Yes, you can run a generator while boondocking. Some federal and state land management agencies do not prohibit the use of generators while boondocking or dispersed camping. There are some that do, however, but only when it becomes a nuisance or a problem to others.
Can You Run a Generator While Boondocking?
The short answer is “yes” you can run your generator while boondocking. The issue of running generators and making loud noises is more an issue when camping at developed campgrounds.
But even though generators are well-tolerated when boondocking, there are still regulations on the books that prohibit excessive noise. The Army Corps of Engineers actually goes on to define quiet hours. Only the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service does not fully address the issue of loud noise.
But even where the rules are vague, each individual forest, park, field office, refuge, or reservoir is still free to establish its own rules. Thus, even while the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has no nationwide rule against making loud noises, a specific wildlife refuge may still post its own quiet hours.
Bureau of Land Management
The BLM has a rule that prohibits you from, “Making unreasonable noise” and “Creating a hazard or nuisance“. They do not define what unreasonable noise is nor what a hazard or nuisance is. Someone has to call the local BLM Field Office and report you, and then an officer has to decide for themselves if the call was warranted or not. Read the full text of the rule at, “CFR Title 43 § 8365.1-4 Public health, safety and comfort“.
Our experience with boondocking on BLM land is that everyone tolerates running a generator long into the night. The generally attitude is that if someone’s generator bothers you, you move further away. The BLM has so much open land, there’s no reason why you have to be that close to another boondocker.
U.S. Forest Service
The USFS has a couple of rules that could prevent you from running a generator. The first is CFR Title 36, § 261.4 Disorderly conduct which prohibits you from “Causing public inconvenience, annoyance, or alarm by making unreasonably loud noise“. The second is CFR Title 36, § 261.10 Occupancy and use which prohibits you from operating any kind of device or motor that can “unreasonably disturb any person“.
Our experience with boondocking in national forests is similar to that with the BLM. If someone’s generator is too loud, you move further away. However, we found that the U.S. Forest Service is more diligent about enforcing its rules than the BLM. If you’re running your generator well into the night, don’t be surprised to get a knock on your door from a forest ranger. But, your generator has to be pretty loud to make that happen.
National Park Service
Boondocking is generally not allowed in national parks, hence this is not really an issue. However, the NPS also operates several “national recreation areas” which do allow boondocking in certain places.
There is a rule under CFR Title 36 § 2.12 Audio disturbances that applies to the NPS prohibiting people from running any kind of portable motor or portable device powered by a motor in such a manner that it impacts other park users. The rule goes on to define a limit of 60 decibels, but also issues a blanket statement that anything making an unreasonable noise is prohibited. The rule is lengthy, you should probably read it just to find out if applies to you or not.
Our experience with boondocking at national recreation areas operated by the NPS is that is similar to that of the BLM. That is, if someone’s generator is too loud, it’s on you to move further away. The NPS does not enforce its boondocking areas all that diligently, at least not well into the night.
Bureau of Reclamation
Much of the recreation areas built on USBR lands are managed by other agencies, and as a result the rules of those agencies apply. But the USBR does manage a handful of recreation areas on its own, and they do have their rules on conduct.
They have a rule under CFR Title 43 § 423.22 Interference with agency functions and disorderly conduct that prohibits you from making unreasonable noise considering the time of day or night.
However, based on our experiences of camping on USBR managed lands, running a generator is a common practice there.
Army Corps of Engineers
The ACOE has a couple of rules that can prohibit you from running a generator. The first is CFR Title 36 § 327.12 Restrictions (b) which defines quiet hours as between 10:00pm to 6:00am and bans any noise that can disturb others. The second is CFR Title 36 § 327.12 Restrictions (d) which bans the use of generators when the noise annoys other persons.
In our experience of camping on ACOE lands, we’ve always witnessed other campers running generators that were louder than ours. We’ve often seen ACOE officers patrolling the area while these generators were running and not doing anything about them. It’s a common practice to run loud generators.
Like with other federal land management agencies, it’s very difficult to call up an ACOE officer in the middle of the night and have them come out to enforce quiet hours. If you hear a loud generator, either you have to confront that camper yourself, put up with it, or move your camp further away.
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Just like with the Bureau of Reclamation, many of the recreational areas on national wildlife refuges are operated by other agencies, and as such the rules of those agencies apply. But, the USFWS does manage recreational activities on some of its refuges.
However, the USFWS does not have any rules that specifically address making unreasonably loud noise or creating public nuisance. They do have a rule against “disorderly conduct” under CFR Title 50 § 27.83 Indecency and disorderly conduct, but this rule is very brief and vague. Otherwise, the USFWS will refer you to whatever laws and rules exist at the state level.
In our experiences of boondocking on national wildlife refuges, everyone runs their generators. Fish & Game wardens are more concerned about illegal hunting and fishing than campers making too much noise. However, some refuges will post their noticed banning loud noises at night, or will post quiet hours. But still, if someone breaks that rule, it’s very difficult to get a game warden to come out in the middle of the night.