I recently posted about my Williams, AZ camp, and I mentioned it was too difficult for big rigs to get into. That led to several comments and emails about what was a good vehicle to get into the back-country! I realized I had never blogged about the important issue of mobility/freedom versus comfort. Whether you realize it or not, nearly every decision you have made as a vandweller involved mobility versus freedom.
Unless you were forced into vandwelling by circumstances, you probably became a vandweller because of a longing for more freedom. You found the traditional house-bound, consumer-oriented life too restrictive so you decided to leave all the wonderful comforts of a house for the freedom of a car, van or RV. That first decision was to give up comfort for freedom. You knew you could have one or the other, but not both, so you chose freedom.
Your next decision was the choice of a vehicle to live in. A car offered a huge amount of freedom because it got very high mpg and allowed you to travel more and it was small so it was very easy to drive. But, it offered virtually no comfort. So you may have been tempted by an RV because it offered a huge amount of comfort. But you realized it also tremendously limited your mobility and freedom because they got terrible mpg and their cumbersome size simply restricts where you can go.
Many of us had a third factor that was just as important, and that was the need for stealth. If you live in the city because of work or family, you must have some stealth or keep getting a knock on the door at night by a Law Enforcement Officer telling you to move on. Most of us settled on vans because they offered the best balance of comfort versus freedom versus stealth. I lived in a box van in the city for 6 years because it gave me more comfort and just as much stealth. Mobility wasn’t a factor because all I ever did was drive around town.
After my kids grew up and left the house (and I also retired) I stopped living in the city and started living on public land. Stealth was no longer a factor and I wanted to live as close to nature and with as few people around me as possible (unless they were people I wanted around, like you). For me, that meant going as far back off the road as LEGALLY possible (Please!! Respect Sacred Mother Earth by obeying all the laws and restrictions to road and off-road travel!!!). My box van had great stealth and was very comfortable, but it simply could not go off road. So I had to choose something else. In the 5 years since then I have had lots of experiences with different rigs and want to share with you what I’ve learned so you can make the best choice for you.
First, you must understand that the great majority of Forest Service and BLM roads are easily accessible by the average vehicle including RVs. You do NOT need 4×4 or high clearance to be a boondocker! You only need it if you want to get off the beaten path and into some true seclusion.
When I step out of the van in the morning, I don’t want to see any signs of civilization or other people–just the ones I have invited to my camp. Another reason I prefer remote, hard-to-reach areas is that it is much less likely that FS or BLM Rangers, ATVers and Jeepers will go there. Getting to those areas requires a more off-road-ready vehicle.
Please understand that I am not encouraging you to just head off into the boonies. I see way too many people who do that and destroy our public land. ALWAYS OBEY THE RULES OF YOUR AREA!! The rules and the Rangers are not our enemy, they treasure the public land and are doing the best they can in a difficult job to protect it and keep it safe from the ASSHOLES who are thoughtlessly out destroying it. The people who do harm with their vehicles are the enemy, not the Ranger!!! While I try to camp in places the Ranger won’t find me, when he does come into camp I offer him genuine Respect and Gratitude. I am grateful for the Rules and that he is enforcing them—even if they inconvenience me!
Next, let’s look at the factors that limit your ability to go far back on Forest Service or BLM roads:
Sand, Mud and Snow: I’ve run into all these in my travels and if you are a full-timer and serious about really getting into the Back-Country, you simply need 4×4. The roads might be dry when you head back but then you can get hit with a rain or snow storm and then you are stuck. Oddly enough, this is especially bad in the desert where many roads are impassable after a hard rain. Or you might head down a dirt road in the desert and think it is solid and pull off of it to camp and when you try to get out you are stuck in the sand. All these things have happened to me! Fortunately I had 4×4; so I locked in the hubs, put it in 4wd High and pulled right out—no big deal! But with 2wd you’d be stuck or you simply wouldn’t try to drive back there.
Steep Hills or Extreme Side-hills: I’ve been many places where the only way up, down or around was to lock in the hubs, put it in 4wd Low-Range and crawl my way through. There wasn’t a chance in hell of making it in and out without it. Many of today’s vehicles have All Wheel Drive, but that isn’t the same as true 4×4 with a transfer case and 4 Wheel Drive Low Range. Sometimes that Super Low Gear is the only thing that will save your bacon.
High-Centering on Dips, Hills, Ruts and Inclines: You can’t overestimate the importance of ground clearance on a vehicle for Back-road travel. I have been on dozens of FS or BLM roads that did not require 4×4 but required a High-Clearance vehicle. If you are high-centered, you are just as stuck as if your tires were spinning in the muck. The big problem with RVs of any kind is their departure angle which is the angle from the rear tire to the rear bumper. On many RVs the distance from the axel to the bumper is so long that even the slightest rise of the front causes the bumper to grind. Try to go up too steep an incline and the backend will high-center.
Narrow Roads with Trees Limbs Protruding in from the Side and Above. In the National Forests this is a very common problem. Nearly all RVs are very tall and very wide so the tree limbs tear at it and quite possibly damage it. Many of these roads also have tight curves around boulders and other obstacles and the length of most RVs mean they can’t make the corner.
As usual, I am too wordy and this post got too long to fit in one, so I have broken it into two parts. In my next post we will look at specific vehicles you can choose for Back-country boondocking and I will give you my specific recommendations.