I opened my eyes. It was morning. Yes! Our initiation was over. We had found a place to camp the night before just as the sun was setting, in the wilderness–not a campground, and slept in the bed-car, for FREE.

No bears or burglars came. And I was done lying on my right side, my pillow covering the gap between the laid down backseat and the door. Dew dripped down the fogged windows. I tried to roll onto my back, but I ended up on Simon. I opened the door next to my head and cool crisp air blew in. Too cold. I pulled it closed. The kids woke up. We got on our way.

Camping outside developed campgrounds on national forest land, called dispersed camping, comes with responsibilities. Always check with the  US Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management for rules specific to where you’d like to camp, but here are some general rules: 

  • Locate your camping spot at least 1/4 mile from major roads, outside of fragile meadows and restricted areas, and preferably on bare or mineral soil.
  • Camp at least 100 feet away from lakes and streams.
  • Use camp stoves to help conserve ground cover resources.
  • Check for fire restrictions before building a fire.
  • Never leave fire unattended. 
  • Use an existing fire ring where available. If you need one, build it small and in a safe place.
  • Gather only dead and down wood for your campfire. Never cut live trees.
  • Be sure your fire is out before you leave — drown it, turn it, stir it until it’s cool to the touch.
  • If no toilets are available, dig a hole 6-12 inches deep and refill after use. Bury toilet paper in the same hole or pack out in a plastic bag.
  • Take all trash with you when you leave.
  • Leave site as you found it (or cleaner) when you depart

The rewards of dispersed camping are endless. You’ll have no campsite neighbor blaring annoying country western music. It’ll be just you and the wilderness and the stars in the night. It’s CHEAP. You may even be treated to a herd of bovine and their calves blocking the road on your way out.

Bed-car is a term I stole from the parents of Brian’s aunt. Well into their retirement, they’ve crossed the U.S. twelve times in a mini van outfitted for sleeping. They’ve removed the back seats and built a wooden platform that holds a queen sized mattress and they stow their cooler and suitcases below the platform. Travel is cheap. I was inspired. Remy and Simon were excited. 

But we have a Subaru Outback, not a van, and this trip had three people traveling. There actually were some novelties to sleeping inside the Subaru. It was the first time I ever slept the entire night in a car. It was the only time I ever watched a movie on a little dvd player in bed while camping. And I got to sleep more snugly and cozily with my children than I had in recent years.

But where we were going was warmer than the Montana high country and sleeping in crammed quarters with growing children was quickly losing its appeal. I decided future nights would be better spent luxuriating in the tent. Then the ranger at Nine Mile Fire Station down the road told us he spotted a GRIZZLY bear the day before romping through the meadow with an elk calf in it’s mouth. Maybe the car wasn’t too cozy after all.

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