Sleeping around (in an Airstream)

In the Spring 2021 issue of Airstream Life (which will hit mailboxes in February), we have an article about “Uncamping,” meaning unconventional camping opportunities through Harvest Hosts and Hipcamp. It’s a good article with lots of inspiring ideas, and beautiful places … but there’s a piece of the story we didn’t tell in print.

The secret, mildly salacious truth about Airstreamers is that a lot of them spend their nights in places that aren’t really campgrounds. In fact, many of the places some Airstreamers like to camp aren’t—strictly speaking—entirely legal or formally approved by the locality. Like skiing off-piste, it’s in this gray area between approved campsites and trespassing that we often find the most unique, challenging, and memorable experiences.

I joke sometimes that Airstreamers are the people who spend $100,000 on a travel trailer and then look for free places to camp. There’s a bit of truth in that. Driving by the local Bureau of Land Management area just south of Tucson I usually will spot a newer Airstream or two dry-camped on a scrap of desert. You’d think that they would prefer a more civilized location than this dusty unremarkable spot by the highway, and perhaps more respectable neighbors than the rag-tag mix of old RVs that tend to form the majority. But there they are—and if you ask them, they’ll always say they love it.

My friends Mike and Tracy camped on BLM land in Quartzsite AZ, 2008.

It’s perfectly legal to camp on BLM land, where approved, and in fact the bulk of the famous Quartzsite AZ gathering each winter is held on a massive BLM “Long Term Visitor Area”(LTVA). Tens of thousands of people do it every year in BLM sites around the west, and it can be a remarkable boondocking experience. It’s attractive not because it’s free or cheap—despite my poking fun at people for doing it—but because you get an entirely different experience that can be a relief after too many cookie-cutter, overly rulebound campgrounds.

When you camp in a place that isn’t a campground, you get to design your own experience. If you want to get far away from others, you can find a place like that, especially out west. If you want the convenience of resting without the hassle of checking into a campground late at night, and perhaps a rotisserie chicken for dinner, you can park in a Super Wal-Mart (usually). Staying in a campground is not always the best option.

Camped on the Skyway Pier with friends, 2005

One of my favorite “uncamping” spots was the Skyway Fishing Pier State Park in Florida just north of Bradenton. A decade ago you could pull on to this long pier (which was once a causeway bridge) and spend a night two miles offshore and about 30 feet above the Gulf of Mexico. It wasn’t the quietest spot due to traffic all night on the nearby Sunshine Skyway Bridge, but it was magical anyway, with the the bridge all lit up to the east and huge rays swimming in the water below. Alas, these days it is no longer possible to pull a trailer onto the pier.

Several times I’ve spent the night at a truck stop out of sheer necessity, but it’s not an experience I care to repeat. They’re noisy with trucks coming and going all night. But I do remember a night in Wyoming where I camped between two abandoned tractor-trailers behind a dilapidated gas station very peacefully, and several times I’ve camped in the parking lots of restaurants that allowed it. Stops like this are always about convenience, no pretense at romance or charm.

Driveway camping in San Diego

Driveway camping is a lot nicer. You usually get a few amenities and it’s almost always quiet. I’ve spent nights in driveways from Maine to California. Every time has been unique and fun. All you need to do is find a friend or online acquaintance who is willing to lend you a space—but read my tips before you go!

Thornhill-Broome in Point Mugu State Park, California

Beach camping is another favorite of mine. There are campgrounds in California, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Massachusetts, Oregon, etc. that will put you facing a beach, but if you really want to take a chance and have the surf lapping at your wheels, check out Padre Island in Texas. You can really get away from it all when you’re five miles down a roadless beach. Just be sure you don’t misjudge high tide and end up floating away from it all. Another spot that was once good (and might still be) is Oceano Dunes State Recreation Area in California.

Oceano Dunes, near Pismo Beach CA, 2007.

Casino camping is a big deal for some folks. If you haven’t done it, it’s much like camping at a truck stop … with slots. I have taken advantage of conveniently located casinos on a few roadtrips but since I’m not into the casino action my interest tends to be mostly about getting a cheap dinner. If this might be for you, check out Casino Camper.

Boondocked near Spencer Hot Springs, Nevada

Too urban for you? Maybe you’d like a quiet night in the middle of nowhere (well, Nevada) near a hot spring? Spencer Hot Spring is one of the hard-to-find spots where the hardy can camp. I haven’t been there since 2005 so I can’t offer a current report, but you can read my blog from way back then:

We are parked on a slight hill so that we can see clearly that there is hardly any sign of civilization for miles around. About 300 feet from our spot are three pools fed by a natural hot spring which bubbles from the earth at about 110 degrees. In other words, it’s perfect.

I think you get the point. A little creative thinking and sleuthing will lead you to some unexpected and fascinating places to spend the night. With campgrounds getting crowded, perhaps it’s time to break out a little bit. All you need are boondocking skills (just sufficient for one night) and some chutzpah.

Comments

  1. says

    Hey Rich,
    Great piece. We have tried just about all of the “uncamping” and for that matter “unclamping” options you write of, and they all can be good (or even spectacular) in a pinch.
    Writing from Jackson Hole, I want to relay two things. Grand Teton NP is as of today for the first time ever taking reservations for most campsites. As a result, the surrounding National Forests are expecting to get slammed next summer. So it never hurts to remind folks to plan ahead and when dry camping “leave no trace” except maybe the odd tire track. Happy “Uncamping!”

  2. Daniel P Schachtman says

    When going over the Rockies from the east – there is a cool parking area/scenic overlook just above Frisco right off highway 70.. Maybe a bit busy for some, but great views, not too noisy in the airstream, easy access to Frisco with great places to buy food, its free and an easy stop when you are treking cross country to Utah. Looking forward to checking out some of the places in your blog.

  3. Alan M Kessler says

    Florida is bad news in Winter – we residents can not camp in our own state. All the outer states mostly Canadians book out one year advance and take all spots up. I work all year and can not plan in advance as to job requirements. Just a few weekends a few days notice to camp and no place to go. Very very little BLM land to go to. Any good ideas for us Florida residents?

    • RichLuhr says

      Yes, in short: avoid the popular spots. There are a lot of really great state and county parks in Florida that aren’t as well known but offer spectacular camping opportunities. Forget the Keys and the hot Panhandle campgrounds. I particularly like the campgrounds on the big Florida springs, where manatees come in the winter. Also check out Corps of Engineers campgrounds, and campgrounds that are “inconveniently located” but offer a ton of peace and quiet. For example, instead of fighting for a spot in Destin at Henderson Beach State Park, look at Fred Gannon Rocky Bayou State Park just across the bay.

      Check out this map (filter on campgrounds) and you’ll find 177 state parks to consider: https://www.floridastateparks.org/statewide-map

      I think Florida is a winter camper’s paradise!

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