Base camps are a semi-permanent base from which to launch your outdoor recreational activities. They should be conveniently located, with good vehicle access. They should provide convenient access to trails, streams, lakes, etc., depending on the type of activities you'll be participating in. If you're in a group, they need to be large enough to accommodate all participants. When you are desert camping you want your camp to be visible and easy to find when you're returning from activities, such as hiking or riding OHVs. We use flags attached to our RVs to help identify our camp, both for new arrivals and for returning riders. Collections of RVs can all look very much alike from a distance and you don't want to have to ride from cluster to cluster to find yours. One member of our group flies his Shamrocks off-road motorcycle club flag. I created a simple "DESERT RAT" flag to identify our group of unofficial, family-oriented, recreational riders that I mount on a flag pole that attaches to the tongue of my enclosed motorcycle trailer. At night I add flashing strobe lights on the top of my motorcycle trailer so late arriving members of the group can find us more easily in the dark.
You probably won't be setting up a base camp for a single overnight stay, but they are very helpful for weekends or other extended outings. They are perfect for OHV or horseback riding and are useful for other roaming activities like hiking, hunting, and fishing. You can set up a base camp from which to explore many trails or other points of interest. When you return from a long day you'll have a comfortable spot waiting for you where you can rest and relax and refuel both your ride and your body. Base camp makes a welcome respite from bad weather.
RVs make great base camps for all kinds of outdoor activities but if you don't have an RV, you can build your base camp around your regular vehicle and your tent. If you're on your own you don't need to worry too much about the size or layout of your own dispersed camping site as long as it meets your personal needs. You can choose the spot you like and set it up any way you desire. You will want it to be functional, well-organized, and easy to find when you return from activities. You want it to be fairly compact. Your layout and location will be pretty much dictated when you stay in developed campgrounds. But if you are in a group, you need to plan ahead a little bit and organize yourselves to best advantage. It doesn't matter whether you're in a designated group site in a commercial campground or staking out your territory in a remote area when boondocking, there are some fundamental guidelines that will make thing work better. When we set up a base camp for our Desert Rat dirt bike outings in the desert we usually use the old wagon train model and "circle the wagons" around a central fire pit. That keeps everyone fairly close together and we can share one fire, which makes for really great camaraderie and conservation of fire wood at the end of the day. I have a home-made Desert Rat flag and flagpole that fits into a pipe mount on the tongue of my motorcycle trailer, which helps guide other members of our group to the camp. We also put out "Desert Rat" signs along the highway and access road. They are usually just cardboard. I splurged and had some nice painted aluminum signs made up a few years ago with big red reflective arrows but the first time I used them about half of them got stolen. They're too expensive to be disposable so now I only use them close to camp and rely on cheap paper and cardboard signs where I can't keep an eye on them. For cheap and easy signs, I just print them out on my computer printer and slip them into the clear pocket of the cover cut from an old 3 ring binder. You can usually get cheap binders at thrift stores. Look for the ones with clear plastic on the covers. Since they aren't totally sealed they still let rain soak the signs, but most of the time they hold up pretty well. Installing them with the opening down will help protect them a little bit from moisture (rain or dew). Make sure you secure the paper inside so it doesn't fall out. Usually the tacks that fasten the sign to the post take care of that anyway.
Location, location, location is the slogan of real estate agents and developers everywhere. It is also applicable to choosing the site for your base camp. You want a spot that is easily accessible, has enough room for you and any companions, and is easy to locate when returning from activities away from camp. We use flags and road signs to guide people to our camp in the desert during the day and flashing strobe lights at night. You will want your base camp in remote areas to be near enough to roads for easy access but far enough away that you aren't bothered by passing traffic, which can create a lot of noise and kick up a lot of dust and may create safety hazards. When using group sites in developed campgrounds, you will have to pay strict attention to the rules or face ejection or possible fines. Take care to know and follow the rules for primitive camping on BLM and forest service lands too. Just because you're out in the middle of nowhere doesn't mean there aren't any rules.
Group camp sites are available in some developed campgrounds. They will usually have large, centrally located gathering area with a permanent fire pit and sometimes even rustic seating. Some even have a "bowery", pavilion, or canopy for protection from sun and and precipitation for group activities. These special facilities usually require a reservation and may have a fee associated with their use. Lacking a group site, you may have to reserve multiple individual sites. It will make activities more efficient and convenient if you can get the individual sites close together. Camp ground managers will usually try to help you get sites that will work well for your group, but prior reservations might prevent them from being able to give you exclusive use to a bunch of adjacent sites.
When group camping in remote, open camping areas, you'll need to pre-select a spot that is adequate for your group. Pick a spot that is easy to find and to get to, yet off the main roads and not blocking any roads or trails. One site we often used in the desert near California City was on a cul-e-sac -- perfect for easy access without blocking any thoroughfares. The whole area had once been prepared for a housing development that never happened. Scout out your site well in advance of your outing so you can be sure of access for all vehicles and sufficient space for your group. In many open camping areas there are sites that have been used before and may already have a rustic, rock fire ring. Organize your individual camps around that central fire ring. If you find yourself in an area without an existing fire ring, try to form your camp around an open area where you can build a fire ring and your campfire won't be at risk of spreading and be sure to properly prepare your fire ring (see Campfire Safety).
Spacing. When joining a group always leave room between your rig or tent and others. You and your neighbors will all need room to unload and maneuver your OHVs or other gear and may want a little privacy. But don't leave TOO much space, which may use up real estate others may need. If you prefer not to camp too close to a specific someone in the group, make sure you leave enough room between your rig and theirs for another rig to fit in -- or camp away from the group. How much space you need to leave depends on the type and quantity of equipment and machinery or livestock each camper has.
Organization. Whether you are camping in an RV or a tent, organize your personal space as well as community space in a logical manner. If you have friends in the group that you usually socialize with, you'll want to be near them. Keep your OHVs and related support stuff (tools, spare parts, fuel cans, riding gear, etc) more or less together near your tent or RV and away from the community fire pit, trails, roads, and other campers. If you are camping in a tent, you'll want to set up your camp upon arrival, creating your kitchen and eating area and setting up your tent and preparing your sleeping bags long before you need to use them. I like to park my OHVs inside the "wagon train" circle and chained or cabled and locked for added security. I've never experienced any theft problems in an OHV camp, but it is better to be safe than sorry. OHVs are tempting targets for young people looking for joyrides and are sometimes the targets of vandalism by anti-off-road interests. I did have a dirt bike I left parked in a designated area while we were doing trail maintenance with the forest service vandalized by such people. Later the rangers caught the same vandals tearing down motorcycle trail signs in the same area and they faced stiff fines. The culprits were dumb enough to drive right into a group of 11 rangers and about 200 motorcyclists with the stolen signs still in the back of their pickup truck! Duh! The bikers showed amazing restraint in not pummeling the offenders and the rangers gleefully issued them a fist full of tickets.
Community interests. Sharing a common fire pit means sharing your fire wood and sharing room around the fire. We usually make a common wood pile convenient to the fire where everyone contributes what they brought along and anyone at the fire uses what they need throughout the outing. Sharing room around the fire means not hogging the best spots and making room for anyone else who joins the party. You may have to shuffle positions if the wind changes direction. You'll also want to monitor the wind direction so the smoke doesn't blow into someone's RV or tent. Spontaneous pot luck dinners are always fun. You can drum one up just about any evening and turn it into a party. Each Thanksgiving the Desert Rats had the Granddaddy of all pot lucks for our "Turkey In The Dirt" outing. Admittedly, it wasn't spontaneous but well-planned. We dug a pit and baked turkeys in the pit all day and had previously coordinated other dishes to round out a bountiful feast. One year we had 142 RSVPs and 175 people show up! The sing-a-long has been a campfire staple for decades. Acoustic guitars, banjos, tambourines, and harmonicas fit the campfire ambiance and traditional campfire song choices well. If you don't already know many of the folk music classics that are popular for sing-a-longs, take time to learn some. Some other community considerations include respecting each other's privacy, ensuring the community campfire doesn't create problems for anyone, and making sure group activities don't overwhelm non-participants. One of the best ways to do that is make sure everyone is invited to share in group activities. We found that sometimes it worked well to have two campfires: one for the "grownups" and one for the teenagers. The teen fire was within sight of the main campfire so there was adequate supervision but they were able to have their own music and conversations. I was amused how often the songs around the teen fire were the same ones we enjoyed around the more traditional "old folks" fire. If you are planning a large group gathering, consider how you will deal with inclement weather. At one Turkey In the Dirt we managed by setting up our serving lines inside the enclosed motorcycle trailers generously shared by a couple of participants. Then everyone returned to their own rigs or tents to eat. Another time one of the guys brought a couple of really big EZ-ups that he used for activities for the motorcycle club he belonged to and we were able to get everyone out of the rain for our pot luck dinner and subsequent activities. On occasion we have parked two RVs side by side and stretched large tarps between them to create a protected area. Having some overhead covering is helpful when you need to escape from the hot sun and pretty essential when its raining, unless you like sitting in wet clothes and eating soggy food!
Setting up a base camp isn't as important for day rides, but for longer excursions (including weekend outings) it is essential and it adds to the convenience and comfort of everyone at any outing. You probably won't want to invest the time and effort it takes to set up a complete base camp for simple day rides. However, wherever you park your RV or other vehicle becomes your default base camp for short outings. A good base camp can also serve as an emergency center if anyone it the group has problems with their equipment or gets sick or injured. I carry a large first aid kit in my motorhome and let my fellow campers know I am certified in first aid, CPR, and as a Red Cross Professional Rescuer and hold a certificate in Advanced Wilderness Life Support. I have helped splint a couple of broken bones for transport to the nearest hospital Emergency Room and have extracted dozens of cactus spines from riders who experienced the prickly plants too intimately. Superficial burns, bug bites, and road rash are common injuries requiring minor first aid treatment. I long ago stopped counting treatments for minor scrapes, cuts, burns, and blisters. They are just a routine part of just about any outing. Regardless of the kind of outdoor activities you choose, it would always be a good idea to have basic first aid skills and equipment with you when camping. Even simple injuries such as blisters or splinters can seriously dampen your fun and need immediate attention to prevent infection and minimize discomfort and can occur anytime, during just about any activity.
Sanitation. If you're camping in an RV you have your own personal sanitation facilities, but when you are boondocking, your resources (fresh water and holding tank capacity) are limited. If you are in a campground with sanitation facilities, take advantage of them. I know the pit toilets in some places can be pretty foul, but better to endure a few minutes there now and then than overfill your RV holding tanks and endure the odors for the rest of the trip -- and possibly weeks thereafter! I've seen sewage overflows that required all the carpet and padding to be removed and replaced before the odors went away. If there are no facilities and you are tent camping, move well away from camp and dig a small hole to take care of your needs, then cover it up when you're done. The ladies in your family will probably appreciate having a "port-a-potty" instead of having to use the great outdoors but port-a-potty capacities are very limited. If it fills up you will need to carry the holding tank away from camp to a suitable location, dig a hole, and bury the contents if there is no dump station or pit toilet where you can empty it. Disposing of wastes in this way is frowned upon and in most places is down right illegal. The best place to empty a port-a-potti is a dump station. If you're in an RV, make sure your dump valves are closed and the cap is tightly installed on the dump fitting. You don't want wastes from your RV polluting your camp site or your neighbors'. In some remote desert locations I've seen people connect a garden hose to a special cap on the dump port to carry gray water away. In many places this practice is strictly prohibited, but it may not be harmful to the environment in places like the open desert if it is done correctly and the waste water is carefully directed away from all campers and where it will not be in any road or trail or drain into any waterway. Local plants may thrive on the extra water.
Lighting. Be careful about lighting up a base camp. You don't want to spoil yours or anyone else's night time experience with too much light. Coleman lanterns and the exterior lights on RVs can provide more than adequate light for most activities. Don't use more than is necessary. You'll just be wasting fuel or batteries and perhaps annoying your fellow campers. I have a pair of small strobe lights I put on the top of my trailer to help guide late arrivals in at night. They're bright enough to be seen from the access road but the height and the intermittent flashing doesn't seriously impact campground ambiance. I've seen high-powered LED strobes designed for the top of flagpoles to serve the same purpose, but they're a little pricey. Mine just plugs into a cigarette lighter type 12-volt receptacle. They were designed to mount on the roof of a vehicle using a big suction cup. I modified the original red, amber, and blue covers using theatrical "gels" to create custom colors unique to our group but to be honest, the colors don't really show up as very distinctive from any distance - but the flashing strobes do! They are are real godsend for late arrivals coming in after dark. These days you can get powerful LED strobes designed for law enforcement and construction vehicles that would be VERY bright. That would be great for late arrivals, but might impose on your fellow campers. Might be all right if they are aimed toward the road and away from camp.
Entertainment. The evening campfire is natural place for sharing stories and talents. Bring along your acoustic guitar, banjo, harmonica, tambourine, etc. I've never seem anyone bring brass instruments, but the traditional folk instruments previously mentioned are perennial favorites. Most people enjoy folk music and singalongs. Be prepared to take requests -- and hope you're not asked to play Long Ago and Far Away! If you do get such a request it is time to turn over the spotlight to someone else. Very loud music may have its place at Raves, but it is usually inappropriate and unwanted around the campfire, so leave the electric guitars, amplified keyboards, and brass instruments at home. We sometimes even put a folded towel in the back of the banjo to muffle its bright sound a bit. Sometimes turning the campfire into a big bonfire can be an exciting group activity, but mostly it just wastes wood. An appropriately sized fire around which people can gather is more intimate and usually more enjoyable. The fire needs to be just big enough to accommodate all the people in the group who want to sit around the fire.
Shared treats. Folks in my Desert Rat group each developed their own specialties they would prepare and pass around the campfire or sometimes take them from family to family. Examples include some rather fancy hors d'œuvres like stuffed jalapenos, cool drinks, and a warm chili and cream cheese dip with corn chips that was especially welcome on chilly nights. Snow cones were always a hit on hot desert afternoons. And don't forget the S'mores! They are a long-standing campfire tradition. Just plan on having gooey marshmallow and melted chocolate everywhere! I've recently found campfire marshmallows the size of racquet balls! Just imagine the amount of gooey stuff those will produce! If you're not careful you could end up like Brer Rabbit and the tar-baby!
Wind breaks (not to be confused with breaking wind). Sooner or later you're going to encounter a windy day in camp. Sometimes, in wooded locations, the trees provide some respite from the wind. We've camped at desert sites among huge boulders that served as partial wind breaks. Consider the possible need for protection from the wind when you choose and layout your campsite to take advantage of trees and rocks if you can. Lacking any natural sources, you may be able to park your RVs to provide some protection for your campfire and other activities. A couple of large EZ-ups can protect quite a few people from sun, wind, and rain. Using RVs as wind breaks has its limitations. First of all, you'll still get wind beneath the vehicles. Secondly, the gaps between and under them may serve as a venturi where the wind velocity is actually amplified. You may be somewhat protected while sitting or standing directly in the shelter of the RV, but the wind coming through the gap may wreak havoc with your campfire and may generate a rather loud and irritating noise. The venturi affect may actually make the wind worse. And remember to park your RV with the front facing the prevailing winds if you can to minimize rocking while you're inside. Doing so, of course, reduces the effectiveness of the RV as a wind break, but as mentioned before, the gaps between and under RVs may create even more of a problem than if the wind were unrestricted. It may become a tradeoff between stabilizing your RV versus sheltering your central campfire. You can buy or make wind guards for your camp stoves and BBQs to minimize the effects of wind on cooking. I've seen times in the desert where the constant wind make it almost impossible to cook on our little portable BBQ and we had to finish the burgers in a fry pan on the stove in the RV.
Sharing is a strong advantage of group base camps. You can share firewood, companionship, expertise, assistance, food, water, fuel, spare parts, labor, knowledge, and entertainment. "There's strength in numbers" is a popular old saying. Camping in a group may deter potential vandalism and even keep wild animals away. Being able to share experience and expertise enhances just about any outing and sometimes can, quite literally, be life-saving. Whether you're learning from someone with more training or sharing your own skills with less practiced campers, it is a rewarding experience.
Variations. As the kids in our Desert Rat group reached their teen years, they often wanted their own campfire, away from the adults and their "old-fogey" music and stories. We often allowed them to set up their own fire, some distance from the main fire, but where anxious parents could still more or less keep an eye on the activities. I was very amused to often find them singing the same songs we traditionally sang around the "old folk's" fire. Some folk music really does have a universal appeal.
Combined RV/tent base camps. While most people will gravitate towards groups that share their camping styles, other shared interests may bring RV and tent campers together in one base camp. Our dirt biking group included people in big motorhomes, small trailers, truck campers, tents, and some just sleeping in their cars. There should not be any problem accommodating the unique needs of all groups, and, in fact, the synergy can be quite helpful, especially when tent campers can set up on the leeward side of an RV to be protected from the effects of wind and rain. And everyone can benefit from shared firewood and camp labor, experience, and companionship. A spontaneous pot luck dinner is almost always a hit too.
Base camp rocks!