The Hagens take their Palomino pop-up truck camper deep into the Oregon and Idaho wilderness. Don’t miss their BLM and National Forest tips, and stunning photography.
The Bureau of Land Management administers approximately 256 million acres of public lands in the United States. According to Wikipedia, that’s one-eighth of the landmass in the United States. Much of this BLM land is available to the public for free. Boondocking anyone?
Unlike national and state parks, most BLM land doesn’t appear on your typical map or GPS database. In fact, you could be driving past hundreds of miles of BLM lands and not even know it. So how do you go about finding and using BLM lands?
To learn about the opportunities of BLM and National Forests, we talked to Brian and Chris Hagen. The Hagens are passionate off-road and off-the-grid enthusiasts with years of BLM and National Forest experience.
Now on their second Palomino pop-up truck camper, the Hagens share their knowledge about finding, accessing, and using BLM and National Forest land, and reveal some of their favorite destinations. Get your bucket list out and a pen. You’re going to need it.
TCM: How did you get into camping on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) areas?
Brian: For me, camping away from campgrounds, called dispersed camping or boondocking, started with my parents. When I was a kid, we would go camping in the backcountry. As adults, Chris and I like solitude.
Chris: My dad was a Boy Scout leader. He didn’t want to be around people when he was camping.
TCM: That’s understandable. How do you find BLM camping opportunities for truck camping?
Brian: On BLM lands and in the National Forests you are pretty much allowed to camp anywhere you want. In some National Forests there are “No Camping” signs, but that tends to be the exception, and they are usually there due to environmental concerns and wildlife protection.
When we’re in the National Forests we usually camp in the National Forest campgrounds. We try to go on weekdays so that we have the campgrounds mostly to ourselves.
Above: Northfork campground on Owhyee River, Idaho
The National Forests have quite a few developed campgrounds. Some have campground hosts and take reservations. They are very basic with a fire pit, picnic table, outhouse, and campsite. You pay at a self-serve kiosk by the honor system. Some forest service campgrounds are free.
BLM camping is even less organized. Very rarely will there be formal campgrounds on BLM lands. Most of the time, it’s just land. We have never found a BLM campground that charges fees.
Above: BLM camping in the middle of nowhere
You can camp pretty much anywhere you want on BLM lands. The legal limit for camping is fourteen days on both BLM and National Forest lands. After that, you need to move on.
Chris: You also need to pack in and pack out when camping on BLM and National Forest lands. What you bring with you, you take out with you. Some fee campgrounds have garbage service. And now you have to stay on the roads. Many roads are logging roads or mining roads and they can be quite rough.
Above: Logging road after a recent forest fire
Brian: That is the law now. You can’t make your own road. You have to stay on the designated roads. If you see an ATV in the brush, that person is breaking the law and could be fined.
You are permitted to pull off the road to camp there, but you can’t drive a half-mile through the sage brush to camp.
TCM: What resources do you recommend for finding National Forest and BLM camping opportunities?
Brian: The Bureau of Land Management has section maps; land ownership maps that show the state, federal, and private lands. These maps are really handy and detailed. You can purchase them at BLM offices or you can order them through the BLM website; blm.gov. They are called ‘Surface Management Status Maps’. Two good websites are www.publiclands.org and www.rv-camping.org/boondocking.
Above: A road to a hot spring in Oregon
Chris: Brian and I have been out enough to know the areas we want to explore further. We’ll travel into a certain area, come across a road and say, “Let’s go there and find what we can find”. It’s almost like we spin a bottle and find out where we want to go.
Above: Camp in the Lost Forest in Oregon
Brian: We also find areas by word of mouth. For example, the Lost Forest in Oregon. I had heard about it for years. It’s a ponderosa pine forest in the desert.
There is no water there. They get eight inches of rain a year, but the ground holds the water. There are sand dunes amongst trees and 11,000 acres of adjacent public sand dunes.
Above: Entering eastern Oregon’s Lost Forest in Christmas Valley
To be honest, we probably won’t go back there. It’s extremely dusty. I’m glad we went because it was different, but it’s not really exciting. If we had a dune buggy, it would be a great place to visit.
TCM: That does sound interesting, or maybe just odd. Are there any other resources you recommend?
Brian: One thing we always take with us is the Delorme and Benchmark state atlases. In my opinion, the Benchmark maps are the best. They have a good basic set of maps for each state.
If you want to get more detail, carry a USGS topo map. Those are put out by the federal government and are available online. I’m more of a map person. We have a GPS, but I don’t use it that much.
It is also amazing what you can find on YouTube. You can see many of these roads ahead of time. It will show you the true condition of the roads. For example, we were wondering if the Magruder Corridor in Idaho was a camper road, and YouTube shows much of it.
Above: French Creek grade dropping into Idaho’s Salmon River
TCM: In one of your pictures you show a very rough and narrow road. Is this a common condition you find, or the exception to the rule?
Chris: We come across a lot of narrow roads high up in the mountains. A lot of the forest service roads are old logging roads, so they are not very wide. Then other roads aren’t bad at all. A road can go from great to horrible very quickly. That’s why you need to research the roads ahead as much as possible.
Above: Warren to Big Creek Road, Idaho
Brian: The roads we travel are not maintained very often, maybe once every three or four years, and sometimes not at all. The BLM and forest service often hire private contractors to maintain the roads.
We were out in the desert in eastern Oregon and came across a road grader. He was staying in a sleeping bag at night and improving the roads during the day. He was working for the Bureau. He spent seven or eight days on the grader.
TCM: Have you ever gotten into a bad situation?
Brian: There have been a few times when we realized we had gone as far we were going to go, even with four wheel drive, and turned around. This last May we were boondocking in the desert and had camp set up. There was no cell service and no people. A heavy thundershower during the night turned the road to mud. It was late afternoon the next day before it dried out enough to leave.
Above: Chris will scout out an area on foot before they proceed
Chris: We have to watch for ruts in the road from hard rain and sharp rocks. A couple of times we have come face-to-face with other vehicles and needed to back up. The roads are often supposed to be two-way roads, but sometimes there’s only room for one vehicle.
Brian: Part of the etiquette in that situation is that the person going uphill has the right of way, and the person going downhill has to pull over. Sometimes that doesn’t work out. Usually there are turn-outs. If you look ahead and see a vehicle coming, pull off when you have a chance.
Above: Gooding City of Rocks, Idaho
TCM: What recommendations do you have for driving on these roads?
Chris: We have 10-ply tires on the truck and we use four-wheel drive. We also go really slow in first gear on steep downgrades. That way our truck won’t automatically speed up.
In the mountains, your vehicle wants to push you downhill. It’s the law of inertia and the weight of the camper compounds that. Get into a lower gear so that you’re not on the brakes as much. You can also pull over to cool off the brakes.
Brian: Use four-wheel drive low range on steep roads. Otherwise, I use four-wheel drive high on rough dirt roads.
Be warned that in BLM land sometimes there are no signs to indicate a steep grade. About a half mile in you may realize that it is steeper than you thought, and you need to put your truck into a lower gear.
One road that comes to mind was Kleinschmidt grade on the Idaho side of Hells Canyon. That is a white knuckle windy one lane road. One section drops 2,200 feet in 4.9 miles. Without a low gear to help slow us down, our brakes would overheat in no time.
Above: Old road at the bottom of Owhyee Reservoir, eastern Oregon
Going into the Owyhee River Canyon in eastern Oregon’s desert there is a 12-percent grade. Just be aware that the terrain can change rapidly.
TCM: Just to be clear, do you ever need to make reservations or register anywhere to use National Forest or BLM land?
Brian: I can’t speak for the entire National Forest and BLM land system, but we have never needed to register or make reservations. Some improved forest service fee campgrounds do take reservations.
We do a lot of hiking, and there is often a registration box at the trailhead where you sign your name. In some of the campgrounds you will have to register. I have a Senior Pass for National Park campgrounds, which includes the National Forest campgrounds.
Above: Camping spot in Gooding City of Rocks, Idaho
TCM: Are there any other rules that folks should be aware of before venturing into National Forest and BLM lands?
Brian: Since they don’t have outhouses on BLM land, you need to dig at least a 6-inch hole that’s no less than 200 feet from a water source to dispose of your human waste.
If you’re camping in a dispersed area or boondocking on BLM lands, leave it as though no one has been there. The rule is to leave no trace. Pack it in and pack it out, including your garbage. The law requires your campfire to be dead out. Douse it with water and dirt. Many national forests require you to carry an axe, shovel, and bucket if you have a fire.
Chris: You have to use fire ring if you want to burn anything.
Brian: Also, watch for fire restrictions in the area you are traveling. On the National Forest and BLM websites there are bulletins. We always check those before we go somewhere.
Chris: The fire incident Information website, inciweb.nwcg.gov, has all current fires listed in the region.
TCM: That’s a great tip, especially for safety. You don’t want to venture into an area that has an active fire situation nearby. Speaking of safety, do you take any precautions given that you’re often traveling and camping beyond cell range?
Chris: We always have a backup party. We call Brian’s brother or a friend before we are going out of cell range. Someone always knows where we are going. If we don’t show up when we’re supposed to, they will send someone out. We also have two first aid kits.
Brian: Chris used to be a first aid and CPR instructor. I went to her courses.
For recovery situations, I carry a 12,000 pound tow rope. I’ve only used it once, and that was to pull someone else out.
I wish I had a winch. I’d feel a lot safer. I did upgrade my truck’s tire jack. We have gotten flat tires on those roads way back in the backcountry. Make sure you have a good spare.
The truck has 10-ply load range E all-terrain tires, which are good tires for this type of driving. I immediately got the 10-ply tires after upgrading my truck. We started with a half-ton but now have a three-quarter ton.
In addition, we carry spare belts, hoses and a fold-up shovel. I used to carry a high lift jack, but it’s tough to find space now. Of course we always have a complete tool kit. And there’s always duct tape.
Above: The east side of Steen’s Mountain, Oregon
TCM: Duct tape is essential! What are some of your favorite BLM spots?
Brian: One of our favorite BLM areas is the Steen’s Mountains in eastern Oregon. On the east side is the Alvord Desert.
Above: Crossing the Alvord desert in Oregon
Above: Camp overlooking the Alvord desert, Oregon
Above: Same camp overlooking the Alvord desert (different angle)
Above: Alvord Hot Springs has all the modern amenities; an indoor and outdoor pool, and even a dressing room.
Above: Chris and Brian enjoy the hot springs in the Oregon desert
We like primitive hot springs, so this is one of my favorite areas. The west side is totally different country. I’ve been there with my brothers and want to take Chris.
Above: Camping on the Oregon side of the Hells Canyon National Recreation area
Hells Canyon National Recreation area is beautiful country. The east side is in Idaho and the west side is Oregon.
Above: Heaven’s Gate in the Seven Devils Mountains
In the Seven Devils Mountains, you can go to Heaven’s Gate for beautiful views. It’s gorgeous!
Above: Exploring the Seven Devils Mountains
You can take a bigger truck camper up there. It’s narrow and steep, but it’s a good road. It climbs up from 2,000 feet in Riggins, Idaho to 8,000 feet at the summit. It’s a good road and there are two nice campgrounds up top. They are National Forest campgrounds and no fees.
Above: Driving the Magruder Road Corridor
This past August we went to the Magruder Road Corridor from Idaho to Montana for the first time. The Magruder Road Corridor is 100 miles long and sandwiched between two wilderness areas. If you are looking for a true wilderness experience in a truck camper, this would be a great trip but don’t attempt it in one day.
Above: Camping along the Magruder Road Corridor
The Magruder Road Corridor goes to over 7,000 feet. There are a lot of historical sites and gorgeous views. It’s a narrow dirt road, so you may need to back up if someone is coming in the other direction. We went Labor Day weekend and met only a few other vehicles.
Above: Magruder Corridor in Idaho
We saw a large Lance camper with a slide-out on a dually and he had no problem. The Magruder Road Corridor is narrow and steep in some places, but the road itself isn’t bad. It’s not recommended for passenger cars or trailers but you don’t need four wheel drive. It could be a little scary for people not familiar with driving off pavement. Check road conditions before going. It is usually blocked by snow until July 1st. You can Google “Magruder Road” and find lots of good information.
Above: Exploring Oregon’s Leslie Gulch
We also like Leslie Gulch in Malheur County, Oregon. We go there a lot because we live only two hours away. The BLM has a no fee campground there.
Chris: Leslie Gulch and the surrounding area is a good rock hounding country.
Brian: On most BLM land, you can take up to 250 pounds of rocks per year without getting a permit. The law varies for petrified wood. You have to check at local BLM offices in your area.
Chris: I recommend you check the BLM website because I know the laws are different in other states. You can’t take historical artifacts, like arrowheads. You can get into trouble.
Above: Chris and Brian’s Palomino SS-1251 on Succor Creek Road in Oregon
TCM: In your email to TCM, you stated, “Our first camper was a 2012 Palomino and we traded it in for a 2014 Palomino because of the upgrades they made.” What were the upgrades that got your attention?
Brian: We had a pop-up trailer that we took to Alaska in 2011. Along the way, we discovered that we wanted to go on roads that weren’t practical for a trailer.
We looked at quite a few truck campers and got the Palomino partly because of the price, and partly because we didn’t know if we’d like truck camping. We liked the floor plan of the Palomino SS-1251. We had it for two years.
In 2014 Palomino came out with redesigned pop-up campers. They added electric roof lifts and replaced the folding door with a single door. The single door is more convenient because you don’t have to raise the roof to get into the camper.
Our first Palomino was really good and we were happy with it. We have taken our new Palomino on washboard and rough roads and the camper has held up well. The toilet and refrigerator each had one problem but that’s possibly because of the challenging roads we’ve been on. That’s not a Palomino problem. We have never had a problem with the electric roof lift. We love it.
Above: Their camp on Idaho’s Salmon river
TCM: How is your camper outfitted for off-grid camping?
Brian: Two batteries are an absolute must. Palomino pop-ups only come with one. I have installed a second battery outside in front of the passenger’s side wheel well.
We have portable solar panels that open up like a suitcase and are set outside. The portable solar panel works well but, if I had a choice, I think I’d put a permanent solar panel on the roof. You don’t have to worry about them and while you are driving you are charging your batteries.
Fresh water capacity in the Palomino is only twenty-two gallons. We carry an extra seven gallon water can.
We have gone five days off-the-grid. If it gets rainy, we have to conserve power and be careful. We love the LED lighting. In our first Palomino we didn’t have it.
The toilet in the Palomino SS-1251 has a black water tank, but I’d rather have a cassette toilet because then I wouldn’t need to carry a sewer hose. The way we do camping, a cassette would be more convenient.
Above: Brian’s auxiliary grey tank for the sink only, not the shower
The Palomino pop-ups do not come with grey water tanks so I added an 11-gallon auxiliary grey tank for the kitchen sink. When we pull over and want to make lunch, we don’t have to get out a five gallon container and a hose.
Above: The 11-gallon auxiliary grey tank’s dump valve
The grey tank is long and narrow. It’s attached to the outside of the camper. It fits above the wheel well on the driver’s side, so it doesn’t change the clearances for loading and unloading process. To make it work, a few modifications had to be made to the sink drain.
We mainly use the outside shower. About half the time we’re totally by ourselves in the wilderness, so we don’t worry.
In eastern Oregon the roads will take us to gorgeous places that most people don’t know exist. Chris and I really like the desert. We also like explore ghost towns in Nevada.
TCM: As you talk about your favorite BLM spots, you can almost hear the readers writing destinations on their bucket lists. The Alvord Desert is now on our list.
Brian: One thing about traveling on these roads is that screws and cabinet hinges will work their way loose. I’ve done the old wood glue and little piece of toothpick trick and never had a problem since. Just put a little piece of a toothpick and some wood glue in the hole. Then put the screw back and it holds forever.
We’ve got a 35 gallon fuel tank in our new diesel truck. You can get into areas where there’s no fuel for 150 miles. Extra gas or a large gas tank is important. We carried an auxiliary fuel tank with our old truck. Gas stations in sparse areas can unexpectedly close. We had planned on gassing up in Denio, Nevada, on one trip but found it closed and had to drive north to Fields, Oregon to get gas
Chris and Brian’s Rig
Truck: 2004 Ram 2500
Camper: 2014 Palomino SS-1251
Suspension: Firestone airbags, Torklift StableLoads
Gear: Portable solar panel, auxiliary grey tank, extra battery