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Photo by Mitch Breton

I “Lived” on Public Lands for a Summer. Here’s What I Learned

Many people dream of ditching the daily grind and striking out toward the mountains. In Colorado, you can do that on the (relative) cheap—if you know what you're doing. Here’s how one nomad pulled it off.

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It’s a Monday in July, but there’s no need to go to the office. I turn the stovetop on, start boiling water for coffee, open the screen door, and let my loyal mutt Tucker out to do his business. We both gaze at the ranch sprawling out over the foothills of Mt. Sopris. I poke my head farther out and see the valley to Carbondale below. Tucker comes racing back, looking for breakfast, as the water on the stove reaches a simmer. The suspension of my camper gives in a little as I step up into my kitchen—which is also my bedroom, and my mobile office, and a little bit too close to my bathroom.

It’s an idyllic setting, and one that I enjoyed in one spot or another for the entirety of the summer of 2018, as I made Colorado’s land my backyard, my workspace—and essentially—my home. I did the thing so many people scrolling Instagram daydream of doing: I negotiated a remote contract, bought a 1999 travel trailer, sold my Subaru, and replaced it with a half-ton truck with 200,000 miles on the engine. I created a cheap-but-compact rig: something I could tow hundreds of miles on any given day, but also one where I was comfortable enough living—rent free—for two weeks at a time. And it was all possible because of public land.

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Why I Hatched the Plan

In Maine, where I grew up, all but five percent of the land is private. For that reason, skiing takes place at ski resorts, camping at private campgrounds, and fly fishing access points are increasingly shrinking and secretive. “Backcountry” was a foreign concept, spare the 100 Mile Wilderness section of the Appalachian Trail and the Allagash Wilderness Waterway. So when I discovered the seemingly boundless swaths of public land in Colorado, I was floored.

Photo by Mitch Breton

I first encountered public land on my way from Denver to Santa Fe (where my office gig was based) on a Sunday evening three years ago. Rather than drive straight through that night, I pulled over near the banks of the Pecos River near Glorieta, New Mexico and slept in my car. I woke early and fly-fished before packing up and making it to work—a bit groggy and smelly—at 9 a.m. on Monday morning.

Though it was a brief encounter, I realized I could access, recreate, and camp on tracts of land that were the size of my entire home state—and aside from a fishing license, it didn’t cost a damn thing. I did a little research and learned that Colorado ranked ninth in public land percentage with more than 23 million acres—and it also boasted enough mountain towns that were supportive of remote workers. I knew that’s where I’d be heading.

For me, the freedom of being able to sleep in my truck or pitch a tent without paying a campground fee was catalyzing. I wanted to be everywhere and do everything, be outside 100 percent of the time I wasn’t working, and fly fish my way across Colorado’s public lands. After living in an off-grid cabin for a summer in college and renting a permanently parked (and slightly dilapidated) RV in Santa Fe, I knew I could hack it glamping for an entire summer.

With Tucker as my co-pilot, I struck out toward Colorado, where I would spend a summer boondocking—the colloquial term for camping on public lands without facilities. On days when other people listlessly sat at their desks, I would almost always be a short drive down a dirt road from trophy trout waters.

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How to (Legally) Camp on Public Land

Photo by Mitch Breton

Contrary to what Instagram influencers proclaim, becoming a #digitalnomad isn’t as cheap as it looks—especially if you don’t have sponsorships rolling in. Beyond the initial price tag of purchasing your van or camper, overnight lodging can burn through your budget—unless you avoid paid campgrounds all summer long.

I spent roughly 80 percent of my nights that summer camping on public land, which don’t require fees. But here’s the rub: It is technically illegal to live full-time on public land. You can’t set up at an off-grid campsite and stay there indefinitely. You have to research where you can and can’t stay, and learning these things is a bit of an art form. At a minimum, you must abide by these three cardinal rules:

For the most part, you should be honing your search into the two federal agencies that manage the most land across Colorado, the U.S. Forest Service (over 11.3 millions acres) and Bureau of Land Management (over 4.2 million acres). Navigating these areas can be confusing and dangerous, which is why, before driving out into the wild, you should consult resources like freecampsites.net, which—as its name suggests—lists free places to camp, including forest roads, creeksides in Telluride, riversides on the Arkansas in Salida, and at the base of Mt. Sopris. Users input reviews, photos, cell signal quality, GPS locations, managing agency, and road conditions. That last one is pretty handy while towing a trailer.

It often helps to then cross-reference the campsite you’re looking at with Google Maps. Features like Satellite and Earth view can show you hazards like elevation change and switchbacks. However, it also comes in handy if you want to be in proximity to local trout streams, libraries, and watering holes. Scouting is never a bad idea when towing a trailer. It’s easier to unhitch, scope out the campsite, and return than it is to get yourself out of a bad jackknife.

The Logistics of Boondocking

Photo by Mitch Breton

If you’re going to camp your way across Colorado, you need some sort of a rig. I quickly realized that a van wasn’t going to service my needs (or budget). I wanted my living space separate from my engine, figuring if one broke I could live out of the other temporarily.

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I picked up a 17-foot 1999 Trail Lite Bantam hybrid travel trailer and 2004 Toyota Tundra—all in law, the pair ran me about $10,000. It certainly wasn’t the sexiest outfit on the road. Both the truck and camper were modest and had seen some wear, but despite a few hiccups, they worked for me.

I used two 10-pound propane tanks to keep my stove lit. I carried 30 gallons of water at a time, which would last me well over two weeks of camping. With minimal usage, my 12-volt deep cell marine battery would last about a week, and I added battery-operated hockey puck lights to the roof. I took cold one-minute showers twice a week (with an occasional river dip) to conserve water and power. And lastly, and most importantly, I mastered one-pot cooking.

Of course, it’s not as though I had zero environmental impact. I used a lot of resources—water, electricity, and propane—and pulling my trailer around the Centennial State at 10 miles-per-gallon burned a lot of fuel. Too much, really.

I needed to refuel consistently, which included charging batteries, dumping tanks, and filling up on propane and water. For electricity, my trailer would charge off the truck’s engine when in motion, but I found a few resources for the other needs. First, before moving campsites, I’d make sure to have a pitstop in mind. For refilling water and dumping my tanks, I used RVdumps.com or Sanidumps.com. Both listed useful information like whether the dumping station is free, whether the water is potable, and how far off the highway it is.

Looking back, I took a lot while on the road. I lived in Colorado for a few months, ate at local restaurants, shopped at local businesses, and pilfered public wifi. But these services are offered for the public good. Whether it was a municipal library, city sanitation station, or the massive amounts of federally owned public land, I’m thankful these resources exist. But most of all, I’m grateful for the time I spent in the wilderness, enjoying the views, fishing the rivers, and making the most of one of Colorado’s greatest treasures—our land.

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