Our First Dispersed Camping Confrontation

It’s day #110, and we’ve dispersed camped 30 of those days in 15 different locations.  As a reminder, dispersed camping is when we camp for free on public land and not in an established campground.  You’ve read before in this blog how much we prefer dispersed camping, and how we would dispersed camp every night if we didn’t need electricity, water, sewer, and laundry at least once a week.  Not only is dispersed camping FREE of charge, but it’s also very much like what we’re accustomed to back home: no neighbors nearby, super quiet, incredible views, we can use the generator at any time, and the dogs can run free.

Camping on BLM land southwest of Makoshika State Park

Dispersed camping is allowed on almost all land controlled by the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) and in national forests.  Dispersed camping is also allowed in some national monuments and preserves, but not in any national parks.

We’ve dispersed camp enough that we have a pretty good handle on the rules.  The rules are fairly similar across the different types of lands, though the distances from roads, etc. may vary.  In general, the rules are:

  • Try to camp in previously disturbed places
  • Camp within 200 feet of established roads
  • Do not camp within 200 feet of water sources
  • Do not camp within 1/4 mile of campgrounds, trailheads or tourist attractions
  • Fires are allowed only in established fire rings or grills, do not leave campfires unattended, and make sure fires are thoroughly extinguished
  • Camping is limited to 14 days within a 30 mile radius in a 28-day period
  • Pack out what you pack in

Dispersed camping does have some disadvantages to camping in an established campground.  There are no hookups (electricity, water or sewer) though some campgrounds lack hookups as well.  We have to study forest maps and drive around in our car sometimes for an hour or two to find a desirable campsite.  Since we are camping off-road, we can get stuck in the mud.  There is no security, so theoretically there’s more chance we could be assaulted while we are camping, or our RV could be vandalized or burglarized while we are away hiking.  And finally, someone may not want us to camp where we’re camping.

So far we haven’t had any problems dispersed camping–until last night.  We are camping in BLM land in eastern Montana about five miles south of Makoshika State Park that we’re currently visiting.  We’re parked in a grassland just off a dirt road, about 100 feet from a gravel county road, and 1/3 mile from the paved road.

A luxury white sedan came down the gravel road, stopped at the dirt road, then pulled in right next to our RV.  I was a bit surprised to see such a nice car driving down the bumpy dirt road.  An older man in the car rolled down his window, and we spoke to him from the side window of our RV.  The brief conversation went something like this:

Man:  What are you doing here?

Us:  We’re camping, why?

Man:  You’re not supposed to be here.

Us:  Oh sorry, is this your private property?

Man:  No, I own the ranch next door.

Us:  So this is public BLM land, right?

Man:  Yes, but I have a lease to run my cattle here.

Us:  But this is public land, so we have a right to be here also.

Man:  No you don’t.  You need to camp in the OHV [Off Highway Vehicle] section about a mile down the road where they tore it all to sh**.

Us:  But we’re allowed to camp on any BLM land.  Is there is a restriction posted on this road?

Man:  No, but I don’t want you here.

At this point it became clear that we were in the right, but he just didn’t want us on the land where he grazes his cattle.  After a few more exchanges, the conversation closed with:

Man:  So what are you going to do about it?

Us:  We’re going to stay the night and contact the BLM office in the morning.  What are you going to do about it?

Man:  Well I plan to contact the BLM office in the morning too.  You’re not supposed to be here.

He then pulled out his smartphone, took a picture of our RV license plate, and drove off in a huff.

Needless to say, we were a little unnerved.  We pulled out our map and reconfirmed this was indeed BLM land without any restrictions, and we once again reviewed the BLM rules for camping in this area.  The man wasn’t threatening to us, but he was certainly forceful in his desire to have us leave.  The sun was setting and we didn’t want to move the RV in the dark, so we decided to stay the night and likely move in the morning.  Given that he was a local rancher, we didn’t expect him to physically harm us, though we didn’t put it past him having one of his ranch hands come by the next day when we’re hiking in the park and vandalize our RV.

When we awoke in the morning, Theresa called the BLM.  After a few telephone handoffs, we were connected to a female ranger in the law enforcement division of the BLM.  She confirmed to us that we can camp where we are.  She also seemed familiar with the rancher, as if she’d had issues with him before.  She promised she would contact the rancher and remind him of our legal right to camp where we are.  We told her we were a little worried that he might do something bad to our RV.  But the BLM ranger said, “That’s not how Montana people behave.  Usually they just try to bluff you off the land.”  She didn’t think we had to worry, but she gave us the phone number of the local sheriff just in case.

The BLM did a great job handling our issue.  We felt better about the situation and decided to stay one more day as planned.  We were away from our RV for most of the day and had a wonderful time hiking in Makoshika State Park, the badlands of Montana.  We left a note on our RV window summarizing our conversation with the BLM just in case the rancher returned.

Shadow, Timm and Darby enjoying the badlands at Makoshika State Park

When we returned to our RV in the late afternoon, everything was fine.  Though when we entered the RV, we found the wind coming through an open window had unfurled an entire roll of paper towels.  I exclaimed to Theresa, “Look, the rancher broke in and unfurled our towels!”  We both had a good laugh.

Camping in the wilderness always involves risks, whether it’s muddy roads, biting bugs, wild animals, or crazy locals.  But we are well-armed and try to always be aware, and we have two trusty watchdogs.  Though we really hope to avoid any further conflict and just enjoy our trip.

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