The US government owns about 30% of the land in the US while the rest is privately held. The BLM alone cares for more than 247.3 million acres. That’s about one-eighth of the country’s landmass. Surely they wouldn’t mind if you set up a little spot somewhere out of the way, would they? It seems sensible enough that you should be able to take over a small unoccupied corner of the wilderness and call it your own.
Can you live on federal land? The short answer is yes, but the longer answer is complicated. There are several ways to live on federal land, but none of them involve grabbing your tent and going where you want to stay forever. I’ll detail the ways to live (legally) on Federal land below.
The Unfortunate Truth: Illegal Camping
Homelessness is a horrible problem. Sadly, since all the land in the USA is owned, simply living somewhere unoccupied can get you in a lot of trouble if you get caught. The biggest problem for the government isn’t that people want to live for free.
Most federal land allows for disbursed camping, meaning people are free to camp as they like. There are time limits that vary by state. Long term campers pose a problem in terms of cleanup. Many campers leave trash and other waste. Additionally, ninety percent of all forest fires are started by people. Most of these are campfires that weren’t appropriately tended.
Indoor Plumbing Not Included
There’s also the issue of sanitation and human byproducts (poop and pee). When people occupy a place long enough, there’s a risk for disease and illness. The land doesn’t heal, and plants do not regrow. In short, it’s a mess, and the government spends millions cleaning up.
Even if you aren’t ‘like that’ and plan to clean up your mess, the laws are made to suit a more extensive sampling of the population. The government isn’t big on losing profit from your taxes. However, it’s the working hours, materials, and expenses for the mess that is the real issue.
Whether you’re on vacation or staying forever, I suggest you seriously think about getting your hands on an excellent camping commode. Just burying your waste leaves a biohazard behind that other people may have to deal with. I like the Alpcour Portable Toilet you can get from Amazon because it folds up easily and has a carry case. Always try to leave your campsite better off than when you found it, instead of filling the area with little ‘unpleasant surprises.’
Finding A Better Way
If you’re determined to find a legal way you can live on federal land, there’s good news. You can do it. Here’s a quick list of how to live on property owned by the Fed without going to jail.
- Camping: You can camp on federal land for limited periods before you need to move a few miles away. The duration and distance are up to the state agency that regulates the local area. Campsite hosts are less limited in the duration of their stay.
- Rangers and Firefighters: Becoming a park ranger or wildlands firefighter affords opportunities to live on federal land in some places.
- Stake a Mining Claim: There are lots of places where you can stake a mining claim, which affords you the right to work and camp on site.
You have to use your own best judgment to decide if any of these are the right lifestyle choices for you. Fortunately, you can change your mind if things don’t work out. With the exception of becoming a park ranger, BLM employee, or wildlands firefighter, you haven’t got any commitment to fulfill.
The bonuses of having a paid position are obvious. However, quitting a job if things don’t work out will impact your work history. Especially if you may want to be employed by the forestry service or some other government agency in the future, it’s better if you make sure to put in an appropriate form to give notice if you do decide it was the wrong choice for you.
Staking a claim to mine is my favorite option. Much of the BLM land in the US is available for miners and potential miners to stake their own small claims. You can’t erect any permanent structures, but you can camp and work on your claim. Prospecting for gold or digging for other precious and semiprecious metals or stones can be a lot of fun.
Make no mistake; mining is hard work. However, for those who enjoy their freedom and know a bit about the earth, mining a small claim is a perfect way to live off-grid. Of course, you’ll need some tools like the Rockhound & Rock Mining Kit from Amazon to get started, but it can be a very profitable way to live if you put in the effort.
The BLM site has guidelines for how to camp on federal lands. Disbursed camping is legal. You don’t have to camp in a developed spot. There are some restricted and protected areas where you can’t pitch a tent. Otherwise, it’s generally okay.
You can only stay fourteen nights out of any twenty-eight-day period. The nights don’t need to be consecutive, any fourteen nights count and the period begins as soon as you arrive on site. You must move twenty-five miles from your original site when your time is up.
Camping at developed sites is a different story. Per the BLM website, developed camping works like this:
Permits, Fees, and Limitations:
- Most BLM campgrounds charge a first-come-first-served mandatory fee. In some places, you can book ahead at recreation.gov.
- Occupants must obey the posted rules.
- Fees vary, and you have to check with the local area website for the campground.
- The maximum length of stay varies by location. Most places it’s about two weeks out of each month.
- You have to drop off your fee within thirty minutes of arrival.
- “A campsite is rented ONLY once it has been paid in full with the pay-stub properly completed and displayed on-site, and the site is occupied by campers.”
- Don’t leave your personal property unattended for more than 72 hours.
- Some campgrounds are only open seasonally, so check for availability before you try to camp.
Developed facilities may include some or all of the following: picnic areas, tent pads, potable water and restrooms, garbage cans and dumpsters, group shelters, fire rings, and even electrical hookups.
Long Term Visitor Areas
There is an exception to the fourteen-day rule in the form of LTVA’s. Because of snowbirds, older people who wish to winter in warmer climates, and other increased demand, the BLM has established a few longer-term camping locations. Check in advance to make sure there’s space where you want to stay.
Generally, people travel and live there for a few months in a camper. The fees are more than a standard campsite, but less than rent on an apartment. It’s a perfect solution for outdoor enthusiasts. You can find current information on those areas on this BLM long term camping site.
For the motivated DIYers; I found plans to build my own 8′ Teardrop Trailer Pull Behind Camper on Amazon. The instructions detail the step-by-step process to make a tiny camper. It has an indoor kitchen space and an enormous trunk. I take mine everywhere when I travel, and it’s been amazingly useful.
Volunteer campsite hosts have relatively few duties. You won’t be paid for your time, but hosting gives you the opportunity to live on BLM land for six months to a year at a time. Your duties might include trash pickup or other minor time investments.
It’s not a bad way to live rent-free if you have the right equipment, and you don’t mind a little work exchange. The most choice spots likely fill up pretty quickly, but there are a whole lot of campsites in the US. You can fill out a form and apply to host a campsite anytime. However, the BLM isn’t required to say yes. Be aware that they may do a background check or otherwise verify your identity.
Gettin’ Paid To Live in the Wild
The most rewarding and committed way to live on federal land some or all the time is to apply for work as a BLM Employee, Park Ranger, or Wildlands Firefighter. Different jobs have different requirements and perks. In general, you have to be able to pass their pre-employment screening, background checks, and physical requirements to get these positions.
Sadly, in recent years, cuts to federal funding for these programs make these jobs a bit harder to get. Still, with sufficient determination, you can work and live in the wild parts of our country and make a decent living.
Some of these options may cost you a little bit of money, plus the time it takes to do the paperwork. The job opportunities are far more involved. Then again, if you’re willing to move twice a month for the rest of your life and clean up after yourself, you can camp on federal land for free. At least until the laws change.
Even in our modern era, there are legitimate and fun ways to live off the land. Federal land could be your ideal home. You just need the right information and paperwork to live wild and free.