How To Live In The Wilderness Legally

How To Live In The Wilderness Legally

Who doesn’t fantasize about ditching all the hustle-and-bustle of modern life and absconding to the backcountry—for good?

Well, OK, to be clear: That sort of escape doesn’t appeal to everybody.

But to a hardcore outdoors person—somebody who thrills at the physical and mental challenges, the self-sufficiency, the remote vistas, and wildlife encounters that come with getting out into the Big Outside—full-timing it in the wilderness can seem mighty tempting indeed. 

Is that option even a possibility in this day and age? Can you bid adieu, to the modern world of round-the-clock news coverage, digital addiction, and traffic jams and genuinely live out in the wilds?

The answer is—kind of? Sort of? Definitely, depending on your situation…let me explain.

Table of Contents

How to live in the wilderness legally

The legal way to truly live in the wilderness is to buy land with backcountry acreage. Other possible routes to wilderness living to some degree is traveling between public-land units (abiding by camping regulations, including stay limits) or getting seasonal wildland jobs—such as a fire lookout or backcountry ranger—with land-management agencies or other organizations. 

In this article, we’ll try to answer the question of how to live in the wilderness legally—running down some of the realities of trying to cut it around-the-clock in the backlands, the sort of thing many of us dream about but few—very few—end up legitimately pulling off.

And, to underscore things, as our title lays out, we’re going to be focused on ways to do this—or some approximate version of it—without breaking the law.

The Legality of “Wilderness Living”

Keep in mind you’ll find (as perhaps you already have) loads of resources online spelling out how to live in the wilderness, whether by the books or not.

In the U.S., homeless individuals attempting to live on public lands year-round—“nonrecreational camping,” in government-speak—constitute a major issue for agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

We’ll explain the basic rules and regulations concerning these vast federal lands and other public holdings like them, but suffice it to say we’re going to be focused on legal wildland “living.” 

Buying Land to Call the Wilderness Home

There’s no more clear-cut route for all-out living in the wilderness than acquiring your own land with backcountry acreage.

Obviously that’s easier said than done, but it’s also the most realistic, hassle-free way to go about full-timing it in the wilds in the U.S.—short of befriending a landowner with plenty of scruffy outback on the property who’s willing to let you boondock indefinitely. 

Depending on the location, buying primitive land can be super-expensive or quite affordable. Sources may range from private sellers to government agencies looking to offload inconveniently located or sized parcels.

Given the popularity of buying up private wildland for the purposes of hunting by sportsmen and sportswomen with the means, even seemingly obscure or tough-to-access plots may be surprisingly competitive to acquire.

But if you’re serious about calling the backcountry your home, this is really the most feasible way.

Public Land & Its Limits

Enormous acreages of the U.S. are owned, roughly speaking, by every American: managed in public trust by government agencies for the enjoyment of all.

Such holdings range from multi-use BLM and Forest Service units to highly protected, often highly publicized locations maintained by the National Park Service. Then there are all the state lands, including state forests and state parks.

On the vast federal lands, camping stays are limited in terms of duration and location. Often you’ll be looking at a 14-day limit in a given area on National Forest or BLM land. 

Living In The Wilderness In a Tent on BLM land

The BLM, for instance, restricts campers to 14 days of camping within a consecutive 28-day interval; that 14-day limit applies to either continuous camping or separate, repeated visits.

After the 14th day of occupation,” the BLM explains, “the camper must move outside of a 25-mile radius of the previous location until the 29th day since the initial occupation.” 

Such regulations aim to lighten visitor impacts on a given location by preventing people from just setting up shop long-term.

Some public-land units may additionally cap the number of days you can camp in the calendar year, so it’s important to clearly understand the rules for a given area and a given agency/district. 

All things considered, such restrictions are pretty generous. You can hop about on America’s public lands indefinitely, abiding by two-week or whatever other limits are in place but taking advantage of the preponderance of such acreage across much of the country.

It shouldn’t come as a total surprise that government agencies such as the Forest Service aren’t exactly keen on the idea of people living year-round on public lands, something illegal on a particular federal land holding.

But you can get by without breaking the law if you’re willing to cover some ground as a public-land-hopping nomad.

If you know anything about how public lands work in the U.S., you’ll know you definitely can’t be building any kind of shelter on them. That’s another obvious limitation to full-time wilderness living in such settings.

You can tent out to your heart’s desire if you’re abiding by those camping-duration limits and moving around enough, but don’t expect to be kicking back in a self-built cabin, lean-to, yurt, or whatever else.

Defining “Wilderness”

It’s worth taking a moment to talk about the definition of wilderness. It’s a powerful word that comes with a lot of baggage and connotes different meanings to different people. The conventional definition might be a place devoid of human habitation and, relatively speaking, rarely even visited by people.

That’s roughly the meaning captured by the 1964 Wilderness Act in the U.S. More in-depth parsings of the word and the kind of places it summons have suggested the old, durable, intriguing suggestion of a “self-willed land”:

A place where, perhaps, humans are welcome as legitimate components of the ecosystem, but where anthropogenic processes, industries, and constructions don’t dominate. 

Why are we delving into semantics in the first place? On account, it matters. When it comes down to it, “wilderness” is a subjective term. One person’s wilderness may be another’s overdeveloped front-country—maybe even just a far-flung, out-of-cell-phone-reception swath of rural countryside. 

In this article, we’re working from a fairly standard, but not necessarily exacting definition of wilderness.

We’re talking about a place lightly developed, if not roadless at least sparsely roaded, and, basically, more wild and unpeopled than not. 

But keep in mind that you may want to live in a “wilderness” that’s accessible by road—perhaps some kind of rough or overgrown backroad, but a road nonetheless—while others may be seeking digs far away from the nearest semblance of a track. 

When it comes to public lands, some people camping only in designated campgrounds or (where allowed) in well-established dispersed sites along roadways may consider their digs “wilderness,” while others might disagree and consider wilderness living tenting out deep in the backcountry.

Other Routes to “Living” in the Wilderness

If you can’t afford privately owned wildland, and you don’t want to bounce around national forests, BLM holdings, national parks, state parks, and forests, and the like, you might just consider getting a job that allows you to bed down in the backcountry. 

Consider, for example, working for an agency or volunteer-led trail crew, where you can spend some quality time out there building and/or restoring wilderness footpaths with a crosscut saw, Pulaski, and other essential tools. 

The Park Service and the Forest Service both hire wilderness rangers posted at remote guard stations and analogous outposts to monitor backcountry usage and otherwise fulfill management goals out in the boondocks. 

Living in the wilderness as a Park Ranger

They’re increasingly rare, but you might also try for a job manning a fire lookout on federal lands.

The ones that remain—which may be ground-based cabins on elevated promontories or those classic high fire towers—tend to be in quite far-flung country, keeping an eye on landscapes that, for whatever reason, are still not efficiently patrolled by aircraft or remotely monitored for fire starts.

These fire-lookout jobs have long attracted meditative, wilderness-loving sorts who appreciate long periods of time doing not much at all except staring out at super-scenic wildlands—but, nonetheless, keeping an eye out for lightning- or human-sparked smokes in a panoramic dominion.

Can I Live in the Wilderness For Free?

Public lands may or may not charge for camping in established campgrounds; usually, there’s a fee, but some primitive campgrounds in lightly used areas are still free.

Dispersed camping often (though not always) costs you nothing. Again, though, be sure you’re following the given agency’s rules.

Leave No Trace & Other Practical Considerations

Regardless of your situation and intentions, be aware that plenty of folks are roughing it in the wilds and the semi-wilds, whether by choice or necessity.

If you’re reading this, you’re likely curious about the possibility of backpacking or dispersed-camping it the whole year-round. Hopefully, you’re keeping the ecological integrity of a given landscape foremost in mind when considering such a lifeway.

Dealing With Seasons

Seasonality is a big, obvious consideration when thinking about living in the backwoods all year round. If you own the land in question, you can build a permanent shelter to shield you from nasty weather. Otherwise, you may be roughing it beyond your limits—or migrating to balmier climes for the winter.

Living Off the Land?

Are you hoping to support yourself entirely off the wilderness landscape you’ve chosen as your stomping grounds?

That’s unlikely in most public-land settings, where you may have a hunting license and tags, maybe a foraging permit for mushrooms, etc., but otherwise, be unable to legally draw all of your life-sustaining resources from the wilds.

The same goes if you’re on your own land but hoping to survive off wild game or fish; in the U.S., thankfully, wildlife is considered a commonly held resource. Obviously, as a private landowner, you’ve got the option of planting, foraging, and raising livestock or poultry.

Living Lightly on the Land

Regardless of the breakdown of your backwoods habitations—your own land, public land, whatever else—it’s essential in this day and age to consider Leave No Trace ethics.

Genuine wilderness, even simply sparsely road-laced wildland, is an increasingly rare commodity. 

Places where “self-willed” land can reach its fullest potential—where plant and animal communities can go about their daily business without strong (or, more often than not, overbearing and destructive) influence from humankind are harder and harder to come by, globally speaking.

Embracing ‘Leave No Trace‘ principles helps support the vitality of precious wildlands—expressions of the kind of country we all, evolutionarily speaking, came of age within. 

Final Thoughts

Whether you somehow wrangle the ability to live in the wilderness full-time, or you land a job or a recreational opportunity wherein you can spend most of your waking hours out there in that glorious backcountry…

Respect that precious, off-the-beaten-path place and do everything you can to maintain its “off-the-beaten-pathness” even as you draw resources from it.

And, more often than not, those resources tend to be of the stunning-sunset, dazzling-night-sky, stalking-an-animal-over-rough-terrain variety: the essence of wilderness and wildness, and incredible to experience firsthand along the lines of countless deep-history ancestors.

Good luck and thank you for reading!