Back Country Camping in ABDSP

by Barry Dean, ABF Staff Assistant

If you do any amount of camping, you’ve probably experienced a trip or two that was marred by finding out your destination is full for the weekend, had overly powerful campground lights blocking out that night sky you drove several hours to see or suffered through less than considerate campsite neighbors. One of the most amazing things about Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is the chance to avoid all of these issues and get out and enjoy nature the way it should be: unspoiled and free from the influence of man.

For those who are seeking a traditional campground-based getaway, ABDSP offers Borrego Palm Canyon Campground, complete with flush toilets and hot showers. Tamarisk Grove and Bow Willow Campgrounds are other options if you’re not quite ready to set out into the backcountry. Reservations for these campgrounds can be made online ahead of time so you’re guaranteed a spot before you pack up the family and set out.

If you’re looking for a real adventure, ABDSP has over 640,000 acres of undisturbed backcountry, and overnight camping is allowed on nearly all of it. There is no monetary cost to camp in Anza-Borrego’s backcountry, but there is a responsibility. With a little planning and knowledge of the regulations, not only will your trip into the backcountry be safer and more enjoyable for your group, but it will be that much better for those who follow and never know you were there.

First, before you ever leave, make sure you have left an itinerary including your expected location and return time with someone you know AND STICK TO IT. Many people owe their lives to this rule. If you find yourself with an injury preventing self-rescue and no means to summons help, this may be your only chance of survival.

What to Bring

While everyone’s needs will vary, and this is by no means an all-inclusive list, there are certain items that you will always want to make sure you have with you when setting off into the backcountry. Remember that when camping in the desert, you normally need to pack for two environments; the heat of the day, and the chill of the night.

  • Map/Compass/GPS
  • Sunscreen/Lip Balm/Sunglasses
  • Appropriate clothing (incl. hat)
  • Headlamp/Flashlight (w/ spare batteries)
  • First-Aid Kit
  • Matches/Lighter/Fire Starter
  • Knife/Multi-tool
  • Food and means to prepare it
  • 1 gallon of water per person/per day (MINIMUM)
  • Tent or Appropriate Shelter
  • Gloves/Hiking Poles
  • Spares of whatever you can

What Not To Bring

Park regulations and common sense tell us there are certain things that are best left at home. We’re here to camp, so remember that, and please do not bring any of the following on your adventure.

  • Firearms of ANY type including air rifle and airsoft
  • Remote controlled aircraft including drones
  • Model rockets/fireworks
  • Non-highway legal vehicles
  • Illegal substances of any kind

Pets

While pets are allowed in the Park, they must remain (accompanied) in your vehicle or tent. When outside they must be kept on a lead no more than six feet in length and they are not permitted at any time to travel cross country or on hiking trails. Due to this restriction, it may be best, if possible, to find someone to watch your pet while you camp so you can enjoy the desert unrestricted.

Location

With so many places to choose when looking for a camp site, it can often become overwhelming. One of the greatest factors that will determine where you can camp is your vehicle. Regardless of your vehicle type, you’ll want to check with the Visitor Center or State Park Store and find out which roads will be safe for you to travel on. This is especially true if you are in a two-wheel drive or low-clearance vehicle, but even with a large four-wheel drive truck, it’s always best to stop by and check current road conditions. A single rain can dramatically alter the landscape in the desert, and since so many of the roads in ABDSP follow washes, this effect is amplified even further.

Remember, there is NO cross country vehicle travel permitted in ABDSP. If you are looking to take your vehicle off of designated roads, there are nearby parks including Ocotillo Wells SVRA directly to the East that permit cross-country travel. In Anza-Borrego, staying on the roads is required to ensure that the landscape and habitat that you get to enjoy is just as enjoyable for everyone including the native plants and animals. This rule is strictly enforced. It applies to all modes of mechanized transportation, including bicycles.

Stop in and speak with staff or the volunteers. They can help you find the perfect spot that matches your vehicle, your length of stay, and the needs of those in your party. Speaking of length of stay, remember, camping is restricted to 30 nights in any calendar year within the Park. This is cumulative, so please be understanding. This ensures that everyone has the opportunity to get away from it all at some point throughout the year.

Fire

One of the most enjoyable parts of a camping trip can be a campfire. With so many fire restricted areas in Southern California, it’s unfortunately also becoming an increasingly rare treat. ABDSP still allows campfires with a few restrictions. First, all fires MUST be in a metal container that completely contains the fire, all ashes and by-products of the fire and protects the ground below from being damaged.

For those with trucks, old washing machine tubs that have been welded onto feet are a popular choice. For those in a car, one of the best solutions I have found is an 11 gallon galvanized steel tub. They are available for around $25 at the big box home improvement stores. While they do take up a fair amount of space in the trunk or backseat, they make for a nice fire that is well contained, protects nearby vegetation, and since they offer matching lids, once the fire is completely cooled, you can put a lid on it and pack out all of your ashes as required.

Make sure all ground fires are kept well away from any combustible materials (both Mother Nature’s and your own), and do not gather fire wood from the park. With such scarce resources, the small amount of wood found in the desert is crucial as habitat for animals, and to provide much needed nutrients to the soil when it decomposes.

Waste

Many people are uncomfortable using the restroom in the backcountry, but with a little planning, it can be similar to going in your home. There are several primitive camps located in the park that have vault toilets available, and we enjoy some of the cleanest and odor free stand-alone restrooms in the park system.

All waste must be packed out with you. Yes, including that. If camping in the backcountry, this means that steps should be taken to be prepared for removing the waste your body produces. A handy solution that can be purchased very inexpensively at most sporting goods stores is a snap on toilet seat that is used with a standard five-gallon bucket. I like to put two liners in the bucket, and drape them slightly over the rim, then snap the toilet seat on. Once I’m ready to bag up the waste, this allows me to double seal it, and prevents contamination of the bucket itself, allowing me to use it to pack out other rubbish or ashes. I also like bringing a metal ammunition can like those found at surplus stores. I place the bagged waste in the can for the trip home, allowing it to be sealed tightly and securely preventing odors (or worse) from entering the car.

All of your garbage must also be packed out. This is something to consider when packing. Glass containers should not be brought into the park. They are a hazard should they break, and they also create a tremendous amount of waste that you must then pack out with you. If you will be bringing individually packaged drinks, think about bringing cans instead as they can be crushed, leaving a small, lightweight amount of waste that can easily be brought out with you and recycled. Also, avoid the temptation to try to burn rubbish. Much of it will not burn, and the portions that do will only cause foul odors and smoke that will ruin your experience. Think ahead and be prepared for how you will handle your waste.

Safety

Between the heat, cold, sun and dangers of the landscape, a fun weekend camping can quickly turn into an emergency. Due to the rugged and remote nature of the terrain, help can take an extremely long time to come. Cell signal is very sparse in ABDSP, and many areas cannot be reached by emergency personnel. Please keep this in mind while packing and planning for your trip. It’s best to have that extra item and not need it, or to skip that extra hour of hiking and not regret it. With some foresight and good judgement, you should find plenty of exciting activities to make lifelong memories while in the park. Leave no trace, and remember to have fun!