The RVillagers Guide to Boondocking
Want to learn more about "boondocking," dry camping, or "dispersed" camping? Join the conversation with your fellow RVillagers to learn, and share your boondocking tips.
What is boondocking?
Definitions will vary as widely as boondockers. Technically, it is dry camping without hookups. It can even be done for one night in any parking lot or rest area—but that's not actually "camping." Serious boondockers will insist that "true" boondocking is done in the boonies where the phrase originated, and that is usually where it happens—whether it be the vast expanses of the desert in the winter, or in the forests and mountains during other seasons.
Rangers for the National Forest Service refer to this as "dispersed" camping.
How do you boondock?
In order to be self-sufficient and camp without hookups, your home on wheels will require holding tanks and method(s) for generating power. You will also need to develop and practice some conservation habits when using those resources—to limit the amount of trips back to town for filling & emptying tanks. After all, once you find that pristine spot in the mountains, you will not want to risk giving it up just because you've run out of water, propane, pet food—or need to go find a dump station!
RVillagers suggest that these are the primary areas to focus on:
Water & waste management
It's all about conservation. Simply put, the less water you use, the less frequently you'll have to dump and fill. Here are some water conservation tips from fellow RVillagers.
Generating your own electricity
All RVs have "house" batteries that store power. Typically RVs come with hybrid batteries, not true deep cycle. For boondocking, you will want high-capacity true deep-cycle batteries, or lithium batteries, which can withstand repeated discharge/charging cycles. With good batteries that can store a lot of charge for long periods and can be charged & discharged ongoingly, you will actually not need to charge them as frequently—with a generator, for example.
Next, you will need an INverter to pull that power from the batteries and convert it to alternating current for your use. RVs are equipped with a CONverter, which does just the opposite: converts alternating current for anything that runs off 12-volt in your rig. With good (true) deep-cycle batteries and an inverter, you will not need so many 12-volt gadgets—you can use "normal" electrical appliances, even without solar panels. (Motorhome systems are often setup so that your house batteries are charged while driving.)
Learn more about RV Electricity
Many RVs (most motorhomes & fifth wheels, and some trailers) come with an on-board generator installed. If your rig did not come equipped, you can find stand-alone generators at hardware and home improvement stores. To enjoy peaceful camping (and not upset the neighbors), you will want the quietest model you can find. (Skip the cheap "contractor" open-frame models.) For safety, be sure to watch the Honda website for recalls. When running a generator attached to a motorhome, consider attaching a Gen-Turi exhaust pipe to keep fumes from accumulating under your rig (and seeping inside).
If you boondock for long periods of time, you will tire of having to run that noisy generator to charge your batteries, brew coffee or just watch TV; and also deal with carrying extra fuel for portable units. Many boondocking RVillagers report that the easiest—and ultimately cost-effective—approach to having ample energy while camping off-grid is to add solar. For more detailed information on the topic see:
Related post: RV Solar
On a trailer, a pair of full propane tanks should be sufficient for a 14-day dispersed camping stay—depending on your usage habits of course. If you are in a motorhome with a single fixed tank, you can make that tank last longer by installing an extender to an external propane tank. See fellow RVillager's helpful tips for installing this accessory.
Pro Tip: If you can boondock in areas where you don't need air conditioning or heat, you'll require a lot less electricity and propane.
Internet access & TV
If you are not retired and need internet to work—or just prefer to stay connected, there are many ways to stay online in the boonies, from satellite to cellular boosters. Check out this RVoices post for lots of helpful information on internet, cellular plans, and TV as well: Internet & TV on the Road.
Food and other consumable essentials
Of course you'll also want to stock up on groceries, pet food, bottled drinking water (if you use it), and other beverages of choice—if your dream campsite is far from any suppliers of these necessities. Kick back and enjoy your time out there, rather than having to make multiple trips back to civilization.
Why do you boondock?RVillagers respond to the quote above. Add your thoughts!
See all the many reasons RVillagers choose to boondock.
Where can you boondock?
In the winter, you'll find many boondockers from the northern states & Canada parked in southwestern Arizona & southeastern California—where the climate is the warmest in the country, and plenty of open land is available. Florida of course, is also a very warm place for RVers in the winter, but there is very little available boondocking there to accommodate the number of migrating "snowbirds." RVillagers offer some boondocking suggestions for Florida.
In the Southwest, the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) has setup boondocking areas for snowbirds during the winter season, with services that vary by site: water, dump stations, trash collection—all for a nominal fee. The permit is $180 for a 7-month period beginning September 15th through April 15th. Or you can pay $40 for 14 days, renewable indefinitely. There are camp hosts at all of these sites.
These areas are called "Long Term Visitor Areas" (or LTVAs), and many are found along the Colorado River at the southern California/Arizona state line. Each area has its own sub-culture(s) and informal activities formed by clubs and groups of people who return year after year. Community in the desert! (You can also easily find as much solitude as you seek.) To learn more, see the Freecampsites.net page on BLM LTVAs. (Note: despite the creation date of the webpage, the information and rates are current.)
The BLM's resources:
There is also plenty of FREE boondocking around & outside of Quartzite, as well as southeastern California (also mostly in the warm winter zone), but most areas have stay limits of 14 days (or less) in a 28 day-day period.
Quartzsite Arizona is not only the RVer's mecca—it's a boondocker's haven as well, see: RV Destination: Quartzsite, Arizona.
Summer and "shoulder-season" boondocking
The temperatures are typically too high to camp in the low desert outside of the winter season. During the other seasons, plenty of places to boondock are available on BLM and Forest Service lands, etc. Again—mostly out west, where there are millions of acres of public land. (Note however, that RVillagers report there is little or no boondocking to be found along the more-populated coastal areas.)
National parks often have free dispersed camping nearby, used as "overflow" for when the official campgrounds are full. National wetlands, national grasslands, and even national & local wildlife refuges often have free dispersed nearby as well. Find national park camping.
State parks may also have free boondocking at nearby "overflow" sites. Find state parks.
Some Corps of Engineers campgrounds are dry camping, but many actually have hookups for a nominal nightly rate. Map of Corps of Engineers recreational sites by state.
Here are some tips from RVillagers for finding free camping in states east of Texas.
RVillagers recommend that you do your research on the areas where you want to camp before you head out there. Read the reviews, and add your own after you visit—to help inform your fellow campers!
Resources for finding camping in the U.S. and Canada
- Campendium.com - to find free boondocking, set the the price to "free." Sites show max stay, elevation, and even cell availability. Dump stations, rest areas and overnight parking in store lots are also listed.
- Freecampsites.net - check out the trip planner for finding boondocking along your route! Campsites in Canada & Mexico can also be found on their map. Note: some of the sites listed are suitable only for smaller rigs, vans or cars, and usually described as such.
- The Ultimate Campgrounds Project - huge resource of camping on public lands in the U.S & Canada: Forest Service, BLM, County parks, Corps of Engineers, Military, State Trust lands, Crown lands and more.
- RVillagers recommend their favorite paper atlases.
Respect the rules. Most BLM and National Forest lands have rules that limit stays to 14 days during each 28 day period—sometimes less! Rangers do patrol and take notice of anyone who stays longer. Please don't push the limits and spoil it for everyone else. Some areas have been closed due to overstay abuse, as well as excessive trash. Leave your campsite cleaner than you found it.
Wildlife refuges, wetlands and grasslands may have 10-day (or less) stay limits. Those are usually strictly enforced by local game wardens.
Most people camp in the boonies to enjoy the beauty, solitude, quiet, and fresh air. When there's plenty of space around, please don't park right next to someone*—especially if you don't have solar power and must run your generator. Folks who have invested in solar do so to enjoy the quiet (and clean air), and will not appreciate having to listen to a neighbor's generator for extended periods of time. (Also, please be respectful and tolerant of each other's choices.) Learn more about RV Solar here.
(Boondockers are also out there to enjoy the stars in the dark night sky—so you may want to save that fluorescent light show for the RV parks, or gatherings in Quartzsite.)
*If you don't feel safe to be alone when boondocking, consider joining a caravan. Those are the RVs you'll see parked together in groups. Check out the RVillage group for Caravan Connections. (See more on safety in the next section.)
Watch for any BLM boundary signs and stay inside of those. You may also see signs reminding you to leave any artifacts as you found them, to preserve the historical and archaeological resources of an area.
Respect wildlife and nature. Leave it as you found it, or better. Camp in areas that have been used before, usually designated by existing fire-rings. Drive on existing roads, don't trample or cut back foliage to create new ones.
RVillagers suggest: Don't feed the wildlife by throwing your food scraps around. This could attract rodents who will setup camp in the next rig that comes along—which could be yours! Also, don't allow your dog to chase wildlife just for “fun.”
Be aware of local burn bans, and forgo that campfire when necessary. Far too many acres, homes, and habitats are lost each year to human-caused fires. Make sure your fire is completely out when you leave! See the National Park Service's Wildland Fire Safety guidelines.
Leave no Trace. Take your trash with you, and clean up any trash you find in your site. It should go without saying that you should never empty your waste tanks on the ground when boondocking. View the National Park Service's Leave No Trace Seven Principles.
Public lands have quiet hours, too. It can vary by locale—but generally speaking, it's most considerate not to have loud parties or generators going between the hours of 10 pm - 8 am. Be a good neighbor, even in the vast expanses of the desert, or the deep forest.
While the RVer's Good Neighbor's Policy applies to overnight stays in parking lots, the Escapee's RV Club also compiled an RVers Boondocking Policy with recommended guidelines for camping on public lands. A must-read for all boondockers!
Safety in the boondocks
Unless you have a serious "over lander" type of vehicle that can get you really far out there, most of the time you will have at least a few neighbors wherever you go, even if at a distance. That may be preferable—especially if you are a solo traveler. Having visible neighbors can provide a sense of security.
Dogs can be great alarm systems and protectors, and some folks use wireless network cameras, or even motion detectors. It's up to you to decide what you need to feel safe and comfortable—and that may evolve over time, as you gain experience and confidence with boondocking. The topic of self-defense is beyond the scope of this article, and plenty of information can be readily found by searching online.
In general, RVillagers agree that it's probably safer out in the boonies. Burglars and thieves are opportunists and prefer easy, multiple targets in highly populated areas—not the random RV parked in the woods or desert, especially with other RVers at "home" watching nearby. However, you may want to exercise caution when camped closer to large metropolitan areas (even in RV parks).
Tips and comments from RVillagers who boondock
Feel free to add your comments to these discussions:
Here's a list from fellow RVillagers for boondocking site selection.
Share about the roads you drive down to get to some boondocking sites in this lively discussion.
Boondockers groups on RVillage
Join these groups for lots of great information, tips & advice from seasoned boondockers, and add yours, too!
- Free Camping, Boondocking, and Camping on Public Lands
- Quartzsite Boondockers
- Solar and Alternative Energy for RV's
- Boondocking with Solar
To learn more about boondocking, an ABUNDANCE of resources can also be found online by searching.
Photo credits: Quartzsite: Wikimedia Commons; All other photos: Cinn
Disclaimer: The information gathered here is compiled from the posts and opinions of RVillagers, and not of RVillage itself. RVillage assumes no responsibility for any inaccuracies or omissions.
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