Finding campsites with a Motor Vehicle Use Map

posted in: New Mexico, Tips | 4

When I’m looking for a good boondocking campsite, I try to research beforehand the area where I’m heading. I have some standard information sources, that usually turn up a few good alternatives.

But sometimes I come up empty. Some parts of the country just haven’t been traveled that much, or at least not by people who write about it!

So what’s a person to do, but start scouting out forest roads? Let’s just say sometimes this works out better than others! 😉 This day ended up at a nice boondocking campsite on FR712, but it took awhile…

Searching for campsites with a motor vehicle use map sometimes turns up a winner!
At last! I ended up at this boondocking spot on FR712

The National Forests’ Motor Vehicle Use Maps

I am so grateful for all of the excellent National Forest lands that we have in the US. These are a prime source of fabulous free campsites, and I’ve enjoyed many nights camping in these areas.

If you want to free camp in a National Forest, they publish what they call Motor Vehicle Use Maps for different forests. Many of these MVUMs are available for download online, though not all of them are online yet. Just search for the National Forest you’re interested in.

These maps show you all of the roads (including some gnarly dirt roads that would be the death of Zennie for sure!) that are open to motorized vehicles, and use a series of little dots along the roadways to show you where dispersed camping is allowed. If you’re going to be boondocking in a National Forest, a Motor Vehicle Use Map is a good thing to have.

Motor Vehicle Use Map showing dispersed camping locations
The dots on the Motor Vehicle Use Map show where dispersed camping is allowed

Using a Motor Vehicle Use Map has its limits

Unfortunately, on its own, a MVUM isn’t really all that useful. Believe me, I speak from experience! 😉

If I had a 4-wheel drive high clearance vehicle, I’d feel pretty confident about taking off down most of these roads on the map. Even with that, however, there will be times you run into one that’s washed out or impassable, especially if conditions are muddy or snowy.

But with Zennie, my range of dirt roads is significantly more limited than if I was driving a Jeep or a Tacoma. With a low clearance, 2-wheel drive, big vehicle with a little engine, my ability to deal with forest roads is greatly reduced.

I can’t even make it on some roads that normal passenger cars can handle! Sometimes this is due to the oversize vehicle combined with a narrow road and tight corners. Other times it’s due to steep hills. In Colorado, Zennie came to an absolute halt on a 21% grade dirt road, and we couldn’t move forward at all. It’s a scary situation, and one I’m not keen to repeat! 😮

Rough dirt road found using a motor vehicle use map
There may be a sweet campsite up there, but not Zennie’s favorite kind of road!

Venturing blindly down dirt roads

So I was up in northern New Mexico, looking for places to camp in the Carson National Forest, using a Motor Vehicle Use Map. I also had a USGS topo map of the area on my phone, so I could get some idea of the terrain, but that doesn’t tell you whether a road has huge ruts, soft sand, or requires climbing small boulders. So I still felt like I was going in blind!

  1. I picked a road that looked promising on my maps, and showed that dispersed camping (boondocking) was allowed. On attempt #1, I pretty quickly reached a sign that scared me off from continuing further. Time to backtrack and find another option.
  2. My second choice started out looking great! It was a wide, graded gravel road that headed up into the hills. But before long, it became a narrower shelf road, with the hill on the left and a big drop-off on the right. And then the ruts and rocks grew to the size that I didn’t want to deal with. It was time for a 100-point turn on that little road to get out of there!
  3. “Discretion is the better part of valor.” I’m not sure who said this, but it sums up my philosophy when it comes to venturing down unknown roads! 🙂

    I know I’m more cautious about this than other people would be. My ex would have gone full steam ahead through places that I’m not willing to go. But personally, I’d rather be overly conservative than have a problem in the middle of nowhere, especially when I’m out here by myself. Everyone has their own limit for the risks they are willing to take, and this is mine.


  4. Third time’s a charm! The road was passable up to the point where camping was allowed, and there was a nice open clearing, surrounded by pine trees, with a stone fire circle. Woo hoo! Score!
    .
    Actually, the road looked fine going up further too, but this time I wasn’t going to push my luck. It’s a bit stressful finding spots this way (especially turning around on a narrow shelf road), and I was ready to settle into my new campsite, and crack open a celebratory beer!

Boondocking spot on FR712, Carson National Forest

The spot where I ended up was on Forest Road 712. This one was a winner!

Google maps shows this as road #91, but on the USGS topo and the MVUM it’s shown as #712. The GPS coordinates should get you to the right place.

There were signs posted about watching for logging operations, which is probably why the road was in as good shape as it was. I only saw one logging truck go in and out during the time I was there, however, so it wasn’t any issue.

In late afternoon, the monsoon rain clouds started to build, and gave this spectacular display. I love those towering clouds! Everything else – trees, roads, mountains, problems… they’re all dwarfed by those giant puffy clouds. 🙂

Enormous clouds over FR712 boondocking spot
I love the towering summer clouds!

There were a few people who drove by in trucks or ATVs during the afternoon, but I didn’t see anybody else camped anywhere nearby. At night, the traffic disappeared entirely, and it was a silent night.

All in all, this campsite was a success, but one that I had to work for!

Lessons learned?

  • 1. The MVUM is not enough. Ideally, I should have stopped in a ranger station, and asked them about which roads on this Motor Vehicle Use Map would be suitable (or not) for my vehicle. I bet that would have narrowed the options down to 10% or less of the forest roads, and could have saved me some time and angst.
  • 2. Get out and walk. If there’s an iffy section coming up, I’ll get out and walk ahead to check it out. This is easy for short distances, but obviously if you’re aiming to go 8 miles up the road, it would take far too long to scout on foot. If I think I’ll be gone more than a few minutes, I’ll make sure there’s a place I can leave Zennie without blocking the road. Otherwise, the one other truck driving through that day is SURE to arrive just when I’m blocking him! 😉
  • using a motor vehicle use map could get you here
    Uh uh. No way. Not gonna happen!
  • 3. Look for your way out. When driving in blind on an unknown road, don’t commit yourself too far unless you see a way out. As long as I see some place that I can turn around, then I’m comfortable going slowly forward. But without that “escape route”, I get concerned. If I’m faced with going over some tricky bit of road, and I don’t know of a turn-around spot up ahead, and don’t like the thought of reversing through the same terrain if necessary, that’s where I normally call it quits.
  • 4. Sometimes it works out well! Sometimes these exploratory trips can land you at a pretty little boondocking campsite! So patience, a sense of adventure, and a dose of caution can lead to success. But I bet I would have gotten here faster if I talked to the rangers first! 🙂

    • Forest Road 712 – Carson National Forest
      Boondocking campsite. Free camping in a meadow ringed with pine trees. Decent graded road, at least as far as I went. No facilities, no cell service.

      Rating: 3 ***
      Altitude: 8,674 ft
      GPS: 36.68043, -106.12605
      Price: Free


      Questions? Comments?

      Have you driven down dirt roads where you weren’t sure of the conditions, or if you’d be able to make it? Do you have any experiences or tips to share? Leave them in the Reply section below. Thanks!

      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      PHOTO CREDITS: Deanna Keahey

Follow Deanna:

Hi! I'm Deanna, creator of Uphill Zen. I'm currently yondering around North America with my 1986 Toyota motorhome, Zennie. What makes my heart sing is travel, adventure, and the awe-inspiring wonders of nature. Finding ways to share that joyous spirit is what this is all about.

4 Responses

  1. patz

    Hello. I just bought my first little RV a Toyota Nova Star. And just retired ..on my own widowed. Enjoyed so much reading your blog giving me courage. I’m going to spend the winter getting my little Toyota ready for travel and then I’ll be off. It’s a bit scary. But my heart says go and so I will. I love the name of your toy. I need to find a good name for my vehicle …thanks Patz

    • Deanna

      Hi Patz –
      Thanks for your comment, and congratulations on your purchase! The “getting ready” phase can be a lot of work, but once you actually get out on the road, it will all be worthwhile. 🙂

      One suggestion (which I didn’t really follow myself), is to take some shorter trips first before you head off for a big one. It’s really helpful for figuring out what you need, and it also builds your knowledge and confidence for further trips. I’m still learning things every day I’m out there!

      As for names, I waited a couple of months before naming my camper. I felt like I needed to get to know her better, in order to come up with a name that really fit. So no rush! I think you’ll know the right name when it comes to you.

      Best of luck, and I hope you have some wonderful travels! – Deanna.

  2. Trevor

    I love this. You sure have a lot of confidence. That would have a scared me. Would I get run out, would the rain make me get stuck in the mud, etc. My wife and I have a five year plan and are always talking, planning, and working toward it.
    Thank you for sharing your journey. BTW I adore the design of your website.

    • Deanna

      Hi Trevor. –

      Thanks for your comment! And I’m happy that you like the website! 😎

      Sometimes I end up on roads that scare me, too! But I think the more you do it, the easier it becomes. Now I’ll look at things and think “this is way easier than that other road we did…”

      Good luck with your 5-year plan! I always enjoy the planning part a lot, dreaming of all the cool places to go and things to do. It’s a wonderful part of the process.

      Thanks, and have fun! – Deanna.

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