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Tips for camping during the pandemic

John Soares has always preferred camping away from developed campgrounds. Now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s something he advocates even more than usual.

Soares, who lives in Ashland and has written several excellent hiking guides, including “100 Classic Hikes: Northern California,” and “Day Hiking: Mount Shasta, Lassen & Trinity Alps Region,” has just released, “Camp for Free: Dispersed Camping & Boondocking on America’s Public Lands.”

It’s a book that’s been in his thoughts for years, but one that’s especially timely now in the time of physical distancing. He began working on the book in February, before the pandemic exploded, because, “I’ve always enjoyed dispersed camping. I just vastly prefer being alone in a natural spot. To me it’s just fantastic.”

Soares doesn’t offer specific locations for dispersed camping or “boondocking,” which he defines as dispersed camping in an RV — “because there’s got to be several hundreds of thousands of places. There’s no way I could be comprehensive.”

Instead, “Camp for Free” provides often detailed information on how to find remote places to camp on federal, state and private lands. Using examples from his 30-plus years of dispersed camping, he outlines the pros and cons of dispersed camping, compares the advantages and disadvantages of using different types of vehicles (RVs, trucks with camper shells, SUVs, minivans, travel trailers, motorcycles), provides suggestions on when and where to go, and offers advice — sometimes learned the hard way — on potential hazards and challenges.

Earlier this year, Soares and his partner, Stephanie Hoffman, spent three spring nights camping on Modoc National Forest lands just outside Lava Beds National Monument, a place he visits yearly. They car-camped in their Kia Sedona minivan off a Forest Service road at night and hiked on Lava Beds during the day.

As the book’s title emphasizes, another advantage of dispersed camping means that it’s free, with no campground fees. As Soares notes, with the nightly fee for many developed campgrounds $30 a night or higher, a person could spend $900 in a month for campsites, “and that’s a lot of money.”

The book provides ways to answer such questions as, “Am I legal?” and “Am I safe?” by including basic information on how to contact various agencies, such as the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service.

He also offers suggestions about necessary pre-trip preparations, such as carrying enough drinking water, dealing with the lack of access to toilets and showers and, just in case, having a plan for vehicle breakdowns.

Soares emphasizes the need to take care and exercise caution when traveling backcountry dirt or gravel roads. He insists dispersed campers and boondockers adopt the mantra, “When in doubt, Scout!” by getting out of the vehicle and walking to see what might be ahead.

In practicing what he preaches, Soares tells about the vehicles and camping methods he has tested and provides personal experiences at developed and dispersed camping areas — “I’ve had good experience and I’ve had bad experiences.”

In a time of pandemic and physical distancing, Soares believes his book is timely and relevant “since it allows people to recreate far from others.”

As he writes, “Wherever you find your special camping spot, whether it’s in the red-rock desert in northern Arizona, or in the high mountains of Wyoming or California, you’ll be surrounded by nature in all directions. Cliffs and peaks, trees and flowers — and a dark sky at night so you can watch the stars slowly turn, with the occasional meteor flash.”

“Camp For Free: Dispersed Camping & Boondocking on America’s Public Lands,” is available only through Amazon. The cost for a paperback version is $11.95, and $4.95 on Kindle.

Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.