move sufficiently far enough from campsites and trails that others won’t accidentally stumble across your former toilet. Dig a “cat hole” six to eight inches deep. Any shallower and critters will get into it, any deeper and it might never decompose. Deposit your waste but take your toilet paper with you to either burn or carry out. Cover the hole. Your next hole should be away from the previous one.

Thou shalt not leave trash behind

The wilds are not your dump. Pack it in, pack it out. If you have room to bring in the things that end up as trash, you have room to take it all away. Litter doesn’t magically disappear, even when you leave it in a fire ring. Pick up all your micro-trash: bottle caps, the corners you tear off packets, twist ties, cigarette butts… And keep your trash bag out of reach of critters or you’ll be picking it all up again. You might be surprised how easily crows and chipmunks can tear into your double-tough trash bags.

Thou shalt practice proper food and water disposal

Some people think it’s no problem leaving food scraps on the ground. Hey, it’s natural, organic and biodegradable, right? And critters will eat it. No. It’s what the Burning Man folks call MOOP: Matter Out of Place. It’s litter. Besides, you wouldn’t want to pull into a campsite and discover peels, shells, cores and spilled food covered in bugs all over the place.

It’s okay to toss small amounts of gray water on the ground, but don’t go emptying your gray tanks anywhere but a dump station.

Thou shalt not leave a fire unattended

First of all, obey all fire bans. Don’t be the one who starts a wildfire. Never leave a fire unless it’s dead out. A couple of shovels of dirt won’t do the job because there could still be embers you didn’t see. A breeze could stoke those embers and possibly blow them into dry vegetation. Or an ember could ignite a dry root under the fire pit, and that root could continue to shoulder until it reaches other flammable material. Drown the fire, stir it, drown it again. Then cover it with dirt. Even if the fire had burned down to white ash, soak it so the ash doesn’t blow into someone else’s camp.

What can you burn? It depends on where you are. In some places, like the desert, which needs all the organic material it can get, you aren’t allowed to gather wood. In the forests, you can gather firewood if it meets the Four D’s:

Dead – Don’t use living wood (besides, it won’t burn well)

Down – Don’t cut down wood, even if it’s dead. Pick it up off the ground

Distant – Collect wood away from your camp so you don’t create an ever-widening zone denuded of vegetation

Dinky – Use smaller sticks and logs so you don’t end up with big unburned ones that could harbor hidden embers.

If you choose to bring in your own firewood, check the local regulations. In some places the wood must be local in order to prevent the importation of invasive species, like bark beetles.

Fire permits are required in some locations, and the permits require you have a shovel and enough water to drown a campfire.

Thou shalt not harass wildlife

Leave the critters alone. Make sure your pets leave the critters alone. Leave livestock alone, too. In some places, ranchers have the right to shoot dogs that chase their cattle.

Keep a clean camp so you don’t attract everything from insects to vermin, scavengers and predators. Put away uneaten food and dirty dishes. And don’t feed the animals, not matter how cutely they beg. They become a nuisance to yourself and future campers.

Thou shalt control thy animals

Don’t let your pets wander into other campsites. Even though your dog might be docile and friendly, you don’t know about other people’s dogs—or their owners. You don’t know who has allergies or animal related traumas, you don’t know who hates fleas or pet hair. Train your pets not to jump on people. Control barking. For some owners that might mean overcoming a type of conditioned selective deafness that makes them oblivious to their dog’s constant barking. Don’t be the one everyone in camp hates because you do nothing about your dog.

So there you have it. It all boils down to being kind, thoughtful, compassionate people, to treating the land and your fellow humans with the respect and moral dignity they deserve—and that you would want in return. This can be a win-win situation for everyone involved.

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