I often have people ask me if state or Federally-managed forest land or BLM land would be a viable place to take temporary or long term shelter in the event of of a societal collapse. There might be exceptions, but my blanket assertion is no, that is a bad idea for even a temporary retreat locale. Here is my rationale:
Access: Access is a huge issue. Public lands are intended for visits, not residence.Odds are that if you make camp on state or Federal land, men with badges and guns will arrive within a couple of weeks and forcibly send you packing. In bad times, the local land owners will not want any perceived “riff raff” residing in the nearby public lands. The “we/they paradigm” dictates that the locals will lump all newcomers and assorted straphangers–good and bad–together into the category of “undesirables.” So assume that the locals will make the call to report any new forest land interlopers. In extremis, they might even take matters in their own hands.
There is also no guarantee that once you get in to public lands that you can get out. Many roads inside forest lands are not maintained in winter. Depending on the latitude and elevation, this could mean getting truly “snowed in” for the winter. And, depending on the depth of your larder and your available fuel for heating, you might not have chances any better than the ill-fated Donner Party. (But by the same token, if you have a lot of food and fuel, then getting snowed it would be a good thing . (Snow-blocked roads will insure your privacy.)
Shallow larder: It goes without saying that if your family arrives with only what it can carry in a couple of vehicles, then you won’t have a long term food supply. One of the greatest advantages of a fixed-site retreat is the “deep larder.” A deep larder can make up for a bad season of gardening, or a bad season of hunting. But a shallow larder leaves no margin for error. I’ve often said that the last category that you want to be in when the Schumer Hits the Fan is “refugee.” If you are traveling light, then you are just one step away from homeless/unprovisioned/refugee status.
Hunting pressure: In the event of a full scale economic collapse or a major natural disaster, there will suddenly be a lot of people trying to subsist on wild game, year round. The hunting pressure on the wild game flocks and herds will be tremendous. I anticipate that in most states in CONUS–except perhaps for parts of Idaho and Montana–the game will get both heavily thinned and badly spooked. After just a few months it will probably be difficult to hunt with any reliable chance of success. Furthermore, hunting on public lands may become a dangerous proposition. It is not too difficult to envision that in TEOTWAWKI, someone that is really desperate might see bagging you as their opportunity to return to their camp with both meat and a nice new rifle.
Security: This is the biggest risk. A cluster of tents or vehicles is almost impossible to effectively defend against attack by determined looters. It takes mass to stop bullets. (I presume that if someone had the money that it would take to buy a couple of military surplus APCs, then they would also have the budget for a nice cozy retreat property. Hence, anyone camping on public lands probably isn’t going to be in an up-armored conveyance.) Here is the basic problem: Since you cannot legally build any structures or even fell any trees on public land (except with a firewood cutting permit), you will have no substantive ballistic protection. The alternative of camouflaging yourself by hiking in to camp a remote area might have some merit. But then, away from your vehicles, your larder would by necessity be even shallower. It is also difficult to avoid the smoke from campfires being spotted from a long distance. Yes, you could “cold camp”, but that would be even less comfortable. If you try to go totally “low profile” out in public forest lands then you will fare no better than those using the “Batman in the Boondocks” approach that I previously discussed (and dismissed) in both SurvivalBlog and in my non-fiction book Rawles on Retreats and Relocation.
All of the foregoing does totally not rule out some hardy soul finding a way to make camping on public lands viable. With sufficient planning it could be done in a truly remote area. Yes, you could conceivably cache a large quantity of food, smokeless fuel (such as propane), tools, tentage, and supplies. But to be ready for a “one trip bugout” in a WTSHTF situation, this would only be practicable if you cached all of that gear well in advance. And that brings up a while ‘nother set of problems, including curious bears, persistent wood rats, and some serious legal issues. (Caching any private property anywhere on public land, is to the best of my knowledge illegal and not advised!)
Nor does the foregoing rule out buying a small parcel of land that adjoins state forest land, BLM land, or national forest land. This a great way to have a “big backyard” both for hunting and to provide a buffer from population. For example, here at the Rawles Ranch, we have contiguous public land on two sides, giving us far more privacy, wood cutting, and hunting opportunities than we could otherwise afford. Here in The Unnamed Western State (TUWS), a one firewood cutting permit from the forest service still costs just $5 per cord. (Actually, you have to buy a minimum of a four cord permit, for $20. The maximum that the forest service will sell is a 10 cord permit.)
The bottom line: Using state or national forest lands just isn’t a viable alternative for 99% of us. If you can’t afford to buy a retreat of your own, then you should team up with an existing retreat group, or form a new group, and pool your resources. The only other decent alternatives that I can see are “bugging in” (which has serious drawbacks in a full scale societal collapse), or depending on the good graces of some country cousins.