This post is definitely more about describing how I work out where to go and where to stop than it is about how you should do so. There is a right way to do things, and then there’s my way. I’m now seriously behind in routing my trip for the upcoming commute/touring season of seven or so months, but that won’t stop me from delaying that task further with this post. Procrastination comes in many forms and with many faces.
Assuming – and that’s a big, pending assumption – that the local medicos do not seriously interfere with my departure schedule or make it necessary to closely monitor dosage results in a way that is incompatible with living on the road, I should be able to clear out of here somewhere in the last half of March, when the temperatures ramp up.
The primary goals are just two: get to Illinois in time to plague family and show up for pre-scheduled annual appointments in that area, and hunt for cooler high-altitude air along the way, at least until the true long-distance commute begins. Secondary goals are to visit the Pima Air & Space Museum in Tucson, and then steer counter-productively back northwest to Prescott to see about installing rear air lifts on the Mighty Furdster. Then, according to plan, I hope to attend the Overland Expo West once again this year, not so much because I need to, but because I would like to check out their new venue and camping situation just south of Flagstaff. While there, I can review all of the handy equipment that I can’t afford and wouldn’t have room to stow even if I could. Oooo, shiny objects! While still in the Tucson area, I’m also giving serious consideration to having a Ravelco anti-theft system installed.
Anti-theft? Why go to that trouble and expense for a decade-old pickup truck, fer cry-eye? Two reasons. First, the Intrepid is the onlyest transport I’ve got, my rolling home with contents representing nearly all of my most important worldly possessions, like my collection of swizzle sticks from around the world. Simple break-ins are certainly a possibility, particularly in the truck cab, but a smash-and-grab in the pop-up camper would be a bit of an ordeal to carry out in a timely and unobtrusive way. Headaches and costs aside, items are just possessions. But should I lose the entire rig itself, I’d be in a poor situation indeed.
That brings me to Reason Two. Down here, full-size pickups are hot theft property both to ship overseas and to ferry illegals and drugs across the border from Mexico, overland style. Among all cars and trucks combined, Ford’s F-series are in the unenviable number three spot for theft popularity, with Chevy pickups running a very close fourth. (Ford outsells Chevrolet in the new vehicle market, so thieves aren’t actually brand fans.) Those are national rankings, while down here near the border, local theft stats are worse for pickups. The trouble for me is, they don’t often steal the new ones, but favor the older ones like mine due to their relative lack of theft deterrents. For a pro, it’s an easy matter to crack open the steering column and ignition lock, hotwire the thing, and take off. The Ravelco is a system based on both added wiring and the OEM wiring harness in a way that makes hotwiring exceptionally difficult. It provides an electrical socket that accepts a unique plug which completes the only valid circuit(s) that will allow the vehicle to run. You keep the plug on your keychain. The odds of linking the “right” connecting pins/wires manually are virtually nil. You can add all the direct-connect jumper wires under the hood that you like, but it’s going to be a literal waste of precious time, which is the whole point. Time. Exposure time. Adding Ravelco’s approach is roughly akin to why most repair shops here that do electricals won’t touch any electrical mods that include non-original wiring. Takes way to long to reverse-engineer and then troubleshoot, particularly on billable time. Keep farting around, and you’re likely to short out a component and make it so it can’t run even if you unknowingly defeat the rewiring. Practically speaking, stealing a Ravelco-equipped vehicle requires a tow truck and a favorable parked situation so that the vehicle can be hauled to a shop, and something about that particular vehicle that makes a day or two of intense effort worth the extra nuisance and risk. Or, they could just move on to find an easier target. In the case of my specific rig, it’s not only not worth it, but the bike carrier and cargo box front and rear pose an additional towing problem to overcome for both theft and emergency road assistance. Besides, very few vehicle thefts involve towing anyway. The vast majority of vehicle thefts are drive-aways, and the Revelco, with its history of never once being defeated en situ since 1978, removes driving it away as an option. You can add a conventional alarm independently if you want a siren or beeping alarm to go off, but those are easily silenced and really, nobody exactly calls 911 when a car alarm goes off in a shopping center parking lot, do they? A tilt alarm might help a little against towing. Heck fire, I was told that underhood access to the essential connection points of my year of diesel F-Series is so poor that merely installing the Ravelco’s connections requires removal of one wheel/tire and fender liner, since Ford buried a major e-box in there. So, disabling the steering column as the Quik-‘n-EZ attack point also makes popping the hood to jump some connections just as much of a waste of time. You can’t get there from here.
Just don’t lose that key/plug and its spare, or you too will be out of business until you special-order a replacement. That requires a sales receipt, code number, and a copy of your driver’s license sent directly to the factory. There is no “master key” sold on eBay to defeat it, or a mere half-dozen key variations. That the Ravelco system might be worth the expense comes down to one’s willingness to ante up for protection against the potential of an irrecoverable loss. I’m still working up the financial courage, of course, despite the fact that I don’t have a prayer of replacing this rig should something untoward happen to it. It’s not like somebody is just waiting in the weeds to hijack my truck. But since this vehicle type/brand/year is among the most preferred victims as far as odds go, and since theft is quick and easy, it’s harder to dismiss the issue with “Oh, it’s not gonna happen to me!” I had a faded and tired 9-year-old Camaro stolen long ago from right out front at work, so I know it can happen to me.
But oh, this post is supposed to be about how I do trip routing, isn’t it? Having deadlines for arrival to even one spot tends to make just taking off on a spontaneous adventure less practical. Being a doddering oldster with a preference for knowing what’s coming imposes more of a sense of scheduled adventure. I know what I want for weather temperatures for any given month, and I know where I will need to ultimately wind up, and when. In the meantime, I’ve found that I don’t like heat or arduous day-long drives to arrive on wholly unfamiliar trails in the dark, only to find that the camping situation is either unpleasant or nonexistent. The latter was a much bigger difficulty to address when I traveled in the Defiant, a 26’ travel trailer with little discernible ground clearance. That issue has scaled down very considerably with the truck camper, but you can still wind up next to a barking/unleashed dog, blaring music, an arguing couple, Party Central with drunken locals, or a cheap generator roaring its little heart out all night. Everybody enjoys the Great Outdoors in their own way, I guess. My way is not more holy or something, but silence and solitude are what do it for me. To do that effectively takes a little more foreknowledge than settling for the easy pickings, where you happily grab the first spot you see and make camp somewhere within the resettled suburbia.
Oddly, I’ve never found my stack of Benchmark state maps to be of much use in this regard. They have never justified their expense to me. Many campers claim to find them indispensable (and oddly enough, the most vocal ones are Amazon Affiliates), but I’ve found them to be too vague and incomplete for me in planning out a boondocking tour ahead of time. That is, I’d have a trip with a high nuisance factor if I relied on them exclusively, and when I go to my other sources, they become irrelevant and remain unused. For me, they are a last-ditch emergency backup that doesn’t depend on charged batteries. I still remember how I felt when I received them just prior to setting out, these ” highly recommended essentials”, and my reaction as I opened the package and paged through them. Perhaps the temperament of a happy wanderer or sightseeing tourist is better suited to them.
What I prefer to do is to look at Google Maps online. I know where I am, and if I have a major waypoint in mind, with or without a date attached to it, I will look for stopping (camping) points along the way that will hold to my preferred drive time each day. Typically, I will be road-ready no later than the crack of 11 AM after I have broken camp, and I will prefer to arrive at the next camping area no later than 4 PM. Yes, life is hard. That arrival time allows me some exploration at the stopping point to tour the trail(s) and try to locate a week-worthy Primo Campsite there that suits my fancy, assuming that this is not to be a mere overnight spot. A week is my standard provisioning limit. After that, I will need to find a place to chuck trash, refill the water tank, buy fresh food, and sometimes refill one of my two propane tanks, depending on my furnace use. What town is within reach, and what facilities does it have? Any diesel fuel pumps?
It’s easy to check the approximate point-to-point drive time with Google Maps, and hunt down the elevation and past monthly temperature averages for that area online. I can dress for cool temperatures, but can’t do much for hot ones, other than open things up, sweat, and stink. But, neither do I want to hit 9,000’ elevations in April or October, if I can help it. It’s more an issue of driving on slippery roads than staying warm in the camper. Montana in March would not be my first choice. Neither would Florida in August.
Wunderground.com has a detailed section to research any area’s temperature history. You first enter a town name into its search box. On the current weather page that results, the first two tabs of five are “Forecast” and “History”. On the page that results from “History”, the button “Trip Planner” is in a column to the right. Select that, and on the page that results is a “Weather History & Almanac” box to the right, halfway down the page. At the bottom of that box is a link to Seasonal Weather Averages. Whew! Selecting that produces a very usable graph of normal highs and lows as well as record highs and lows, month by month over a year. Some weather websites summarize and display this trending in charts instead of line graphs, which hurts usability when a temperature slope over a four-week period is replaced by a single averaged value summarizing the entire month. A historical ten or fifteen-degree rise or fall over a span of four weeks, combined with normal day-to-day trends and variations that one can expect, can mean that you’ll be more likely to arrive just in time to miss what you consider to be a comfortable temperature window.
Example: Wellton, Arizona. My concern will be my departure time. The graph shows that the normal high temperatures for the last half of March have trended from about 80-84 degrees over that two weeks, which is fine if I stay outside in the shade, which I normally don’t. The trailer interior typically gains ten degrees over whatever the ambient temperature is each afternoon, and being out in the direct sun feels about ten degrees warmer than ambient, too. Record highs in this time period have reached 100 degrees, making a simple “warm spell” a potentially juicy experience. So, if possible, I should get outta Dodge by mid-month. If later than that, I have the option of running the air conditioning in the trailer, but that gets costly fast.
I then enter a new search for my intended destination, to look at its weather history and see how close it’s likely to be to my preferred temperature range for that same time period. For me, a “normal high” of no more than 72 degrees is ideal because it allows for a little heat gain in the truck camper and a little warm spell, while the “normal low” overnight should preferably stay above 40, and not fall below 20 for record low temps. The camper is fine at these low temperatures, but I’m not. Since the day’s peak temps are typically reached only by late afternoon, I’d prefer not to be forced to deal with winterish temperatures all morning should I want/need to do some activity outside. Studies have shown that the greatest determiner of comfort in cold temperatures is one’s basic level of physical fitness. Oh well. Nor am I of Norwegian descent.
Typically, my departure in Spring has been a little behind the curve, meaning that I have not gone high enough in elevation early enough to reliably keep me within my happy zone. Just as “a rising tide lifts all boats”, so does a late departure screw up all the timing of a perfectly good Spring tour schedule. The first stop is skipped, and I continue on up the ladder. Finding the “next” camping stop can certainly be done on the fly, but I find it to be much more relaxing to “be in the moment” enjoying this week’s location and features, than to spend many working hours at each campsite trying to research where the next campsite should be and what that area is like. I already have other things I want or need to do then, and the current site may or may not provide a cellular Internet connection. Those who advise me “Don’t plan. Just go somewhere, man. It’ll work out,” are on a different tour. I’m sure it will work itself out, but not always in my favor. Serendipity is much easier when the exploration is little more than a choice of reruns. Do I have favorite locations that I intend to visit again? You bet. Except for refreshing my memory on seasonal weather for a given time frame, there’s no research needed. It’s Deja Vu all over again.
So, the “next” planned campsite needs to be in the general direction that I am heading, within a workable strike distance, and it needs to be free, needs to have the potential for at least modest solitude, and needs to be with the right altitude range to provide comfortable temperatures for that time frame. Oh yeah, and it needs to be either just ahead of or just after a resupply and diesel refueling point, and it sure wouldn’t hurt if there’s a pay shower in the area as well. After all, I’m not wandering about, impromptu. I’m ultimately heading for a destination, the final one being 2,000+ miles away on an arrival deadline. Intermediate waypoints such as Prescott will have their own deadlines established once I’m on the road this year, allowing the shop time to order and receive parts, and work up an appointment time. Once I get east and north of Kansas City, the “free dispersed camping” options have pretty much evaporated, and many of the lower 48 prohibit overnight parking at rest stops and/or limit stays to a few hours. A state-by-state listing is here, and OvernightRVParking also includes this information with each rest stop selected. All of this would be a slam-dunk if I stuck with fee-based RV parks the whole trip, but I don’t swing that way. It has to be free or, in the case of logistical problems, suitably cheap. Cheap, I say cheap, that is! Say that aloud like Foghorn Leghorn, and you’ll enjoy it more.
One big improvement this year which the Intrepid supplies is a freedom from being absolutely tethered to dump stations, as I formerly had to cross-check my plans with rvdumpsites.net, sanidumps.com, and/or rvdumps.com. That was a pain, but not no more. An integral part of this planning process is to use online free campsite locators like freecampsites.net, which often include reader feedback on suitability. Just because a campsite exists doesn’t mean it’s any good or is suitable for you. I like it particularly because it provides GPS coordinates rather than “verbal” navigator instructions to watch for this turn or that road, approaching from a particular direction. Campendium.com is often useful as well.
The US Forest Service is an okay source for MVUMs (Motor Vehicle Use Maps) for each given National Forest. For vehicle-based camping, these offer guidance on which trails are approved for car and RV travel, and which are not. Some forest maps will denote roads which are specifically approved for camping beside, so in those forests you really don’t want to be caught camping by just any old road there just because it shows on the map as being okay for travel. Important caveat: Just because a marked trail is approved for camping does not mean that you and your rig will be able to do so. Many such areas are swamped with bushes or undergrowth, have high ridges to climb, and/or are heavily sloped. Or, that road itself may require far more off-roading capability than you would be able to muster with your rig. Just because you may legally camp there doesn’t mean you’ll be be able to.
This is where my peculiar insistence on solitude and quiet can unravel the best laid plans. More so in areas where camping roads are distinctly marked separately from vehicle travel roads on the MVUM, getting away from the easy pickings (if there are any) frequently presents trails that are in pretty rough shape and lacking in any usable place to pull off and camp. The map’s indication that you’re welcome to camp along here is belied by the obvious unsuitability once you arrive and feast your eyes upon it. Ooooh boy.
More than once I’ve asked myself, “Of all the other trails here, why oh why did they ever designate this trail for camping, of all places??” MVUMs are a relatively new thing, ever evolving, so go back and download new ones before you leave each year. Paper versions are available free at the district’s ranger station. I use the electronic versions because, on my old iPad that has GPS functionality, I can be in that forest and see exactly where I currently am on the map, which helps a ton. Same story for a smartphone.
MVUMs can also be downloaded and displayed in this interactive form via Avenza Maps on any GPS-aware smart device. That’s what I have. Avenza hopes that you will also download an assortment of tourist and topo maps from their listings, but MVUMs are also listed and can be downloaded and used at no charge. By default, listings will be for the forest that you are either in or closest to. They do outline a way to download other more distant maps and then transfer them to your device. MVUM maps used in this way are not GPS routing devices that can guide you in. They just show you where you are on the current map, which is very helpful in itself, in that when you want to know where that side trail heads off to or how close you are to the turnoff you wanted to take, the map shows you.
Lists that people have compiled can be useful. UsCampgrounds.info, run by Tom Hillegass, has camping sites on a map which include info and links to more info that are about as complete as could be. Eugene Carsey lists campgrounds by state that are free unless otherwise noted, along with GPS coordinates and familiarization info with photos. Bob’s Cheap or Free Campgrounds has a Google Maps link marked with campsites he has gone to, and a little basic info about each. Then you might also refer to campsite reviews at your favorite blogs such as Wheeling It, and others.
Forestcamping.com can be useful, though most of the listings there are not free. Same with PublicLands.org. The Bureau of Land Management generally allows dispersed camping just about anywhere, but lists its fee-based sites here.
In any case, GPS coordinates are helpful in that you can enter them into Google Maps satellite view to see what’s there physically from overhead. This is especially helpful if you’re towing and looking for town camps that will fit your rig, or want to get the lay of the land on rest stops and Walmart lots for a long-distance commute. Since I’m a GPS user, when I’m on the computer I find it handy to click once on any location on the Google Map view that I like, and copy down the GPS coordinates that pop up. It’s even handier to open another browser window or tab, and go to a GPS coordinate converter like this one that will instantly translate the coordinates to the GPS format that you prefer to use in your navigation device. Between that and Googling for general reviews on specific site names, you’re pretty well set.
But hey, how do you know what agency administers where you are? That’s especially important in Arizona, where the State Trust owns many scattershot pieces of land where you are subject to citation for criminal misdemeanor trespassing if you do not have a recreational permit. Trust land is not public land. It’s state land held with the goal of leasing it out to businesses. Many of these Trust areas are signed, but some are not. One smartphone app that’s handy for Federal ownership is “US Public Lands”, which locates you and paints over with color-keyed overlays of Federal agency ownership. That app has some limitations with boundary accuracy because of the nature of the Federal data the app has to rely on, but overall, I find it good. If nothing else, it can establish which agency you need to Google in order to further research a camp in that area. It includes Federal lands only, though. For AZ State Trust land, the only online option I know of is to go to their website. It isn’t that helpful for camping purposes. If you’re thinking about staying on or crossing through State Trust land, you need to purchase a recreational permit, either by mail, or online if you have a printer. Officially, it’s $15, good for a year, and allows 14 days of camping (total) within that year. The enforcement level varies depending on location. The land around Wickenburg AZ has been undergoing changes, which has ramped up permit checks lately. For 15 bucks, I consider it a reasonable cost for peace of mind, unless I’m dead certain that my wanderings will specifically avoid State Trust land. So far, the on-site signage has been pretty good.
For the long and hurried “commute” back to my “home” area across the boondocking wastelands, I lay out the 2,000-mile route and divide it up into the daily driving segments I want. I’ll then swing over to OvernightRVParking to search for spots that I can lay over in for one night. Rest stops, truck stops, Walmarts and other Big Box stores, town parks, you name it. Whatever is along the way in a workable daily drive time. Elevation and temperature needs are jettisoned for these, since you get what you get on such commutes. Only “free” or “donation” make my grade unless I have no other choice. The goal is to get there as quickly as reasonably possible, avoiding 20-mile detours for camping, otherwise I’ll spend $20 on fuel and wear just to save $8 on camping fees – and spend more time in the driver’s seat to boot. I prefer rest stops to truck stops due to idling diesel noise. I even prefer Walmarts and similar to truck stops, though this is often problematic. Walmart lots are often markedly sloped, are often located in areas with late-night traffic noise in the lot, and are increasingly prevented from accommodating overnight stays thanks to local ordinance, courtesy of pressure from the local RV parks. That’s not the exclusive reason though, as a few campers extend slides or break out stoves, tables and lawn chairs as if it’s a campground, or stay for several days. When it starts to look like Hobo Haven, that starts the complaints and the ordinance process. On arrival, it’s best to march in and ask a manager about parking overnight, even if it’s been rated online as okay by past RVers. Things change, and it helps to find that out at 4PM instead of 2AM. If I can find a town camp within a couple miles of the Interstate, or am taking secondary highways to shorten the overall trip mileage (I did that on my most recent commute), those are my first preferences – except on holidays, when they are usually filled to capacity with locals. Some of these camps are so pleasant that I’ll build a stay of a few days into the commute plan.
In terms of planning difficulty, the cross-country commute within a short time frame is the simplest type of planning to work out. The preferred route is fixed, as are drive times and climate. The only real variable is hacking through OvernightRVParking to locate stops that will work acceptably for me. Piecing together a 7-month tour (in two halves, which includes both commutes) is much more involved due to the picky list of requirements that each stop must meet. The commute also affects touring options, since a tour to the far north or northwest can add in a huge amount of additional miles. This works if you have the funds for dealing with vehicle wear and tear, or eventual vehicle replacement. Otherwise, my touring options need to be tempered with whatever final destination I have and, so far, that’s Illinois. There will have to be some years where I “stay local” in touring to delay the Furd’s ultimate and final demise, but now isn’t the best time for that.
It must be nice if you can afford to just wander stop by stop on a whim, where all you care about is current temperatures, and can choose the next place based on someone’s personal recommendations that “you should go there sometime”. Many consider scouting a general area for a usable campsite to be “part of the fun”. “Part of the fun” has never been my experience towing a 26′ boulevard TT down remote MVUM trails. It’s more of an experience in problem-solving. The Four Wheel Grandby pop-up camper on a stock 4×4 pickup has eased that pain, but I’m still more interested in planting it and relaxing than in taking on a massive scouting mission. That is the Evelo e-bike’s job, tomorrow or the next day, and I’m not breaking camp until a week from now. As to where to head next, I prefer to exercise my whims in the initial planning stages and have some wild idea of what I can expect to find once I roll in. It does not ease my nerves to arrive late in the day, only to find that the few approved MVUM roads are trails that only a modified-Jeep owner could love, with nowhere to pull off and camp anyway. Or to find the area sodden with biting insects or deep mudholes. A lack of information is more often a problem than a blessing. Onsite, just before sunset, is a poor time to cough up a new Plan B as part of the “fun”. But that’s just me, set in my ways and burned out on “There are no problems, only opportunities” corporate gibberish. Hopefully, your own touring system and needs are working well for you (or will work once you escape the cubicle!)