Imagine stepping out your RV door and being greeted by a wide-open vista. Or sitting around a campfire under a desert sky filled with so many stars that for a moment you are left breathless. This is our AWAY and it’s often found in remote places where no outlets or water spigots exist.
Referred to as dry camping, wild camping, dispersed camping, or off-the-grid camping, boondocking in an RV is simply staying at a place without water, electricity, or sewer. Knowing how to make the most of your resources can go a long way. Being able to boondock efficiently will not only help save you money (even if that just means a quick overnight in a parking lot) but it opens up a whole new world of adventure as you explore our some of America’s untouched beauty.
So pull your chair up to the campfire as we share our tips and tricks to help make your next boondocking adventure one you’ll want to repeat.
If you are like us you choose RVing over tent camping for a reason. I’m going to guess you like having lights, a refrigerator, sinks, and shower. All of these comforts use a certain amount of power to run and how much or how long you can enjoy these comforts without electric hookups depends on your how much juice (power) you have.
No outside power source
If you are extremely conservative (using your batteries for the water pump, lights*, and running a gas-powered fridge) without an external power source you’ll be limited to 2-3 days. PROS: Simplicity. All you need is a battery and it requires virtually no set up, as all RVs are equipped with deep cycle batteries. CONS: Extremely limited power supply.
*If your RV didn’t come with LED lights you may want to consider replacing the bulbs with LEDs.
Many rigs come equipped with a generator but if yours didn’t, pick a generator based on the size of your rig and your electricity needs. The big question you’ll want to ask yourself is are you going to want to run your AC? If so, you’ll need a bigger generator. If not, a small generator should suffice for most of your power needs. PROS: A generator isn’t dependent on weather, has a relatively low upfront cost, and you can run it at night. CONS: Generators can be noisy, expensive, and require a constant a supply of fuel.
Part of the beauty of boondocking is being out in nature and what better way to be in harmony with your surroundings than to be powered by mother nature herself. That is assuming mother nature cooperates and shines her sunny face down upon your solar panels. Solar panels come in all shapes and sizes to fit your power needs and space on your RV. It’s important to know your power needs before investing in a system. A basic solar system will keep your 12V system functioning by charging your house batteries which power water pump and lights. A very sophisticated high watt system with a large inverter and battery bank will allow you to watch television, charge electronics, and power high wattage appliances. Of course, there are systems in between.
On our first RV, a tent trailer, we had a small solar panel that simply attached to our deep cycle battery to keep it topped off. The power demands of that trailer were extremely simple. This allowed us to boondock for 4-7 days without killing the battery. It was a simple, cost-effective set up.
For our 2nd RV we used a generator, which was great until we ran out of fuel or we were in a peaceful spot and didn’t want to listen to it. The generator was powerful enough to run our AC which admittedly, we only did a few times.
When we bought our third RV we decided to add solar power. We have a medium usage set up with 600w on the roof plus a portable 90w panel, a 1000w inverter, and 6 deep cycle batteries. This powers the basics (pump, lights), our electronics, and residential fridge. We can’t run the AC or any high wattage appliances. As long as there is ample sunlight we can boondocks as long as we want or until our tanks are full or we run out of fresh water. Which brings me to our next topic.
For us as a family of five this is the most limiting factor when we are boondocking. To lengthen our stay as long as possible we have to be mindful of water usage. There are two parts to water usage: fresh water and waste water which, as you probably know, are the grey and black tanks. You want to have enough of one and not too much of the other. It all boils down (no pun intended) to conservation and deciding what kind of “sacrifices” in comfort you are willing to make.
It’s a no brainer but as a minimum, don’t leave the faucet running when you are boondocking. To conserve water and space in your tanks, wash dishes in a portable basin with biodegradable soap and water the vegetation around your campsite when you are done. If you really want to limit water usage, I’ve known people who use a spray bottle with detergent to do dishes. Of course, some people opt to skip dishes all together and use paper plates and cups.
As far as cooking goes, boondocking may not be the best time to boil large pots pasta or potatoes. But it’s a perfect time to get outside and use a grill or better yet cook over your campfire. (As a bonus, this will keep your RV cooler if it’s warm outside.) In other words, you may want to consider how much water your meals are going to use to prepare them. If you do decide to use water for boiling you can repurpose your water. Boiled potato water can become a base for soup stock or used to steam other veggies.
Let’s just get the potty talk out of the way. Call me a diva but, personally, I’d like to forget the black tanks exist, but when you’re boondocking for any length of time this just isn’t possible.
Some people will suggest finding a tree for your business or not flushing when it’s just liquid. We RV because we like, well, the amenities and comforts of RVing. That means I prefer the bathroom to the bushes. If our black tanks fill up and we don’t want to move the RV we have a portable waste tote that we can fill and take to the nearest dump station to empty. I know a few RVers who have installed composting toilets. If you are huge boondockers this may be something you wish to look into.
We have friends who have a macerating pump (it grinds down solid waste so it can flow through smaller pipes) and an extra waste holding tank in their truck. This is another option for people who are serious about boondocking for extended stays or who have larger families.
Boondocking is not the time to take long hot showers. One of the easiest ways to conserve water is limit showers… after all you’re camping! When you do take a shower quickly get wet and then turn off the water while you are lathering up. You may want to consider installing a high efficiency showerhead as well. Sponge baths or outside solar showers are other options.
Speaking of showers, unless you want to take a cold shower, some of that water is going to go to waste as your water warms up. Consider catching the cold water in a bucket to use for dishes or other areas of cleaning.
An obvious, but noteworthy reminder, don’t run the water while you’re brushing your teeth or washing your face. If you have kids they will probably need a reminder (or many). As in the shower, catch the cold water while you are waiting for you water to warm to wash your face. When we are really trying to conserve water I heat water in our kettle on the stove and use just a little to wash my face with a warm cloth. In the morning, I’ll wash my face while Brent is preparing coffee and tea.
If you find you are still running out of water even after practicing conservancy, bring along extra drinking water and save your fresh tank water for bathing, cooking, and cleaning. We have a 60-gallon water bladder that we bring for backup if we are going to be boondocking for more than a few days.
Now that we’ve covered the details of power and conservation, it’s time to talk about the fun part, finding boondocking sites. Boondocking spots range from the corner of a Wal-Mart parking lot to a beautiful spot next to a river. Sometimes those beautiful spots will have a small fee if it’s a developed BLM (Bureau of Land Management) or USFS (U.S. Forest Service) campground and other times the sites will be free. (“Developed” can mean anything from a hopefully passable road, to a pit toilet, to electrical hooks ups, which in that case means you would no longer be boondocking.) Finding a beautiful free boondocking spot is like getting a perfect parking space in the rain on a crowded day, only better. Much better! So what are the ways to find these sites?
Many businesses allow RVs to stay overnight in their parking lots for free. While this isn’t the ideal location it’s a great option when you just want a place to rest your head while en route to your AWAY! The most popular parking lot overnight stop for RVers is Wal-Mart but other options include truck stops, some rest areas (depending on the state), many casinos, Cracker Barrels restaurants, Camping World, Cabela’s, Lowe’s, and others. Just be sure to call ahead and ask for permission because while many of these places are known to allow RVs to park for free overnight, there are some who don’t due to local ordinances. Plus, it’s just polite to ask.
Stop in or call a BLM office or USFS station in the area you want to camp. Ask about dispersed camping in the area. Remember to tell them the type and length of RV you are driving or pulling so you avoid getting your rig into any sticky situations. The US Public Lands app is helpful in finding BLM and USFS land boundaries in the area you are traveling. Most BLM or USFS lands allow up to 14 days of free dispersed or inexpensive dry camping. When using these sites remember to follow their rules (These are the rules for New Mexico but expect similar rules in all states and be sure to look up your states rules if there is a question) and “leave no trace.”
Search the Internet. Google “free campsites” and you’ll come up with a number of sites with databases or maps to free camping. Remember, most of these are user-generated, so use with caution and be ready for adventure. Look for blog posts of other RVers who have camped in the area you want to camp.
We’ve found the best way to find free campsites is to talk with other people. For instance, we found our beautiful spot near Palmer Alaska by talking with friends. The spot we stayed at in Moab, UT was suggested by a friend who had camped there a few weeks before. So don’t forget to bring up boondocking around your next campfire, you never know what kind of places other people will suggest.
I’m sure I’ve missed something. What are some of your tips and tricks for boondocking? Do you know of great locations to go RVing off the grid? If so, please share in the comments below!
Jenn and Brent
In 2011, the Newschool Nomads sold almost all their stuff to hit the road for a full time RVing adventure. They intended to spend one year traveling but fell in love with the RV life so much that one year turned into four! Now settled in Colorado, they enjoy RVing every chance they get and look forward to returning to the full time RV life once “the Bigs” fly the nest. They are passionate about encouraging families to get out and explore, connect, and make memories that will last a lifetime.