How To Safely Navigate Dirt Roads On Public Lands

PublishedOctober 22, 2020

Traveling on public land dirt roads can be scary your first time out. Heck, even seasoned 'pros' take precautions to safely navigate dirt roads.

Old travel trailer in trees boondocking

It is especially scary if you have lived most of your life in the east. There is hardly any public land in the east, so things like BLM and National Forest land may be foreign to easterners. Was for me, anyway.

For many easterners (is that a word?), the idea of driving an RV down a dirt road seems pretty shady.

And yep, there's time when it is. It may be too narrow, too uneven, too wet, or there may be zero campsites on the road.

But If you take certain precautions, you can protect yourself from most misadventures before trying to tackle driving down the road.

Here are our top tips on how to navigate dirt roads when boondocking on public lands.

1. Scout!

Before venturing down a road you are unfamiliar with, it's best to 'scout' it if you can. This means taking your tow car or motorcycle, etc, and exploring it without the RV.

That way you avoid a road where you cannot turn your RV around, or one that is washed out, or is too soft to navigate, no available spots left, etc.

If you don't have a scout vehicle (well, you COULD walk, depending on how far in you want to go, and you can disconnect if you're pulling a travel trailer), there are a few more ways to check out a road before driving  it.

Death Valley National Park dirt road

2. Satellite Maps

Once you have a road picked out to camp on, look at it on Google satellite view. Here's an example below of a road in satellite view.

You can see camping spots along the way.

Google Maps satellite view Cieneguita Camping Area

You can identify a few very valuable things from this:

  • Any camping spots there? (Look for RVs parked there and/or circular dirt areas as in the above example.)
  • Is there space to turn around anywhere?
  • Length of the road- more than just one camping spot?
  • Gates- Look closely for what could be a gate (See below. Same road as above). You may not be able to go as far as the road goes.
  • Solar- if you are using solar, are there lots of trees? Or are there open spots with plenty of sun?
Google Maps satellite view Las Cienegas dirt road

That black line is a gate. Whether camping is truly allowed beyond it in this photo is unknown, even though there's an RV there. 

3. Camping Apps

Different websites and apps may have user reviews for different areas. Campendium and The Dyrt are two examples.

Users often share how the road in was or if RV length is a limitation. These are valuable resources for knowing if a road is well maintained, unpassable, or is full of potholes, etc.

4. Friend Referrals

If you have camping friends, use them. Find out if they have stayed where you want to go. If not, you can try asking in forums or in relevant Facebook groups.

People love to share their stories. So do them a favor and ask how it was to drive down X road in Las Cienegas, AZ. You may even score a 'secret spot'!

5. Watch The Weather

Class C motorhome Monument Valley Utah dirt road

Watch out for rain! Recent rain can cause some (not all) dirt roads to be slick and/or impassable. It may be a good idea to wait a few days after a rain in areas with very sticky mud. (I know of a couple of notorious spots for that- Moab, Utah and Sedona, Arizona.)

That mud (in certain areas) will collect on your tires and become 1-2" thick, rendering you helpless and with zero traction. So, again, use apps, friends, and scouting to keep yourself safe!

Look for ruts in the road. If there are deep ruts, this usually means it will get messy when wet.

Keep in mind that if you can't get in, you probably can't get out, either. Plan your trips around the good weather. (Who wants to camp in rain, anyway?)

6. Ask A Ranger

Rangers at Ranger Stations can be a valuable resource. Personally, I have never used one for this. I prefer technology and friends to lead me to good spots.

Still, a good Ranger can be a great resource for knowing where you should and shouldn't go in your RV.

Conclusion

We don't recommend randomly driving down any public dirt road without doing your best due diligence first.

Technology is a wonderful thing. Use the tools we talked about above to make sure you don't get stuck or slide off of a cliff when you go camping! (Not to scare you or anything, lol!)

Even if you get stuck, people will likely help you out. Some find it fun! So don't fret. Just use your head, ask around, watch the weather, and use your technology.

Camp Addict Kelly

Kelly Beasley is co-founder of Camp Addict and loves sharing her enthusiasm for the RVing lifestyle. As a full-time RVer since May 2015, Kelly's playful writing style helps make learning about the sometimes dull subject of RV products a bit more interesting.

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