Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The joys of winter car camping

I am a reluctant car camper.  I usually prefer the solitude and simplicity of backpacking.  But dispersed car camping was perfect for on recent winter trip to Comb Ridge and Cedar Mesa in southeastern Utah.
Car camping in the Valley of the Gods, Utah.
What I want at the end of a satisfying day of hiking is to sleep in my hammock amidst silence and stars, to smell the desert air, to watch the light fade on the horizon.  That is usually only made possible by traveling several miles into the backcountry.
Watching the sunset near our campsite in the Valley of the Gods.
But dispersed car camping on BLM land allowed for this type of experience.  Dispersed camping is camping in previously established sites that are spread out along forest service roads, away from campgrounds.  There are no bathrooms, picnic tables, or water, but it is possible to get miles away from anyone.  And the car is just steps away, ready to head to the next trailhead in the morning.
Walking to a hammock hang site a short ways from the car. Photo by Jan.
In winter, there were few people, so we still maintained a sense of solitude.  I imagine it’d be different during the busy season.  But most people don’t think about camping when it’s this cold.
Our campsite in the Valley of the Gods was totally peaceful.
Fellow Gossamer Gear Trail Ambassador Jan and I enjoyed the advantages of car camping.  We hung out in the warmth of the car in the evenings before I retired to my hammock.  We camped in relatively warm, sheltered spots, and then drove to colder, higher elevation trailheads in the morning.  What an excellent way to spend more time outdoors in winter!
Jan brought her stove and made hot cocoa every evening.  Quite a luxury for me cause I usually am stoveless.
How to find dispersed campsites in southeast Utah
I wasn't too familiar with dispersed camping since I normally just go backpacking.  Here are some tips I learned:

- Find out where to camp on BLM land from the visitor’s center in Blanding or Bluff, the BLM offices, and in hiking books.

- Drive around dirt forest service roads and look for sites where others have previously camped.  There were plenty of such places along Comb Wash, Butler Wash, and in the Valley of the Gods.

- Never camp near water sources.  Wildlife (and backpackers) depend on scarce water, so it’s critical not to contaminate it.

- Several parking areas had “no camping signs.”  Follow these regulations, and also never camp near archeological sites.

- Camp only in already established campsites.  Protect the fragile cryptogamic soils by staying on already trampled and compacted areas. 

- Follow LNT principles and leave your campsite pristine for the next people- pack out all trash including toilet paper and banana peels/ apple cores, dig catholes away from camp, follow all campfire restrictions, and use a stove for cooking.

- Permits were required for some areas.  The ranger station was closed in the off-season (Nov.- late Feb.) so self-registration stations were available and permits were also available at the BLM office in Monticello.
Watching the shadows creep across the vast landscapes.
Special campsite selection tips for hammock hangers
Choosing a warm campsite that is out of the wind is key for staying warm in a hammock.  Pay careful attention to site selection: 

- Cottonwoods are plentiful in washes but are often more breezy.  I avoid these areas in winter because the cold air sinks to the bottom of washes.  Try to find juniper/ pinyon pine forest because they tend to be more sheltered from wind and sites mid-way up hillsides tend to be warmest.

- Try to find trees where you won’t have to break branches to make room for your hammock.  Avoid cutting tree branches because it could damage the trees or create an “unnatural” feel for future campers.

-  Junipers tend to have lots of low branches so I carry rope (bear bag rope) to gently tie back tree branches if I can’t find a site that is big enough to squeeze my hammock into.
Using rope to tie back a branch so I could tuck into this gorgeous site in Valley of the Gods.
Overall, winter was a great time to explore southeastern Utah!  We enjoyed a fantastic week of hiking and camping and can't wait to come back for more adventures.
We're having a great time out here!
Read more about our hiking adventures on Comb Ridge and Cedar Mesa, and check out Jan's trip report on her blog.


  1. Sounds like an interesting trip. I'm not a car camper either. Was wondering what underquilt you were using for these cold Utah trips?

    1. I'm still using the Warbonnet Yeti 3-season, but I also used a section of 1/8 inch GG foam insulation under my torso, and foam insulation (my sitpad) under my legs. I borrowed Jan's full length 1/8 inch foam pad, but it tended to bunch up and side out of place. So I went back to using my little scrap of pad that's about 2 x 3 feet.

      I've got a Winter Yeti but it's too bulky and I like having the foam for sitting around too.

  2. Oh my do I see a Jetboil Mini Mo in your future? :-)

    1. OMG I got so close to pulling the trigger on one of those... And then I came to my senses.