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What is Boondocking?
One of the pleasures of camping is experiencing nature, as well as quiet, in unfamiliar surroundings. While camping at campgrounds allows you to experience some of that, for some campers that may not be quite rustic or simple enough.
For those who would like to camp at a camping ground without hookups, they can do what is called dry camping. A step further from that is boondocking.
Those who are boondocking are camping, without any hookups at all. The government term for this sort of camping is “dispersed camping,” which makes sense because it is camping that is spread out from the typically established area.
Although typically boondocking takes place on undeveloped land, its general definition simply means that you are camping without hookups on land that is not established as even the most basic campsite, and so this can also mean camping in your camper, with the permission of a property owner, in a store parking lot or on their private land.
Although boondocking means that you will go without simple camping amenities, it also allows you unique experiences, as well as sights and locations not typically experienced otherwise. You may be able to experience what true peace and quiet means, as well as stay put and quiet enough for a long span of time to experience wildlife and the world of nature going on around you.
Boondocking may not be for everyone, but it might be something that you want to give a try at least once.
Is Boondocking Legal?
If the field is untouched and open, and could certainly fit your camper/RV, this does not mean that the field is open for boondocking. It is important to know whose land you are on, whether that be a private owner, a national park, or a retail facility so that you can get the appropriate permission, and also any specific instructions from the owner.
For example, there may be an area that the owner would prefer boondocking take place, and they will direct you there. Although you would still be out of the way, sometimes it is preferred by an owner that areas of use are rotated, so as to keep an area from being overused.
If you are in a town and are interested in street parking, there may be a designated place for that, or there may or may not be ordinances allowing or disallowing you to do so. It is recommended that you check possible locations for boondocking along your route ahead of time.
Even if you do not plan on staying in a location, knowing that you have the ability to, or where you would be permitted to stay, is a load off your mind if plans change and you have to stop early along with your route.
If you were to arrive at a town outside of regular business hours, and you would not be sure if that area has an ordinance, it would not be fun to find this out when you receive a ticket from a law enforcement officer.
This is yet another area where a bit of extra time, and a little checking, goes a long way. In general, a little planning ahead will help you out in keeping everything legal, asking any questions that you may have and getting those answers, and then having even more peace in your heart as you begin your boondocking experience. Knowing that you have permission, are welcome on your site, and do not have to worry about any legal issues.
Is Boondocking Safe?
I think the best place to start here is to trust your instincts. Even if you have gotten permission to be on a site, or are doing legal street parking, and you feel as though you might be in danger where you are located, or something seems not to be quite right, the smartest idea is to listen to yourself and relocate to a spot that feels better for you.
It could be the location, it could be other people in the area, but whatever does not settle right with you should not be ignored. It is far better just to pack things up and find a location that feels better to you.
Being in a spot that is not a designated campsite, possibly out in a rustic part of the wilderness, comes with its own considerations, as well. It is important to note that although you may be in a permissible spot, you are still out in an undeveloped spot, largely, or entirely, on your own.
One of the biggest points of boondocking in nature is being on your own, and the peace and tranquility that comes with that distance away from most other people. This can be a beautiful thing, but planning for the “just in case” is smart here. It is helpful to make sure that you have some form of communication if things were to go badly and you needed to reach out to the outside world.
Weather also needs to be considered when picking a campsite, especially if it is particularly rustic. For example, if a forest fire were to flare-up, although the forest rangers may have some idea where most boondockers go, they also may not know that you are there, or have the time or a way to notify you if danger were to arise. So a little extra heads-up if you are boondocking and storms are in the forecast would be wise.
If you are entering a park, you can also ask at the ranger station, or something similar, to be updated on the latest weather information as you arrive. Sometimes those at the ranger station have access to more than you do. You can also get suggestions for boondocking areas, and, as a bonus, your talking to them makes your existence known in the park.
If a rainstorm arrives, it can change the layout of the land as the water fills riverbeds and such. Note as you are traveling to your location if you do cross a dry riverbed or a small brook. With a water event, those can radically change, and could actually cut off your ability to exit your campsite.
Similarly, if you locate your campsite near a creek, or a wash (an area that water flows through during storms), you might find your campsite overrun with water. It is important to visualize not just what is seen at the campsite during a dry, sunny day, but what the area would appear like with the addition of adverse weather conditions.
It is also important for safety that your RV maintain its mobility, especially if you do not have a car connected to it. When you arrive at a site, if there is a bit of a journey to get to the rustic location, or it is around the corner and not easily visible, it is suggested that you either drive your car alone a bit ahead or walk, to look into a few things.
First, make sure that the road is passible for your RV. Be sure that it stays consistently wide enough until you reach the destination. Determining that the road is not passible while in your RV is not a situation that you want to find yourself in.
Second, even if the road is passable, consider what a heavy rainfall might do to the road, if storms are a possibility, making sure that you would be able to leave the site, if necessary.
Finally, if a site looks favorable to you, be sure that there is space for your RV to turn around in. Backing out of your camping location is not a good idea, and certainly unsafe.
An RV is not the most flexible of vehicles, so it is worth this extra check in planning to make sure that you have not only a spot that fits your peaceful needs, but that allows your camper to fit comfortably, has a road that is solid enough to get you there and back out again after you have completed your camping stay, and that at your camping location you have the ability to turn the vehicle around and exit once it is time to leave.
Again, use your instincts. Even if a site seems really nice, but there’s just something that doesn’t seem right to you, take some time to find another location. It is worth taking a few extra minutes to make sure that your access is good, the ground is solid, the weather is planned for, and you have room to leave the location both at the end of your stay and in case there was an emergency.
Your head will rest easier at night, knowing that you took a few moments to plan, and look out for your safety.
Is Boondocking Sanitary?
This varies depending on your location and sanitary needs during the experience.
For example, if you are boondocking at a truck stop, you may very well have access to showers inside the facility itself, as well as possibly some laundry access.
If you are boondocking in street parking, you may have access to bathrooms with running water in restaurants and stores, and should typically be able to find a laundromat located in most towns or cities. A shower here may be more difficult to come by, but sometimes can be located at health club facilities or public swimming pools.
In locations out in the wilderness, you will need to be more sparing with your water if you would like to remain at the site for longer than just a few days. You can still maintain some sanitary conditions, with a little bit of planning.
For example, packing a good amount of underwear and socks, probably for more days than you need, will ensure that you have a clean pair for every day until you leave the site to locate a laundromat.
As for sanitary body conditions, taking a shower without being hooked up to a water supply may very well drain your clean water in the RV, and fill your dirty tank up fast. If you are boondocking, but within the area is an established campsite with hookups, you may be able to locate a shower at those facilities.
From a very simple side, a bucket of warm water, a washcloth, and soap at your campsite might do the trick. Using a natural soap is something to think about if the water is rinsed onto the ground in the area where you are staying.
Another option is disposable adult washcloths. These would allow you to cleanse yourself when running water, or even a bucket, does not seem like an option.
If you do not have access to a shower to wash your hair, make sure that you look for a biodegradable shampoo so that, similar to the soap, if you need to rinse your hair and the water runs off onto the ground where you are staying, the shampoo residue will not damage the balance of nature there.
Now, in all honesty, the nature of camping itself is a bit of a relaxed activity, which may mean that sanitary conditions are a little bit relaxed, as well. However, with a little planning, maybe some extra packing, and some thoughtful purchases, you can stay up on sanitary practices while you are boondocking.
What About Water When Boondocking?
With a standard RV, you will have a freshwater tank, a gray tank, and a black tank. Rather than being solely concerned about running out of freshwater, you also have to be vigilant that your wastewater tanks, the gray and black, do not get overfull, as that water will back-up somewhere, such as in shower drains, or in sinks, causing unpleasant smells and very unsanitary conditions.
Tank sizes in RVs vary. It is important that you have a handle on your RV’s capacity, as well as the operation of all of the tanks, and their uses, so that you are aware of exactly what maintenance needs to be done, and when, and what the levels of all of your tanks means to your boondocking experience.
Becoming an expert about the operation of your RV will save you a lot of time in being ahead of the game. You simply don’t want to be flipping through manuals or trying to somehow access help on your cell phone, as wastewater is backing up.
For personal hygiene, bathroom, and laundry services, using nearby facilities in towns or campsites will conserve the water that you have. If you choose to use your freshwater tank for such things, understand that you will have to pack up at some point to locate an appropriate dump station so that you’ll be able to continue boondocking.
Again, keeping an eye on the tanks, and knowing what the levels mean, will help you to be on top of the water situation.
If you have access to a river or stream, you may consider that becoming your first source of water, rather than your freshwater tank. There are many filtering products and apparatus that you can purchase for this purpose. This is important because the water in the river or stream very possibly contains chemicals and/or bacteria. Using an appropriate filter set-up will make sure that you are able to drink and use the water without concern.
A great tip for conserving water is to collect the water that runs off as you wash your dishes, using that to dump in your toilet for flushing purposes.
What About Electricity When Boondocking?
Many RVs contain generators, but again with resources finite in a very rustic location, this may not be something that you want to utilize much. However, in case a generator is something that you need to use, make sure that you understand how it operates, what its capacity is, what it uses to run and such.
Rather than getting your electricity from a generator, a great alternative is a solar panel. In particular, if you have a roof mounted solar panel set-up, you will collect energy from the sun whether you are boondocking in a town or street situation, as well as out in undeveloped land.
In general, the solar panel charges up a lithium battery, which then holds the energy that you draw from to convert into electricity. This holding of energy in the battery is especially helpful on days when the sun may not be plentiful.
In looking at solar panel systems, you will want to get recommendations about what size of system you want to get, including the battery capacity size. Thinking about how you will use the electricity every day, what sort of appliances you may want to plug-in, and such will help you to determine what solar panel system would work best for you.
Just as on the other systems of the camper, you will want to be very familiar with knowing how to tell how much energy is left and has been used. This will help you to make sure that you’re planning your energy consumption well, and not leaving yourself without anything to draw from.
Remember, too, charging devices such as cell phones will draw from that energy, so be sure to plan in for that usage, as well, when thinking about the size of solar panel system and a battery that you will need. You can check out our guide to the best RV batteries for boondocking here.
Also, although you may run a fan at home all night, remember that you may need to adjust this habit when you are boondocking, as the use of electricity may be much more than you can spare. Additionally, in the quiet of nature, the fan sound may seem even louder than before, including to any neighbors that you might have.
What About Waste Disposal When Boondocking?
When it comes to waste disposal, it is crucial that you dispose of your waste at a proper area, as it is definitely not acceptable to dirty the location that you have stayed at.
If you are at a campsite, you should be able to locate and use the dump site facility there.
If you are using private land, you will need to leave the area to locate a dump site. Sometimes these can be found at private RV parks or gas stations. Many public lands also offer a similar dump site service. Be prepared to pay a fee to use the dump site.
Here, again, a little planning comes into play. If you do a search online, looking for dump site locations, there are some websites that offer lists of such places. You simply narrow the filter, and you can determine what options you have in the area that you plan on staying.
Knowing where you would be able to take your waste is not something that you want to be figuring out at the last minute, so it is crucial that you take some time to have a plan for this.
What about Internet Service When Boondocking?
As the nature of boondocking is to be largely out on your own, and away from general civilization, you may find it very difficult to get any sort of cell phone or internet service at all.
Planning ahead is helpful here, as you may be able to pick up internet service in the towns that you visit, while washing your clothes, or doing some shopping.
If that is not viable, there are products such as cell phone signal boosters. These products allow you to amplify the cell phone signal, and possibly pick up cellular service, without having to leave your campsite.
What is the Best RV for Boondocking?
Just like camping experiences, RVs have many different options. Some RVs are loaded with features, but may not be of much use for those who are planning on Boondocking for the majority of their camping. The temptation may be simply too great to use some of those possibly energy-draining features while relying on a solar panel or generator. In that case, it may be better not to have the options at all.
However, if you are someone who will only boondock on occasion, getting an RV with a few luxuries or features that you really value may be something that you are very grateful for when you do traditional camping with hook-ups at another time.
Overall, the best RV for Boondocking is one that will allow you to live the Boondocking life you are looking for. A lot of these specifications will be driven by the capacities that you need in water tanks, energy storage, and such.
Thinking about how long you would like to be at a Boondocking site without breaking camp is something that needs to be considered. If you know that you would like to stay primarily at locations where a campsite with traditional amenities is not available, then the ability to be self-sufficient for long periods of time is even more crucial and is to be taken into account when thinking about what features you would like in your RV.
If you want to be very sure that your energy consumption is not an issue, you may very seriously think about an RV with very little features. For those who are boondocking , because they want that sort of non-electric simplicity, this may be a natural fit.
So, in general, the best RV for boondocking is really a pretty personal matter. It depends on what you require, and what you can do without. Do some good thinking, look at a ton of options, and see what stands out to you as crucial and what seems frivolous and/or completely unnecessary. Then it is simply a matter of finding an RV that checks most of your boxes, if not all.
How to Find Boondocking Sites
There are many ways to go about locating sites that are viable for boondocking. To start, take a look on the internet. The boondocking community can be pretty closely knit, and there are several websites that have been set up by boondocking enthusiasts for just this purpose.
There are websites dedicated to finding out-of-the-way free camping locations in a wide variety of venues that might not normally be thought of, such as wineries, museums, as well as even on land that other boondocking enthusiasts on themselves. Some of these sites do charge a membership fee to access the information, but that may be well worth it if you plan on boondocking regularly.
There are also many websites featuring blogging by boondockers. If you want to know what boondocking is really like, these are a wonderful resource. As the bloggers largely want to inform, their goal is to be real, and describe things as they are experienced, both the good and the bad.
Knowing how to locate public land will bring you to a wealth of boondocking locations. Public lands are displayed in atlases, as well as maps. Many such maps can be found in the welcome travel centers for the states that you are traveling in. Stopping in these centers is helpful anyway, as you may be able to get some tips from those who work there, as well as chat with other travelers who may be looking for sites, as well.
Do understand that the description of sites by other boondockers may need to be taken with a grain of salt. For those who are brand-new to this type of camping, their description may not take into account how a larger RV may or may not fit on the site, the quality of the road on the way up, and such.
Sometimes enthusiasm for a beautiful location does not quite take into account some of the essentials that a boondocker needs in accessibility and safety. So, as you travel to a site, keep in mind that you may need to adjust or look for another site close by, if the site as described is not what you see upon arrival.
1) Fire safety
As an camper, you should be well-versed in the proper way to burn and extinguish a fire. When boondocking, these procedures become even more important because if a fire was to get out of control, or if you left a small ember burning and then left the campsite, your out-of-the-way location becomes an out-of-the-way start for a fire.
Make sure that you brush up on your campfire knowledge, and that you, and all that are with you, understand just how important it is to make sure that your fire is properly contained, and completely extinguished later on.
2) Use roads
As tempting as it may be to head off of an existing road to find a completely “undiscovered” campsite, unless you are given express permission by the land owner, or you know that it is permitted in the area where you are boondocking, stick to the established roads.
remember that you are essentially a guest in the natural environment that you choose to stay in. This means that you are coming into the natural home of wildlife. For this reason, it is very important that you make sure that you do not affect the nature balance around you.
Keeping your trash properly contained in sure is that animals in the area will not get into something that they shouldn’t, causing danger, and possibly harm to the animals.
Wildlife should not be fed by you in any way. Doing this can cause the animals to become more dependent on humans, making them less able or willing to survive as nature intended them to. So as cute and adorable as the animals may seem, do not reach out and offer a treat to them, no matter how small it may seem to be.
If you bring pets to your boondocking campsite, they should be watched at all times. Not only could your pet be in danger by a larger, wild animal, but the smell, sound, and existence of your pet in the wild, where it typically would not be, can upset the balance or habitats of the wildlife in the area. Certainly, your pet should not be able to run off and check into things on its own. Remember, just as you are a guest in the natural environment, so is your pet.
4) Some Alternative/Different Boondocking Sites
There are some stores, restaurants, and locations that regularly offer a place to park an RV. There is usually a designated parking area for these vehicles.
These may not be places that you want to actually stay for an extended period of time due to a lack of peaceful nature views, but instead should be thought of as locations where you might stay to get a nap, or locations where you might stop for the night in the middle of a long trip.
As far as retail locations, Cabela’s and Walmart are known for having designated RV parking at their stores, and Walmart is noted as allowing overnight parking, as well. Making a quick call, or stopping into the store to double-check rules is a good idea before you set up camp for the evening.
Cracker Barrel restaurant offers RV parking at select locations. As it is not at all locations, a call to make sure that RV parking is available would be wise.
As you travel, you will see large truck stops, and many of allow for overnight RV parking. As these are a popular place for larger vehicles, the spaces may be harder to come by. Some truck stops actually offer a small amount of reserved parking spaces, so a call ahead to see if those are available might be a great option for your travel.
Rest areas and visitor’s centers in the states that you visit will sometimes allow overnight parking. The states do differ, however, so it is important to check beforehand. Note that sometimes the visitor’s centers will ask for a fee to park, but again this differs between states and centers.
Once within a town or city, you might find that you are able to locate legal RV parking. This is typically done to encourage visitors coming into the town. If you are able to locate a City Hall or town building, they are a wealth of information and will be able to answer your questions.
5) Be polite to your neighbors
If, while boondocking, there is another RV in view, make sure first that you do not park very close to it, so you both can experience open space. Secondly, make sure that you are thoughtful about noise, such as music, and the running of your generator. A generator running all evening, for example, if unnecessary, could become extremely loud in the quiet of nature, taking away some of the good experience of your neighbors.
In general, just be thoughtful and polite, as you are both there for largely the same reason, to experience boondocking, nature, and peaceful surroundings.
6) Prepare for emergencies
Make sure that you have a first-aid kit, some flares, and other supplies, just in case. A perusal of RV websites will show you a lot of different options. Having the ability to handle small emergencies makes you even more self-sufficient as you head out into the wilderness. If something was a larger emergency, being able to reach out or get help could be incredibly vital.
Preparedness for emergencies also means that someone should know where you are. When you arrive at a campsite, sending your GPS location to a family member not with you is a very thoughtful, and safety-minded task, as well.
7) Controlling your trash
Boondocking means that you will usually be well outside of camping amenities, this also means that you will not have a dumpster or trash receptacle where you choose to camp. Everything that you generate in trash must be brought back out with you when you leave. Keep this in mind and plan for where you will store the trash, so as not to have a stressful moment later.
When at the campsite, you may notice the trash of others. You are truly being a steward of the wilderness if you not only keep up after yourself, but also collect up what trash you see from others. Hopefully, there will not be much to pick up, but if something got away by the wind blowing, or the campers did not treat the area correctly, you can help to correct this a bit, and keep these pristine areas exactly as they should be.
Please note that as far as organic food waste is concerned, just because you have an apple peel that would biodegrade outside, you must not leave any trash, food or otherwise, in the environment. That apple peel could very well be eaten by an animal that may not be able to tolerate it, or could harm it in some way. Anything that you bring into the environment was not there on its own, and thus, should not be left when you leave.
8) Do not take from or change your surroundings
It is important that the natural location not be altered by your stay there. This means that you should not start a pinecone collection, or pick up rocks from each site. Make every effort to keep the site just as it looked when you arrived.
If parking your RV means that you need to move some logs, or clear away some natural debris, you need to find another place to park, as this would definitely alter the setting.
A small exception could be the collection of kindling for a fire, but this is not allowed at every location. Make sure that you know that it is permissible before collecting. Speak to rangers and look for signs.
9) Security of your things
Even though the chances may not be huge that a theft happens to you while out at boondocking campsite, that does not mean that you should not put some thought into being safe.
Before you lock up for the evening, make sure that any valuable items are not left outside for the taking. This is definitely a better safe than sorry opportunity. The few moments that it takes to make sure that everything is properly stored is worth the peace of mind, just in case.
10) Meal planning
Preparing your meals before heading out on your journey is a great idea for a few reasons.
First, it lessens your need to have to break camp and find a store. Second, your trash is less because the original packaging of ingredients was disposed of at your home. Third, not having to figure out what to make gives you more time to relax and enjoy your surroundings.
Meal planning may seem like a small thing, but it can make a great difference in the enjoyment of your trip.
11) Consider your windows
As you park your RV in your location, take a moment to orient the location of your windows and the location of sunrise and sunset. If you have a large bank of windows, and you face them toward the sun, you may find that the RV heats up more quickly than you would like.
In a colder environment, this may not be a concern, but it is definitely something to think about in warmer locations.
12) Don’t forget the evening
Spending time outside at night in the wilderness, being able to look up at the stars, is not an experience that can be found everywhere. Make sure that you take the time to not only enjoy your campsite during the day, but hang out a little bit outside at night, as well.
13) LED lighting
You may want to consider replacing as many traditional bulbs as possible in the RV with comparable LED lighting. Not only is LED lighting quite bright and effective, it uses not nearly as much electricity as traditional bulbs. This will enable you to use the lighting longer before needing to recharge, and such.
14) Consider disposable dishes and silverware
In an effort to conserve water, paper plates and plastic utensils may be helpful. Obviously, these will not need to be cleaned in water, and thus you would save that resource. However, you would increase your trash that needs to be held. For some, the switch to paper dishes might be worth it, and others not. But this is something to consider.
15) Potable water
Parks, campgrounds, and ranger stations often have potable water stations for use. Sometimes there is a fee, and sometimes not, but this is a great way for you to obtain water while on your travels.
16) Google Earth
Taking some time on Google Earth will help you to demystify land that you’re interested in visiting. You can take a look at sites that may be good for boondocking, as well as give yourself a heads up when you can tell visibly that a site would not be habitable. This can certainly save you time.
17) Keep logs
For supplies, including electricity, keeping a running log could be very valuable. In addition, logs for supplies and your trip experience can help you plan for future trips.
For example, if you keep it electricity log, you will be able to note how much power you’ve been using and when, which may help you to determine how low your batteries are getting, etc. This will also enable you to know when you should cut back a little. In general, it helps to take the mystery out of your electricity use.
Keeping a log of your supplies, and what you are using, will also help you lessen unnecessary visits to stores. It will also help you to plan for future trips. For example, if you do not bring enough bread, and note that you had to buy several loaves while on the trip, you can make an adjustment for that on your next excursion.
Keep a log of where you visit so that you cannot only know where you would like to visit again, but where you may want to avoid. This could also be considered as somewhat of a diary, noting fine experiences, tourist locations visited, and parks that were especially spectacular.
When you return home, using all of the logs that you have maintained will help you not only revisit and relive some of your experience, but also will enable you to prepare even better for your next journey out.
18) Be mindful of your TV and radio volume
Even if you have no neighbors nearby to worry about with sound, there is another reason to be mindful of your TV and radio volume. The volume does draw from the energy, and the louder the volume, the more energy it draws. So be sure that you have your volume set at what you minimally need, and not much more, so as to be most efficient.
19) Boondocking practice?
Although boondocking is loved by many, and can be a wonderful and relaxing experience, it can also be very intimidating for those who have not tried it before. For this reason, a little practice may be a good idea.
One of the easiest ways to get practice, and see if you can be without hookups for your RV, is to park your RV in the driveway of a friend or neighbor’s home and see if you can handle a night or weekend without being “plugged in.”
This is a great way to break in your boondocking skills, without a huge amount of risk. You will be able to determine what you might have forgotten, and can make adjustments before you are out in the real great outdoors. And, of course, in a pinch, your neighbor or friend is there, if need be.
20) Charging your devices while traveling
While traveling around between locations, or while sightseeing or running errands, be mindful that you plug in the devices that need to be charged, such as laptops, phones, etc. so that you will not have to waste stored energy in the RV to charge those items at a later time.
21) Think about things to see in the area
While visiting various parts of the country, you may come across some great historic areas, as well as some fascinating sites. Make sure that you take a look to see what you might be able to visit and experience in the areas that you travel, so as not to miss something really memorable.